Revered doctor steps down, accusing Seattle Children’s Hospital of racism

After 20 years leading the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic, Dr. Ben Danielson resigned in protest in November.

Dr. Ben Danielson stands for a portrait last June. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

No one thing led Dr. Ben Danielson, the beloved medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, to leave his post of more than 20 years last month. Rather, it was a collection of moments that, when added together, gave him little faith that leadership at Seattle Children’s Hospital — of which Odessa Brown is a part — cared about staff or patients of color.

Danielson felt marginalized and alone as the rare Black voice in a position of authority, he said in a recent interview with Crosscut. 

He said Seattle Children’s would gladly place Odessa Brown, which serves mostly low-income and people of color, on a pedestal to raise money, but would not show that same level of interest when it came to daily care.

Amid a national reckoning with racism, the hospital’s executives would offer symbolic overtures to equity, but take little action toward righting its own wrongs and those of the broader medical system, he said — particularly around a lack of translation services and the frequency with which security was being called on patients of color. He added that staff, himself included, feel scared to speak out about racism for fear of retaliation by upper management. 

Danielson began to seriously consider quitting last summer. A colleague was fired without explanation and another felt pushed into resigning from her leadership post. Both are people of color. At the same time, a member of the Seattle Children’s Hospital administration, who Danielson said had used the n-word several years earlier in reference to him and referred to people of Asian descent as “japs,” remains a front-facing member of the team. (Danielson declined to name the person.) 

Danielson was also growing concerned about whether Odessa Brown was getting all it needed to stay safe during the pandemic. In one instance, management told a family they could visit the clinic without wearing masks without seeking Danielson’s input.

What it came down to, he said, was “examining my own complicity as a representative of a hospital that does not treat people of color as it should.” 

And so, in November, Danielson abruptly resigned in protest, ending his tenure atop an establishment that’s been revered in Black and brown communities since 1970. For Danielson, it was “the most painful sacrifice” to leave behind a clinic he loves to this day. But treating the individual must go alongside treating the system, he said.

“I have privilege enough that I should be somebody who says, ‘This is not okay,’” he said. “I'm privileged enough to know that this children's hospital is not a unique organization, that these are all the same kinds of ills that many institutions have baked into their systems. And I understand that whatever I whine about personally and experiences I've had around leaders using hate speech and racial language relating to me, the experiences of low-income people of color are still miles worse than anything I experienced.

“The institution is replete with racism and a disregard for people who don't look like them in leadership,” he added.

In a statement, Jen Morgan, spokesperson for Seattle Children's Hospital, said the organization respected his wishes to leave and is grateful for his years of service. Morgan expressed confidence in Odessa Brown's future as a part of Seattle Children's. 

"While some of the claims made were investigated a decade ago, we are examining the issues raised," she said. "As an organization we are committed to racial equity, diversity and inclusion while also holding ourselves accountable and continuing to do the work required to address systemic racism when and where it exists. We are deeply committed to our OBCC community and looking forward to increasing access to its services through the expansion of our second OBCC clinic later next year.”

Since taking the reins of Odessa Brown in 1999, Danielson has become one of the most respected figures in Seattle — as an evangelist for equitable health access, an advocate for the city’s displaced Black community, a voice for the health impacts of racism, a devoted medical provider.

In 2018, Danielson was the Seattle Municipal League’s “Citizen of the Year.” In 2016, he won the Norm Maleng Advocate for Youth Award. He gave the University of Washington’s commencement speech in 2018. He’s served on mayoral task forces. As the Black community that Odessa Brown was built to serve has been pushed out of Seattle, Danielson fought for opening a new satellite clinic further south. It’s currently under construction.

“He sort of was a moral compass in how we deal with the less fortunate and, in particular, for the racial injustices that are either overt or subtle microagressions,” said his colleague Dr. Ken Feldman, who still works part-time at the clinic. “Both personally and for what he brought to the job, it’s a terrible loss,” he added.

On Monday, a group of high-profile Odessa Brown "stakeholders" said in a letter to Children's CEO, Dr. Jeff Sperring, that Danielson's allegations are "shocking and need to be addressed immediately." The group — which includes King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, his predecessor Larry Gossett, former Sonics star Lenny Wilkins, retired associate justice of the Washington Supreme Court Bobbe Bridge, Ben Haggerty (aka Macklemore) and a long list of notable medical professionals — demanded a virtual meeting with the administration. They also demanded that the Seattle Children's Hospital Board of Trustees appoint an independent legal firm to oversee an investigation into Danielson's allegations of racism.  

Danielson’s resignation did not occur in a vacuum. He was the most prominent face at Odessa Brown, but his exit was preceded by two others in the last six months, both people of color in leadership positions, both of whom had been with the clinic for decades. 

The director of the mental health services, Mark Fadool, was let go over the summer and staff do not know why. The other, nurse practitioner supervisor Happy Salinas-Santos, left in September. According to one staff member who asked to not be identified for fear of retribution, Salinas-Santos had also complained about the Seattle Children’s administration and remarked how difficult it was to move them on equity issues. Salinas-Santos occasionally returns to work at the clinic on a per diem basis.

