Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about power and privilege lately. Only that hasn’t taken the shape you might expect. You see, I don’t have as much interest in or energy for rehashing all the ways I’ve been passed up and pushed aside by others better positioned or perceived than me. I’ve actually had a starring role in that film: It’s called, “40 Years a Black Woman.” But what I’ve been grappling with is how to ensure I never become that person for someone else, someone who overlooks a fellow champion because – or even in spite – of her pedigree or network or title. Someone who fails to understand or even accept another woman’s vision as “realistic” simply because that’s grounded in a reality different from my own.
I don’t spend a lot of time telling my story, maybe because that’s always felt self-indulgent and centered on me in a way I’m rarely comfortable. It’s probably also a reflection of needing to constantly swallow and squash how it feels to think I’ve had to work twice as hard to get here, as a product of who I am. Even now it requires an exhausting amount of effort to claim or keep some real estate among my peers.
I’m not supposed to be here. I remember interviewing for executive positions several years ago and being told I wasn’t a “known entity” in global health, regardless of working alongside colleagues and serving in advisory roles for years. Would-be bosses assumed I didn’t know enough about the priorities, even though leaders had been hired at other organizations with little to no background in health or development. Decision-makers seemed unsure how I could handle the spotlight and responsibility, despite having worked for one of the most notorious figures at a historical time. How would I manage, they thought, and I suppose they were right. After all, how many of “me” were out there, anyway? How many of us survived all the structural barriers put in front of us, regardless of smarts or scholarships, to emerge with some semblance of real opportunity? No, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not supposed to have made it out of the ‘hood and now lead an organization, run panels with members of Congress, or meet with the head of World Health Organization. There are many more of me that get left behind.
No doubt that’s why I feel so responsible, which is common for those of us who end up being the “only” anywhere. The expectation that I could somehow represent or “save” all my people﹘let alone a world of other marginalized folk who feel the pain of discrimination far beyond what I’ve known ﹘ is ridiculously unreasonable. I try because I know how it feels to be let down by a country or system that should have my back. But there are better, healthier ways to show up than constantly playing the superheroine.
Back to the concept of power. Different organizations are delving deeper into how they wield theirs for good. GHC has been doing this over the years, as well, diversifying the makeup of our fellows, staff, and board. We have been intentional about who we put on stage at our events, not as token representatives but to amplify experts and leaders of color for whom broad recognition is long overdue.
But this goes beyond the institution to the individual. Each of us has more power than we realize to do something right now that changes the trajectory of our joint legacy. Do we want to be known for crowding out those still seeking that seat at a table? For unknowingly or otherwise perpetuating the age old practice of racism and bias? I hope that for the majority of our members, partners, and friends the answer is a resounding, “no.”
So, we’re going to keep having the conversation, and we’re going to look closely at not only what our government could do better but also the very personal role each of us plays in influencing it. America is experiencing a reckoning from which the field of global health is hardly immune. What is the story we’ll want to tell about ourselves when all is said and done and we’re on the other side of this pandemic, widespread protests, and another political election? Is it about dominance and the inability to let go of old ideas and systems? Or should it be about evolution, inclusion, and challenging the status quo in a way that truly meets the moment?
Let’s just take the journey together. We don’t know how it will feel, or the twists and turns it might take along the way. We also don’t know the exact destination or what we will find there in the end. But I know I want to be on that road and for you to be there, too, making room for all the well meaning warriors we pick up along the way.