Her message is simple: To change, you just have to make a decision.
LUERACHELLE BRIM-ATKINS is standing in the embrace of a circle of women, crying.
Her face registers shock and gratitude as she puts a hand to her chest and wipes tears under her wire-rim glasses, trying to absorb the enormity of the accomplishment.
Eleven months earlier, Brim-Atkins articulated a dream: to create and deliver 1,500 menstruation kits to girls in Cameroon who lack feminine-hygiene products and otherwise would miss school during their periods.
Under Brim-Atkins’ leadership, nearly 200 volunteers met regularly — some dozens of times — to sew and assemble the cloth kits. And now, today, standing in the cavernous meeting hall at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Seattle, Brim-Atkins announces that 1,700 girls — 200 more than the goal — will soon be able to continue their studies uninterrupted.
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The room erupts in song at the news. When it quiets, Brim-Atkins acknowledges the volunteers who put them over the top: men and women from several Christian churches in Seattle and Renton, a Jewish congregation in Seattle and a Muslim community in Monroe, along with grade-school and high-school students from three cities.
No one in the room goes unseen or unacknowledged as Brim-Atkins ticks off the helping hands.
The “Days for Girls” kits soon will be loaded onto a plane bound for Cameroon as part of a non-profit diplomacy mission through the Seattle-Limbe (Cameroon) Sister Cities Association, of which she is co-president. But left behind is the main product, a precious commodity that Brim-Atkins has been building and helping others build for more than three decades: community.
“My whole life has been trying to make connections that other people don’t see as connected, particularly around religious communities,’’ she says. “People get hung up on what they believe, and think that no one else’s beliefs are valid. I think that when people get in a room and do something together — working together, talking together, laughing together, eating together, crying together, whatever, as long as it’s together, that they can see that there’s not many differences, and the differences are not differences that matter.”
Evidence of that is everywhere around the room, including Brim-Atkins’ T-shirt, imprinted in large red letters with the words, “I stand with my Muslim neighbors.”
Volunteer Anita Dias, who is greeting other volunteers at the door, says she was able to meet Muslim women for the first time through the sewing project. Working side by side, the conversation between them flowed naturally, and she was able to ask questions without seeming rude or out-of-bounds.
“Everybody’s happy and working,” she says, “and nobody cares about what color anyone is, or what’s PC.”
Across the room, Zinda Foster, an African-American woman who is sewing up a storm and sharing stories with the white woman sewing next to her, says the project has helped her regain a sense of safety after a presidential election that has emboldened white supremacists.
“We’re all planting different seeds,’’ she says. “You have to find a place where you can grow them together. Lue (Rachelle) put the water on the seeds, and this is the result.”
Brim-Atkins moves through the room like a threaded needle, connecting people as she goes table to table, group to group, sitting one-on-one, hugging, listening, aware that when the day is done, the fabric of this diverse community — united behind a common purpose — will be even stronger.
People talk a lot about change, the desperate need for it and the desire to find common ground. Brim-Atkins talks about transformation, and has found a way through the noise.
“I know people say change takes a long time, but I don’t believe that,’’ she says. “I think change takes a decision, that once we decide that things can be different, our behavior follows. It’s the decision that’s important.”
Her language is that of a storyteller. Ask her a question, and she’ll re-create encounters with people who have changed her mind or had their minds changed. Maybe both. Every encounter for her is an opportunity to learn.
“I’ve never met anyone like her — the love and the strength and the tenacity she has,’’ says Mo Moore, a volunteer who, on this day, is only a few weeks from traveling to Cameroon with Brim-Atkins to deliver the kits and train the girls how to use them. “She does it all with such grace. She’s a powerful woman in her own right, but she’s so humble. When she asks, you can’t say no. If we can’t build community here, what’s the point of doing it anywhere else?”
IT SEEMS FITTING that Brim-Atkins, 70, was born on New Year’s Day. Quick with a smile and a touch, she has a calmness about her that is as reassuring as the start of a new year.
Her optimism is inspiring, and surprising, especially when you hear her back story.
Brim-Atkins was born the first day of 1947 at a hospital in Texarkana, Ark., that was 147 miles from her family home in Hodge, La. Her mother, she says, wasn’t going to take any chances after the white obstetrician in her hometown dropped her older brother on his head after delivering him in 1945. She says her mother told her the drop was not an accident.
Brim-Atkins’ brother, William, suffered from grand mal seizures and learning disabilities his entire life, and she became his fierce protector until his death three years ago.
“You could see these glimpses of genius,’’ she says of her brother. “He could hear a classical piano piece, and he would go to the piano and play it. I just think, what kind of gifts could he have brought into the world had this one person not been so racist to do that? That’s my impetus to try to help people see a different way.”
After her younger brother, Cecil, was born in 1951, her parents — both teachers — moved the family to Naples, Texas. Her grandparents had moved there in the 1920s, having been hired to start a school for African-American students that ran only through the eighth grade and closed during cotton-picking season. When Brim-Atkins’ family arrived, the town was about the size of a modern grocery store, and determinedly segregated in every way
Brim-Atkins says she was about 8 years old when, sitting in a narrow hospital waiting room reserved for “colored” patients, she looked over at the larger, cleaner, flower-filled waiting room for white patients, and thought: “Why did I have to be born Negro?”
“As soon as I said it, I recalled it,’’ she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, no; this is not about you. You didn’t create this. Why should you have to look down on yourself because people have created this crazy system?’ I pulled it back, and I’ve never had that thought since.”
It was harder, though, to navigate the oppressive social structure that racism built. Once, while waiting for ice cream at a soda fountain, she allowed then-4-year-old Cecil to climb onto a stool reserved for white people. The shop owner spotted him, and ordered Brim-Atkins to put the boy on the floor.
