I am neither a politician nor an intellectual, so I find it extremely ironic that, on a trip to Washington, when I thought I was going to a filmmakers’ conference, I ended up on Capitol Hill. Do you remember the movie Mr. Smith goes to Washington? I have always liked Jimmy Stewart, but I have never dreamed (nor desired!) to be him. Those of you who know me are quite aware that I am the most unlikely candidate to be chatting it up on Capitol Hill. I made the trip in order to attend the New Media Institute Conference, sponsored by the National Black Programming Consortium. Through NMI, I have been learning about online media outlets and working on a project in the virtual world “Second Life.” My team consisted of Mary in Honululu, Jason in Utah, our instructor, the fabulous Bryan Carter, who was working between Ohio and Paris, and myself in Connecticut. Everything was done online, and most of the filming was done in “Virtual Harlem.” You can imagine the scheduling conflicts when you’re in four extremely different time zones! During the Washington conference, the different groups of filmmakers were going to present their pieces for one another. The week before the trip, I decided, “If I’m going to Washington, I might as well try to find Donna Brazile.” Every day for a week I called and emailed every person I knew who might have a connection to her. I called her office, I emailed her office, I called her office again, but to no avail. Donna Brazile was not available. On November 15, the day before I was to leave, I called a new acquaintance, John Higgins, in Albany. I said, “John, you know a little bit of everybody. Can you put me in touch with Donna Brazile?’ He was like, “Crystal, when I said I would help, I meant I would help, but you sure don’t ask for easy favors. I don’t know Donna Brazile, and I don’t know anyone who can reach that high.” Then he said, “Wait a minute. I do know this one young guy. I’m going to call in a big favor for you. If anybody could get to Donna Brazile, Umair Khan can.” The next day, en route to Washington, I started getting emails and calls from Umair. Little did I know that he had already started emailing his friends and colleagues to send them a clip of The Deadliest Disease in America. By Monday, Capitol Hill was calling us.
Thus, I had multiple meetings that week. The first was with Charlene Muhammad, formerly a midwife, currently an herbalist, in my quest to hire a project manager. I have interviewed many individuals these past few months, and she was a tall glass of water in a desert of resumes. To work on this project, you have to have a real heart vibration—or you won’t be able to do it. There’s no money, and it’s a hard issue—racism in healthcare? Please, let’s be real! NOOOOOObody wants to talk about that. Then here she comes, Charlene Muhammad, this quiet little warrior; just her presence was so encouraging.
I then met a gentleman named Bob Griss. I’m sure that under other circumstances, our roads would have never crossed. We are as different as day and night, hot and cold, brain and heart. Here’s the thing, though—We both want the same thing: A better America, healthcare for all, a more loving planet. Bob was able to help me frame some of the issues dealt with in the film, The Deadliest Disease in America, in a manner that I had not thought about before. It is important, he said, not to look just at the legislation that is being presented but also at what is missing within that legislation.
The next day we met with Bruce Colburn of SEIU. We both agreed that we had a similar agenda; the difficult question was, of course, how to move it forward. A major issue was trust. Could I trust him with our lesson plans/curriculum? Could he trust me with his union’s lobbying targets and plans for the future? These relationships take time, but after meeting with him in person, I felt that we were on our way to a partnership.
Just when I began to immerse myself in the activities of the film conference, Capitol Hill summoned us. As I stated, I was looking for Donna Brazile. Umair had emailed the film to his friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill. They saw it and loved it. One minute I am being totally dissed at the conference by one of it’s organizers, and in the next Senator Andre Carson is calling—“Come to Capitol Hill!” they said. I said, “Unbelievable!”
Getting to Capitol Hill was crazy in itself. First of all, there was nobody that looked like me. Most of the people of color we saw were either security or custodial personnel. Even looking at the congressmen’s aides and assistants, I saw no one. Secondly, as you can imagine, being in a wheelchair, with my arms and legs paralyzed, I need help getting around—and a lot of it. You cannot park on Capitol Hill. Security guards became nervous and obnoxious when I tried to disembark anywhere close to my destination. Once we did make it out of the van, we had to go up the Hill! And it was cold. It was one of the coldest days during my trip, at 32 degrees. Once we made it inside the Rayburn Building, we realized that we only knew our party’s office number—we had forgotten to write down his name! Obviously, we were very unprepared, coming from a film conference. We had no idea that we would be on Capitol Hill that day! As my assistant Eva scrambled through our papers and notes, I was like, “Jesus, take the wheel. Take it from my hand because I can’t do this on my own.”
