Everything in Dubai is tall, it seems, and everyone is from somewhere else. The man who greeted me at the airport was from Bosnia. The cabdriver was Sri Lankan; the hotel clerk, Nigerian. (Yes, I am one of those annoying travelers who ask a lot of questions.) Like the buildings that tower over what was recently desert, the people of Dubai appear almost to have dropped from the sky, hailing from across the planet and now mixed randomly, picturesquely, in this tiny crossroads by the sea.
The country—city, really—is a deceptively complicated place, full of contradictions that reveal themselves slyly. Foreigners comprise 85 percent of the population; they stay for a few years or a lifetime but can never become citizens. There are no bars but many fast cars and clusters of burka-clad women sporting Versace handbags and Gucci shoes. It is a city thrown up in a hurry, where Vegas looms across the straits from Iran and exquisite towers mix with new faux souks.
We had come to Dubai for our second global symposium, focusing this year on “Women in the Arab World.” Although we have few alumnae in the region, although we had little help on the ground and few local connections, we still packed the ballroom of the Jumeirah Emirates Tower with more than 300 women and clusters of wide-eyed girls—it was a crowd, as it turned out, that didn’t want to leave.
Our speakers were incredible: passionate, polished, and wildly unassuming. From Ahdaf Souief, the world-acclaimed novelist who urged an aspiring young writer to “pick up the pen and just write,” to pioneering surgeon Houriya Kazim, who frankly admitted that halfway through the rigors of surgical training “those kitchen knives started to look really good.” Najla Al-Awadhi told of having to convince the veiled mother of the country’s first female news anchor that it was alright to let her daughter go on air. Rabia Z., who designs high fashion hijabs and abayas, described the irony of being reprimanded by a local design school for daring to veil women, and Moufida Tlatli, the Tunisian filmmaker, brought roars from the crowd as she explained, half in French, half in English, how she balanced family and a career. “‘I love you very much,’ I tell my fiancé,” she recounted, “‘but I love much more my work. So I go film now en Algerie. If you are here when I come back, c’est bien. If not, bye-bye.’”
In the United States, feminism has long, and correctly, held that “the personal is political.” In the United Arab Emirates, by contrast, where 70 percent of college students are female but often face overwhelming pressure from their mothers and their aunts not to work, the politics of women’s rights seems distinctly personal; these rights are pushed and prodded by women like Najla and Moufida and Rabia, women who are unafraid to use their own lives as exemplars of the possible. I feel lucky to have met them, and to have introduced Barnard’s legacy of feminism to a region still grasping to define its own.
-Photograph by Steve DeCanio
Many words have been spoken and much copy has been written about The Diana Center, the first building to be constructed on campus since 1987. Faculty, staff, and students have all watched the process; even alumnae not in the immediate vicinity of Morningside Heights could see the day- to-day, nitty-gritty of construction on the Barnard website. Barnard students have embraced The Diana Center and made it their own; the architects, Weiss/Manfredi, have seen their work examined and praised in the press. Generous donors and supporters were on hand as Diana Touliatou Vagelos ’55, its namesake, cut the blue ribbon and officially opened this modern marvel (Turn to page 6). Now, we can savor its beauty and awesomeness in this photographic portfolio by Paul Warchol; come see the Diana for yourself at Reunion 2010.
When Sara Holtzschue opens the windows in her Crown Heights home, her neighbors’ booming reggae music becomes her soundtrack. Holtzschue, a musician and composer inspired by jazz, poetry, and American folk music, doesn’t mind. In fact, she suspects that reggae might be her next influence. “There’s been this huge infusion of reggae into my life,” Holtzschue says with a laugh. “Everyone’s stereo is louder than the next. In the summertime, it’s pretty amazing.”
Holtzschue, 40, continues to refine and reinvent her music, drawing on her education at Barnard and the New England Conservatory of Music—as well as some tunes she penned two decades ago. At a small New York City venue this spring, she performed “a very eclectic set” that included blues and music by Joan Armatrading and the Southern California rock band Queens of the Stone Age. The evening also featured Holtzschue’s “Dark August” with lyrics from a Derek Walcott poem. Joining her for the gig were a classically trained bass player, two guitarists, and a drummer. “I have all these interests, and we’re just trying to make sense of the set,” says Holtzschue, who loves Bjork, Radiohead, and Beethoven. “I’m not sure it’s really working, but it’s all music I like. We really careen around the musical universe of songs.”
