It is nearing 5:30 p.m. on Friday — an hour after United States House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was scheduled to speak in Huntsman Hall. A small group remains gathered outside the Wharton School building debating health care.
An energetic woman with gray hair, pearl earrings and three paintings on canvas stands on a bench. She is addressing and engaging a crowd divided between Penn students and people who seem to be unaffiliated with the University.
The Occupy movement has been criticized for not having a cohesive voice, but Theresa Brown Gold has a message and plenty of stories to tell — including her own.
Brown Gold spent most of her adult life in the food industry, most recently owning a small restaurant in the Philadelphia area. One day, Brown Gold mentioned to her co-owner (and husband) that if they hired two people to work part-time instead of one who would work full-time, the couple would not have to pay for health benefits. She was so shocked by her own words that she began questioning their larger implications — such as, how can the United States expect to build a productive workforce if the systems in place encourage employers to hire part-time?
Since then, Brown Gold has become a full-time artist and advocate for universal health care. She didn’t know what the solution would look like but was curious what would happen if individual stories were explored and then put side by side. She now spends most of her time in her painting studio with everyday people who have been impacted by the health insurance industry. After interviewing her models, she paints their portraits. She explains that she is “trying to get to the bottom of things” but happens to be doing it through paint. Sometimes, after the models have left and Brown Gold is alone with her work, she cries recalling their stories.
Since Occupy Philadelphia began at City Hall on Oct. 6, Brown Gold has been present at least once a week.
She is a part of the movement because she wants start a conversation. She did not come to campus to criticize Wharton or Penn but rather to send Cantor a message. Had Cantor shown up, maybe he would have seen protest posters — like Brown Gold’s or those of the 500 to 1,000 others who were expected to show up to the protest before Cantor canceled — as he glanced out the window of his car.
A wooden plank extends from the bottom of one of her canvases, which reads, “If Congress HAD Billy’s Health Insurance (None) They’d be DEAD like him. ACCESS to Healthcare FOR ALL.” And smaller, off to the side, she scribbled, “RIP.”
Another canvas Brown Gold brought to campus shows Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) wearing an aqua blue sweater that matches his wide, bagged eyes and makes his healthy pink lips stand out. Brown Gold points out that she has not met Boehner but that she uses his image as a symbol of Congress as a whole.
The third painting is more abstract and unsettling. A small downturned right eye pokes through a mesh of blue and gray paint, which envelopes the left side of the anonymous man’s face. This is Billy.
Working as a television repairman, Billy had health insurance through his employer. So when he was diagnosed with a heart condition at age 39, the defibrillator doctors implanted in his chest was partially paid for by his insurance company. At 57, in 2009, Billy was working as a pizza delivery man; he needed a new defibrillator but didn’t have insurance anymore. He knew he should see a doctor but couldn’t afford to. One day Billy was driving and felt that something was wrong with his heart. He pulled over, put his car in park and died over the steering wheel.
In the past two-and-a-half years, Brown Gold has completed 45 portraits. The Occupy movement gave her the chance to come out and share what she has learned. Like other members of the movement, she sees the protests as an opportunity to ask “Do you realize?” and to wave her “red flag.”
She thinks the movement will ultimately be successful because it is not based on one ideology. “I can stand next to someone else who has been screwed out of their money because of a different way. It is a banner to say, ‘We have a systemic problem.’”
For me, the jury is still out. I am not convinced the Occupy movement at large will come out on top. But Brown Gold made me believe in her cause and, more importantly, in her. Honest conversation can only put us on the right path. Cantor is a coward for not showing up to take part in it.
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