In one of her first public appearances since being treated for cancer last fall, Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown delivered a deep-throated speech, befitting her Baptist preacher credentials, to a standing ovation at Wednesday’s annual YWCA Central Carolinas fund-raising luncheon.
“I am a blessed person,” said Garmon-Brown, looking healthy, albeit 25 pounds thinner.
“I don’t fear cancer. I have faith,” she said. “(And) I have health care. I am a person that doesn’t have to worry about when I need my next MRI scan. … When one does not have access to health care, what can one hope for?”
She didn’t name the Affordable Care Act or mention the current attempt by President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress to repeal and replace the federal law that provided insurance for an extra 20 million people. But the audience of about 600 applauded, affirming her point that health care should be available to everyone.
Garmon-Brown, a Novant Health physician executive and co-chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in early November and, after neurosurgery, doctors also found cancer in her right kidney, for which she also underwent surgery. She said she’ll be traveling to New York soon to consult with doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Despite the seriousness of her illness, Garmon-Brown returned to work six weeks ago. In her 30-minute talk, she gave some hints about the upcoming task force report, expected to be released March 27, on ways to boost economic mobility in the city and county.
Garmon-Brown and U.S. Bank executive Dee O’Dell co-chair the task force, formed in early 2015 in response to a 2014 study from Harvard University and UC-Berkeley. The study showed that poor children in Charlotte are less likely to escape poverty compared to their peers in America's 50 largest cities.
Over two years, she said, the task force uncovered data which revealed “a tale of two cities. … a tale of two children that because of the ZIP codes they were raised in, life was quite different,” Garmon-Brown said. Sometimes, she said, it “made us feel like it was almost impossible for us to get to a place where we needed to be in this community to make a difference.”
Garmon-Brown said the task force will recommend actions in at least six areas – early childhood development and education, family stability, impacts of segregation, college and career readiness, social capital, and family formation and structure.
“If we could do these right in our community,” she said, “we could have a different place. We could have a place where Charlotte-Mecklenburg could hold its head up and keep its back straight and know it is a place where all people could succeed.”
For example, she said, O’Dell has described the advantages his teenage daughter would have if she wanted to be an architect. “I know a builder,” Garmon-Brown said, quoting O’Dell. “All I have to do is pick up the phone, and within a short period of time, that builder has connected us to an architect. And within a week, my daughter could very well be sitting at the table talking to an architect. Children in certain ZIP codes in this community don’t have that same opportunity.”
She added that, although everyone doesn’t need to go to college, everyone needs “at least a high school diploma that means something.” And she added that officials at Central Piedmont Community College have told them “that our high school diploma doesn’t mean an awful lot.”
“We have to reduce the number of schools with concentrated poverty,” she said, and to make sure the right kind of jobs are available.
She recalled meeting a “proud African-American gentleman” at one of the task force’s forums at St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church. Because the father of three was convicted of a felony as a youth, he said he was unable to find a job. “I can’t even get in most of the doors,” Garmon-Brown quoted him as saying. “I’m a good man. … How long will I have to pay for what I did as a very young man?”
To applause, Garmon-Brown added: “We’ve got to fight for people who have paid their dues and want to give back, want to be good fathers, and want to be good providers.”