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Living History

Elaine Brown, the first woman chair of the Black Panther Party, comes to campus for a conversation on Feb. 15.
February 2, 2024
By Matt Morgan
Historical photo (1974) of Elaine Brown (right) wearing a coat walking next to a man
| Elaine Brown (right) on the campaign trail for Oakland city council in 1974.

When Hydeia Wysinger ’25 calls author and civil rights activist Elaine Brown living history, she means it quite literally. 

Four years ago, as a junior taking a U.S. History class, Wysinger learned about Brown's legacy as the first woman leader of the Black Panther Party. While many U.S. History textbooks devote just a few lines to the Panthers, Wysinger says Mr. Brunetti’s class at Holy Names High School in Oakland was different. 

At the Catholic Girls high school, just a few miles from where the Black Panther Party was founded, Wysinger heard the inspiring stories of Black Panther Party leaders like Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, and Brown promoted social change. She also learned about its core outreach mission to provide free breakfast programs, health screenings, legal aid, and adult education programs the Black Panthers organized for their community. 

“It was empowering to see people stand up for change,” Wysinger says. “That was one of the main principles of my high school, to be changemakers. To look at history and see that, it was impactful.”

Elaine Brown standing with her arms crossed in a white suit

Elaine Brown

On Feb. 15, Wysinger will get the chance to meet one of these changemakers in person. Wysinger and Law Professor Margaret Russell will co-host “Resilience and Revolution: A Night with Elaine Brown” from 5:30-6:30 in the St. Clare Room at the University Library. The event is being hosted by the Inclusive Excellence Division and is part of Santa Clara University’s Black History Month festivities.

In addition to her history in the Black Panthers, Brown will also discuss her current advocacy work, including her role as CEO of the non-profit organization Oakland & the World Enterprises, Inc. (OAW). OAW is dedicated to launching and sustaining for-profit businesses for cooperative ownership by formerly incarcerated individuals.

“Learning about her work back then and now being able to talk to her is a full-circle moment for me,” Wysinger says. “It’s really exciting. I never would’ve thought I’d have this opportunity.” 

Recently, Wysinger sat down to discuss her preparation for the upcoming event and the importance of Black History Month. 

When you think about leading a conversation with someone as important as Elaine Brown, where does your curiosity go? 

First and foremost, I want to hear the firsthand account of her life and experiences as a leader in the Black Panther Party and work in the civil rights movement. Her resilience is so inspiring. On a more personal level, I want to ask her about the impact of her work today. A lot of times when you’re doing advocacy work, you don't know what the outcome is going to be 20, 30, 40 years down the line. I’d like to hear about the people she worked with and the programs she developed—how does she see that advocacy and activism play out in the world today? Also, what change does she still want to see happen?

Learning history can change how we see the world; Black History Month encourages us to reflect on the contributions and history of African Americans. You mentioned how impactful your class with Mr. Brunetti was. How did learning a fuller context about the history of the Black Panthers affect you?

Growing up, I remember sometimes hearing about the Black Panthers in a not positive light. You hear that they promoted violence, and you don’t hear about educational programs they developed or the food programs that were benefitting their community. I give a lot of credit to Mr. Brunetti. I didn’t just learn more context about the Black Panthers, I learned the importance of who tells the story and what perspectives get painted. That class showed me the importance of doing your own research. If you have the opportunity to meet with people, meet with them and learn about their experience.

Elaine Brown is known as an activist and writer but she also studied dance in high school, ran for public office, recorded music, lived in France for six years, runs a nonprofit, and is a mother. We talk a lot about the value of a holistic education at Santa Clara, so what do you think is to be learned from her life?

I think it shows the possibility of duality and full personhood. You don’t have to choose between activism or a different kind of life. You can do both. You can live your life and do the things you want to do, but also, when it's important, speak out against injustice. I think it also shows her perseverance. A lot of times when people face obstacles, it's easy to give up and stop fighting that good fight. But seeing all she accomplished despite the adversity she faced as an activist, it's inspiring. If she could do it, maybe I can, too.

Hydeia Wysinger standing in archway outside Mission church

Hydeia Wysinger will host the conversation with Elaine Brown on Feb. 15.

In addition to studying psychology, you’re also majoring in public health. Do you see overlaps in the work the Black Panthers did and the work you’d like to do?

Absolutely. When I look at the community programs the Black Panthers started and why they were effective, I’m reminded of something my public health professors say all the time: Don't go into communities with your own agenda. Listen to what people have to say. It sounds so simple, but we see it happen all the time—people go into communities they don’t understand and try to “fix” the community according to what they want. 

There’s something in public health called the docent method, where a representative of a community or a trusted member of a community talks to all parts of a community to identify exactly what they’re struggling with. The Black Panthers were both trusted community members and the ones providing the support. The educational and literacy programs and food programs the Black Panthers ran were a good implementation of different public health goals. It wasn't just fighting for one thing; they were taking care of several social determinants of health and helping people live longer and healthier lives.

Elaine Brown was the first woman leader of the Black Panther Party. What do you hope to learn about her work as a pioneer in this space?

Personally, coming from an all-girls school, we were told that “You can accomplish anything. You can do anything. It's okay to be the first woman in these spaces.” But when you step out into the world, it's like, “Oh, wait, it’s not as easy as everyone made it out to be!” There are a lot more hardships and obstacles than I expected. So on that level, I'm interested in talking to her about what that was like as the first woman leader of the Black Panthers. 

Also, she ultimately ended up leaving the Black Panthers. I’m curious how much the adversities she faced as the first woman leader contributed to that. I think that’s important to discuss because I imagine it’s difficult to stay hungry and to fight for this common goal when you’re facing these adversities. When you’re living in a society rooted in racism and sexism, how do you deal with that? 

What would you say to someone who is on the fence about coming to this event?

Don't miss out on a chance to meet living history. When we see problems in our world today, a lot of times they’re the same problems from 40, 50, 60 years ago. The reason that happens is because people don't learn from history. When you have an opportunity to learn firsthand, you should take advantage of it. Maybe it will ignite a flame in you and maybe you will be the one to stand up, take an activist role, and make the change.

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