This April I had the incredible honor to attend Unite for Sight's Global Health Innovation Conference, an annual global health conference held at Yale University. I originally made the journey with the expectation that I would share with others in the global health community about the power of community partnership, youth engagement, and fun in facilitating change in rural Uganda, as evidenced through our programming and research. What I didn’t expect, however, was the experience and guidance that was bestowed upon me through lectures from veterans in the field. I was surprised to see many of the ideas I champion on this Blog as the topics of interest in many of these lectures. I was relieved and encouraged to find that RUFC was already doing many of the things these experts advocated for, including ethical representation and intervention in communities, community-led programming, and interactive service learning.
I learned a lot about effective fundraising as well, which becomes increasingly relevant as we approach our fifth annual public health camp and still have funds to raise. One point I found particularly interesting was to “follow the mission, not the money.” This is a challenge I have frequently faced while fundraising, because donors look to us, the organization, as a resource to fulfill their personal humanitarian interests. Instead of receiving the funds we need to facilitate our programming that we know to be effective and powerful, we are often asked to serve the donor; putting time and resources into brainstorming programming that we know will not be as impactful as our current activities, does not take advantage of our strengths, or is likely logistically impossible. The responsibility to stand firm in our mission and adhere to the fundamental values of our organization ultimately falls to us. However, it’s often difficult to remain focused when funds are so difficult to come by, and potentially available if we just adjusted our programs to deliver on the interests of those with resources. Hopefully, as advocated at the conference, if we continue to prioritize the interests of our community partners and the vulnerable beneficiaries of our programming over the donors, we will eventually to gain the trust of new potential partners, donors, and advocates.
One area of work that captured my attention and that I hadn’t give much attention to was the role of artists in global health. I went to a workshop by the Emmy-awarding winning film maker Lisa Russell where she outlined how and why to engage with artists. I really connected with her message because not only am I myself an artist (singer), but at RUFC we are all about connecting at an emotional and personal level with the youth that we serve. We bring joy and music to everything we do and I instantly saw how we could engage more artists in our programs. Since coming home we have already reached out to a prominent, young Northern Ugandan poet, Harriet Anena, who has agreed to work with RUFC youth vision trip participant and aspiring poet Audrey Melillo, to run a poetry workshop in June. I’m so excited about this new partnership and recommend that everyone read Harriet’s latest book, Nation in Labour.
Significant youth (under 20) involvement in global health was unfortunately absent (and at times scoffed) at the conference. In a community of educated professionals, it might seem difficult to see the truth or benefit of such engagement. For example, as I was presenting my poster on adolescent knowledge of sexual and reproductive health, an older professional approached me and questioned my legitimacy; insinuating that my mother had done all the work. This was disheartening to say the least, but I can stand tall with the recognition that I had a legitimate right to be there. There is no doubt that my mom is my greatest partner and I wouldn’t have been able to register a non-profit, manage hundreds of thousands of dollars, and conduct research without adult involvement. But that does not mean that I have not been central to all that RUFC has done and I have many partners and witnesses to corroborate that statement. Just as I have an open mind to learn from those more experienced than I, professionals should also be open to listening to the experiences of youth. I had the unique chance to be involved in this line of work from an incredibly young age and have witnessed how one insignificant kid can serve as a rallying call, for professionals, funders and dreamers. Just look at the incredible leadership emanating from Greta Thunberg in Sweden! She has singlehandedly invigorated a new generation of climate change activists of all ages.
It has never been my role to provide professional services nor should it be the duty of any child, but even global health has facets that children can fill. Not to mention, engaged and active youth will remain engaged and active adults. I hope to remain rigid in my belief that not only should it be permitted for children of the world to be engaged in global health and development, but encouraged, because I know first-hand the power of a single child to impact change.