Creating communities for health – part 1
BARBARA BUSH speaks with MAMATA VENKAT about Global Health Corps, working in teams with other passionate young talented people who want to make a difference in the health of their communities, and finding ways to create connection with friends, family and colleagues during lockdown and self-isolation.
Q: 2020 has not gone the way people have anticipated. How are you doing amongst all of the uncertainty with the pandemic?
BB: 2020 definitely looks different than I thought it would. I’m doing as well as can be. I feel really fortunate that I’ve been able to quarantine with my family for the majority of the past few months. I’ve been with my parents and my husband, and while that is incredibly unexpected, I wouldn’t have this type of time with my parents again. I most certainly never anticipated moving back in with them in my thirties. So I feel really lucky to be with them every single day for a number of months.
I feel lucky that I got to start a new job during this time. I’ve had many transitions, from grad school to starting a new job during quarantine, and I think it’s motivating to know that life still goes on. This is obviously in the context of deep frustration and concern and worry for so many people that I know or don’t know. It’s definitely very motivating to think about what work looks like moving forward in a manner that focuses on equity for people, regardless of where they live and regardless of their race in the United States, especially concerning health.
Q: Absolutely. Everything that has been happening in the United States has exposed a lot of gaps on many levels: systemic, communal, and on an individual level. Global Health Corps, the non-profit fellowship program that you co-founded, was created as a way for passionate young adults to help fill those systemic gaps in the healthcare system. Can you tell us a little more about the conception of Global Health Corps?
BB: I met my co-founders in 2008, and we started Global Health Corps together. We did not think we were going to start an organization. We were in our early twenties and passionate about global health. All of us were imagining what our careers could look like in global health. We ended up coming together around this idea of bringing leadership and talent to global health to continue to solve problems.
We were so lucky to be growing up in the early 2000s. At that time – and today also – we have so much at our disposal. We have the drugs we need to keep people healthy, we have vaccines, we have technology to connect us and share information, we have education etc. We have most of the tools to make sure millions of people around the world don’t die from preventable and treatable illnesses. This is incredible, but it doesn’t matter if we have these tools if they don’t get to people or people can’t use them.
So we built Global Health Corps to be the human capital talent pipeline of global health, to make sure that we can maximize these tools to keep people safe and healthy. And the way we do that every day is to recruit young leaders from around the world to join us for an initial year-long fellowship, where they work on cross-cultural teams within partner organizations, solving issues to better serve the communities in which they’re based. They are working and learning in the gray area of health; throughout the year they go through a curriculum focused on advocacy, entrepreneurship, and systems change, so that they have the frameworks they need to continue to grow in their careers as leaders in global health.
While it is a fellowship program, I’d say our impact is what happens in the years after our fellows join us for the first year. We have an incredibly active alumni community. Fellows know each other deeply, which I think helps with resilience in this work, and 82% of them continue to work in global health and social determinants of health following their fellowship.
We’re seeing these young leaders enter the field early in their careers and stay in the field, which is great, because it means that there is more creative, young, passionate talent working in global health to serve others.
I think we’ve seen this tremendously
in Global Health Corps – how important connections are,
and how important it is to have
a peer group that shares your values.
Q: Are there stories that stand out to you?
BB: There are so many stories of our fellows and alums! I could name a thousand. Each of them brings a very unique way of working in global health. Many of them are not doctors and nurses. They have different skill sets, which bring different ways of thinking to the table.
One of our fellows, Temie Giwa, joined our third class of fellows. She was working in Uganda for Millinium Villages Project, and she’s a maternal health advocate. She always was. Temie gave birth to her first child after her fellowship, and even though there were complications she was lucky to have a safe birth. After this, she became even more passionate about maternal health, in particular addressing maternal-infant mortality due to maternal hemorrhaging during the birthing process. Blood transfusions can help dramatically, so Temie started LifeBank to address blood shortages in Nigeria.