Her new direction is something of a surprise, considering her lengthy involvement with jazz and classical music. As a child on Long Island, Holtzschue was enchanted by “Peter and the Wolf” and knew she’d be a musician. She studied at Reed College in Portland, Ore., and San Francisco State University before transferring to Barnard after her sophomore year.
There, she was inspired by English professor Mary Gordon, who taught a nineteenth-century literature class that “literally changed the way I look at art,” she affirms. “I think there are people in [everyone’s life] who help you to home in and focus on the complexity and profundity of a piece of art that opens up a new level of ability to observe art in all its forms. Mary just flung the doors open for me. I’m a ridiculously huge fan.”
As a Barnard senior scholar, Holtzschue spent a year writing music. She earned a jazz composition degree from the New England of Conservatory of Music and spent the next 15 years composing and playing and singing jazz. In 2007 she recorded a jazz album, Beneath, and made it available for sale on cdbaby.com.
“Then, about a year ago,” she says, “I decided I didn’t want to do it any more. I wanted to take a break. I’m fascinated by people who play music in one idiom for the entirety of their lives. I just want to do other things. I’ve kind of reverted my 20-year-old self. I’m playing a lot of guitar—badly!—and singing.”
One constant in Holtzschue’s life is her commitment to teaching. She’s an adjunct assistant professor at the City University of New York, where she teaches four music-appreciation classes. Many of her students who hail from the Dominican Republic, Africa, and the West Indies, rarely leave the Bronx or have much exposure to music other than reggae, hip-hop, or rap.
“They walk in and you say ‘classical music’ and the light switch turns off,” Holtzschue says with a chuckle. “So for me it’s a really fun and interesting challenge to win them over.” Tom Cipullo, the deputy chair of CUNY’s department of art and music, says Holtzschue engages and connects with her students while simultaneously challenging them. “It’s unusual that the most popular teacher is the most demanding,” he says.
In educating her classes on how to listen to classical music, Holtzschue is also teaching them how to embrace the unfamiliar. “I think the ability to let go of all their preconceptions is critical in creating the person who is able to engage in the world in a way that allows them to be open and accepting to new ideas,” she says. “The idea of turning out a complete human being is really critical,” Holtzschue insists. “And the process of revealing the connection they do have to this music is transformative in terms of critical thinking and openness to all kinds of art forms.”
-by June D. Bell, photograph courtest of Sara Holtzschue
You have a national reputation as a sword fighter. how did you start?
I began fencing in elementary school, in Englewood, New Jersey, where I grew up. Later I moved more into dancing and acting, although in 11th grade I was in a production of Romeo and Juliet that got me interested in fight choreography. At Barnard, I was drawn to fencing again and became an NCAA Division I finalist, as well as attending national stage-combat workshops and continuing with acting.
What attracts you so much about fencing and sword fight scenes?
I’ve always liked physical performance. Fencing is strategic, it has grace and etiquette, similar to ballet—it’s not about muscling the other person. Sword- fighting is also exciting to watch and be in the midst of. You get a kind of double excitement in knowing how it makes the audience feel—when you take a swipe at someone and hear the audience gasp.
Is acting in a stunt show, like Terminator 2: 3D, very different from acting in a part with no stunts?
You need to capture a wider range. You’re acting the part, but you also need to completely capture the technical side, so that it rings true. For example, if you’re falling, you have to look like you’re not in control, but you have to be in complete control as a performer. If you’re doing sword work, you need to watch where the tip of the weapon is going.
You’re making a name for yourself in motion capture, a movement recording process used in computer animation. What attracts you to this area?
Motion capture is a meld between film and theatre; it also mixes special effects and the actor’s performance. You don’t have to worry about costumes, just props. You use your imagination, and your work is transformed into animation. There’s opportunity for a lot of variety, which I like—for example, in Devil May Cry 4, I was the main actress plus two other characters. It’s a new niche for actors.
You also work in acting and improv, videos, documentaries, and sing with a group that mixes sketches and songs. how does it all fit together?
