Five Millennials on global health

Global health is a big deal in Seattle.

As a matter of worldwide significance, it is of course a big deal everywhere — by definition. But what I mean is that global health is today the cause célèbre for Seattle and throughout the region. It’s especially popular among the Millennials.

“Global health is the movement of our generation,” said Kristen Eddings, a program associate at the Washington Global Health Alliance and one of the primary organizers of a big global health shindig in Seattle coming this June known as Party with a Purpose.

More on Eddings and that party later. First I’d like to introduce a few other members of the movement:

Sarah Dawson at eye clinic, Burma

1) Sarah Dawson: Burmese refugees and Seattle undergrads.

Dawson is a 21-year-old student at the University of Washington, a senior majoring in public health and Spanish. She already speaks Thai. Dawson helped launch the UW’s global health minor and wants to do something in the medical field.

And, in her spare time, she works on the Thai-Burma border helping refugees with emergency assistance, defensive training and human rights’ violations documentation.

“I’m most interested in maternal and child health issues,” she said.

Wait a minute. Before we get into the global health stuff here, what about that last bit that sounded like special ops?

Dawson used to live in Thailand, where her mother and uncle have established a humanitarian organization called Free Burma Rangers that works with refugees inside Burma (aka Myanmar). The Burmese government is not too keen on the organization, to put it mildly.

“We have some tense situations at times,” said the understated Dawson. She described one episode last summer that involved some gunfire, a fast hike through the jungle and a lot of, yeah, tension. She didn’t want to go into too much detail because of the political sensitivities involved.

Student activist

Five years ago, Dawson was among a group of students who pressed the UW to create a global health minor for undergraduates. She said many people her age want to know what they can do now in global health — not after they complete medical school or get a nursing degree.

“They wrote a petition and got hundreds of signatures asking the administration for some kind of a program for undergraduates,” said Todd Faubion, a UW doctoral student in geography and global health, who is now administrating the new global health minor. It took five years, Faubion noted, but it’s clear that undergraduates are excited to find a role to play in this burgeoning new field.

“Yeah, better late than never,” Dawson said. She plans to finish up her undergraduate degree, with a defacto global health minor, and isn’t quite sure what she’ll be doing next. But she is determined to make a difference.

“You can’t help but be aware of all the problems out there around the world,” Dawson said. “I think people my age are pretty globally aware, and we recognize America can’t isolate itself from all these global problems.”

Augustine Ajougu

2) Augustine Ajougu: From Nigeria to Seattle, taking on the IMF.

Ajougu is a 19-year-old pre-med student at Northwest University in Kirkland. Ajougu may be more aware of these “global problems” than most young people because he grew up in Nigeria before moving to Seattle with his family.

“I was hesitant to apply to universities because of the money,” Ajougu said. While still at Chief Sealth High School, he planned to simply apply to community colleges but then met Theresa Britschgi at Seattle BioMed’s BioQuest program.

Britschgi and her colleagues recognized talent and convinced Ajougu to apply for a scholarship at Northwest, which ended up giving him a full ride.

The young man says he is interested in medical school and a career in global health, but partly because he thinks it could stand a stronger dose of realism.

“I think we need to look at how we define the problem first,” Ajougu said. “Many of those writing policies in global health clearly have no experience on the ground.”

He then launched into a lengthy analysis of the problems caused by poorly conceived projects carried out by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and what he called the “cartel of good intentions.” (I told him I might have to steal that one.) He talked about the need to find a better balance between simple poverty alleviation and true wealth creation, about how corruption dooms so many aid projects.

We even talked about the recent news out of Nigeria that former Vice President Dick Cheney and his colleagues at Halliburton had escaped bribery charges involving a major oil contract. Ajougu noted with a shrug that this got little attention here in the U.S. and few Americans seemed to even know about it.

Holy cow! This kid is 19 years old?

Given his sophisticated and somewhat skeptical view of global health and development, I asked Ajougu what he hoped to change if he ever got to writing global health policy.

“I would like the international community to simply recognize that helping Nigeria battle polio is helping the world be healthier, that helping Nigeria combat corruption is to fight corruption everywhere … that we are in this together.”

Kristen Eddings

3) and 4)Bringing people together is what Kristen Eddings and her high-energy cohort Lacey Price intend to do, as their part in the local global health movement. Eddings, at the Washington Global Health Alliance, and Price, who works in communications at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are both 26 years old and the primary organizers of the June 17 Party with a Purpose.

As I noted earlier, this year’s theme is to raise awareness of tuberculosis and, specifically, of local research organizations working on better treatments or preventive vaccines such as the Infectious Disease Research Institute.

“Global health, and globalization, is just something we’ve grown up with,” said Eddings. “The idea behind this party is to raise awareness of some key issues and also help people connect.”

Lacey Price

Last year’s Party with a Purpose was devoted to raising awareness of a deadly form of diarrhea, a bold move for a swanky party that nevertheless was a roaring success. This year, Eddings said, they hope to double attendance to 1,000 and raise more than $20,000 for TB treatment and research.

“We aren’t jaded yet; we still think we can change the world,” said Price.

5) Becky Bartlein: War and peace, and raising awareness.

Bartlein, 27,is also an organizer for the Party with a Purpose. She served in the Peace Corps in Senegal 2005-2007 and also origanized a UW symposium last year on the effects of war on global health (here’s my report on that: War is not good for health). She now works at the UW Department of Global Health for the Global Medicines Program.

I had previously questioned Eddings and Price a bit about the potential for cognitive dissonance, if not offense, that could be caused by throwing an expensive party as a means to raise awareness about diseases of poverty (the party actually costs more than the money raised for the cause). So I decided to pick on Bartlein this time. She has worked overseas and, as it turned out, was already dealing with the cognitive dissonance.

Becky Bartlein

“I know it seems weird, doesn’t it, even ridiculous?” said Bartlein. “You could take all the money we raise for this party and use it to provide health care to mothers and children. Absolutely.”

But the point of the party is to raise awareness among those who don’t want to join the Peace Corps or work with refugees or take care of sick children in Africa, she said. The old strategy of trying to guilt people into supporting a good cause just doesn’t cut it anymore, she said, but everybody likes a good party.

“I guess our generation thinks we can be mindful of the world we live in, support a good cause and still have fun,” Bartlein said. “Philanthropy isn’t just something for old and rich people.”

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Anonymous

    Tom, Thanks for the snapshot. As so many people have commented, this is a unique time in history when ideals, funding, and global priorities are aligned. It’s amazing to see how many young people are interested in global health and giving back. This is definitely a movement being led by the youthful energy and idealism of millennials.

  • veorrico

    The Millennials bring a wave of understanding, compassion, dedication and energy to issues affecting our world, including global health. These are the people who will help solve the greater problems, with both a micro and macro focus, recognizing that there are no jurisdictional lines when it comes to global health crises!

  • Vallan

    It is great to see the millennials finding new and innovative methods to get people interested in solving problems rather than complaining or feeling helpless. This should inspire anyone of any age to make a difference in their own way.

  • Sgrow

    Thank you for highlighting these snapshots of incredible young people refusing to submit to common notions that they are too young to make real change. Not only are they boldly taking global issues into their own hands, but they are doing so with a creative energy and dynamic personality unique to their generation. As a Millennial myself, I am inspired and encouraged by these stories.