Working In Global Health: Sita Chandra
PIHer reflects on her lifelong passion for global health, decolonizing the sector
Posted on May 13, 2021
Sita Chandra has dreamed of working in global health for as long as she can remember. As the daughter of Indian immigrants who are physicians, she grew up hearing stories about her parents’ medical work both in the U.S. and globally, seeding her passion for global health at a young age. That passion has since led her to Partners In Health, where the North Carolina native has put her dreams into action as a development coordinator and, now, as a clinical operations associate.
We caught up with Chandra, who is currently based in her home state, as part of our series Working In Global Health, which spotlights PIH staff who have dedicated their careers to making a global impact. During our conversation, we chatted about what drew her to a career in global health, why we must decolonize global health, and what she’s been up to in her spare time—including her wildly popular coffee vlog and “the perfect drink for summer.”
You’ve been with PIH for two-plus years and have worn a couple different hats—starting as a development coordinator and then transitioning to clinical operations associate. How did you find PIH, and what makes you excited to work here? What have you learned through your roles?
It is hard to believe it has been over two years! When I found PIH, I had just graduated from my master’s program and was excited to officially begin my career in public health. In the midst of searching for global health positions, I stumbled upon PIH’s website, and it was the mission of “we stay” that pulled me in.
What makes me excited to work here? It’s the people—it is always the people. From my team to our donors to our patients to our volunteers, I am continually reminded of the amazing community I get to be a part of, as we push forward the mission that every human deserves the right to quality health care. Through my roles in both Development and Clinical Operations, I’ve learned that we can only do this work well with the mutual understanding that it requires solidarity, trust, and supreme empathy.
What drew you to the global health field more generally? Was there a person, moment or experience that really crystallized your interest?
Growing up with parents who are physicians definitely shaped my interest in global health. My parents immigrated to the United States in the ‘80s and they’ve shared their unique perspectives as physicians practicing medicine both stateside and globally. Growing up, I always knew I’d pursue global health in some way. As a high school student, I got a glimpse of it in the summer of 2011, when I volunteered at the Casa Materna in the mountains of Calhuitz, Guatemala.
My classmates and I found out that a mother we had gotten to know was in labor with a breached baby. We were all outside the delivery room watching the doula, midwives, and community health workers going in and out of the room. It was a long, stressful night, until we heard the baby crying many hours later. Overwhelmed with emotion, we got to meet her the following morning and I remember all of us looking at this newborn as a beacon of hope. This experience stuck to my bones as I grew into adulthood.
This month is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) in the U.S. The term “Asian American” has always been political—it was coined in the 1960s by Asian American activists in solidarity with the Black Power movement and all oppressed people of color in the U.S. and worldwide. But in the decades since, as it has entered the mainstream, the term hasn’t always been understood in its political context or used in an inclusive way. As a South Asian, what does this term mean to you? Do you feel that it captures your experience, or confines it?
First and foremost, I am proud to be an Asian American and as it has entered the mainstream, I’ve found that it isn’t used in an inclusive way. Whenever I identify myself as an Asian American, I am almost always met with “but you’re not Asian” because people often forget that Asian American includes Indian ancestry too. I believe this response is a consequence of microaggressions and the way Asian American experiences are portrayed by the media. For me, “Asian American” means capturing the experience that comes with being Asian AND American – two separate identities merged into one.
Second generation Asian Americans carry a very nuanced and complex experience when it comes to identity, language and a sense of belonging. I have experiences in the United States, the country I was born in, where I’ve been told I am not American enough, while also having similar experiences whenever I visit India and hear that I am not Indian enough. I, myself, know that I am Asian American and that is more than enough.
As global health practitioners in a U.S.-based nonprofit, we often talk about the importance of decolonizing global health. But global health leaders, disproportionately based in North America and Western Europe, often ignore Asian contributions to health and medicine, despite the fact that these approaches have existed for millennia. How do we make global health a truly global enterprise? Why is it important to de-center Western approaches to medicine and uplift approaches from Asia, Africa, Latin America and other non-Western contexts?
We need a balance and in order to achieve that balance, we have to create a space to welcome, listen to and deepen our understanding of Eastern medicine. I was raised with both Eastern and Western medicine, so it was normal for me to incorporate both, until I ventured out into the world and realized they weren’t commonly integrated. Western medicine focuses on reactive care and Eastern medicine focuses on preventative care – both are different, both are valuable and both deserve a place in global health. We have to de-center Western approaches to make room for the Eastern practices and perspectives. We can start with inviting experts in the field to share their knowledge and practices, whether that’s through webinars, social media or conferences. We have to make room because Eastern medicine deserves a larger place in the global health landscape.
The pandemic has disrupted daily life, including work routines, for millions. As a PIHer working from home, what has your experience been like? Can you tell us about your daily routine?
I’ve decided that I am an office person – I thrive off of being in the presence of other people’s energies. As a person with congenital bilateral hearing loss, the pandemic has challenged me tremendously, especially in the virtual office. I rely on lip reading, facial expressions and body language to carry me through conversations, but those resources have been lost due to the pandemic, whether the conversation is happening virtually or behind masks. I am grateful to work with colleagues who understand the resources and accommodations I need to do my job well.
After my lease ended in Boston, I decided to spend a season at home in North Carolina with my family, and it has been incredibly special to have this time with them. My daily routine changes every day and I’d have to say it has been such a luxury to turn my southern childhood home into my office—the joys of more space in the South! I begin every morning with lemon water, a few minutes of meditation and a cup of coffee, before starting my workday. Though, it does get quiet, so one of the things I am excited for is the day we can safely gather around the lunch table in the PIH office’s commons and chat about the latest Netflix show we are binging or laugh until we cry over each other’s witty jokes. That is what I’m looking forward to.
And we hear you have a coffee vlog! What inspired you to start this? Any coffee concoctions we should try?
Oh goodness, it is so wonderful to have the support of so many PIHers! It started off as a quarantine project to try and perfect my latte art and share it with my friends. Then I decided to share it with more people, in the hopes that I could get advice on how to better my latte craft. From there, I was having so much fun with it and continued to post new recipes, review oat milks, and learn different ways to make coffee. It’s been fun to collaborate with different coffee brands and make new friends who enjoy the art of coffee as much as I do. My newest coffee obsession is Vanilla Mint Espresso Soda by coffeewithmaggie. It has mint leaves, smoked vanilla syrup, 2 shots of espresso and sparking mineral water – it sounds bizarre, but it works and it is the perfect drink for summer!