Growing up in a rural, blue-collar town in Western Pennsylvania, I often asked myself: Why is there such a divide among kids whose families go to different social events, swimming pools, and shopping malls? I questioned the culture of “us vs. them,” “poor vs. rich,” and “white vs. non-white” that dictated who I “should” and “should not” speak to, but what I questioned even more was the lack of critical thinking associated with my community’s assumptions.
This sense of indifference to critical thinking and digging deep cuts across our culture in many ways, particularly related to historically pervasive social arrangements and outcomes. Instead of searching for our own truths, we may want to be told what to believe. Rather than dissecting a challenge and finding a way to eradicate it, we may feel inclined to create a simpler short-term option. This aspect of our culture has always made me uncomfortable, and now, working in the field of global health, it has stuck with me and become more urgent than ever.
As I grew up, I had the privilege of experiencing more and more diverse spaces. My educational pursuits introduced me to an incredible diversity of thought and perspectives through literature, philosophy, science, and art. I went on to attend George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC. There I was introduced to all the races, ethnicities, socio-economic strata, and religions that the capital of the United States--or what many of my friends abroad see as the capital of the world--has to offer. And I am very fortunate that GWU introduced me to a community that places great value on critical thinking and discernment as concepts, and specifically as concepts related to social justice and equity.
Jeff Richardson, former Vice-President of the Abbott Fund and current Vice-President of the Abbvie Foundation, met Northwestern University students Victor Roy and Peter Luckow in one of his guest lectures in 2006. The young, eager students told Jeff about their “big idea”, which they called GlobeMed and described as a new model for student engagement in global health that places the greatest value on the needs, voices, and strategies of local change makers in poor communities. Through their new approach, students across the United States would have access to a sustainable model for impacting global health through long-term partnerships with existing local health organizations. Jeff liked the idea, and the Abbott Fund contributed the resources needed to kick start GlobeMed, which is now a global network of 57 universities and health organizations, consisting of over 2000 students, 1500 young professionals, and hundreds of grassroots change makers.
In early May of this year, Jeff attended GlobeMed at Northwestern University’s 10th anniversary celebration as the first GlobeMed chapter. In his speech, he told the young leaders in attendance:
“It is essential that you continue your fight for health equity and social justice but also continue to do so in a way that is informed by evidence-based research, careful analysis, and critical thinking. You have carved out a unique position in the global health space as the student group where all reasonable opinions and points of view are welcome. And you know who you are because you are focused. Continue to stay focused and be vigilant in maintaining your outstanding global profile and reputation.”
I have been involved in GlobeMed now for more than seven years, and throughout that time I’ve traveled to over 50 communities on three continents. I have had my pre-existing beliefs and biases flipped upside down, and my values and behaviors challenged by the wisdom of new acquaintances and friends that I’ve met along the way. Here in the US, I never expected that prayer could be an appropriate ritual for a workplace, but now I know that it’s essential for empowering employees in many offices across the globe. The first time I sat in on a morning prayer at work in Uganda, I knew that the ritual behind that moment contributed in some way to the 20-year track record of the AIDS organization I was visiting. I may never fully understand the implications of cultural inclusivity and respect on organizational success, but becoming comfortable with different religions, customs, and norms has been essential to my ability to foster productive global health partnerships with grassroots organizations. Accessibility to these diverse spaces and the resulting competencies I gained has helped me empathize with, collaborate with, and produce positive change with people of nearly any background.
Through partnership with the Global Health Fellows Program II, GlobeMed is facilitating this accessibility to diverse spaces and perspectives for more than 100 students per year. We are building an increasingly safe, inclusive environment “where all reasonable opinions and points of view are welcome” so that accessibility does not equal a one-off experience, but rather, a lifetime of critical thinking and discernment around how people of diverse backgrounds can unite to dismantle systems of injustice across the globe.
Maria Popova, Founder of BrainPickings.org, said, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism but hope without critical thinking is naiveté. … In order to survive as individuals and as a civilization--but especially in order to thrive--we need to bridge critical thinking with hope.” I believe GlobeMed is doing just that: giving young, passionate people around the world an opportunity to bridge critical thinking with hope through cross-cultural, diverse, and inclusive partnerships.
The field of global health can no longer afford to have a workforce that is not equipped to work well with people of diverse backgrounds. At GlobeMed, we believe 21st Century leaders for global health must embody competencies related to our six leadership practices: Dig Deep, See Possibility, Grow Together, Be Bold, Follow Through, and Stay Authentic, all of which focus on the approach to cross-cultural collaboration. If you are in the business of making the world a better place, ask yourself if your organization has thought critically about its approach. Are you facilitating the experiences necessary to ensure that your employees have access to diverse spaces that force them to think critically about the impacts of their work? As a workforce, we need to uphold a commitment to critically analyzing our “how”, just as much as our “why”, so that together, we can build an inclusive workforce that lifts up the most marginalized and underrepresented voices of society to lead our efforts in advancing global health equity.
Alyssa Smaldino is GlobeMed's Interim Executive Director.