I really like to do a lot of different things! I think the notion of juggling came from my Barnard years— balancing an academic course load and fencing. It taught me to be efficient and resourceful, to do my research, and to be an entrepreneur. I’ve had the most fun choreographing my own stuff. When I played Francisco in Hamlet Shut Up! with the Sacred Fools Theater Company, of which I’m a member, I was rolling around in a shark suit, fighting Hamlet. I got to put my own spin on the choreography. You know what moves you do well, and you put all that into your performance.
-by Trudy Balch '78
In the last two years, Rosa Alonso has lost friends, gained 20 pounds, and drained her life savings. But if she’s depressed, you wouldn’t know it. The Web site Alonso launched in 2008, first as MiApogeo.com, and then re-launched in 2009 as MyLatinoVoice.com, may have consumed her life and money to the tune of nearly seven figures (including loans from friends), but it’s also delivered her immeasurable joy and a successful business.
At any start-up, she says, one expects a few bumps in the road. During a wide-ranging conversation recently, in which Alonso poured forth a rapid stream of stories, often interrupting herself with laughter, she returned several times to a single phrase: “I love what I do.”
It doesn’t hurt her mood, of course, that Alonso believes the nascent business will turn a profit in the near future. She says the Web offers many creative avenues for melding content with advertising. “We’ve had amazing growth,” says Alonso, who is now seeking investors. “You won’t see those crazy little ads for all sorts of interesting products that have nothing to do with the audience.”
Unveiled on Valentine’s Day two years ago, the site “is a labor of love,” says Alonso, who calls herself a NuyoCuban, a twist on Nuyorican, which refers to New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. Given her penchant for word play, it may not be surprising to learn that Alonso’s most recent corporate job was in public relations and marketing. Her long and varied career has included marketing positions in both media and technology—often with a focus on multicultural and international consumers.
The Web site celebrates American- Latino culture in its many incarnations, with content that is both light-hearted (a recent essay relates the author’s obsession with pointy bras) and the political (one article focuses on a new law that requires Puerto-Rican-born U.S. residents to renew their birth certificates). It taps into the diverse voices of American-Latinos, exploring Afro-Latino and gay-Latino issues, and also spotlighting Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. MyLatinoVoice. com includes a navigation bar that transports readers to its sister site—also Alonso’s endeavor—WikiLatino, a free encyclopedia of Latino culture and history.
Unlike similar sites, which offer Spanish or bilingual postings, MyLatinoVoice.com provides its content entirely in English, and draws more than 500,000 unique visitors every month. The site targets the fast-growing, youthful population of second- and third-generation Latinos. “You have to take a leap and go ahead and do it,” says Alonso of launching her start-up.
Alonso has relied more on her “can-do” spirit many times in her life. In her mid-20s, she jumped from a budding career in law to one in business, simply by crossing the street. On a lunch break from Proskauer, the white-shoe law firm where she worked as a senior paralegal, Alonso walked into the human resources department of Bankers Trust, and announced: “I want to be part of the management training program.” At first, the response was, “Who are you?” A month later she was hired.
Alonso’s application to Barnard College followed a similar plot line. She was a new immigrant, with little money, and sadly, her mother had recently died in a car accident. The guidance counselor at her New Jersey high school hadn’t even heard of Barnard. In college, Alonso majored in history, took up fencing, and grew active in student government, winning the office of senior class president. “Barnard gave me the encouragement, the tools, the education,” says Alonso, who is serving her third term on Barnard’s Board of Trustees.
In addition to Barnard, Alonso’s father has had a tremendous impact on her gumption, her readiness to take risks, she says. “He never raised me with the idea that you’re a girl, therefore you cannot...,” says Alonso, her voice trailing off. “If he were changing the door lock, he would call me over to learn how it’s done.”
Alonso’s father, who owned a successful furniture company in Cuba, remade himself when the family fled to Spain during the Cuban Revolution. Seven years later, when the family arrived in New York City, he began again, knocking on the door of a plastic upholstery shop in Washington Heights. “He drove me,” says Alonso, noting her luck in having someone in the “household like that—with those powers of will and resiliency.” These days, she steels herself with the same determination, and tells aspiring entrepreneurs: “You have to feel it in the pit of your stomach that you will succeed. If you don’t believe in it 1,000 percent, then, when the valleys come, you will quit.”
