Barbara Brenner (1951-2013)
I met Barbara in 1996 when I joined the board of Breast Cancer Action. Our minds were in tune with one another and we fell into step right away. She had recently become BCA’s first full-time staffer and Executive Director, and had begun to enlarge upon and enrich the spirit and character with which the organization had been founded 6 years earlier.
Barbara’s talents and personality were perfectly suited to take BCA from its feisty kitchen table origins to its formidable clout as a national organization with tens of thousands of members over the 15 years she was its leader. As our very visible spokeswoman, she maintained her post-chemo hairstyle, and, after her mastectomy, her unreconstructed chest. She wasn’t a survivor so much as a living testament to the life-long impact of breast cancer and the toll that it takes on all of us.
There are so many examples of Barbara’s impact on the women’s health movement. I’m choosing just one example for today. In April 2010, the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced their new partner in the pinking of breast cancer—Kentucky Fried Chicken—was producing pink “Buckets for the Cure.” The staff at BCA was horrified by the irony that such a clearly unhealthy product was being promoted to benefit a major breast cancer organization. Barbara pointed out that this high fat poultry product raised the risk of heart disease and diabetes, particularly in the low-income communities where KFCs are frequently located.
The BCA staff mulled over the appropriate response, determined to act quickly in the face of such absurdity, and after a great deal of discussion came up with the slogan, “What the Cluck?” The e-alert went out shortly after the Komen announcement. It went viral, was the object of a great deal of media attention, and within days, over 5000 BCA members had written to KFC and Komen objecting to “Buckets for the Cure”.
This was a BCA staff venture (I think it was the wonderfully quirky Angela Wall who came up with the catchphrase), but it had all the elements of a Barbara Brenner project: edgy humor, indignation, broad appeal, and an educational component that emphasized how profiteering was taking hold in the breast cancer advocacy movement. It was this campaign that inspired Barbara to initiate her special “Rapid Response Fund”, to generate the resources for BCA to take immediate action when such situation arose.
Over the years, Barbara used her leadership skills to take Breast Cancer Action to greater and greater levels of reach and efficacy. She oversaw the transformation of the breast cancer advocacy movement from one of sweet acknowledgement and resignation to bold activism addressing the whole array of issues in which breast cancer is embedded: environmental toxins, health reform, overtreatment, and the like.
I encourage you to go to BCA’s website to read the wonderful eulogy that they have posted there, and to examine in detail the successful projects the organization has undertaken over many years.
* * *
For the past two years, Barbara and I met on Thursday mornings to study Torah. We had long planned to do this together after she retired. It was on the drive to Afikomen, the Jewish bookstore in Berkeley where we were going to pick up Torah commentaries, that she told me she’d been diagnosed with ALS.
Reading Torah provided many opportunities to think about and elaborate on the beautiful stories, passages, perspectives, and laws, so we both had precious time together contemplating matters close to the human spirit. Somehow, I thought that if we went on, I could keep Barbara, and I had planned for us to take up Prophets when we finished with Torah.
Our last study session brought us to within four parashot of the end. Moses was making final speeches to the Israelites prior to their entering the Promised Land, recounting the journey through the wilderness, and God’s expectations of us. Last Wednesday night, before my last visit with Barbara, I finished the reading on my own, with Moses climbing Mt. Nebo and viewing the whole land from across the Jordan River. And then he died, denied by God his wish to enter Israel with his people.
Thursday morning, Barbara was in a much weakened state, but still doing the daily NY Times crossword when I arrived. Her mind was undiminished. After she told me she was to be buried in Fort Bragg at her synagogue cemetery, I said that I would visit her. She replied immediately, “I won’t be there. My soul will be somewhere in the cosmos.”
Barbara’s soul is inside of us, and I take comfort in that.
Goodby dear friend and comrade.