In the United States, we take for granted that we have the American Red Cross and other blood banks. Because of the AIDS crisis in Nigeria, blood for transfusions was scarce. So Temie started a company focused on helping to save women’s lives in the birthing process, by holding blood drives and delivering life-saving medicines and blood to hospitals. She is scaling it across Nigeria, and in the future, the continent. She has fleets of moto-drivers and bikers that deliver blood wherever needed in order to serve women where they are. She’s keeping women alive and healthy in such a unique experience of giving birth, and she’s managed to do it at scale.
It’s interesting, because that’s not what you would think of initially if you were going to think of a maternal health intervention. She came up with a different way of addressing a chronic problem in her country, and across the world.
Q: I appreciate what you said earlier, that these fellows are deeply, deeply connected to one another. In social impact, it can be really easy to get caught up in the grind of the work and forget to make authentic connections. I worked at Global Health Corps for three years, and I definitely felt the grind of the work, but what made that experience so special for me, and what I’m so grateful for, is the community that I felt amongst the staff and the fellows. It really feels like the pandemic has forced us to remember how critical community is. How important do you think camaraderie is in making impact?
BB: I think it’s probably the most important aspect of making impact. And I think, to your question, we forget that we don’t need to do this work alone. We shouldn’t do this work alone. And there are a number of reasons why. There is a lot of behavioral science theory and problem-solving theory around how important it is to work in groups, because you bring different ways of thinking to the same problem. Therefore, it’s more of the notion that “one plus one equals three.” You can get to different solutions based on different viewpoints working alongside you.
Number two: The resilience required in global health, and other fields of social change, is critical. Challenges can be very debilitating, and it’s critical to know you have a community of others walking alongside you, and who have your back as you do this work. I think we’ve seen this tremendously in Global Health Corps – how important connections are, and how important it is to have a peer group that shares your values. When people come to Global Health Corps, they are interested and passionate about global health equity, and all of a sudden they are in this community of twenty to one hundred people who believe completely in global health equity. They have a peer group that pushes them to continue to be better in this work.
They also have a peer group that understands the intricacies of this work. They have people they can turn to for debriefing about what they’re seeing. That’s incredibly important. Especially now, when we’re physically isolated, it’s important to remember that we don’t need to be socially isolated, and that we can be active in maintaining connections with people emotionally, even if we can’t physically be with them.
Finally, we’ve seen all of these incredible examples of our fellows working together. They do that because they know each other and they trust each other. Trust is incredibly important in building relationships. The fact that Global Health Corps’ fellows and alums may have not known each other before entering our program, and yet they build trusting relationships – it’s very powerful.
For instance, in the early days of COVID our alumni community in Malawi got together and worked with the Ministry of Health in Malawi to build a Public Service Announcement on COVID and how to take care of yourself and protect yourself from COVID. It’s a great PSA, and it’s been shown a tremendous number of times. They were able to do that because they trusted each other, and they also knew how deeply each one of their community members cared about addressing health equity. We see the importance of that now in COVID; we don’t know what it will be, but we will obviously have another epidemic at some point. To make sure we have these trusting relationships of folks who can work together to have an impact and to make change is so important.
Trust is incredibly important in building relationships.
The fact that Global Health Corps’ fellows
and alums may have not known
each other before entering our program,
and yet they build trusting relationships – it’s very powerful.
Q: To your point: Right now, with the pandemic, it can feel very difficult to stay connected with one another. That can make it hard to feel like we can make a tangible impact, whether it’s in healthcare or education, or even just the feeling of being together. What are the things that you’re doing now to stay connected to your people?
BB: I’ve created a ritual with colleagues, school classmates, and friends, to speak with a few each day. I try to make sure that I stay in touch with both my friends and family that I care about deeply. I also stay in touch with those I know who are working every single day on the frontlines, whether it be about racial justice in the United States, or global health with COVID, so that I can be a system of support for them. I draw inspiration from my colleagues who are waking up every single day working on these issues.
I’m lucky on the family front because I’m staying with my family, and we get to see each other every day. I’m usually not a phone-talker, but I’ve started talking on the phone with friends and with colleagues. This weekend I went on a socially distanced hike with two friends of mine that I met through Global Health Corps, who are working on COVID in the United States. We got to be in nature, I got to listen to everything that they’ve been doing, which is a lot. We got to laugh. It’s important to remember to do that in this time.
