NU alum “Engage”-ing Chicago with global health

Courtesy of Christina Cole

Courtesy of Christina Cole

For Northwestern University alumna Christina Cole, graduating with a degree in global health (as well as political science) was not enough—she wanted to continue exploring it. Since last year, Cole has been a part of PIH Engage, an all-volunteer movement from Partners in Health spearheaded by Cole’s fellow alum and PIH’s community engagement coordinator, Jon Shaffer. Since the fall, PIH Engage has spanned to about 50 cities across the country, with local activists aiming to bring greater awareness to global health issues.

Cole is one of those activists. Recently, she talked to the Global Health Portal about her work, what it means for Chicago, and what she’s enjoyed about it so far.

How did you get involved in the local branch of PIH Engage?
I originally became involved about a year ago in the beginnings of the program. The Chicago community was a pilot community. Before the program launched, Jon Shaffer gathered individuals he knew in Chicago to bounce ideas off of us. When the program launched in September, he had more defined roles evolved. I applied to be a community coordinator.

How does the Chicago program work? Is it the city as a whole or multiple neighborhoods?
Ideally we wanted to do multiple communities in Chicago. We realized that building a community of 25 people that came regularly was actually quite difficult. It’s a young professional movement. We meet once a month. The meeting locations vary, but we host them at houses, so there’s a little personal touch. I have a couple other community coordinators, who are all based in Chicago. I met them through this group. I didn’t know them before. Part of the movement is connecting like-minded people. I’ve become really good friends with them, which is nice.

There are national goals for all of the Engage locations, right?
There are national goals, but setting goals for our community was really important as well. It’s also about setting goals for yourself. One of our meetings was about that. Another meeting was about the story of self, about creating your story about why you’re connected to this movement and why are you here. Most community members said they had observations of inequity.

What are the goals for the Chicago program?
In order to be a community member, we’d like you to commit to an advocacy action and be able to fundraise. Our goal-setting meeting we established what we could personally give. We’re volunteering—this isn’t our job. It’s about really being honest with how much hours you could give, because all of this takes a long time. We’re trying to commit to at least one advocacy action per week. Fundraising, we left broad. Advocacy actions: In general, the term advocacy brought to mind more policy-minded actions, and it has developed from there into more awareness actions, such as sharing a TED talk on Facebook, having a conversation about an article with a friend, or tweeting at someone about a certain policy. It’s a really loose term. We wanted people to interpret it the best way they could.

If you had to sum up PIH Engage, what would you say?
It’s a movement to create passionate communities advocating and educating and fundraising around the right to health.

What does community organizing mean to you?
I think truly community organizing, for me it means more of like a grassroots movement to connect equally minded people. I definitely don’t see the downward side. For me it’s more about really creating these relationships with people. Aside from even PIH’s goals here, I’ve created such great friendships and insights into what’s going on in Chicago’s global health community. This has really been an eye-opening experience, seeing people who are 35 and still involved in global health and in what capacity. That’s been great.

This program is all-volunteer, right? Does it intersect with your work?
Everyone’s volunteering. I work at a large PR firm, doing healthcare PR. I work at Edelman and they have a community investment grant, which is an opportunity for Edelman to recognize the work their employees do outside of Edelman. I filled out the grant for PIH, talking about the work I did, and got almost $1,500. It’s really exciting. My worlds are kind of colliding.

Why did you want to be a part of this?

I think I was missing the piece of giving back. Connecting the people was missing for me. Getting on the ground and saying why you’re passionate about something. I have totally seen value in connecting with the people that I’ve met.

Why is this an important thing to do, especially in Chicago?
Something like this doesn’t really exist yet—a group where young professionals can talk about global health. I’ve been looking for this. There’s Northwestern, lots of medical schools, lots of students interested in global health, and a ton of medical students who want to be more involved. Global health is sort of a hot topic right now. We’ve seen a lot of interest.

What has the response been so far? Any negatives? What are the positives?
One negative aspect is just organizing people and realizing that we’re all volunteers and that comes with a lagged response sometimes, which can be really frustrating. It’s about balancing that and also communicating meetings well in advance. It’s all stuff that you have to give and take, because we are volunteers. But there are huge positives. Not only are we talking and communicating about global health, but we’re also finding that conversation starts. The group is constantly expanding. The more people hear about it, the more people want to get involved.

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