I Think Life Just Gets Better: CJ Schellack
Editor’s note: This story is the last of a three-part interview series with members of the Global Health Corps community who use their diverse skills and experiences to change the face of global health and move the needle on achieving health equity worldwide. Interviews were conducted by Lisa Shawcroft, a 2014–2015 Global Health Corps fellow at Marie Stopes International inWashington, D.C.. Read parts one and two on AMPLIFY!
With five years of political strategy experience under her belt, first as a staff member on the Obama for America campaign and then later as policy director for the Obama Administration, CJ Schellack is a seasoned politico. However, these days Schellack’s life is more Gray’s Anatomy than House of Cards. The 2012–2013 Global Health Corps alumna (she served as an Access to Medicines Coordinator at the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) in Uganda) is applying to post-baccalaureate programs in preparation for medical school with the goal of earning her medical degree in 2021.
Schellack is starting this new chapter after continuing her work with CHAI for two and a half years after her GHC fellowship year ended. She’s currently living in her native New Jersey, where she took a quick break from applications to chat with us about the intersection of government and public health, what keeps her sane, and what good things 2016 has in store for her.
Question: Before you became a GHC fellow, you were advising senior White House staff and authoring reports for the President and National Security Advisor. What made you leave the West Wing?
CJ Schellack: One of the biggest things that appealed to me, and I remember talking about to my co-workers and friends while I was still in the White House, was the non-partisan nature of global health work. When I was in the White House, I was working in middle eastern foreign public affairs and for a little bit of time I was working on the peace process with Israel and Palestinian territories, and then also I was working in North Africa. I was the acting Policy Director for North Africa during the Arab Spring and then the year after the Arab Spring. And so compared to Middle East conflict and foreign affairs, global health is much less partisan than Middle East diplomacy.
One of my big challenges in government was that I didn’t feel that some of the rigorous research, randomized control trials that goes into choosing some of the best public health policy — there wasn’t really a parallel for that in democracy building, in the kinds of strategy that we were doing. And so, the non-partisan aspect and then the research-based decision-making were two things that really drew me into global health. Those were two of the big reasons.
“The non-partisan aspect and then the research-based decision-making were two things that really drew me into global health.”
When I was working for the U.S. government — I worked for the U.S. government for 4 years — I was always representing the interests of the U.S. people, U.S. decision makers, and in a lot of these policy decisions or discussions that you have when you’re working in U.S. government, the advancement of the American people is always the number one priority. That will always be at forefront of how you make decisions. And I felt like there was a wider interest group that appealed to me. I wanted to work as more of an advocate for people that hadn’t had the benefit of being born as American. And I kind of wanted to break out of that interest group. And not necessarily stop working with Americans, but just be able to work with a wider group.
Q: If you hadn’t been accepted into GHC, what do you think you’d be doing today?
CS: I was really excited about living overseas. I think it’s important for people to live and work in places that are different from where they grew up. So that can mean having a job in rural America if you grew up in urban America. Or, living in Uganda if you’ve grown up in America. When I graduated from university in 2007, my plan was to move overseas immediately after graduating. But through kind of a series of right place, right time, I ended up on the Obama campaign. I only intended to stay with the campaign for the summer 2007. Because of the time and the place — and it seemed like maybe Obama could be a successful candidate — I ended up staying and basically found this really exciting reason to stay in the United States that I hadn’t anticipated before. For five years I kind of rode the experience of being on the campaign, and then winning, and at one time that felt very unexpected. And then having the opportunity to move to D.C. and seeing what it was like to kind of cash in on all the promises we’d made on the campaign trail… but in the back of my mind that desire to kind of broaden my horizons geographically was always there. If I had not gotten accepted to the [GHC] fellowship, I probably would’ve moved overseas in some capacity and tried to get into health work, but would have probably not been able to do it with the same amazing support system and network that GHC provides.
Q: This sort of work can be draining. Tell me about a time you reached your breaking point and what made you persevere.
CS: There were so many breaking points [laughs], when I think back — the first year especially. I was really lucky, my GHC predecessor — the American fellow that I replaced — stayed with CHAI and she became one of my best friends. She’s still one of my closest friends. It was just amazing to have my co-fellow, of course — my co-fellow was one of my closest friends in Uganda. But [just to have] an American who had come from a non-health background and then who was in a very similar position to me a year before and who was sort of on board with the mission of global equity. It was just wonderful to have her there for late night chats or just sitting next to her everyday in the office was one of the best parts of persevering.
I loved Still Harbor. I utilized them a lot throughout my entire placement. I talked to Perry probably once a month throughout the entire fellowship program. I have actually kept talking to her probably every one to three months ever since my fellowship ended, so that’s been — that’s coming to like almost three years, two and a half to three years — that she and I have talked every two to three months. It’s just such a blessing that such quality counseling or support would be offered for free. It’s just something I never would’ve accessed had I not been part of GHC and not been introduced to this part of Still Harbor.
