Dr. Paul Farmer had done his homework.
He sat at a desk in the front of a lecture hall, surrounded by 60 of his biggest fans—volunteers for Partners In Health from across the United States—and rattled off facts about them.
Where was the infectious disease fellow at Tulane? Abby Lau raised her hand. Why the curious concentration of people from Bainbridge Island, in Washington State? He was impressed that one attendee was a midwife who performs aerial dance and is also learning to speak Navajo.
Farmer had studied the biographies and photos of a crowd that knew all about his life from Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains. The group was thrilled to hear from the PIH co-founder whose story had inspired many of them to get involved in global health and social justice.
“It was inspiring and humbling to hear Paul speak—and slightly spooky that he knew so much about us individually in the room,” said Ashley Dyer, 31, a regional organizer for PIH | Engage who volunteered as a community coordinator in Chicago last year. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘what a gift.’”
At the three-day training late last month, more than 60 community leaders paid their own way to Boston to learn how to turn their passion for PIH into action in their own communities. They practiced engaging others, learned how to fundraise, and heard from PIH leaders, including Farmer, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joia Mukherjee, and co-founder and Executive Director Ophelia Dahl.
“There’s so much work still to do,” Dahl told the group, after sharing some of the early experiences that led her to devote herself to social justice. “I have no doubt that there still will be for the rest of my life, probably for the rest of your lives, but we’re making headway together.”
Over the next year, these community leaders will meet regularly with others interested in the work of PIH. The groups will educate themselves and others about global health, take advocacy actions, and conduct grassroots fundraising campaigns with their friends and family.
“A lot of our supporters want to know what they can do to help Partners In Health, and we need all the help we can get,” said Jon Shaffer, community engagement coordinator and former executive director of GlobeMed, a global health student organization. “We started PIH | Engage to create an opportunity for people to act locally in their communities to advance our global work.”
The initiative began last year with a small pilot training institute. Over the year, communities in Seattle, Milwaukee, and elsewhere held awareness events and raised funds. For the release of Girl Rising, a documentary film that features a former PIH patient in Haiti, groups organized screenings to educate their communities about the impact of girls’ education on health.
This year, the effort has expanded, with more than 100 people applying for leadership positions in their areas and more than 60 attending the training institute. Shaffer hopes each group will grow to about 10 people committed to supporting PIH and the movement for health as a human right.
Don Jones, 59, an environmental consultant from Annapolis, said he was excited but anxious to take on the challenge of leading a local group in support of PIH. The training helped him feel he had the tools to reach out to friends and family and move them to action.
“As I transition from my chosen career to one more focused on social justice, community activism, and service to the poor and disenfranchised, being a part of PIH | Engage is a perfect fit,” Jones said. “I have a real passion for only a few nonprofits, and PIH is at the top of the list.”
Farmer thanked the volunteers for committing themselves to PIH | Engage, and said that a movement is necessary to help medical innovations reach the poor. Advocates like those in PIH | Engage can help challenge arguments that scientific advances are too costly for the poor, he said.
“How can you possibly do this work without a movement? Because if it’s for poor people, they’re going to say it’s too expensive,” Farmer said, adding that the price of medicine is socially constructed, and therefore malleable. “It's not God up in the sky that determines the price of a chemo regimen, it's you and me."