Becky Bartlein

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Partying with a purpose, looking for an impact | 

Tom Paulson

Partying with a Purpose

More than a thousand young (along with a few not-so-young) Seattleites got together Friday to eat, drink, dance, schmooze and Party with a Purpose.

Seattle’s second annual Party with a Purpose was at McCaw Hall, a sold-out affair put on by the Washington Global Health Alliance. The event is intended to raise awareness of a number of efforts by local global health organizations and assist in the fight against diseases of poverty around the world — this year focused on tuberculosis.

“We have a global health movement among young people in Seattle,” said Kristen Eddings, lead organizer of the event for WGHA. “A party can’t change the world … But it can support and seed the change.”

Can it? Can throwing a glam party really help fight poverty and disease in poor countries?

At a basic level, that of raising money, it did already. The event raised funds (about $35,000) to assist the Seattle-based Infectious Disease Research Institute in developing new methods aimed at fighting one of the world’s biggest killers – tuberculosis. This is substantially less than the party cost, but sponsors like the Gates Foundation, Glassybaby, Sightlife, the Seattle Center and others paid for that.

At the broader level of supporting a movement, does throwing a party actually raise awareness and increase understanding of critical issues in global health, the other aim of this event?

That’s not clear. It certainly shows that, in Seattle at least, global health is now popular and maybe even sexy. But whether or not this translates into truly understanding what global health is all about is hard to assess.

“We’re going to do a post-party survey to try to evaluate that,” said Becky Bartlein, one of the organizers of the event. Bartlein, a recent UW global health graduate and former Peace Corps volunteer who works on drug access in poor countries, is coordinating a post-party survey aimed at finding out and “keeping the party going.”

I did my own survey of participants — when I wasn’t dancing the “silent disco” or getting berated for misunderstanding what the party invitation meant by “cocktail attire” — and found a mixed reaction among the partygoers.

Tom Paulson

Silent disco fever

Everyone had a good time, and for some that was enough. I talked to quite a few people who thought the event was mostly a celebration of the local biomedical and biotech industry. Others who work on poverty and disease in poor countries said they were concerned that such a posh party sent a confused message — celebrating the kind of rich world extravagance that actually contributes to global poverty and inequity.

I put these concerns to Eddings, Bartlein and other co-organizers of the event (who all seem to be beautiful young women, for some reason).

“There’s more than one way to fight poverty,” Eddings said. Many of those who attend the party might not go to a lecture or watch a documentary about the fight against AIDS, TB or malaria in Africa, she said. “We can’t always be trying to ‘guilt’ people into caring or getting involved.”

Bartlein, who worked in Senegal with the Peace Corps, said partying is a universal method for building purpose.

“When I worked in these poor communities, a party was always one of the best ways to bring people together,” she said. “Do we really think poor people would fault us for having a good time while also drawing attention to their needs? Celebrating is how humans connect to each other.”

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