Dr. Ruth Browne ’77 received the 2017 Alumni Award for a distinguished career leading two renowned non-profit public health organizations. She talked with community-health advocate & Packer Trustee Jamillah Hoy-Rosas ’94, P’22, P’27 about her lifelong commitment to activism.
Ruth Browne was recently appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of Ronald McDonald House New York (RMH), which provides temporary housing and support for out-of-town pediatric cancer patients and their families. Prior to joining RMH, Dr. Browne spent 23 years at the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, first as Director and Project Manager, then as Executive Director and finally as Chief Executive Officer. She is also a founder and former director of Brooklyn Health Disparities Center, a National Institute of Health Center of Excellence, for community, academic, and government partnerships.
Dr. Browne received a BA from Princeton University, a Masters of Public Health and Masters of Public Policy from the University of Michigan, and a Doctor of Science from the School of Public Health at Harvard University.
At her 40th Reunion in May, Head of School Dr. Dennis awarded her Packer’s Alumni Award of Honor.
Jamillah Hoy-Rosas: You came to Packer in the 5th Grade in 1969. How did it feel being one of the few students of color in your class?
Ruth Browne: When I left public school to come to Packer, there were three girls of color in the 5th Grade. My friend Lisa left after 5th Grade, but Elsie Crum McCabe and I were best friends all the way through 12th Grade. I always had Elsie and she always had me. Elsie lived in Crown Heights, and I lived in Flatbush. We remain good friends today.
I remember one time, I fell while playing dodgeball. I look up and there were about 40 girls gathered around me to see if I was ok. I had just come from PS 249, where it was more like, “Unless you’re dead, get yourself up!” I had a good time here, and I felt in retrospect that it was a great place. I blossomed here.
I got to do a lot [at Packer]. I did a lot of independent exploring, such as an independent study on Black female writers. I never would have heard of some of these writers if I hadn’t had that opportunity. My English teacher Jane Rinden particularly encouraged [this pursuit]. Independent study was something that Packer built into the curriculum.
I also did internships for a week or two during midsession. I worked at Channel 13 on Tony Brown’s “Black Journal.” I studied dance at Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. I got to explore. It was a lot of fun.
JHR: Tell me some of your favorite teachers and memories of Packer.
RB: Hal Wicke started the debate team and ran the theater program. Elsie and I joined the debate team and we had a ball. I thought I would go to law school!
And dance with Linda Ray was fabulous. The theater and dance programs here were amazing. You felt like you were going to Broadway, seeing the students prepare and then finally perform! It was really remarkable.
JHR: Did you keep up with those activities in college or did you start to explore different things?
RB: No, but early activism started at Packer, in the smallest ways. For instance, there wasn’t a Kwanzaa celebration, so I would find the sprinkling of kids of color in Lower School and have a Kwanzaa celebration. I was trying to do a celebration for [the kids of color]; the School said I should do one for everybody.
Being on the debate team, we got to talk about issues that weren’t talked about all the time, like What is citizenship? and Who is not at the table?
JHR: How did you enter the world of public health?
RB: I had the opportunity to study abroad when I was at Princeton. I had wanted to study in Africa, but the application process took a year. Someone recommended the University of West Indies, and even though my father was from Guyana, I was like, “What’s that?” UWI has campuses in Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad, and I went down to Jamaica my first semester junior year.
Except for one African-American studies teacher at Princeton, it was the first time that my professors were mostly black and my classmates mostly black. And the issues we were talking about were very real. It wasn’t distanced politics.
I thought, This is amazing.
Only 1% of the population gets to go to the University of the West Indies. We’re talking about [students who are] off-the-charts smart. I had never felt smart, but I felt really dumb around them! In political science, they could give the Marxist analysis, the Maoist analysis — everything. I thought, This is really interesting. I’d like to come back here. So I did another semester there in senior year.
