A South African with Indian and Indonesian heritage. A Texan shaped by unforgettable Filippino roots. An Indian immigrant to America. And the daughter of Chinese immigrants.
All of them public health professionals who shared their stories in a May 25 panel titled “Let’s Talk About Being Asian in Public Health.” The panel featured current and former Task Force employees of Asian and Pacific Islander descent who spoke of their experiences and how their identities intersect with their work.
“Coming from a legacy of struggle in South Africa, the struggle for our liberation, I think the issue of solidarity is critical,” said Carl Reddy, Director of The Task Force’s Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET). Born into a South African family of Indian and Indonesian heritage, Reddy said he found his career in public health while doing his residency after medical school. He realized he wanted to have a bigger impact by improving the quality of life and health of groups of people rather than treating individuals.
The panel, held during Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) heritage month, was the third in a series called The Faces of Global Health hosted by The Task Force’s Council for Opportunity, Diversity & Equity (CODE). The series highlights the experiences of diverse global health professionals so attendees see that there is a place for everyone in the global health sector.
For panelist Mariana Stephens, whose grandfather was a Filipino immigrant, public health was always part of her life since her mother served in the public health service in Texas.
“I make it a choice everyday to not forget my identity…I think that for me, throughout life, I not only identify with Filipinos, that Pacific Islander, but my name in itself will never let me forget about it. The Mariana Islands were a part of the Philippines at one time and so my parents purposefully named me Mariana so that I would continue to be able to tell the story of my grandfather,” said Stephens, Deputy Director of the Children Without Worms program.
While she grew up around public health professionals, Stephens’ first career was as an environmental engineer in Houston, Texas. Realizing she didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk, she became a Peace Corps volunteer, serving in then-Zaire (now the Democractic Republic of Congo) and Mali. She discovered that her skills in environmental engineering could help improve health overall through water, sanitation, and hygiene strategies. Upon returning from the Peace Corps, she earned a Masters in Public Health with a focus on behavioral health.
As an Indian immigrant to the United States, panelist Girija Sankar recalled that she was keen to assimilate into the workplace by learning and embodying all things American and Western.
“I would brush up on all things American and wouldn’t bring my cultural identity to the workplace,” said Sankar, formerly at the Task Force and now Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases at the Christian Blind Mission. “Now, of course, I’ve come to realize that that’s so important to the work we do in global public health.”
During graduate school in India, Sankar’s first experience with development work was during an internship with a development economist in Chennai. However, it wasn’t until she visited small towns and villages throughout the Tamil Nadu state to see how community-based organizations were providing HIV/AIDS interventions that she found her passion for working to advance the well-being of people in low-resource communities.
Panel moderator Samantha Chao, a Chinese-American and Senior Informatics Analyst for The Task Force’s Public Health Informatics Institute, said she discovered public health work as a volunteer for health-related organizations and as an Emergency Medical Technician. Her first post-college job at a local health department hooked her.
“I had originally wanted to be a clinician, so I could help people alleviate their pain and suffering, but I learned through my work at the health department that I could have such a large impact preventing so much of that suffering before it ever happened,” said Chao, who ultimately earned a Masters in Public Health.
The reflections of the panelists came during a period of increased hate crimes against AAPI people, including the horrific Atlanta spa shootings earlier this year.
Reddy offered a hopeful note saying, “I think there are allies everywhere simply because there are decent human beings everywhere.”
Watch the full panel discussion.
The next panel in The Faces of Global Health series is “Finding Pride in Global Public Health” on June 29 at 1 PM EST, in honor of U.S. Pride Month. To register, click here. All events are free and open to the public.