Lesley Phillips and Sharena Thomas founded The People’s Community Medics. Photo Credit: East Bay Express
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Blue Heart: How did People’s Community Medics get started?
Lesley: We started in 2011. Sharena and I were part of the Oscar Grant Committee Against Police Brutality and State Repression and we met with a fellow from the Oakland Fire Department, whose role is to go behind the EMTs and make sure that they do their jobs correctly. We had a conversation about how long it took the police to call an ambulance for Oscar Grant, who had been shot. It took the police 20 minutes to even call for an EMT. We talked more broadly about how the ambulances respond in our communities, in Black communities and in low-income communities. Our observation was that they take a long time to arrive and if it’s any kind of emergency medical incident at all, really, the EMTs usually don’t get out of the ambulance right away. Usually police come first and tell them that the scene is not safe. Meanwhile our injured loved one is either bleeding out or not getting any medical attention whatsoever. Despite the fact that the police have excellent first aid training and they have an excellent medical kit in the trunk of their car to provide medical care, they don’t do anything for people.
That was a big red flag for us. When they say “the scene is not safe,” why? Because we’re crying over our loved one or community member who’s injured? Because there is a crowd of people who are more upset and disturbed at this traumatic scene? We had a problem with that. We felt that was really unjust. On our way home, with my late husband driving, all three of us had a conversation about the ambulances not arriving on time and then the police not allowing the EMTs to get out.
So we said, well, what can we do about this? We determined that we needed to teach people how to treat these first aid emergencies, what to do for each other until the ambulance arrives or the police let the EMTs out of the vehicle to help us. We met with a fellow activist who trained medical folks how to treat emergency situations and figured out our curriculum. What were medical emergencies in our community that we wanted to address? We came up with seizures, because people frequently have them and most of the time people don’t know what to do, and the bleeding traumas — gunshot, stabbing. As time went on, we created a separate workshop about police chemicals and how to counteract them, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement really growing..
We launched our project in 2012, teaching people first aid and how to treat seizures, gunshot wounds, and stabbings. For free. We never charge anybody. If we put a price tag on it, in our communities, people wouldn’t get the training because they couldn’t afford it.
BH: At that point, what was your background in emergency response and first aid?
Sharena: I went to school to become a certified nursing assistant and then I went to school to be a medical assistant, just for the love for the community.. Just the love for our people. Doctors and registered nurses, they have a lot of degrees behind them, but it takes special training to be able to communicate this to the community. Somebody else real educated with all these degrees, they can go out and say the same thing and the community won’t accept it. So really the skills part is the love of the people. And the people love us back.
BH: When you say “the people,” give me a snapshot: what are the communities that you work with?
Sharena: We serve communities all over, predominantly black and brown, but we get other communities that ask for our trainings as well. Places with troubled children want us to come and train, or shelters, people that are in distress. Those are the communities we want to serve. I mean, if it don’t take that long for 911 to get to your house, you probably don’t really need our services.
BH: Can you give some stories of the impact of your trainings?
Lesley: We did a training at an elementary school, maybe 125 students, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade. I trained those children and a month or so after the training, there was a little girl who got shot. Her older sister rode in the back seat with her while her mom drove them to the hospital, and she held the blood in. That girl was trained by the People’s Community Medics at school.
There’s another story about a nurse who attended one of our trainings. She knew all the skills we were talking about, but in the context of emergency care it’s completely different. She was very inspired by our workshop, so much so that she went out on her own, bought the supplies and made emergency medical kits for people who had been in that training and for her circle of friends that were going to a rally or a protest or a march. They could check out the kit and then check it back in and then she could resupply it. One of our mottos that we work by is “Each One Teach One” and that was such a great example of that. It turned out to be really a life-saving thing because she put the kit in her car. Shortly after that, she came upon a very serious car accident and she had that kit in her car and was able to use the supplies to help this car accident victim. I always think about that experience — it’s exactly the type of impact we want to have. We want to teach folks and we want them to take it and build upon it and utilize it for themselves and their families and friends and neighbors.