For graduate school, I wanted a program that would give me a marketable skill and allow me to travel. I thought it would be nice if I could help someone along the way, but mostly it had to be marketable. I read a brochure about public health, and thought, This sounds interesting. I’m decent at science — maybe I could do this. I applied to the public policy school at Michigan, and I received a full scholarship. When I got there, I applied to the public health program and got a dual degree.
JHR: And you said you didn’t feel smart!
RB: [Laughs] Public health is so dominated by MDs that I knew I needed a credential that would allow me to come to the table. But along the way I became interested in a lot of things. And while working on my doctorate, I got my position at Arthur Ashe Institute at the SUNY Downstate, which gave me an academic home.
JHR: Was there a connection between your work at Packer and your work in public policy and public health?
RB: I actually think the debate team influenced me a lot. We also had a dynamic history and social studies teacher, Eric Cluxton. For us, more recent history was the civil rights era, and Mr. Cluxton raised these issues for us. But mostly it was the debate team where I got to explore policy issues and took an interest in public policy.
JHR: Tell me a little about how you helped Arthur Ashe Institute reach different communities.
RB: At the time, I was on a task force for the American Heart Association on black women and heart disease. We were tackling the question of how to get a message out to black women about heart disease. I had just read an article about a hair stylist in South Carolina who was educating her salon’s customers about AIDS. I said, “Couldn’t we do that for heart disease?”
We started in upscale African-American hair salons, and our volunteers went in to share materials and collect data. I wanted the program to expand to multiple health issues in salons across Brooklyn. We started an initiative, “Black Pearls: The Health and Beauty of the Black Woman,” in salons, then barber shops, then churches, then body piercing and tattoo salons. The model changed depending on the venue, but those were our educational campuses for critical issues in the community.
JHR: You’re now doing very different work as the Executive Director at Ronald MacDonald House New York. What led you to this position?
RB: Issues of educational health and educational equity are heavy issues. When you work in academia, you think deeply about things — and I’m more of an “applied” person, so it’s even heavier. After 23 years at Arthur Ashe Institute, I thought to myself, What if I focused on one thing?
RMH has a very simple but powerful mission: providing a home away from home for families of children at one of the city’s 14 cancer care centers. It is squarely in the public health field. It’s a $100 million organization with tremendous potential.
Everyone who stays at RMH comes from abroad or from other parts of U.S. They are bringing their child to see clinicians of last resort, or to get a treatment they can never get at home or an experimental treatment offered only through a clinical trial. They are families in crisis. They don’t know how long they will be there, and sometimes the whole family comes.
We provide support services not only for the adults but also for the other children — tutoring and interactive work for the siblings who might have nothing to do. We even send families on trips so they are creating memories together even at the most difficult time of their lives.
To expand our program to New York City families, we just opened up a family room at Kings County Hospital for families of babies in intensive care, for whom rest is critical.
And I’m leading a $23 million capital expansion to build more housing, including six suites for bone-marrow transplant recipients, who have to be in isolation for 100 days. We keep the patient and family together, and everything they need is in the suite.
When surrounded by family, patients heal faster. Not long ago, 75% of children being treated for cancer used to die. Now, 75% of them live.
JHR: Do you have any advice for aspiring public health scholars?
RB: There is plenty to do in public health. But you can do service until you’re blue in the face. It is the policy work that is so important. Where there is institutional racism and where there are systemic factors that don’t change, only policy will be effective. When you effect policy in public health, you really see the lasting impact and you reach more people. But service is still so important, and service on the ground should inform policy.
JHR: In your acceptance speech at the Reunion, you talked about the problem of mass incarceration, which we as a society have neglected.
RB: I do think deeply about prison reform and incarceration, and I do the advocacy that I can. It’s this insidious under-the-radar problem, because prisoners are removed from the community.
As I said in my speech, our alumni solve complex problems every day. We are so privileged to have had the opportunity to go to Packer — we didn’t even realize how privileged we were. And if we can’t use our voices to say something, then nobody can. When I was a student at Packer, I was embraced for being outspoken. I believe there is no downside to using your voice to raise an issue you care about.