Centering Community: Reflections on Dr. Barbara Brenner’s Legacy
On February 8th, faculty and staff from across the Mount Sinai Health System came together with East Harlem community partners, friends, and family to celebrate the life and legacy of Barbara Brenner, DrPh, MSW. Dr. Brenner served as the Director of Community Relations at Mount Sinai and was a faculty member in the Department of Preventive Medicine (now Environmental Medicine and Public Health) for over 23 years.
Co-hosted by the Mount Sinai Clinical & Translational Science Award (CTSA) Program, Institute for Healthy Equity Research, and the Center for Health and Environment Across the Lifespan Community Engagement Core (HEALS CEC), this moving Memorial captured the spirit of the East Harlem community and paid tribute to Dr. Brenner’s many contributions to Mount Sinai and the communities it serves.
Honoring Dr. Brenner: Our Commitment to Community
In honor of Dr. Brenner’s tireless work to promote social justice and community empowerment, CTSA and HEALS CEC Director Dr. Maida Galvez announced a new opportunity for community-academic partnership through Community Mini-Pilot Grants. These grants will provide financial and technical support to NYC-based community organizations engaged in programs and projects aimed at improving the health of communities. In the spirit of Dr. Brenner’s legacy, these mini-grants are designed to foster partnerships and strengthen community capacity to conduct research and obtain funding.
A lifetime of service to the East Harlem community
Dr. Brenner received her Master’s degree in Social Work from Hunter College, City University of New York, and her Doctorate of Public Health in Health Policy and Management from Columbia University. In her role as Director of Community Relations, Dr. Brenner was a pioneer for community engagement at Mount Sinai, partnering directly with community organizations to deliver health services and education tailored to the needs of East Harlem residents. Recognizing a need for safe and affordable housing for the elderly in East Harlem, in 1993 she helped to found Linkage House together with the Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle, Inc., Union Settlement Association, and the Greater Emmanuel Baptist Church. Today Linkage House provides 70 units of supportive housing as well as educational and recreational programs for older adults. She also worked with the City of New York to create a farmers market at Mount Sinai to bring affordable, healthful food to local residents.
Dr. Brenner played a key role in community-engaged research at Mount Sinai as Director of Community Outreach and Translation for the Growing Up Healthy Study, a cohort study of East Harlem girls led by Dr. Mary Wolff to examine associations between environmental exposures and lifestyle factors and early puberty, a breast cancer risk factor. In addition, she led a peer-to-peer mentoring program on environmental risk factors for breast cancer, “Advocates Mentoring Advocates” with the Witness Project of Harlem, a faith-based program that delivers breast and cervical prevention education programs to communities.
After retiring in 2013, Dr. Brenner continued her service to the community as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at Mount Sinai and as a Board member to several community organizations.
Remembering a Partner and Colleague
Dr. Brenner’s deep and lasting impact on Mount Sinai and the community of East Harlem was evident in the words shared by those who spoke in her honor at the Memorial. The panel began with an introduction from David C. Thomas, MD, MHPE, Professor of Medicine, Medical Education and Rehabilitation and Human Performance, System Vice Chair for Education, Department of Medicine, and Associate Dean for CME at Mount Sinai. Dr. Thomas welcomed Dr. Brenner’s husband, Bob Rosengard, MSW, who spoke of Barbara’s love of working in community relations and environmental health. Bob shared stories of Barbara’s early life as the daughter of a ballet dancer and stagehand in south Chicago, her educational achievements from her undergraduate days at Purdue University to a Master’s Degree in History from University of Chicago, a Master’s in Social Work from Hunter College, and finally a Doctorate in Public Health from Columbia University. Bob noted that when Barbara joined Mount Sinai in 1985, residents of East Harlem did not feel welcome or served by the hospital; as a result she was chosen to lead the newly launched Community Relations department, where she went on to build many partnerships and programs to improve the health of East Harlem residents. In closing, Bob quoted Barbara’s friend and community activist, the late Carmen Milagros Villegas, who said, “Barbara Brenner is the reason that the people of East Harlem consider Mount Sinai to be their hospital.”
