Standing on the Shoulders of a Giant

An Interview with Cecile Richards

By Savannah Russo

What do heroes and heroines have to do with our life’s journey?

While attending Global Health Corps training for the 2014–2015 fellow class at Yale University, Still Harbor taught fellows to explore where and from whom we find inspiration, guidance, and knowledge and how it might be applied or used to help shape our work and life in the future.

Still Harbor explained that Bernard of Chartres, a 12th century French Neo-Platonist philosopher, famously said that he and his peers were like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants; they were able to see more and farther than the ancients of history, not because they had sharper vision or greater stature, but rather because they had been elevated onto the shoulders of the giants of the past.

Isaac Newton later popularized this phrase in writing to a friend,

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”[1]

As a current Global Health Corps Fellow working for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Uganda and as a former employee of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, I wanted to reach out to one of my personal giants, Cecile Richards, to hear her thoughts on promoting health equity, her work at PPFA, her inspirations and the importance of our work as Global Health Corps fellows.

As the current president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Cecile has been an outspoken and driven champion for women’s health and social justice both domestically and globally. Having worked in the PPFA office in New York City for almost two years, I have had the fortunate privilege of encountering Cecile on many occasions. She is approachable, kind, open and caring to all whom she meets and her radiant nature and commitment to the cause are undeniable.

She is one of the giants I look up to, who I find inspiration from and whose example, commitment and knowledge help to shape me to become a better leader and change-maker working in global health.

Savannah Russo: What inspired you to become involved in health?

Cecile Richards: I started out in the labor movement, organizing garment workers in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. I spent most of my time helping folks help themselves get a better lot in life. That’s exactly what we do at Planned Parenthood: empower women, men, and young people with the information and care they need to be healthy and plan their families — which in turn helps them to get an education, stay in school, pursue a career, and lead the life they want.

SR: What aspects of global health do you feel need the most attention? Why?

CR: There’s no shortage of work to be done to ensure that everyone has access to basic healthcare, no matter where they live. That’s true around the globe as it is in the U.S. In particular, research shows that sexual and reproductive health services fall far short of need in developing regions around the world. 225 million women in developing countries want to avoid pregnancy, but don’t have access to effective birth control. In order to move from disparities in health care and information to real health equity, we need to close that gap. We know that when women have access to the contraceptive method that’s right for them, and when they know how to prevent unintended pregnancy, it doesn't just improve their health — it opens up a whole new world of opportunities in education and their career.

SR: Could you explain the global work of PPFA?

CR: Planned Parenthood Global — that’s PPFA’s international arm — has worked for 40 years to ensure that women, men, and young people in some of the world’s most neglected areas have access to the health care they need. Last year, under the leadership of the amazing Latanya Mapp Frett, Planned Parenthood Global worked with local partners in seven countries in Africa and Latin America to provide contraceptives; expand access to treatment for complications from unsafe abortion and, where legal, safe abortion care; organize for laws and policies promoting women’s health; provide tens of thousands of women, men, and young people with sexual and reproductive health education; and best of all — help train and empower the next generation of leaders in this work. Our global work and our domestic work are a two-way-street: many of Planned Parenthood’s community education programs in the U.S. are inspired by their counterparts in Africa and Latin America!

SR: What are some challenges you have faced as a leader? What is your advice on overcoming these challenges?

CR: As women, we so often hold ourselves back. We’re worried we don’t have the right degree for the job we want, or we don’t have the right experience, or our kids aren't the right age. My advice? There’s never going to be a “perfect” moment to take a leap. This is the only life you get, so make the most of it.

Don’t wait for an invitation — take every opportunity and risk you can.

You’ll only regret the things you didn't do because you were afraid to try. In the words of the late, great Nora Ephron: “Be the heroine of your life, never the victim.”

SR: What is your favorite part of working in healthcare?