“For years, I blamed myself because I knew the rules, and I didn’t enforce them,’’ she says. “And he had to be humiliated like that because I didn’t enforce their rules. As a kid, you internalize that. It wasn’t on me. It was a stupid rule. I didn’t make it up, but I was expected to not only know it, but enforce it with my brother.”
Her grandparents bolstered her self-esteem, she says, telling her often: “You’re as good as anyone, and better than most.”
Brim-Atkins says her thinking began to evolve in 1964, after she left home to attend the University of Texas at Austin as an undergraduate. Though she was still called names and mistreated, she also met white people who were kind and funny and wanted to be friends.
Reconciling the demeaning experiences from her childhood with the new people she met at college set her on a different path, she says.
“If you don’t get the opportunity to be around people who are different than you are, you walk away with the impressions and stereotypes and beliefs that have been handed to you, either by family or friends or media or your religious practice, or whatever that is,’’ she says. “That doesn’t mean I invite everybody home. But I do keep the dialogue going.”
After graduation, Brim-Atkins moved to upstate New York to earn a master’s degree in urban education from the State University of New York at Brockport. There, she met two African-American women who were deeply involved in the community, and who steered her into volunteering in health-care outreach and education. They embraced her like family, she says, and showed her how doing for others benefits everyone.
AFTER EARNING HER master’s in 1968, Brim-Atkins taught and worked in community health outreach for four years, then moved to Seattle in 1972 to escape the harsh winters. She worked as a genetic counselor at the University of Washington, doing community outreach on sickle cell anemia for a year before landing the job as UW’s director of training and development, a year-old position that required her to build training programs from scratch.
In Seattle, Brim-Atkins married twice, and raised her two daughters in blended families where heart connections were as important as family, she says.
As workplace laws and norms started to change, Brim-Atkins and her staff conducted training on cross-cultural communication and sexual harassment. After 15 years as the director, she formed a consulting firm — Brim-Donahoe & Associates — in 1988, and teamed up with her brother Cecil in 1995 to continue race and social-justice training.
For three years, her firm was the primary diversity consultant for The Boeing Co., where she coached and trained Boeing’s leadership team and executives, along with 18,000 managers and employees. Other clients included Deloitte & Touche, AirTouch/Verizon, Microsoft, IBM, the Space Needle and Simpson Paper.
Her job, she says, was to show them pathways for transformation, whether it was finding ways to make the workplace more diverse or learning new ways to talk to each other to resolve conflict. Some efforts were more successful than others.
“For some people,” she says, “it’s, ‘Give me a list of words, and once I get the list, I will never make a mistake again. And if I don’t get a list, then I won’t talk because it’s like walking on eggshells.’ So I tell people, ‘There is no such thing as political correctness. There is respect, there’s communication, there is acceptance. There is all of that. But political correctness? There is no list. I know there’s not because I tried to make up one.’ ”
She described an exercise where she tried to come up with a “politically correct” term that males in the room could call their female co-workers without risking offense. She asked all the female employees to raise their hands, then lower them when they heard a word they found offensive.
Women. A few hands went down. Girls. A few more went down. Ladies. More. Chicks. More. Babe. By the time she got to the other “b-word,” everyone had opted out. She turned to the men: So, which is correct?
“And they don’t know what to say to that,’’ she says. “Or they say, ‘It depends on who the woman is and what she likes. You have to talk.’ … I think it’s an opportunity for a conversation. If you tell me you don’t like something, I get to say, ‘Help me understand that.’ I don’t have to get all upset about it. I can just say, ‘Let’s have a conversation.’ ”
Some people remain resistant to change, but for those who are open to it, the choice is clear, she says: “Do you want to sit and wait for years? If not, let’s talk about what we can do. It just requires a decision.”
NEARLY A DECADE ago, Montie Bridges, then-superintendent of the Puget Sound Educational District, looked out at the faces of his board of directors, and saw a problem.
The district, which provides curriculum and policy support for local school districts around Puget Sound, was staring at a growing opportunity gap for students of color. But there were no people of color on the board, Bridges realized. How could they address that if their own organization wasn’t providing opportunities for people of color? How could they become anti-racist and multicultural?
The district hired Brim-Atkins to help transform its organization. On a Tuesday morning last November, seven of the district’s staffers continued that work with Brim-Atkins to help determine whether people who work there are developing a “racial equity mindset.”
For two hours, guided by Brim-Atkins, they discussed definitions, shared views and experiences, respectfully disagreed, and eventually signed off on terms that reflect the district’s goal of creating a workplace where race and gender issues are acknowledged and addressed in terms that everyone understands.
It’s more structured than the sewing marathons for girls in Cameroon, but the result is the same: People are talking to each other who might not have talked otherwise, and they’re doing so in ways they haven’t before.
“This isn’t just my work,’’ she says later. “This is how I live.”
IT’S SUNDAY, a week before Brim-Atkins and her group will leave on their flight to Cameroon, and the First AME Church has scheduled a blessing for the travelers and the bags of kits they’ll bring with them.
Near the end of the service, the travelers gather at the front of the church. First AME Senior Pastor Carey Anderson asks other church members to stand behind them in a show of support. Representatives from the Muslim and Jewish communities give blessings to the group. Anderson blesses them, too, and tells the congregation, “We all need each other.”
The group will leave on a mission to better the lives of girls a world away. But they’ll also return to a community transformed by Brim-Atkins’ heart.
And she has no intention of stopping. After announcing they’d exceeded their goal, she reminded the volunteers that they’ll be starting all over again with a new round of sewing after their return from Cameroon.
All you need do, she tells them, is decide to show up.