Our Roots

Carolyn Downs and Country Doctor’s founders were leaders in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Our style of community empowerment through health care has had ripple effects far and wide.

Black Panther roots

The Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center was founded in 1970 – known then as the Sidney Miller Free Medical Clinic — by the Seattle Black Panther Party. The original name had honored a fallen Black Panther Party comrade; the updated name was a tireless Panther activist and mother who died young from cancer. As part of the Party’s 10 Point Program to aid the black community, the Seattle chapter of the Black Panthers enacted ‘Survival Programs Pending Revolution,’ which included providing school breakfasts to 2000 children in Seattle alone and creating a well-baby clinic that later became the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center.

Of the 13 original Black Panther Party-founded health care clinics across the country, Carolyn Downs is the only one still in operation. School breakfast programs around the nation had their roots in this original Black Panther movement.

“Our legacy is empowerment … we could tell the community: If you can change your own health, you can change anything.”

— Gino Gianola, Country Doctor co-founder

Country Doctor

The idea for Country Doctor Community Clinic began in conjunction with the Seattle Liberation Front. At a philosophy professor’s teach-in at the University of Washington in 1969, five anti-war protestors were tasked to come up with an idea of how they could best empower their community. Only one had any medical training (a medic in the Vietnam war), but after the five walked door to door in their Capitol Hill neighborhood, they heard the biggest need in their community was health care. The group led community meetings about a possible clinic. At first, the meetings gathered 25 participants, and then grew to 50, and 100, and soon, Country Doctor was born.

The founders discovered a nearby abandoned firehouse on Capitol Hill – the last to house horses – and got it designated a historic site. At the beginning, all of the providers and helpers were volunteers, so they saw patients in the evenings. The original founders wanted the community to always be empowered in their own health care. When first incorporated the board was comprised of 1/3 community, 1/3 patients and 1/3 staff to ensure equal representation and equal say. Years later, the federal community health center legislation mandated 51% patient boards, and no longer allowed staff members to serve on the board.

With a little help from our friends

From humble roots (Carolyn Downs at the Seattle Black Panther Party headquarters before moving to a basement, Country Doctor in the abandoned firehouse), each clinic employed volunteer doctors and medical residents. Both got help from Dr. John Green, a University of Washington surgeon who separately gave both clinics the equipment and supplies they would need to get up and running.

Both clinics began by treating the Seattle community’s most vulnerable patients. Carolyn Downs focused on nutritional needs of low-income children in elementary schools, sickle cell screening and treatment, and chronic disease management. In the 1980s, Country Doctor became one of the first clinics in Seattle to welcome new immigrants, and the young clinic – already well-known for opening its doors to everyone — found itself at the epicenter of a devastating unknown disease soon to be known as AIDS.

It takes two

In 1988, the two clinics joined forces under umbrella name of Country Doctor Community Health Centers (CDCHC). True to both clinics’ roots, the clinics focused on bringing together a caring, compassionate and innovative health care team to provide quality health care to Seattle’s most vulnerable community members, including patients of all races, religions and nationalities, regardless of immigration status; gender non-binary, gay or transgender patients; or patients who are currently homeless or recently incarcerated. After 50 years of going strong, the ripple effect within the communities surrounding Carolyn Downs and Country Doctor are testaments to empowering individuals to make a difference, both in their communities and in their own lives.

“[Carolyn Downs] was the culmination of all the effort, the work, the pain, the struggles we’d gone through to establish a community institution for the black community … it’s the legacy of the Seattle Black Panther Party.”

— Elmer Dixon, Carolyn Downs co-founder

Continuing care

Through the efforts of its multidisciplinary teams, Seattle Roots Community Health continues to care for people with a broad range of chronic illnesses while finding ways to address recent challenges such as the opiate epidemic, STD outbreaks and prevention, Hepatitis C treatment, and behavioral health services for people with nowhere else to turn. The legacy of Carolyn Downs and Country Doctor carries on in the children and grandchildren of its earliest patients. In 2019, Seattle Roots Community Health added dental care, providing care to thousands of patients without insurance or with Medicaid and therefore have limited access to dental care.

All patients are welcome, most insurances are gladly accepted, and nobody is EVER refused services for inability to pay. The organization’s committed Board of Directors, leadership team and most of all, its mission driven staff look forward to partnering with our community to provide high quality primary care services for the next 50 years.