November 10, 2017 / All Stories

Strong bonds, smart leaders: preparing tomorrow’s global health changemakers

By creating a new paradigm of leadership, Global Health Corps is getting the right people seats at the right tables.

Friendships formed between GHC fellows create an international force for good.

Itching to get started

At the beginning of her fellowship with Global Health Corps (GHC), Zambian native Angel Chelwa felt excited … and itchy.

She’d spent two weeks at GHC’s fellowship training at Yale University, and while her feelings of agitation weren’t technically physical, they may as well have been. “I’d spent two weeks surrounded by the most amazing people, and their collective awesomeness had been infectious,” says Chelwa, who had recently graduated from Zambia University with a degree in sociology when she entered her GHC fellowship year in 2014. “I was itching to get started and make my mark, knowing that so many great people had my back.”

Chelwa was feeling a sentiment that could be considered the GHC “special sauce”: a fired-up, empowered human energy that sparks a new way of approaching global health.

The training ground

Every year, a cohort of under 30-year-old college graduates like Chelwa are recruited and selected by GHC to work with 63 health-focused partner programs in Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, the United States and Zambia.

Two fellows are assigned to each project, one who calls that country home, and one from outside the country. It’s a learning experience on multiple levels – not only are fellows actively working to improve outcomes for issues ranging from maternal and infant health to the Ebola crisis, but they’re also living and working with co-fellows who represent diverse backgrounds.

A group of 2012-2013 GHC fellows let loose during a retreat in Malawi.

Forming strong bonds translates to a powerfully diverse, connected alumni community that is growing in numbers and experience by the day. As the organization nears its 10-year anniversary, there are more than 900 GHC alumni, 95 percent of whom continue to work in the public health/social impact sector. These fellows come from 16 countries and collectively speak 42 different languages. Over half are female, 43 percent are African nationals, and a full 89 percent of African alums continue to work in their home country, leading efforts to transform their country's health systems.

“To truly effect change in global health requires a collective movement of people,” says John Cape, director of programs, GHC. “But the people that are most impacted, the ones who have the highest rates of mortality and morbidity in their communities, have historically not been the ones represented at the decision making table.”

By creating a diverse, engaged alumni network of global health professionals, GHC ensures that the right people will not only have a seat at the table, but lead the conversation.

Storytelling as a moral imperative

But it’s not just about demographics – it’s about the voices behind those demographics; the stories they tell and the stories they hear.

“Global health leaders have a moral imperative to use their voices,” says Brittany Cesarini, Advocacy and Communications senior associate, GHC. “So we help create leaders who can speak up and tell stories about issues in a way that resonates with different audiences. This is imperative for influencing policy and for bringing other people into the movement.”

On GHC’s “AMPLIFY” publication, where fellows are encouraged to reflect on their experiences throughout the fellowship year, the impact of this storytelling-as-change-agent mindset is clear.

One fellow identifies devastating communication breakdowns between patients, physicians and public health officials during the Ebola crisis in Liberia. A different fellow makes a plea for combining rigorous research with simple listening for a more holistic picture of complex health issues, and another uses photojournalism to tell the story through the eyes of those living it.

“We want to make sure that whether our fellows are sitting behind desks working on data or outside leading protests, they feel equipped to speak up about their work,” Cesarini says.

2016-2017: Uganda fellow Shaban Senyange speaking at GHC’s Training Institute at Yale University.

A case in point

After two weeks of pre-fellowship training that included sessions like “How Writing Can Change the World” and a lot of eager anticipation, Chelwa went back home for an assignment at the Population Council of Zambia.

Driving to work one morning, she heard a news item about a local woman who’d been “stripped naked in the streets” because her attire was considered indecent. This injustice haunted Chelwa; she’d witnessed this type of gender violence her whole life. But thanks to her work with GHC, she finally felt empowered to do something about it.

“I participated in planning a march that would show solidarity with other women who had experienced violence and bring awareness to this less-documented form of violence against women,” Chelwa writes in an article for “The day of the march was one of the best days of my life … I realized just how wonderful it felt to finally speak out and stand up for myself and for what was right. It was as though with every chant, I was getting back bits of dignity that had been stripped away from me, for myself and for other women.”

Transformative experiences like these are common among fellows, says GHC’s co-founder and CEO, Barbara Bush.

“There’s strength in numbers, and knowing you have an entire network behind you empowers these important voices, who then go on to support other emerging leaders,” Bush says. “Our goal is to continue growing a generation of connected leaders and systems thinkers working together across sectors and geographies – and by doing so, transform how global health is done so that we reach a tipping point in achieving health equity.”

The AbbVie Foundation has been a proud supporter of Global Health Corps since 2013. To learn more about our partner, visit Global Health Corps’ website.

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Mary Kathryn Steel
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