‘Critical Hope’: PIH Engage Helping Students Advocate for Health as a Human Right
Partners In Health's grassroots network of community organizers is calling for health care as a human right—in their communities and beyond.
Posted on Sep 17, 2020
Annum Sadana has dreamed of becoming a health professional for years. The recent college graduate grew up seeing health disparities both in India, where she was born, and in the U.S., where she was raised, instilling a passion for global health equity from a young age.
But it was in college that she came to realize something crucial.
“I always had this theory of change that one day I would be a part of this and one day I would have direct impact on communities,” she says. “But that time is now.”
Part of what sparked this change for Sadana was learning about Partners In Health, specifically its commitment to social justice. That led her to join PIH Engage—PIH’s grassroots network of community organizers ranging from high school and college students to recent graduates. Now, Sadana is one of hundreds of PIH Engagers across the U.S. advocating for health care as a human right.
“I think my experience with Engage over the past three years has been one of the most empowering, if not the most empowering thing I did in college,” she says.
A Call To Action
PIH Engage began in 2012 and has since grown to 70 teams across the U.S. Recently, the network has expanded to Mexico and Peru. The program has three core components: advocacy, community building, and fundraising.
Sadana started her team at Rice University in 2017, during her sophomore year. In the years since, the team has met with U.S. representatives, shown up at political candidates’ town halls, and organized campus events focused on global health.
“It’s really inspiring to hear how people have been personally affected by these issues but also want to take action in solidarity with others for a broader purpose,” says Nick Seymour, Engage program coordinator for PIH.
While it emerged in recent years, PIH Engage stems from an idea that’s a cornerstone of Partners In Health: health care is a human right. The “preferential option for the poor” that Paul Farmer discusses in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains is not a neutral phrase—it’s a moral and political call to action.
That call led students like Queeny Jose to start teams of their own. Jose grew up seeing health inequities in Haiti. After the 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the country in 2010, killing more than 200,000 people and displacing 1.5 million, Jose and her family lived without a home for about a year and then moved to Miami in 2012. While in high school, Jose was drawn to PIH for its social justice lens and felt the urge to take action—a call that continued into college.
“When I got the opportunity to move here [to the U.S.] and have higher education, I knew that I wanted to help my community some way and somehow,” says Jose.
Building An Intersectional Movement
This school year, she is launching her own team at the University of Florida, where she is a junior. While the team will meet virtually due to COVID-19, she’s hopeful to build a strong and committed team.
The program overall has seen a surge in interest in recent months.
“I think the reason people want to join is that they are realizing, especially with COVID, that there are disparities within their communities,” says Jose. “That has helped us to introduce others to the idea of how this is happening all over the world.”
The spike in interest also comes as the Black Lives Matter movement has mobilized millions of people in the U.S. and globally to call for an end to the systemic racism that has left no corner of American society unscathed—from the institution of policing to housing to health care.
2020 has been a markedly different year for the program—PIH Engage teams aren’t typically active during the summer, while school is out, but this summer, PIH Engage leaders mounted a nationwide advocacy push to secure more federal funding for contact tracing and testing in marginalized communities across the U.S., as well as for the global COVID response.
This academic year, PIH Engage leaders aim to provide a deeper history and understanding of global health issues, grounded in an anti-colonial, anti-racist framework—a theme they discussed at the program’s annual Training Institute, held virtually this summer, where student leaders from across the country meet to strategize for the upcoming year.
Dr. Joia Mukherjee, PIIH's chief medical officer, says those efforts are vital.
“Human rights only change when people have a strategy, organize and demand better,” she says. “I am so encouraged by young people from all around the world who are fighting for, and teaching us all to fight for, an expanded and intersectional view of the right to health that encompasses, racial, economic and climate justice.”
For students like Sadana and Jose, the program has provided something crucial in a time of uncertainty—a sense of community and purpose.
“Forming new connections with people across the country and really getting to know them and seeing how passionate they are is really a source of critical hope for me in this time,” says Sadana. “Every time I talk to somebody about Engage or do something Engage-related I walk away more hopeful than I was before.”