Q: What are some surprising parallels you’ve discovered working in politics and global health?
CS: I came into global health because I was drawn to the fact that it felt less partisan, and it is. It is less partisan compared to hot button foreign policy issues — but politics is always a part of any really important social issue. And so, facilitating discussions or being open to listening to all different types of stakeholders, whether they be donors, or local government or other representatives of other NGOs working in Uganda, and then transparently and logically and systematically coming up with compromises — because I feel like that is such a large part of politics — gracefully finding compromises that appeal to a wide range of people. That was something I did a lot in my last job [in politics]. And that I tried to do with CHAI and my work with global health. That was probably the biggest thing.
“I came into global health because I was drawn to the fact that it felt less partisan, and it is. It is less partisan compared to hot button foreign policy issues — but politics is always a part of any really important social issue.”
Q: You’ve lived and worked in Uganda with CHAI. What do you think the American health system could learn from Uganda?
CS: With the caveat of not knowing the American health system at all, one of the most touching parts of working in the Ugandan health system was the selflessness that you see working with some of the civil servants on the ground — kind of for all the wrong reasons. I’m sure that you’ve heard stories about how, because of logistical challenges or funding challenges, people could work for months without getting paid. I think in the U.S. we are, rightfully so, accustomed to knowing what’s right and what’s wrong, and what we deserve. If we were in a job where we weren’t paid for three months, people wouldn’t work, and that’s just not the case in most scenarios in Uganda. There are all these challenges with stock outs or lack of pay or lack of training, and public servants just making it work in the best way possible, and at a lot of personal sacrifice. And so that was really touching. So without really knowing the American system, I think the amount of compassion you see by the providers to patients in the Ugandan system is something that could be brought to every system.
“I think the amount of compassion you see by the providers to patients in the Ugandan system is something that could be brought to every system.”
Q: Ideal dinner date: Michelle Obama or Melinda Gates, and why?
CS: I would have to say Michelle Obama, which is so funny. I guess that more of my heart is still in politics than maybe I realize. I worked for Obama for five years. In a lot of ways, I really grew up working for Obama because I joined the campaign when I was 22 and I left for Uganda when I was 27. This really formative chunk of my 20's was spent working for this man — for this cause, or administration. It has a really special place for me.
I would love to talk to Michelle Obama because she is this brilliant lawyer who had a very different career before she moved into the White House, and I would just love to hear what she plans to do after the administration comes to a close very soon, and what that transition looks like for her; what her advice would be for other spouses of other prominent leaders.
Q: The U.S. has yet to elect a woman president, and women are under-represented in public health leadership positions, as well. As a woman, do you feel like there’s a glass ceiling for how far you can go within this field?
CS: That’s a good question. I guess the short answer is no. I don’t feel like there is a limit. I feel grateful to be alive in a time when you can easily say that.
I think with any workplace there is an ability to get by charm as opposed to doing your homework knowing your facts, and being fully informed about what you’re saying in meetings, or what you’re putting into reports. In some specific scenarios, it has felt like it is easier for men to get by on charm than for women. Even if that is true, which I’m not sure it is — I am fine with it, because I would love to have an extra amount of motivation to be better informed and better educated and more fact-based. And so I think so long as women do the work — which we are 100% capable of doing — I have no fear or worry that we will not be able to get as far as men. I really look forward to women no longer being an interest group, but just another type of qualified professionals. As a woman, the only thing I would say, become a qualified professional so you can hold your own.
Q: What do you think is more important, good health policy or proper health policy implementation?
CS: Definitely implementation. Obviously both are necessary. One of the reasons I left CHAI and now am in the process of starting this long journey to becoming a doctor is that I was really frustrated by all the great policies that we’ve passed but the lack of implementation and actual impact on real patients who should be the most important end users. Part of the reason why I want to be a practitioner and direct patient care provider is that I want to be closer to the ground and I want to get out of policy work and get into implementation work. There’s a quote — ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ I think in so many ways, policy can feel like good intentions but implementation is about good work and cashing in on good intentions. Obviously if you don’t have good policy, you don’t have a road map to follow when you’re on the ground, but I think for now the biggest crises is in poor implementation and not a lack of good policy.
Q: 2016 is just around the corner [this interview was conducted in December 2015]. What does the New Year have in store for you?
CS: [I will spend] a couple months back in Uganda, which will be really nice, because after living there for three and a half years, all my closest friends are there — my support network is there. My favorite outdoor activities are there — my boyfriend is there. I’m really excited to go back to Uganda — a couple months back in this country that really became my home. Hopefully a transition to being a student again — starting a post-bac program in the summer. I’m sure a lot of chats with Perry as I go through another big transition. I think a lot of happiness. I think life just gets better. A lot of good stuff.