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by Laken Litman

August 27, 2020

How Melissa Brickey’s personal story paved the way for a career in social justice

Melissa Brickey wakes up early every day to swim laps at a local Y pool in St. Louis, Missouri. Before she dips into the water, she takes off her prosthesis, grabs her crutches, and finds her way across the pool deck.

She’s used to the stares. Kids in particular often give a mixture of equal parts confused, startled, fascinated, and curious when they see her. “What happened to her leg?” one might blurt out. “Mommy, look at her!” another might say.

One day after a workout, a little girl who was missing most of her right arm noticed Brickey, who was born with a circulation issue in her right leg that eventually forced an above-knee amputation one week after she graduated college, and said to her mom, “Look, she’s just like me except she doesn’t have a leg.” Brickey turned around, looked at the girl and said, “You know what else? I’m also just like you because I love to swim.” The two immediately started chatting about swimming—not about limb loss, not about being different, not about feeling alone.

Brickey’s damaged leg was always a burden, and it didn’t help that society told her she was weak, incapable, and not “normal.” It wasn’t until her amputation that she changed her life’s narrative. “It was liberating,” says Brickey, a member of St. Louis Area Masters.

It’s this personal life experience that puts Brickey in a unique position to relate to anyone who’s ever felt marginalized or isolated. When she’s not in the pool, Brickey is working as the executive director of Diversity Awareness Partnership, a nonprofit in St. Louis that prides itself on its mission to “increase awareness, facilitate engagement, and provide education about diversity and inclusion” within the community. DAP works with nonprofits, schools, and businesses for whatever they need. Sometimes it’s a broad and holistic discussion about diversity, race, and gender; other times, it can be tailored, like last year when one organization wanted to focus on LGBTQ issues.

After George Floyd was killed in police custody on Memorial Day, Brickey and her colleagues were inundated with calls from local organizations looking for facilitated conversations about race, racism, and how to be anti-racist. On June 12, DAP launched Listen.Talk.Learn.2020, a 90-minute discussion designed to illuminate and challenge bias and create an urgent call to action. (An initial version of the program was created in 2014 after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.)

Brickey, 49, has talked to dozens of organizations—her program received 45 inquiries in the two weeks after Floyd’s death—from small nonprofits that focus on homelessness to large multimillion dollar corporations and from small high schools to large school districts.

At the start of each session, a team of facilitators explains the purpose of meeting. The charge is to amplify voices that have traditionally been silenced and to recognize their part in making positive, long-term change. Participants are divided into three groups: people who identify as Black, non-Black people of color, and white. They meet for 45 minutes, answering a series of questions, with each group talking about something different “because their perspective is different,” Brickey says. All groups come together for the final 45 minutes to debrief.

An example of one question directed to the group of Black people might be “How are you doing?” and a question for the group of white people could be “Why do you think we’re doing this?” In the end, everyone comes together to debrief and open up the conversation.

“A lot of the work that needs to be done to address racism is on white people,” says Brickey, who is white. “It’s not the responsibility of Black people to tell us how to be an anti-racist. In order for change to happen, white people have to sit in the discomfort and then commit to doing something about it.”

DAP’s hope is that people will say the workshop wasn’t long enough and that they’ve got to continue talking about the subjects raised.

“People had never had conversations like this in Missouri before, specifically in white communities,” says Sarah Masoud, one of the program facilitators. “What I really appreciate about Melissa and DAP is that their goal is to create a better and more inclusive community for Black folks, people of color, and for marginalized communities in general.

“And they don’t want these conversations just to happen when a Black person dies at the hands of police. They want to make sure these companies keep having conversations.”

Masoud met Brickey in July 2019 when Masoud participated in Give Respect Get Respect, DAP’s youth program that brings students and adults together to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Masoud had led similar types of unconscious bias discussions at her Mosque and has only grown more comfortable having uncomfortable conversations by working closely with Brickey, whom Masoud says has mentored her.