Eventually, however, we found where we were supposed to be going that day: to Sara Williams’ office, legislative assistant to Andre Carson. God is really funny. He knew that we had to meet with an extraordinarily kind and insightful person who could meet me where I was. Although I was incredibly nervous, I just took a deep breath and started speaking from my heart about what racism and healthcare really looks like, and about creating a system that addresses these issues on the following four levels:
- Quality Assurance
- Certificate of Need
- Condition of Preparation, a mechanism of accountability in healthcare delivery that ensures that standards will be met
The next three days were a whirl of conversations with politicians, their aides, and legislative counsel about what racism in healthcare really looks like. The size of Capitol Hill is enormous! I’ve been to Washington many times, but I never thought of going to Capitol Hill or the White House. I never desired to do that; it was uninteresting to me. We entered at the Rayburn Building one day, and we left at the Longworth Building. But we went underground in between them! It was amazing! If I wasn’t in the wheelchair, I would have needed a cart to get there. We really don’t think about these things when we see a legislative hearing or see the news at a senator’s office. Going underground and watching senators running through the halls through this enormous maze was quite mind-boggling! Twice we asked people who looked more confident than we were for directions, and in both instances, their directions—given in a very authoritative manner, mind you—were completely and hopelessly wrong. I hope that doesn’t mean that everyone who looks like they’re in control on the Hill is as lost as we were!
Some of the people we met with gave the typical justification for racism in healthcare. “Oh, the deterrents are social and economic,” they said. I, of course, responded, “No. You need to go past that, because when you look beyond the socio-economics, you get to race.” Some of those meetings were very exciting, but the one with Drew Dawson and Marci Harris was the most exciting because there we got to experience legislators with a heart. I’m sure most people would not put this story in their blog, but since I am not most people, we will tell it: After being escorted through the maze this time, we ended up at the right office 15 minutes early. We called my husband Michael to check-in, only to discover that the car and CT, our driver, were nowhere to be found, and that there was a possibility that I would not have a ride back to the hotel. It’s really difficult to try to go into a meeting and be impressive when you are worried about a simple (but significant) logistical disaster. CT had left his cell phone, and we had no idea where he was. Marci picked up that something was wrong and asked us about it with genuine concern. After our meeting, she gave us her cell number and said that if our ride did not materialize within a half hour to call her, and she would find a way to get us back to the hotel. She did not have to do that.
There was a different vibration in Washington than there was last June, when I last visited the area. There had to be a different vibration because I, the most unlikely candidate to go to Capitol Hill, went to Washington as a filmmaker and I left as a lobbyist. God is really funny. You really don’t know what the next minute will hold.
There were so many angels that paved the way for us to go on the trip. First, Jaime Kuczewski at Ride-a-way, who donated usage of a van. She was addressing issues from earlier car rentals, but her giving us that loaner of a van made the trip possible.
Then there was Michael, CT and Eva who took time out from their lives to help move my life forward. You cannot put a monetary value on that kind of love. I bless Umair Khan and John Higgins in Albany, NY, for sending the film around. Then I bless Marjorie Cadogan, for helping me understand where I fit in this political maze! Finally, I bless the people at the National Black Programming Consortium for allowing me to participate—but what is so ironic and unfortunate here is that I missed the presentation of our new media piece that I spent six weeks working on because of a kidney stone episode. Here I am, thinking that this trip is about new media, and as it turns out the trip was really about Capitol Hill and my film The Deadliest Disease in America.
It is important to understand the times that we’re in. People look to Obama as the Messiah, but we cannot forget that the real work has only just begun. For, in order for America to really be the land of the free, we must free ourselves from the chains of racism, capitalism and contempt. We each have to do our part. We will all be required to stand up and work hard towards this change. We are about to have a government team that can work in harmony with each other, in which bills can get passed that benefit the average American. We must remember that it is our job to hold these legislators accountable. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I went to Washington for a film conference, looking for Donna Brazile. I ended up on Capitol Hill. However, I still am looking for Donna Brazile. If you know her, please ask her to call. Her office has my number!