By Susan Dugan
Washington Park (Colo.) Profile, Feb. 10, 2011
Health care activist Roya Brown views health care as a basic human right. Drawn first to Health Care for All Colorado, Brown recently founded Young HCAC, whose mission is to “get young people involved in educating, mobilizing and agitating … to get mad about what is going on.”
“As you become a student of Rumi and learn more about Sufi teaching you learn not to be attached to identities such as where you’re from, what’s your religion, who’s your family. You do not label yourself anymore, in order to become a limitless person.”
Still, she credits her open-minded Iranian family for instilling a thirst for adventure and knowledge. “I was raised in a very outspoken, free-willed family. My father was a lawyer with a knack for humanity and our home was always open to people coming and going. My father was my best friend. The only difference between my dad and me was our spirituality. Inside I knew there had to be something intelligent out there that created the moon and sun and stars. My father was a humanist and realist who believed only in what you could touch and see.”
At age 17, Brown left Tehran for England and majored in math and computer science at Oxford Polytechnic where she met and married her American husband and developed an appreciation for the British health care system. The couple moved to Florida in 1976 where she earned a degree in engineering from the University of Central Florida. “We were going to go back to Iran to see how he liked it and maybe live in both places,” she says. But the 1979 Iranian revolution squashed those plans. Brown found herself unexpectedly “locked out” and unable to return home for many years.
She worked as an engineer and relocated to Denver in 1983. “Tehran is a high mountain place and Florida was never my cup of tea,” she says. “This was the closest to what I call home.” Again she found work as an engineer but her dissatisfaction with the corporate world continued to escalate. By this time a single mother, she found herself questioning elements of the American dream.
“I wanted to start my own business but couldn’t because of our need for health care. I felt enslaved. I began to see that people here get married because of health care; they have chronic illnesses and can’t get out of their nasty jobs because they can’t get health care. Every time I questioned that, people would come back and say, ‘Well, we don’t want to be socialist.’ And I thought – what’s the difference between working for a corporation for benefits and working for the government who works for the corporation who gives you the benefits? When they talk about a capitalist system they don’t talk about people being entrepreneurs, they talk about a small amount of people in the corporation making a lot of money and the rest of them working for benefits.”
The situation rankled. While continuing to work as an engineer, she began math tutoring at her son’s school and fell in love with teaching. In 1997, she went back to school to earn a math teaching license. Later, she took a part-time position at PS1 Charter School and was offered paid tuition to earn a master’s in special education, a degree she is currently completing.
Meanwhile, in 2003, hoping to show her then 17-year-old son something of the larger world, Brown packed up their bags and hit the road. “I had a couple thousand dollars in my pocket and we went to France for a month and then to England. Everywhere we went, I knew people and we were welcomed.” Her son returned to the States to stay with her mother while Brown took a short-term position in Dubai managing a friend’s engineering company. When Iran was struck by a massive earthquake, Brown traveled there, intending to volunteer for a few weeks before returning to the U.S. but deciding to stay another year to help with rebuilding, working as a construction manager.
Toward the end of her stay, her involvement as a bystander in an accident rekindled an interest in Rumi sparked years earlier. “I had wanted to go see the Rumi celebration in Turkey in December but didn’t really have the money. Then I saw a car accident and jumped out of my car to go help a person lying on the pavement.” As she waited for help, someone stole her purse holding her American and Iranian passports, requiring her to travel to Turkey to receive a new U.S. passport. Inspired by what she learned there about Rumi’s spiritual journey, she returned to the States committed to learn and share more.
At home, she found a dear friend, dying of cancer, who could not afford to purchase her employer-sponsored health care insurance. “When she was diagnosed the insurance company told her she needed to wait because of a pre-existing condition – and public health care told her she needed to wait because she was not poor enough to use the system. By the time I arrived they had already written her off to hospice, because she didn’t have any overnight care. She was crying and asked if I would stay with her. I said, ‘Of course.’”
The friends spent the remainder of her days together, talking, laughing and reviewing their lives. “The only part that bothered me was, why I wasn’t here to fight for her. And then I thought – why should anyone have to fight for health care? At the Democratic National Convention I saw this woman with a sign for Health Care for All Colorado (HCAC) and said, ‘I’ve been looking for you.’”
Brown joined the organization in 2008, participated in planning rallies and served on the board as media chair, all the while filled with a vague longing to do something more. When her college student son asked her to suggest a controversial topic for an English paper he was writing, she recommended health care. “We discussed it while he was doing his first, second and tenth drafts. He did a lot of research looking at different reform options. He ended up getting an A, and said, ‘Now I know what you do, and I am really for what you do.’ And I thought: I didn’t have to twist his arm; he just got it all by himself.”
The experience inspired her to launch Young HCAC. “Our mission is basically to get young people involved in educating, mobilizing and agitating around the whole issue of universal health care in Colorado. We are going to have summit conferences and already have a website to attract young adults. We are hoping to develop a movement through sharing people’s personal stories about failing to access and receive needed health care. I call it a movement because it is not going to happen until people are educated, and get mad about what is going on.”
Currently extending Rumi’s wisdom through “Rumi walk and talks” held in Washington Park and local cafés, Brown’s belief in the power of story to teach and persuade transcends her health care activism. “Rumi was Persian and Persians live on proverbs. One saying we have is, ‘The one who searches will find.’ Rumi changed this around to ‘The one who finds will search.’ What he meant, really, is when you find God, you will search. The searching doesn’t even begin until then. So I guess that since I have found, I have become thirsty for wanting to know more and more, and to share it. This world is not about taking, it is a place to give, to leave your legacy, so you will continue to learn and people will learn from you.”
(Editor’s note: to find out more about Young HCAC, visit YoungHCAC.com.)