-by Elicia Brown '90, photograph by Dorothy Hong
Dr. Lesley sharp, professor of anthropology, noticed a trend: Students who opted for study abroad in Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island off the coast of southeastern Africa, contextualized their experience in terms of the country’s flora and fauna rather than its people. “I was finding there was no mention of people in the discussion of the students’ conservation work,” says Sharp. Learning about the people was the very reason anthropology major Severin-Aimé Mahirwe (CC ’10) enrolled, “I literally had no conception of Madagascar, especially in relation to the African continent. Other than the animated movie and vague references to rainforests, I had no associations with the island.”
By training a medical anthropologist, Sharp first visited Madagascar in 1981 and went on to conduct research there between 1986 and 1995. In more recent years, she identified a need to expand knowledge about the island and designed a seminar that would help students historicize. Her aim was to “bring people back into the picture and think about global ideas and global needs at the local level.”
Key questions guided the development of the seminar: How was Madagascar settled and by whom? How do we talk about Madagascar whose real and imagined image has been framed by misconception? Why is it that we rarely talk about the slave trade in terms of the Indian Ocean? How has the past shaped current environmental policy? This reading- and writing- intensive seminar addresses these questions through five main instructional units—The Making of an Island, Slavery In and Beyond Madagascar, Of Kin & Kind: Social and Other Landscapes, Colonial Encounters and Their Aftermath, and Territorial (Dis)Locations. The course seeks to expand awareness by critiquing the exoticism that pervades accounts of Madagascar and exploring the country’s extraordinarily complex social and political history.
In addition, by developing an understanding of its unique location in the Indian Ocean, which is often seen as its source of isolation, students fulfill course goals as described in the syllabus: “to appreciate Madagascar’s relevance within contexts that extend beyond its ocean borders” and “to grapple with questions of why the Indian Ocean arena is so frequently neglected or overlooked.”
The seminar is structured around a series of texts, such as Maurice Bloch’s seminal work Placing the Dead: Tombs, Ancestral Villages, and Kinship Organization in Madagascar and the timely Endangered Species: Health, Illness and Death among Madagascar’s People of the Forest by Janice Harper. One of Sharp’s own books is required reading. In The Sacrificed Generation: Youth, History, and the Colonized Mind in Madagascar, she examines the historical consciousness of Malagasy youth and how they reflect on the past. Young people drew on the past as a means to understand their current predicament in an impoverished and isolated country, where themes of enslavement, forced labor, and wartime conscription in the colonial era provided ways to understand the origins of contemporary problems. Another of Sharp’s books, The Possessed and The Dispossessed: Spirits, Identity, and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town, which is focused on her early research on spirit possession, is optional reading.
Slavery was a major force in shaping Madagascar’s history, and students spend the first half of the course thinking and rethinking the terms “slave trade” and “diaspora.” The Malagasy people are traditionally mobile, and many have been displaced. Student Christine Maloney ’11 comments, “Urbanization has instigated a Malagasy diaspora, and I think it is easy to forget how big the island actually is and how penetrating the inevitable social effects of moving away from one’s homeland can be.” Taking a critical approach to terminology challenges the misconceptions surrounding Madagascar, from the romanticized myth of the peasant to overpopulation, to environmentalism as a new phenomenon. Sharp notes that colonial records echo Madagascar’s contemporary concerns to protect its forests, “We’re repeating history without even realizing it.” Understanding the country also means understanding the Malagasy way of thinking. Although the people are certainly focused on daily survival, “Malagasy people are also focused on death,” says Sharp, “and the money they accumulate is often invested in tombs. You invest in the place where you’re going to buried so you might one day become an ancestor.” Alexandra Ingber ’12, a seminar member, says she finds the concepts of ancestral ties and kinship fascinating to discuss in terms of Madagascar and how they differ from other African cultures and religions.
The Madagascar seminar is open to any undergraduates, although most students are Africana studies or anthropology majors. Maloney speaks about the importance of the course: “With so many foundational ideas and theories to grasp in undergraduate work, it is a treat to take a truly specialized class. I think Barnard offers unparalleled access to some of the best professors and researchers in the anthropology field, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to take a class in Professor Sharp’s area of expertise.” Sharp allows her students to formulate their own conceptions of Madagascar, “I do go in with a lesson plan, but generally don’t go into class with preconceptions of what we’re supposed to be doing with the material. Everyone does not have to reach the same conclusions by the end of the class. This is what makes a seminar such a wonderful experience—each year you teach a class, very different things can happen.”
