For her 60th birthday, Barbara Brenner’s partner, Suzanne Lampert, invited a number of Barbara’s friends over for a party and asked them to bring their laptops. Once there, the guests’ computers were fitted with software that allowed them to type whatever they wished to say and have it spoken aloud by the machines. Barbara, who had lost her ability to speak as a result of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), now was surrounded by close companions who communicated in the same manner she had been using for a long while.
Barbara had a big voice. She spoke her mind, regardless of the reactions she might arouse in others, and her remarks connected her rapidly and deeply to individuals, to groups, and to increasingly large audiences throughout her life.
Barbara was best known for her leadership of Breast Cancer Action, a revolutionary women’s health organization, but the breadth and depth of her interests, and her growth as a forceful, visionary leader gave her influence far beyond breast cancer.
The third of seven children, Barbara learned to be feisty, observant, resourceful, and loud. A number of Jewish adults spotted her special concern for the world and encouraged her. Her mother, Bettie, took her to hear Dr. Martin Luther King at a civil rights demonstration and her rabbi, Morris Lieberman, inspired her to develop a broad vision of social justice that was tied to a Jewish view of tikkun olam.
When she was in high school, Baltimore erupted following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King—there were armed guards on the roof at her prom and fires burning in the distance. Barbara, in a fascinating interview with Zaylia Pluss, explained that her “views about social justice [were] intensely informed by growing up in a city like Baltimore.”
A high school teacher, Ellen Kanner, noticed her intelligence, charm, and zeal, and encouraged her to apply to Smith College, Kanner’s alma mater. There Barbara became involved in the anti-war movement and organized teach-ins about the Vietnam War and its connection to colonialism. At a major anti-war marches in Washington, DC, she was shocked to witness police targeting demonstrators, and when she returned to Smith she helped engineer a campus-wide shut-down. Classes were cancelled and exams were not given that spring. She later said, “The students built their power and used it to change the course of history…I took it as a lesson in what social change could look like.”
In 2012, Barbara was awarded the Smith Medal—reserved for its most distinguished alumnae. In addition to hands-on lessons in social activism, Smith gave Barbara an excellent education, for which she was openly grateful. “Smith taught me to be a critical thinker…I learned that anything is possible if you’re persistent and strategic.”
After Smith, Barbara attended the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy at Princeton. There she met Susie, who was in the class ahead of her. Susie, her companion of 38 years, was her gift from Princeton, and she called the relationship “the great joy of my life.”
Barbara dropped out of Princeton after her first year and the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Barbara worked at the women’s rights project of the ACLU of Southern California, served on the board of the Northern California ACLU, and then the national board. She then attended law school at the University of California, Berkeley. She clerked for Federal Judge Thelton Henderson and worked in two small law firms, both of which supported her board work with the ACLU. Her civil rights legal work continued until she discovered a lump in her breast in 1993. It was malignant. She was 41 years old.
Almost immediately, she began to organize her life around challenging the hold that breast cancer had on her personally and politically. She joined the board of Breast Cancer Action, then a fledgling organization, in 1994 and soon became its first full-time paid staffer and executive director.
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 fifteen years she was its leader. As its 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 effects of breast cancer and the toll that it takes on all of us.
In 2002, BCA challenged the commercial usurpation of October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Cause marketing—businesses promoting their products by tying them to charitable causes—had started to proliferate. BCA began to identify products that were either harmful or did not generate meaningful funding. Since that time, BCA’s “Think Before You Pink” campaign has altered the landscape of October, putting pressure on companies to identify the recipients of their donations and the amounts they raise from each sale.
There are many examples of the ingenuity of these campaigns against “pinkwashing.” In 2010, the Susan G. Komen Foundation announced a new partner: 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 came up with the slogan, “What the Cluck?” The e-alert went viral shortly after the Komen announcement and generated a great deal of media attention. Within days, over 5,000 BCA members had written to KFC and Komen objecting to “Buckets for the Cure.”
This was a BCA staff venture, 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 of the breast cancer advocacy movement.
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 resignation and a brave face to bold activism addressing the whole array of issues in which breast cancer is embedded: environmental toxins; health reform and access to care; racial differences in mortality; overtreatment; and the safety, efficacy, and costs of new cancer treatments.
Barbara retired from Breast Cancer Action in 2010, when she was diagnosed with ALS. She then created a blog, Healthy Barbs, to address breast cancer, public health, and health policy issues as they arose. She became a knowledgeable ALS advocate and her blog developed a large following of ALS patients and their caregivers. In her last post, several days before her death, she thanked her readers, encouraged them to keep working for better health and a repaired world, and she gave us the traditional Priestly Blessing.
Toward the end of her life, Barbara focused more on spiritual matters. On High Holy Days, Barbara and Susie made the four-hour drive to Mendocino to worship with Rabbi Margaret Holub’s congregation, the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community. During her last two visits there, Barbara gave drashes (short commentaries) relating the themes of these sacred days to her illness and impending death. Her beloved Rabbi Margaret made monthly visits from Mendocino to spend the day with her.
Barbara and I had long planned to study Torah together after she retired, and we were both profoundly affected by that precious shared time contemplating matters close to the human spirit. Our last study session brought us to within four parashot of the end of Deuteronomy. 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. The night before my last visit with Barbara, I finished the reading on my own, with Moses climbing Mt. Nebo and viewing the land from across the Jordan River. And then he died, denied by God his wish to enter Israel with his people.
The next morning, Barbara was in a much-weakened state, but still doing the daily New York Times crossword when I arrived. Her mind was undiminished. When 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, “Why? I won’t be there. My soul will be somewhere in the cosmos.”