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Women For Tomorrow - In Conversation with Barbara Bush

Co-Founder and Board Chair of Global Health Corps and Fellow at Schmidt Futures. Thank you for joining us.

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Co-Founder and Board Chair of Global Health Corps and Fellow at Schmidt Futures.
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Thank you for joining us.

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Another Tomorrow
Barbara Bush

In conversation with the Co-Founder and Board Chair of Global Health Corps and Fellow at Schmidt Futures.

Q | It’s been wonderful to reconnect personally after following your remarkable work building Global Health Corps, which you founded only five years out of college. These last few years you’ve transitioned from CEO to Chairperson, completed a Masters degree focused on public policy and racial justice and made the shift to the philanthropic funding end of global health in your role at Schmidt Futures. You could have done many things in life, particularly after building such an incredibly impactful organization over a decade, and yet your dedication to global health is evident at every turn. Can you share the sparks that ignited and continue to fuel your dedication to global health as a systemic issue?

Aw, thank you, Vanessa. I was lucky to realize early on that I was passionate about solving global health issues. As cliché as it is, when I was in college, travel set me on my global health path.  In 2003, I traveled to Uganda with my dad for the launch of PEPFAR, America’s HIV/AIDS relief plan. It was the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis on the continent of Africa and for many of the people we were meeting, the disease was a death sentence. I was shocked and angered by how many people living with HIV/AIDS did not have access to the incredible life saving drugs that scientists had developed years before, simply because they were living in the wrong place, at the wrong time. At the same time, I saw so many young people like myself who wanted to be part of advancing health equity but couldn’t find a way into global health aside from clinical or academic pathways. As COVID has demonstrated so tragically, health is impacted by political, cultural, social and economic dynamics. We need to recruit and train leaders with a wide range of skill sets and perspectives to transform health systems to keep people healthy, rather than treat them when they’re sick. Global Health Corps is part of this effort—we’ve worked with over one-thousand young leaders from around the world who are, and will, reimagine how we serve others and prioritize health. With the pandemic, there’s increasing realization that who leaders are and how they lead matters immensely. 

 

Q | Of the many things I find remarkable about you, I have profound respect for the way you have pursued your perspective on health as an intersectional issue at both the global and community level. Systems thinking is not always rewarded, whether that’s by funding partners, who tend to like clean and simple narratives in which to invest, or in politics. Can you describe what you encountered and learned working on health outcomes in minority communities in the US as a part of GHC’s global work and how that prompted your path to focusing on public policy and racial justice?

We often think of global health issues as happening in another country, somewhere far away. But, of course, the U.S. is part of the globe, and we’re far from immune to health inequities. GHC has worked in the U.S. since our founding, and many people who ask why are shocked to learn that HIV/AIDS rates in some neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. are comparable to those in major cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Health issues manifest differently in different places — poor nutrition might look like obesity in Newark and it might look like stunting in Lilongwe, but the common denominator is broken health systems, with Black, Indigenous and people of color bearing the brunt of the inequities, as COVID has so clearly illuminated. It’s impossible to have health equity, without racial justice. We need to promote cross-cultural, bi-directional learning to make progress. There is a lot of work to be done in the U.S., and a lot that the U.S. can learn from other nations, including from the so-called “low resource” countries where we operate in East and Southern Africa. 

In Rwanda, for example, GHC fellows and alumni have been working on transformational COVID-19 response initiatives in the realms of supply chain, mental health policy and architecture. The nation has managed to keep case and death rates relatively low, and a large part of that success is an approach to health systems that centers equity and prioritizes historically marginalized groups. In the U.S., biomedical prowess and unmatched spending on health have proven and continue to prove inadequate in combating COVID. What would it look like to transform the health system in the U.S. in a way that prioritizes the needs of historically marginalized BIPOC communities? We can and should look to places like Rwanda for guidance.

Q | When we last spoke, something you said really stuck with me, “you can’t build trust in an emergency.” That came up in relation to an ongoing study focused on global responses to COVID, specifically around which countries have fared better and why. Can you share some of the insights to date and how they have influenced your perspectives?