-by Stephanie Shestakow '98, illustration by Michael Sloan
In its bid to end the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, the Obama administration obviously faces a wide range of obstacles. But as Associate Professor Sheri Berman, the chair of Barnard’s political science department, sees it, the success or failure of that mission will largely ride on one critical challenge: Can the United States help promote development of an effective central government—and thus create a modern viable Afghani state?
Berman, who joined Barnard’s faculty five years ago, has given a lot of thought to the state-building problem in recent years. A specialist in comparative government and European political development, Berman’s research initially focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the democratization process in Europe first began.
On closer inspection, however, she saw that fully understanding the origins of that process required going further back in time—namely to seventeenth- century Europe, and specifically to the era of European state-building when, as Berman points out, efforts to create far- reaching, powerful national governments first began taking hold.
“The French case was really the epitome of state-building,” says Berman, whose interest in comparative government dates back to her undergraduate days at Yale, where she received her bachelor’s magna cum laude in political science. She then went on to get her master’s and PhD in government from Harvard.
Besides chairing Barnard’s political science department, a position she took on last fall, Berman also maintains an active teaching load. Her spring classes include a course on democracy and dictatorship in Europe, as well as a senior research seminar in comparative government.
At first glance, the French experience may not seem to have much relevance for modern-day Afghanistan, or for that matter Iraq, where the government is also dangerously weak. But Berman sees important parallels. She notes that France’s experience offers some valuable lessons in state-building, and she believes that U.S. policymakers should consider taking heed. “I really thought the debate over Afghanistan needed some kind of historical perspective,” says Berman, whose article “From the Sun King to Karzai” was published in the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs. “Obviously, the more cases you have the better informed you are.” Much like Afghanistan today, Berman says that before Louis XIV France was also beset by ethnic and regional rivalries and violence, and in the absence of a strong central government, power largely rested with local lords, many of whom controlled their own armies and militias, and weren’t about to surrender their authority easily.
The Sun King’s regime, however, gave them some powerful incentives, notes Berman, including tax exemptions and lucrative monopolies and state offices. “The government gave out all kinds of goodies,” she says. “Most of these warlords were in it for their own interest, and if they’re led to believe it’s in their best interest to make a deal, they make a deal.”
Berman firmly believes that ultimately the same principles will hold for local warlords in Afghanistan, though thus far she notes the Obama administration has focused mainly on the military side of the equation. “It’s been all about how to use the troops, and the counterinsurgency strategy,” she says. “And that’s only half the game.” Just as in France, local warlords in Afghanistan will have to be co-opted.
“You need to have a strategy for getting them to give up power,” she says. “You have to be able to entice them into a deal, and there has to be give and take. It can’t be a zero-sum game.”
Afghanistan’s forbidding terrain will obviously make the job of unifying the country even tougher. And Berman says there’s no way of predicting how the process will ultimately play out. But as French history clearly shows, it won’t be easy—or quick. “State-building doesn’t happen on a five- or 10-year timeline,” says Berman. “You’re not going to turn Afghanistan into France in a decade.”
-by Susan Hansen, photograph by Dorothy Hong
“At Barnard, IT shouldn’t just be sufficient,” says Carol Katzman, Barnard’s new vice president for information technology. “We need to aim for elegance.”
“Barnard is a top-tier private institution,” explains Katzman, who joined Barnard in September 2009 from Hunter College. Unlike a corporate environment, where efficiency is everything, according to Katzman, “25 percent of the student body is new every year, and they come in with the expectation that Barnard is a current, modern place.” Therefore, says this graduate of Brown and the University
of Pennsylvania, “It’s not enough to have an e-mail system that works. Our version of webmail is from the late ’90s. It’s completely competent, but it looks dated. In a corporate environment, that’s fine. But young students see it and say, “Oh, I’ll just forward to Gmail.”
Katzman, who has worked in higher education since 1987, dove into the first few months of her new post with a series of meetings with students, faculty, and staff. “It’s my job to listen to people’s frustrations and translate them into clear directives for my staff,” she explains. Poster boards listing frustrations expanded on during those meetings now cover her walls. “I basically said, ‘tell me where we need to be’ and let the answers shape my agenda.”