“She takes leading very seriously,” Masoud says. “She gives you openness to lead the projects that you're working on, freedom to offer your opinion, and space to really feel like your voice is heard and that you’re an important part of the team.” 

And as the leader of DAP, Brickey knows when to step up and also when to take a step back. Masoud described a few instances where Brickey asked others to take the lead depending on the discussion topic.

“As a white woman, Melissa understands what her role is amidst a group of Black folks and people of color,” Masoud says. “There’s a difference between being led by a white person who doesn't necessarily have the mental outlook to lead a group of people of color in a way that's beneficial versus a white person who really understands their privilege and their role as a white person in leading an organization that's focused on diversity.”

To ensure all Listen.Talk.Learn.2020 facilitators are continually growing and learning and developing, DAP holds sessions for them to come together, meet each other, and share their good and bad experiences. Masoud especially loves this aspect of her job.

“[Brickey] allows the community to foster so you know you’re not alone,” says Masoud, 28. “This job can be lonely and isolating, and sometimes you feel like you’re not making a difference. It can be you against 50 people who are looking to you for answers. But these are the types of friendships [Brickey] creates for anyone working with her.”

Brickey’s compassion was something Austin Davis picked up on immediately after meeting her when he was in the sixth grade. Before she became the executive director at DAP, Brickey held a variety of roles at De La Salle Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to supporting La Salle Middle School, a public charter school that provides access to quality education for under-resourced students and families. Brickey was serving as the director of graduate support, a program that offers academic, social, financial, and emotional support for students, when she first met Davis and his family.

“She had that spirit when she walked into a room,” Davis says. “Everyone acknowledged her, and she acknowledged you. She treated students with love. It was always one of her priorities to make sure we were doing OK.

“And it was cool to have that support system from an adult outside of my parents to reinforce that, ‘Hey, you can do this, you can go to college, and I’ll always be there to help.’ To have that support system has always meant the world to me.”

Davis is now 23 and works in the admissions office at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. He was a student participant in DAP’s Give Respect Get Respect program in middle school and interned with the nonprofit while attending Maryville University in St. Louis.

Davis believes that his relationship with Brickey and his experiences at DAP were key in helping him “create a passion of wanting to be respectful wherever I went that people have different perspectives,” he says.

In college, Davis says he went “full steam ahead” and got involved with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. As a senior, he was named president of the Association of Black Collegians. He wanted to learn more about feminism, racism, and what it means to be Black, among other things. And he felt confident enough to use his voice at Maryville, a predominantly white school, in a socially responsible and respectful way, whether he was talking about police brutality or the 2016 election.

“Starting with DAP young made me curious, and I wanted to learn more about these ideologies and beliefs and viewpoints so I could be more aware,” Davis says.

Brickey’s passion for her work stems from the circulation problem that pained her physically—the condition atrophied muscles and took away nutrients from her bones—and mentally. In sixth grade, she used a wheelchair and couldn't have lunch or play at recess with her peers because the school didn’t have ramps or elevators.

Brickey, who exudes happiness and has a contagious smile, says having part of her right leg amputated turned into a good thing: “It mentally and emotionally shifted my perspective, and I started to feel much better about myself.” As part of her rehab, she took up swimming and slowly began to redefine herself as an athlete rather than a person with disabilities. Swimming healed her mentally, emotionally, and physically.

“I was often the only person with a noticeable disability, so I was often excluded from things or felt like I didn’t belong,” Brickey says. “That core belief of understanding what it’s like to not belong or not be included has always been part of my driving force through life.”

And it rubs off on anyone she meets.

“Honestly, when Melissa told us about losing her leg, it really gave me a different perspective,” Davis says. “Melissa has made a job out of wanting to connect and build relationships with people. Her staff looks up to her. She’s always excited about the day and always has a smile on her face.

“She views each day as another to make a difference in someone’s life. And that’s been one of the greatest things I’ve taken from her.”


  • Human Interest