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Brown turns charity efforts toward home

 

Last updated 12/2/2020 at 12:35pm

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Havre native Dr. R. Scott Brown performs with his band, Ojos Feos. Brown is starting a scholarship fund for Native American students to use while pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology at University of Montana. The scholarship is named in memory of his friend David Kucera.

Havre native Dr. R. Scott Brown has decided to retire from medicine to further pursue charity work and his own music career, both of which increasingly seek to address racial inequality in the United States, and is starting an effort with a tribute to one of his Havre friends.

Brown is an anesthesiologist with a sub-speciality in interventional-pain medicine and also has a master's degree in international public health, which he has made use of during his numerous medical trips to at least 16 countries.

But, he said, his career in medicine is not something he can continue to balance with other aspects of his life, and he is satisfied with what he's been able to accomplish as a doctor.

"I pretty much accomplished everything in medicine that I wanted to accomplish and I really needed to start concentrating on our music and on our charity work," he said.

Brown said his charity Surg+Restore, which has previously focused on improving the medical systems of Sierra Leone, will be turning it's attention to addressing more domestic issues in the wake of this past year, which has brought into focus how much still needs to be done to achieve racial justice in the U.S.

The flagship endeavors of this new domestic focus in Montana is the creation of the David Kucera Memorial Psychology Ph.D. Scholarship, named in honor of Brown's best friend from his days as a Havre High student in the mid-to-late '70s. Kucera recently committed suicide after 25 years of battling serious mental health issues, Brown said.

The scholarship will fund studies of Native American psychology Ph.D. students at the University of Montana for four years, students who will be required to work with Indian Health Services after graduation for two years on a reservation.

The scholarship will begin next fall with its first candidate, and the project is 25 percent funded so far.

Brown said he hopes further funding will allow four more students to have their Ph.D. educations paid for.

He said his friend was an appropriate namesake because he was an outspoken advocate for racial justice and shared Brown's love of music, especially that of a highly political nature.

"David was really smart guy, and we really hit it off," Brown said. "Especially because music was such a big thing between us. He really encouraged me to pursue this stuff."

Brown said the loss of his friend was devastating and he admires him for fighting for as long as he did.

He said he spoke with his friend's family and they all agreed that the scholarship would be an appropriate way to honor him.

Brown is looking to fund African-American students in medicine as well, which his organization has begun to do in Portland, Oregon, which was his home for many years.

Focusing on a need

He said, especially during the pandemic, another catalyst for his new domestic focus, it's important to realize just how much Native American communities suffer, disproportionate to the rest of the state.

"In the state of Montana, Native Americans make up 6.7 percent of the population and have 34 percent of the COVID-19 deaths," Brown said.

He said the psychological strain of isolation has the potential to disproportionally affect these communities as well, especially since mental health is already a serious issue within said communities, which account for nearly 28 percent of the state's suicides.

Brown said this is especially concerning in the wake of the last 12 years, which has seen suicides among Native American women increase by 38 percent and men by 72 percent.

He said COVID-19 has also had an effect of their project's funding, because they've had to cancel a major fundraiser this year, and will likely need to do the same for the one coming in Spring of 2021.

"COVID has significantly affected our funding, and there are tons of people who are out of work, so I think the donor pool has shrunk significantly as well," he said.

Past charity work

Brown has done charity work for many years in Africa, particularly Sierra Leone in the wake of the Blood Diamond Civil War and the Ebola virus pandemic that came shortly after.

In 2007, he said, he met an English surgeon on a medical trip on Bolivia and she asked him to work with her charity in Ghana, which he did the next year.

During his time there, he learned the charity was considering an expansion into Sierra Leone due to that country's civil war's effects on the country's medical system, and he was in one of the first medical teams there in 2008.

Brown said the war had ravaged an already highly exploited and impoverished country, leaving it without much of a medical system.

"The country was absolutely devastated," he said. "There was no electricity outside the capital."

Brown said he was eventually asked to be on the board of the U.K. based charity, and was later asked to start his own charity to bring in money and resources from the United States.

The goal of the charity, he said, was to fund the training of two plastic surgeons, of which Sierra Leone had none, along with a pair of anesthesiologists, with the eventual goal of creating a sustainable medical system in the country.

"Our goal was to have Sierra Leoneans training Sierra Leoneans," he said.

In the context of Sierra Leone, Brown said, a plastic surgeon doesn't mean a cosmetic specialist as the term colloquially means in the U.S. They instead focus on reconstructive surgeries fixing cleft lips, cleft pallets, hand deformations, burn injuries, and other similar procedures which many in the nation were in need of.

"Sierra Leone is country of about 7 million people; there were about 15 surgeons and no anesthesiologists," he said.

Sierra Leone's progress, and continuing problems

Brown said the goal of medical sustainability in Sierra Leone has more or less been achieved in part due to the international attention garnered by the Ebola crisis.

He said Sierra Leone's suffering at the hands of the virus drew the attention of the world and the influx of humanitarian aid created enough momentum that much of what was destroyed during the civil war was rebuilt, including a more robust medical system and more widely available basic utilities.

However, Brown said, the country is still extremely impoverished, in large part due to the continued exploitation by international companies looking to strip the nation of it's mineral wealth for profit by effectively buying their political system through bribery.

The country is one of the most mineral-rich in the world, he said, and yet its population is one of the poorest in the world.

Brown said the need overseas is still great, but the events of this past year in the U.S., particularly the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing activities of the Black Lives Matter movement, made it clear that it was time to turn attentions back home.

"There's a lot to be done in developing nations," he said. "But there's also much to be done in the U.S. as well."

Domestic injustice and music

In addition to his charity work Brown is also a musician and songwriter for the band Ojos Feos.

He said his music is highly political, focusing on themes of racial inequality and the need for social reform.

His group's musical style, which he called psychedelic Afro-Latin rock, is informed by the music he's heard during his medical travels in Africa and South America.

"I think we're the only band in the genre," he said.

He said the music uses various African and Latin rhythms he encountered over his life with rock, blues or jazz style music overlaid.

Brown said there are a lot of truly talented musicians in Portland, where Ojos Feos was formed, but even then it was difficult to find people who could play the kind of music he was interested in.

Despite the subject of his music, he said, the band's style is deliberately upbeat, trying to send an important message without making people miserable in the process. Serious, but not grim.

The lyrics of the music are written primarily in Spanish and English, both languages he is fluent in.

One of their newest songs, "Free Isn't Free," to be officially released Jan. 15, is, in part, an homage to the Marvin Gaye song "What's Going On," Brown said.

It uses Reggaeton and Afro-Peruvian rhythms to create a jazz-like number about the state of race relations in the U.S. in light of the past year's events.

"Why, O Why," a rock song written last year, based on a calypsy-reggaeton rhythm, is centered around the U.S.'s increasingly harsh immigration and family separation policies under the presidency of Donald Trump.

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Their new album, "El Tocaño de Saludos," releases in June, and is based primarily on these issues along with the actives of the Black Lives Matter movement, with its first song, "Los Sábados," releasing Dec. 4.

A special thanks

Brown said two of his fellow Havreites in particular helped his early charity efforts, Chuck Bohn and Mike Kato, by being early and generous contributors.

Another friend from his days at Havre High, Roger Dauer, was also immensely helpful to Brown's more recent efforts, providing ideas and feedback for his scholarship program.

He said he's happy to be able to give back to the area he came from and thanked his old friends for all of their help.

 
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