One of her top priorities is refreshing Barnard’s information systems. “Our networking is good,” she says, “but we need to become more current.” She expects that the College’s calendar and e-mail accounts will be upgraded in the next year. Katzman has also begun to redesign the ubiquitous eBear, the Barnard community’s intranet system, which students, faculty, and staff use for everything from e-mail, to signing up for classes, to payroll and accounting. “Right now,” she explains, “faculty, staff, and students log in to eBear and see different things. It makes for an isolated environment. We are one community. We should all be on the same virtual campus ... we all walk through the same Barnard gates.”
Another of Katzman’s main goals is bringing a pervasive wireless network to campus. “It’s not just about wireless,” she affirms. “It’s a constant ongoing commitment to networking. When we do it right, no one will even notice it. It will just be like air—you expect it and it’s there.”
As for working at Barnard, “I love it,” she enthuses. “It’s the best of all worlds. We have all the Columbia University resources, but our campus is just the right scale. Often, small campuses have limited resources. But we are just big enough to do things, and just small enough to deliver.” She has also been inspired by the College’s unique spirit. “Barnard is just a very exciting place. People here are curious and engaged and interested in changing and thinking, which is very energizing. The atmosphere here gives you the opportunity to be really creative.”
-by Karen Schwartz, photograph by Andy Ryan
The year 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of The Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at Barnard and HEOP Program Director Nikki Youngblood Giles is planning to commemorate the occasion with special activities this fall. Giles oversees this entire operation designed to shepherd her students through college and into adulthood. The program is academically rigorous: motivated high-school seniors who are chosen meet the formal academic requirements set by the state (including a maximum score of 620 on the critical reading section of the SAT), and they meet certain financial requirements that make them eligible for the generous grants that the state and the College provide.
The students, often from under-resourced schools, begin with total immersion in college-level work the summer before their first year. They have six weeks to prepare for their new academic environment. They take courses in biology, chemistry, calculus, statistics, psychology, English literature, and writing four days a week. “I had never taken a chemistry class before,” recalls Vanity David, a HEOP Scholar from East Harlem. “I had never taken a statistics course.”
The foundation for her eventual success at Barnard was first laid out during those weeks. “It was like the intensity of finals week, except it lasted for six weeks. When the semester finally began, I found regular classes to be much easier than the summer session.” During that summer, David came to know the staff of counselors who would be there to offer guidance through the next few years. “Everyone at the HEOP office is very friendly and approachable, and it’s great to have a core of people you know when classes begin.” David, 22, is a senior graduating with a major in women’s studies. Since arriving at the College, she has volunteered as an aide at nursery schools and applied to graduate schools for early childhood education.
For Nana Ankamah, 19, a sophomore from Freeport, Long Island, the summer program was “the beginning of a sisterhood.” It also taught her some valuable lessons on time management and balancing work, family, and socializing. “Your first year, you’re very ambitious, and you want to do too much,” says Ankamah, who recently switched from a pre-law to an economics major, but is still “testing the waters.” This year, she’s scaled back her extracurricular activities to serving on the planning committee of the upcoming Women’s Leadership Retreat, where she’ll engage in exercises to encourage women to seek leadership positions. She sings in the Columbia University Gospel Choir and is a Project HEALTH volunteer, helping to link low-income families to needed health and social services. She intends to go on to law or other graduate school studies.
Older students in the program mentor the incoming first-years, and a series of workshops teaches important life and study skills. The program lends out free textbooks and laptops to students, and provides tutors for the students who need them. The graduation rate for HEOP Scholars of 88.2 percent very narrowly lags behind the general graduation rate of 89.3 percent. Illustrious graduates include the novelist Edwidge Danticat ’90 and CBS Evening News producer Ingrid Ciprian- Matthews ’81. Ruo Hong Zhai ’03 recently earned a DDS while Isabel Araujo ’10 received early acceptance to Columbia Law School. Twenty-eight scholars entered the program two years ago.
“Education is the great equalizer,” says Giles, “Our students believe that Barnard is the place to get a great education and prepare to do well in life.”
