When we founded Global Health Corps (GHC) five years ago, we aimed to address a puzzling paradox. On the one hand, there was a clear leadership gap in the global health and development field. According to a 2006 USAID report, the technical health expertise to save millions of lives existed, yet was not being implemented due to ineffective leadership. Yet on the other hand, thousands of dedicated young people from around the world intend to devote their careers to leading global social change, an observation corroborated in part by the fact that global health programs on US college campuses grew tenfold from 2001-2011 and that a majority of millennials from around the world aspire to be leaders.
With these realities in mind, we set out to create an organization to build the next generation of global health leaders and build the movement for health equity. Since 2009, GHC has recruited, trained, and deployed 450 young people age 30 and younger from more than 20 countries to serve in one-year paid fellowships at health organizations in East Africa, Southern Africa, and the United States.
When designing the GHC program for our fellows, we spoke with a variety of global health experts, on-the-ground service providers, and passionate young people about the discrepancy between young peoples’ aspirational intentions and the persistent leadership gap in the global health field. While there are no doubt a variety of factors that contribute to this phenomenon, what we heard over and over was: “This work is hard. If you want to form life-long and effective leaders, you need to develop resilience in young people.”
These insights and our own experiences left us convinced that incorporating resiliency training into the GHC curriculum was critical to the success of our mission. Moreover, we have found that to develop resiliency, individuals need to regularly practice both reflection and vulnerability. (By vulnerability, we mean the ability to trust in and open oneself up to others, and to turn to others for help in overcoming challenges.)
To ensure that our fellows have these opportunities, we’ve intentionally integrated them into the GHC program. Today, 85 percent of GHC alumni report that their fellowship experience improved their resiliency skills. We would like to share some of the lessons we’ve learned so far in the hope that other leadership development organizations will find them useful:
Design a vulnerable community: At the first GHC retreats in 2009, we noticed that our inaugural class of 22 fellows had started referring to one another as family. At the end of their fellowship year, they told us that the most important component of the GHC program was joining a community of peers with whom they could laugh, cry, dance, and collaborate. Since then, we’ve expanded our fellow class size to 128 young leaders, and yet we have still been able to recreate this rich community every year. We do so by:
Cultivating trust among strangers: When our fellows arrive at GHC’s two-week Training Institute each summer at Yale University before embarking on their fellowship, we break them into groups of five people– diverse in terms of gender, citizenship, and professional background. Inspired in part by Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, we work with our partner organization, Still Harbor, to create a daily opportunity for fellows to share inner fears, hopes, and insecurities, as well as examine the experiences—both positive and negative—that have shaped their lives so far. This intimate, safe sharing leads to fast and profound connections between our fellows, who can then reach out to one another throughout their careers when they experience both the heartbreaking realities and inspiring bright spots of working to change health inequity. We were thrilled that 99 percent of our current fellows reported feeling a strong sense of community following the Training Institute held in the summer of 2014.
Learning from other successful communities: We know that we didn’t invent community-building, and when we were designing GHC’s curriculum, we sought out teachings from around the world. One of our favorite required readings for our incoming fellows is Desmond Tutu’s writing on the African concept of Ubuntu. In this, he reminds us that to be fully human, we need to cherish the connections between ourselves and others, and to both depend on and care for those around us. We work to cultivate this spirit of togetherness among our fellows and alumni so that they will call on each other for support for the rest of their lives.
Be intentional about reflection: We believe that for our fellows to inspire and mobilize others to work toward health equity—and to stay committed to their own leadership goals—they must first reflect on their own personal stories. GHC nurtures this behavior in a variety of ways:
- Creating time to write: Numerous recent articles have extolled the benefits of writing one’s own story, an activity we wholeheartedly embrace in our program. Relying heavily on the teachings of Marshall Ganz, we intentionally create space at each of our quarterly retreats for fellows to journal about their motivations for public service, obstacles they face, and hopes they carry. We believe this makes our fellows more resilient to setbacks during their fellowship year, encourages them to engage with the big-picture context of their work, and helps them cultivate a clarity of purpose—something we believe is critical for preventing burnout in talented people.
- Fostering storytelling: We also know that, for our fellows to be truly influential leaders, they need to be empowered to share their stories with others. One way we encourage this is by showing Chimamanda Adiche’s TED talk, the “Danger of a Single Story,” to our new fellows every year and asking them to write about their experiences on the GHC blog. As Adiche says, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.” The demographics and diversity of our fellows in terms of professional background, citizenship, and age make this particularly important, since many of their stories and lived experiences are not currently included in mainstream discussions of global health and development.
As we work to develop the next generation of social sector leaders, it’s important to remember that life-long leadership requires young people who incorporate reflection into their work, understand the power of vulnerability, and cultivate a toolkit and community to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks they will encounter, so that they remain as aspirational about change tomorrow as they are today.