The power of storytelling, how Women in Global Health disrupted the APHA

The initial intention for the release of this blog was to be a celebratory piece on the first woman elected to the role of POTUS and to highlight the advances women, and those whose own experiences are reflected in the intersections our recent panel at APHA highlight, have achieved. But as Tuesday turned to Wednesday, and it became increasingly clear that rather than the progress we hoped for, the electorate had selected the candidate who openly supported misogyny, racism and so many other levels of hate, we began to feel a multitude of emotions from deflation to fear. But Women in Global Health was not started in response to a perfect world, but rather as an outlet for women who sought to disrupt the status quo and to raise up every last voice, we are strengthened in our resolve to fight for a better world. So we offer this blog to you as a reflection of the hope that we have in the future of our world - and as a rallying call to advance anyone who has ever experienced marginalization, oppression or discrimination. La luta continua!

Challenging the academic model with story telling

This week at the American Public Health Association (APHA)’s 2016 Annual Meeting, Women in Global Health demonstrated that expertise does not always come in the form of dense slides, and an unending stream of figures.

Women in Global Health (WGH) aims for greater gender equality within global health, especially in leadership. From the beginning of the APHA Annual Meeting, Women in GH sought to be disruptors. Through its oral session on “Is Leaning In Enough?: The role of intersectionality, gender and public health leadership,” WGH, challenged established rules and existing power structures. Moderator Kelly Thompson set the tone of the session by saying that this would be an “informal dialogue that will be guided by questions.” Through reflection, global health leaders on the panel were able to assess factors and experiences that contributed meaningfully to their own leadership journeys. This was a refreshing contrast to the “rules” of presenting. For APHA, the rules reflect scientific values. These values dictate that oral session presenters should follow as set script: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. This top-down and academic structure can unwittingly reflect patriarchal leadership structures, making it difficult to get the root cause of the observable gender equality gaps in public/global health leadership.

Today, women represent 23 percent of global leadership positions. A recent OECD report cites several reasons why women aren’t in top leadership positions including cultural barriers, structural barriers, self-imposed barriers and evidence gaps that are disaggregated by data. WGH recognized that to meaningfully address the issues of gender inequality in public health leadership, it wasn’t enough to pinpoint deficiencies. We have to bring the nuanced lens of intersectionality to the discussion. Intersectionality is the idea that people have overlapping or intersecting social identities which are related to systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. We need to understand one another’s backgrounds, life circumstances, and perspectives. We need to challenge the very rules and formats, that may be limiting us, to tell a story.

The format of “informal dialogue” that Women in Global Health used at APHA, allowed storytelling to add depth to the conversation about women’s leadership. If anyone doubts the power of storytelling, one needs to look no further than the widely successful and powerful TED series. On Tuesday, panelists Dr. Cristina Rabadán-Diehl, Temitayo Ifafore, Jaclyn White Hughto and Dr. Sharon Rudy gathered to share their personal stories of identity and careers in global health.

Dr. Cristina Rabadan-Diehl’s early experiences were shaped by growing up under a dictatorship. She offered a brutally honest, and incredibly self-aware portrait of reconciling her identities as a mother, immigrant, and scientist. She discussed the challenges of moving to the United States, learning English, and facing discrimination because of her accent and family priorities. Within her career, she became the role model of shattering stereotypes in her studies. When she became pregnant during her PhD, the first women to do so in an already male-dominated program, her advisor suggested she complete a master’s degree instead. Undeterred, she responded by finishing her PhD in three-and-a-half years, and went on to a distinguished career in biomedicine. In her closing remarks, she championed taking what others perceive as weaknesses and turning them into strengths.

Jaclyn White Hughto, shared her experience running a research team at the Fenway Institute in Boston. She shared her experience as a cisgender woman gaining the trust and leading a team of transgender researchers. She described the challenges of leadership, and the privilege that society affords cisgender people because their identities align with society’s perceptions. She challenged the traditional notions of ‘expertise’ and ‘experience’ in research and academia which align with a more patriarchal definition of success. She encouraged us to use our privilege to be allies and break down barriers faced by transgendered women. We can find commonality in womanhood.

Dr. Sharon Rudy, discussed the concept of shifting identities. We go through phases when we are defined by different identities. For her, these have been as an activist, psychologist and now director of a public health program. She talked about her experience working in refugee camps, and observed that the female body is often the form upon which degradations of the human species are reflected. She encouraged us to find new forms of leadership. In her decision-making role, she strives to make it easier for her female employees to stay in the workforce while balancing their personal lives.

Temitayo Ifafore-Calfee talked about the power of shifting one’s perspective to conceive of ending oppression against women in one’s lifetime. The power of anchoring the mind on something concrete, and time bound with optimism, can help offset the overwhelming feeling that nothing can be done about the oppression of women. This is especially true when it comes to the oppression of women that hold multiple identities, i.e. poor, black, and female.

The APHA session demonstrated the strength of qualitative information -- there is power in gathering people to tell their stories. Let’s keep using these forums to do so.

Do you have a story to tell? Keep the conversation alive:

By Temitayo Ifafore-Calfee, PHI /USAID and Kelly Thompson, WomeninGH

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