-by Wesley Yang, photograph by Kate Ryan
When a woman walks five miles for clean water, she may not realize the impact she has on global health, but members of the Commission on Smart Global Health Policy do. And they believe it’s time for political leaders in the United States to take action and help. U.S. politicians may be focused on health-care reform inside their own borders these days, but the commission believes they should also be thinking globally. Women and children in poor countries need U.S. help to fight diseases and malnutrition, according to a report just released by the commission, which was organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The report lays out a plan of action for U.S. foreign policy, and on March 5, several commissioners joined Barnard College President Debora Spar on campus to discuss the report and the everyday challenges women face to keep their families healthy. Panelists included commission co-chair Helene Gayle ’76, president and CEO of CARE, and three commission members: Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX); Joe Rospars, founding partner of Blue State Digital and new-media director of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign; and Patricia Mitchell, president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media.
“The U.S. really can do a lot to make a difference in the lives of the world’s poorest,” Gayle told an audience of professors and health-care researchers. “The world is counting on us. Our role is valued. And it’s the right thing to do.”
The commission was created by the CSIS in April 2009 with co-chairs Gayle and Admiral William Fallon (ret.). Two months later, they brought together about two-dozen opinion leaders from the worlds of business, finance, politics, and the media to talk about a strategic, long-term U.S. approach to world health. “It was a challenging and daunting mandate,” Spar said. The commission worked for many months before issuing the report.
In August, several members traveled to Kenya to see firsthand the progress of U.S. health projects, as well as the challenges they face. The group visited major global- health centers in North Carolina’s Research Triangle and northern California’s Bay Area. They held conference calls and consultations to discuss the report, but they also sought input from the public. The members set up an interactive Web site, smartglobalhealth.org, where people could post questions, personal stories, and photos from their own lives and experiences. “Thousands of people signed on and gave us input,” Gayle said.
Sharing information with the public and getting feedback through the Web site was a critical effort for the commission, said member and new media expert Joe Rospars. The effort had to be transparent or it wouldn’t be taken seriously. “We tried to actively engage people in that conversation,” he stated.
The result of their efforts is a report titled “A Healthier, Safer, and More Prosperous World,” published on March 18. The state of health care may vary considerably from Haiti to Sierra Leone, but the report shows how U.S. aid could help them all. The report’s plan of action calls for the U.S. government to maintain a commitment to fighting AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria; make the health of women and children priorities; strengthen prevention efforts and the ability to manage emergencies; improve the organization of agencies here in the U.S. and their ability to work together in a crisis; and support the achievements of multilateral institutions.
The U.S. will have to make smart investments that will show tangible results because tough financial choices always have to be made, noted Kay Granger, who serves as the ranking member of the House appropriations subcommittee on state- foreign operations and also serves on the defense appropriations subcommittee. But she has seen infant mortality and deaths during childbirth drop significantly in countries that already receive U.S. aid. “It is sometimes hard to convince people that there is reason to spend money in foreign countries,” Granger said.
Getting the commission’s message out to the media is another challenge, Paley Center CEO Patricia Mitchell pointed out. She had the difficult task of trying to get the attention of reporters. “That isn’t an easy thing to do,” she said. “It’s a crowded media world.” Thanks to technology, things are changing fast. Mitchell talked about how the commission used social networking media to get the word out on its own, instead of just relying on the mainstream press. And she talked about how new technologies are being used to help women in poor countries, even basic technologies such as cell phones. In a pilot program, women in rural Afghanistan who didn’t have electricity were given cell phones, using them to contact midwives when a woman was having a baby. Complications from pregnancies dropped considerably. “We know that this can work,” affirmed Mitchell.
Audience members had a wide range of questions for the commissioners. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala asked if the commission had thought about simple ways to improve nutrition, such as distributing water purification packets; one goal of the commission members is to explore ways in which local populations would receive the needed tools to address such issues. Another asked about the role businesses should play in improving health care, and Gayle responded that the commission is doing a lot of work with the private sector. A physician from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer pointed out that a big challenge in developing countries is a lack of infrastructure, which makes creating public/private partnerships difficult.
Gayle also talked about the lack of health-care workers in poor countries and how weak governments make it difficult to train more. “It’s one of the critical challenges,” she said. A doctoral student from Columbia University noted it’s even difficult to find some specialized health-care programs here in the U.S.; she is interested in researching the topic of maternal survival, but hasn’t been able to find such a program.
Gayle concluded the discussion by noting the commission’s work was just beginning; issuing this report was the first step. “We’ve got to take this to the streets,” she said. “We’ve got to use this as a tool for advocacy and make this a rallying cry.”
-by Amy Miller, illustration by Jennifer Daniel