Salinas-Santos declined to comment. Fadool could not be reached for comment. 

As COVID made stark the racist underpinnings of healthcare access in America and as protests marched through the now-majority-white Central District where Odessa Brown sits, the role of Danielson and the clinic became more relevant than ever. 

For a community that has faced decades of mistreatment by medical institutions, the staff of Odessa Brown pride themselves on building that trust. It’s also one of few clinics knowledgeable enough to treat patients with sickle cell anemia, a painful blood disorder that, in the United States, primarily affects Black people. Even as the clinic’s core community has been displaced to Federal Way, Kent and Auburn, families continue to return to Odessa Brown.

But now, some staff feel like the forces that would lead their clients to mistrust medical institutions are seeping through their own doors. “It’s terrifying,” said one staff member who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

The Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic was founded as a part of the Model Cities program, a piece of then-President Lyndon Johnson’s push to eradicate poverty. Its namesake, Odessa Brown, was a Black woman who had long struggled with her health but had never received the proper care she felt she needed. The clinic she pushed to create was a direct response to that denial of services. It was built in the core of the Central District, one of a few areas in Seattle where Black people could secure a home loan. Brown died of Leukemia in 1969, a year before the clinic opened its doors.

The clinic primarily serves a low-income clientele. In the building where it currently sits, there are also dental, mental health and WIC (a nutrition program for families) services.

The clinic’s relationship with its community has been tested in recent years, as the population it was built to serve can no longer afford to live nearby. Clients continue to rely on Odessa Brown, but poor transit options and long commutes make meeting appointments more difficult and strain the community bonds that once united families with shared health struggles. It’s for this reason that Seattle Children’s decided to build a satellite clinic in the Othello neighborhood to the south.

Through this demographic shift, Dr. Danielson has evolved from a medical provider to a voice for the clinic and the city’s underserved populations more broadly. He’s never minced words about how displacement was leading to worse health outcomes for his clients and was a driving force in securing the clinic’s second site.

Carla Saulter’s first appointment with “Dr. Ben” was the day after her first child was born 13 years ago. He gave her his card and told her to page him anytime. 

“I just never understand how he was able to do everything he did and still be so kind and attentive as a doctor,” she said.

In the years since, Saulter’s admiration for Danielson has only grown. When a bus line near the clinic was threatened, Saulter, who frequently advocates for transit access, brought the issue to Danielson. To her surprise, he was already lobbying the city to keep the route. His influence was so important to Saulter that, when she couldn’t decide whom to vote for for Seattle City Council, she chose the person Danielson had endorsed.

That Danielson is Black was incredibly important to her as well.

“As a Black parent with Black children, there’s just a level of feeling safe, of feeling like you could talk to the doctor about things that you couldn’t talk to a white doctor about,” she said. “There’s a level of being believed.”

As happened at many institutions this year, in response to the summer’s protests, staff across Seattle Children’s, including at Odessa Brown, demanded that their employer make progress on equity issues and commit to being an “anti-racist” organization. In July, over 100 providers in the Seattle Children’s system issued a list of priorities to leadership, demanding that the institution hire and elevate more people of color, provide better education and training, contract with organizations led by people of color, re-examine its relationship with security and the Seattle Police Department and create better systems for reporting and investigating acts of racism.

In August, the hospital’s leadership team wrote a short letter stating its commitment to being an anti-racist organization, although staff say they have not received much follow-up since.

Danielson said the promises made by Seattle Children’s have not come with action. When he left in November, his hope was he could negotiate on his way out to elicit the changes he felt were necessary. He wanted a reckoning with the person who used the hateful language against him. He wanted Odessa Brown to be allowed to rekindle its connection to the community. He wanted an examination of why and when security was being called on patients. He wanted guarantees that staff could speak out without fear of retaliation. He wanted more Black voices to be heard. 

But his hopes were not met, he said, and the reasons for his exit were papered over in communication with both staff and patients. So, two days before Christmas, Danielson wrote a lengthy email to staff laying out his issues with the administration and clarifying that he was not leaving merely for “personal reasons.”

“You know that it would take a multitude of really bad things to make me leave,” he wrote, before listing those reasons. “It would take working under the weight of a larger institution that has sought to systematically marginalize me over a number of years. It would take the realization that this larger institution keeps Black men out of any levels of leadership. Or makes it nearly impossible for them to remain. It would take an organization that seemed to disregard our beloved community and seemed to place our clinic at increased risk for illness.”

Danielson made it clear, he was not leaving for another opportunity. “I will have to seek out new opportunities and I hope they will be fulfilling,” he said. “But I know that nothing will compare to working next to you.”

For now, Dr. Shaquita Bell, a veteran of Odessa Brown, has taken over as interim director. Saulter heaped praise on her as a medical provider, as well as the rest of the staff at Odessa Brown. But, she said, there’s no replacing Dr. Danielson. 

“I don’t think it’s possible,” she said. “I think he’s a once-in-a-lifetime person.”

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