Speaking on a panel moderated by Crispin Goytia-Vasquez, Program Manager for the Institute for Health Equity Research and CTSA CEC, representatives of the many organizations touched by Dr. Brenner’s work shared memories of Barbara. Ellen Alpert, Linkage House Board Member remembered Barbara’s hard work to establish Linkage House and many holiday meals and celebrations that she and the staff spent with residents stating, “Everyone knows about Barbara’s commitment to things she believed in and her passion to improve the quality of life of others in need. Linkage House was very much her baby and she put her heart and soul into making it a safe and supportive environment for those who lived there.”
Guedy Arniella, LCSW, Director of Community Health and Outreach at the Institute for Family Health reminisced about Barbara as a “huge force in the social justice environment, and most dedicated community advocate intimately involved in improving the health of the East Harlem community.” She noted that Barbara served as a role model and mentor to so many who are now committed to “carrying on her legacy of combating health inequities in our Black and Brown communities”.
Ray Lopez, Chief Program Officer for Little Sisters of the Assumption Family Health Services (LSAFHS) recalled partnering with Barbara on the Growing Up Healthy in East Harlem study to educate the community about safe cleaning products that could be made at home with simple, affordable ingredients. He described how Barbara’s approach resonated with him because “it aligned so well with our mission and values at Little Sisters.” Mr. Lopez stated that working with Barbara was “a master class in how to execute a true community-academic partnership” where everyone was treated “with mutuality, as experts, and as peers”. He credited Barbara as instrumental in helping him to build deeper relationships within Mount Sinai and other institutions.
Mr. Lopez closed by sharing touching words from the late Sister Suzanne Lachapelle, who served with LSAFHS for 45 years and before her passing on Christmas Day of 2022 had this to say about Barbara: “She had such clarity about the issues that were worth the battle. I’m forever grateful for her concern, sharing, and teaching over these recent decades. Her work is done. I’m sure she’s participating in a meeting in heaven.”
Reverend Mimsie Robinson, Associate Pastor of the Bethel Gospel Assembly, who worked with Barbara on the Mount Sinai Community Advisory Board from which many impactful projects were launched, offered comfort and strength to those in attendance, and called for a standing ovation for “a life well-lived, a life of impact”. “This was a woman who inspired faith, who encouraged people, and who brought the best out of people. She touched lives. Her life mattered. And she made sure you knew that your life mattered”. The Reverend ended his tribute by singing his own rendition of “If I Can Help Somebody” by Wintley Phipps.
If I can help somebody as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song
If I can show somebody he is traveling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain
No her living was not in vain
No her living has not been in vain
Because she helped somebody as she passed along
I know her living has not been in vain
Peggy Shepard, Co-Founder and Executive Director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice remembered Barbara’s warmth, smile, and commitment to bringing equity and justice into an academic setting. “What made Barbara a pioneer was her commitment to the difficult task of building meaningful and effective relationships between community leaders, researchers, and physicians to improve the research and the medical care but importantly to improve the lives of those living in unbearable conditions right across the street.”
Sandra Talavera, MSW, Community Liaison to the Study of Aging in African-American, Latinas/os or Understanding Dementia (SALUD) at Fordham University and Mount Sinai described al that she learned by observing Barbara’s interactions with the East Harlem community and the insights she had into both people and institutions. Echoing the sentiments of others about Barbara as a great listener and caring friend, Ms. Talavera expressed the hope that in Barbara’s memory Mount Sinai will enhance engagement with our East Harlem schools, partner with community organizations to address social determinants of health, and support community-based participatory research and continuous community engagement.
The Memorial concluded with a moving musical tribute of “Remember Me” and “May Peace Be With You” by the NYCThreshold Choir (Dorothy Calvani, Liz Stanton, and Deborah Keehn).
A path forward
Following the memorial, guests were invited to gather for lunch and encouraged to share ideas for community actions that we can take together to honor Dr. Brenner’s Legacy. Some of the ideas shared through a communal post-it board included increasing awareness of community mental health services, involving community members in research design, engaging Mount Sinai medical students in community projects, and increasing engagement with East Harlem seniors, youth, and schools.
Dr. Brenner was a beacon of light and inspiration to all who knew her throughout her life. Our community is forever grateful for her contributions and will continue to follow the path of service she created, centering the needs of communities and tirelessly advocating for health and justice for all.