In a crisis, trust is currency. It often means the difference between lives saved or lost, resources shared or hoarded, public health guidance followed or ignored. Trust in individual leaders is of course important — the more trusted leaders are, the better they can mobilize those who look to them in a crisis.  But equally important is trust among leaders across borders and boundaries in our hyperconnected world as we learned from a study comparing 23-nations responses to COVID. Given how globally connected our world is, each nation essentially had the same health information about addressing COVID, but they differed vastly in terms of culture, trust and underlying societal issues. Some governments and leaders had demonstrated for years, via their actions, that they were “trustworthy,” giving them a better chance at addressing COVID.  Responding to COVID, rebuilding and preparing for future health crises will require a shift towards building trust as a must-have for healthy societies, rather than a soft, nice-to-have. 

 

Q | With all of this complexity in mind, where do we go from here to start to make robust progress on global health outcomes? And what advice do you have for us, as individuals, to play a role in these outcomes in our own communities?

While we’ve made significant progress through medical and technological advances in recent decades, the majority of health systems around the world are still broken, or at best inequitable. We treat health as a silo, forgetting that it’s intersectional—health outcomes are deeply related to housing, nutrition, gender, the environment, etc. As we navigate the global health crisis of our lifetime, we have a window of time to consider how we move beyond the status quo and accelerate progress towards achieving health equity. This is the time to ramp up investment and focus on building a generation of leaders who will drive sustainable systems change. For young people, I encourage you to seek out and find ways to get involved in the global health equity movement. Raise your voice and join with others committed to the cause. For those who have an abundance of wisdom, resources and opportunities at your disposal, I encourage you to share them with the next generation. Mentor a young person, invest in their professional development or their pilot initiative, invite them to an important meeting or conference and pass the mic to them. It’s never too early or too late to start. 

Q | You’ve had such a remarkable career and impact and I always like to ask one perhaps uncomfortable question as success can appear so linear and seamless from the outside. Has there been, what Seth Godin coins “The Dip” for you? That miserable moment when what you’ve been trying to achieve or are building feels like an impossible grind...And if so, could you share a little bit about a dip you’ve experienced and how you navigated?

Absolutely! Looking back, my career path appears linear, but it never felt like that in the moment. I always thought I’d be an architect, and yet, flash forward 15 years and my short divergence in global health has turned into a life. For years at Global Health Corps, we survived with only a few months of our budget in the bank—seemingly always 90-days away from having to turn off the lights. And yet, our team (who is amazing) never wavered in their belief that health is a human right. Being surrounded by rational optimists, who incidentally were also fun to sit next to on many 14-hour middle seat plane rides in coach, made everything possible. It’s such a great reminder that we never have to do anything alone.

Q |  On a lighter note, we love sharing current sources of creative energy, solace and just plain joy. Are there other people, books, art, film, music or other aspects of culture that currently inspire you that you’d like to share?

Yes, yes, yes. I’m a mega-reader and have recently loved Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, Heavy by Kiese Laymon, and Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore. I also loved binge-watching, Normal People (just don’t watch with your parents or kids). But, mostly, my favorite moments during the pandemic have been spent outside wandering and exploring in nature. 

 

Q | In closing, where do you see alignment with Another Tomorrow? What resonates for you? Do you have a favorite piece of the collection?

I LOVE Another Tomorrow. I’m a minimalist and every piece is just so dreamy. My uniform is a button-down shirt, so the oversized men’s button downs are probably my favorite. But this white slip dress I managed to squeeze my 6-month pregnant belly into is pretty damn great.  Our health is so deeply connected to the environment—we see this with COVID—the more we infringe upon the environment, the more likely we’ll see additional animal borne illnesses. I love how thoughtful Another Tomorrow is to our planet down to every single detail.

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Barbara wears our Seamed Slip Dress and Bow Blouse. 

You can find more from Barbara and Global Health Corps at @globalhealthcorps on Instagram @ghcorps on Twitter.

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