CR: Getting to spend time with the staff at Planned Parenthood health centers across the country. They do heroic work every single day, in some of the toughest places. This year, after one of the harshest laws restricting abortion took effect in Texas, forcing many clinics to close their doors or stop providing abortions, Planned Parenthood doctors and staff became the last line of defense, working around the clock to provide care. One staff member answered a frantic phone call from a woman who was suddenly facing a hundred-mile drive to the nearest health center — so the staff member helped her with directions and stayed on the phone with her as she made the trip. And not only that — Planned Parenthood providers and staff are increasingly fierce advocates for the patients they serve and for the future of this work — from speaking out at rallies to testifying against bills that would restrict access to care to training the next generation of doctors.

SR: Who was your mentor and what role did they play in helping you to reach your goals?

CR: I've been extremely fortunate in that respect. My mother, Ann Richards, was the first woman elected in her own right as governor of Texas. She taught me from an early age that there is no job better than one that makes a difference in people’s lives. As she said: “You may go somewhere else, and you may make a lot of money, but you will never receive the kind of gratification that you get when someone looks you in the eye and says, ‘Thank you for helping make my life better.’”

I also had the chance to work for Nancy Pelosi in Washington — which was like a graduate seminar in leadership. She understands better than anyone that people don’t do things for your reasons — they do things for their reasons. And that in this work, there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.

SR: What advice do you have for young professionals pursuing a career path in global health?


Be an activist. Be an agitator. Don’t settle.

Push limits and know that you can make a difference in your field — no matter what you’re up against. My second piece of advice is that when you are working across borders, there is always a local expert. Listen to their experience and perspective — learn with a vengeance and help how you can.

SR: What are some concrete social media strategies for sharing knowledge and information pertaining to healthcare that you have found most influential?

CR: Social media is a tremendously effective way of telling the stories that might not otherwise be told — and for women, that’s most of our stories! It’s an excellent way to put a human face on policy issues. One of the best examples in my time at Planned Parenthood was when Sandra Fluke was banned from testifying at a Congressional hearing about insurance coverage for birth control — they said they needed experts. Lo and behold, none of the experts they brought in for the panel that day had ever used birth control — because they were all men! A young staffer at Planned Parenthood snapped a picture of the panel on his phone, we posted it to Facebook, and it spread like wildfire. Social media is a powerful tool for organizing and communicating in real time.

SR: What is one human connection moment you have had while at PPFA that stands out in your mind?

CR: In addition to the folks I meet in person all over the country, technology has really allowed us to expand what having a “human interaction” means. Planned Parenthood’s health educators are available online — if you can find somewhere to log in to a computer, you can talk with a real, live human from anywhere. A few months ago, a young woman sent a message saying she was pregnant, scared, and had no one to talk to. By the end of the conversation, she had directions to her closest health center and a plan to make an appointment. Before she logged off she said, “I was seconds away from crying, but now I think I can make it through the day.” The fact that she could connect with someone who could help her right then and there from thousands of miles away is really incredible.

SR: Do you have any advice specifically for the current Global Health Corps fellows that are working in Africa and the United States in various public health/healthcare related organizations?

CR: Be truly open to new people, ideas and practices. Respect differences and the work that’s already underway. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel — sometimes it just needs a little grease!

From Cecile’s inspiration and example, I feel called to embrace my passion for global health and to work collectively with others to enact positive change in the health sector. Cecile empowers and sets an example for standing up for what you believe in. She possesses a compassion and drive for health justice, one for which I hope to emulate in my own work as a Global Health Corps fellow.

As Still Harbor so eloquently explained during GHC training, “In our personal heroes, we recognize the qualities of being and of acting that inform our dream of how to make the world a better place. In our own journey, we recognize that we need these teachers; we cannot go it alone.”

A big thank you to Cecile for being that teacher for me and for so many others.

[1] “A Life of Service” by Still Harbor for Global Health Corps Training Institute 2014–2015

Savannah Russo was a 2014–2015 Global Health Corps fellow at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Uganda. All GHC fellows, partners and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. Join the movement today.

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