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.
Sharena: I’ve also always said that if we train a kid how to save lives, they won’t take one. If you teach the kids about saving lives, showing them how important life is and how instantly life is taken by just not thinking clearly and not trying to solve the problem, it helps them make better decisions.
BH: What is your vision for People’s Community Medics?
Sharena: One of our goals is to get first aid training in all the schools, K through 12. We also hope that our impact and our organization can grow to the point that we can have a community clinic.
Lesley: And it’s important to us to try to partner with other community organizations so we can be prepared for natural disasters. What we’re about is community helping one another. This whole idea of self-determination is becoming more real to people. Hurricane Katrina really changed my whole view on everything emergency-related. We have to be there for ourselves and for our families and our communities. The government is not going to be there, whether it’s an earthquake or a flood or a hurricane. They’re not. They even tell us, “don’t expect us to help you for at least 72 hours, you’re on your own.” So that’s also a big part of our vision, an active self-determination. And that’s going to require more than the supplies we have now.
BH: In a previous conversation, we were talking about how a lot of what People’s Community Medics is doing is continuing the legacy of the Black Panther Party. Could you talk about that more?
Lesley: One of the most important things that the Panthers did was provide free health care in the community. They really were pioneers. They worked with doctors and other folks to get sickle cell anemia testing. They provided health clinics that provided all kinds of services, all kinds of physicians, and they were free. Health care workers donated their time and services. It had a huge impact on us. It’s a truly revolutionary way of problem solving: we can face a problem, analyze a problem, come up with a solution, and do it for free. Like Sharena said, what motivates us is love, our love for our people. We didn’t intentionally set out to model after the Black Panther Party, but it’s there. People have that in their collective consciousness.
BH: What are some of the biggest challenges that you face in building People’s Community Medics?
Sharena: The lack of proper funding and to be where we want to be. One of our visions for People’s Community Medics is for the training to be in every school. Without proper transportation and proper funding, it makes it hard to get to those places.
Lesley: One of the things that’s really important right now is that we recruit more people to join us in order to grow. We need help getting a good organizational structure in order to bring more folks on board and get more funding. It’s kind of a chicken and the egg situation.
BH: When you do receive grants like the one from Blue Heart, what does that money usually go towards?
Sharena: Most of our funds go to materials. We give away supplies at our trainings. Just a basic little packet of rubber gloves, gauze, printed materials that have instructions and a few other supplies. That would be the bulk of our costs. And then we have transportation costs to get to all our different workshops.
BH: What are common mistakes that you see ‘allies’ making when trying to show up in support of your movement?
Sharena: Some people come for one of our trainings and then set up and try to do the training themselves and not give us credit for it. People don’t even meet with us or talk with us about that. We do our training for free, but we see people do it and get money for it.
BH: And then the inverse, what advice would you like to share with our members, in terms of how folks can be showing up in solidarity with your work?
Lesley: I can give you an example of something I thought was pretty cool. A few years ago, a young woman had a birthday party, and she asked everybody to make donations to us, not to give her a birthday present. And they made us a banner and some signs we still use in our workshops. That was the only time that someone had a party and made a donation for us, for our organization, which I thought was really great.
BH: Anything else you’d like to add about how folks can be showing up for your movements?
Lesley: Well, as Sharena said, one of our goals is to get first aid training in all the schools, K through 12. We really appreciate it when teachers get the word out to their other teacher friends and invite us to do the workshops in their classroom. I don’t think there’s any age too young, because Sharena is very good at modifying the program for younger people.
— — —
Learn more about People’s Community Medic and support their free community workshops: http://www.peoplescommunitymedics.org/