I’m a big believer in socially-distanced walking, and socially-distanced phone calls where I go on a walk and talk to people, because it’s been wonderful to be moving and to be in nature.
Lastly, I have this crew of my parents’ friends who are single. I’ve known them all my life and have grown up with them. I call them every week or every other week to check on them, just because I know they are living alone. That’s been really beautiful and special. It’s fun to hear how they are doing, and to make sure they know I’m thinking of them. It’s provided a lot of sweet moments and laughs.
Q: That’s the bittersweet part. I’m connecting with people that I probably wouldn’t have spoken to had life been moving as quickly as before the pandemic. While this period of time has been frustrating, it’s been nice to be able to slow down and connect with everybody, and to rebuild those connections again.
BB: There’s an incredible book by Dr. Vivek Murthy called Together. I read it during the early days of the pandemic. It could not have come out at a more appropriate time. There’s a number of simple rituals in the book, where he schedules time with two guy friends from whom he draws a lot of inspiration and support. They schedule time every month, and it’s a standing meeting that they have. They know they are going to be vulnerable, and they are going to share what is going on in their life, whether it is good or bad. They use it as a support group and a way to encourage ideas from each other.
I think it’s important to realize that
we can be deliberate in making sure
that we maintain our relationships well.
I think there is something really great and helpful about the regularity of scheduling check-ins with your friends and colleagues, where you’re just going to talk, where it’s not work-related at all. You can make that a ritual in your life, something you can always count on. Your friends know that this will regularly happen, and they can also count on it.
I think it’s important to realize that we can be deliberate in making sure that we maintain our relationships well. It doesn’t require a lot.
Q: I think that book is especially relevant now because we don’t know when the pandemic is going to end. Reminding ourselves of the ways to stay connected with other people, and with ourselves, is critical right now. Loneliness is a problem. Dr. Murthy really called it, saying that loneliness is its own pandemic. There are a lot of people – the elderly and young adults, especially – who are suffering from mental health issues because of this. We know how to support our friends and family, but what do you think we can do better on a global scale to make sure that everyone feels as supported as possible right now?
BB: I hope that we’re more deliberate about this, especially given the physical isolation that’s required for COVID. This will become more critical, and I hope that we realize how critical it is.
First of all, I hope everyone reading this reads Dr. Murthy’s book. Mental health is under-appreciated and often overlooked. It is something that we feel ashamed to talk about, which shouldn’t be the case. There is a lot of work for all of us to do to normalize speaking about mental health – to remove the shame. We can’t expect people in leadership and organizations to do this if we aren’t doing it ourselves and in our communities. Normalizing discussions around mental health is really important and it’s something that everyone can do.
In reading Together, I was struck by the examples of individuals who started community-building organizations for people who are more likely to be lonely. There’s this incredible organization called Men’s Sheds. The founder’s mother had just died, making her father a widower. He was grieving, becoming depressed, but he would not speak about it. She could sense he was losing his sense of purpose, and that he was becoming ornery in life. In a number of different ways, she made sure that he was useful. She volunteered him for a local board without him knowing, so the organization called him and said that they really needed his help, he started volunteering and re-found a sense of purpose. Thus began her path into building community to address loneliness in the aging male population – a population less likely to talk about mental health. The Men’s Sheds community centers are meeting places for men to do carpentry, metal working, woodworking etc., based on the notion that men won’t necessarily talk to each other about mental health face-to-face, but they will when they are working side by side, next to each other.
Now, there are hundreds of Men’s Sheds across the United Kingdom, Australia, the US, and they create comfort in talking about inner lives and mental health without shame. Men’s Sheds are a place where strong, trusted connections are built, and community can be built.
I love this because we can each create community for those we care for. For instance, I mentioned that I had started calling my parents’ older friends who are alone during the pandemic. How can we make sure that we are in touch with folks, and make sure we’re building community for them and ourselves? Because we will all experience different levels of loneliness in our lifetime, too.
To be continued.
Interviewed by MAMATA VENKAT
September 30, 2020
September 29, 2020
September 29, 2020