Reflections on Public Health and Activism: An Interview with Katie Irwin ’17

A college student’s dream of making a difference with humanitarian aid, discovering its pitfalls and leading a campus organization pushing for global health. Katie Irwin ’17 joins me today at Colby College for hot tea and warm talks.

Garima Dahiya (GD): So Katie, would you like to tell us about yourself?

Katie Irwin (KI): Oh boy, what do you want to know?

GD: So I know your name is Katie, you are a senior at Colby, I know you have a dog…

KI: (laughs) Yes, I do.

GD: I know you’re from New Hampshire. Tell us about how you came to Colby and what you’re studying.

KI: I came to Colby because I knew this girl from high school that I knew and really liked, and she went here. I visited her and she just made Colby seem like a really wonderful place, it was actually her and her tour. I got to know about the ES (Environment Sciences) and the Bio department and I totally thought I was going into Bio following my sister. I got really good energy from the people here and I applied ED!

GD: But you have an independent major now, is it?

KI: Yes, I am now an independent major in Public Health. I am so glad about it. I wish it was called Global Public Health. I actually took a Government class when I was very set on the Bio track and I was just like, wow there are other things besides the natural sciences! It was so interesting and I really did not know much about our government.

But later, I went to Belize during JanPlan and did a project on tropical ecology and read this book called Mountains Beyond Mountains. It’s a book on Paul Farmer and his work in public health in Haiti, Peru, and Russia. It completely transformed the way I looked at the world; my friend was also in the hospital that time and was very intensely sick. That made me want to get involved in healthcare. So, I came back to Colby, got advice from people, and made my major. I also wanted to get involved with Partners in Health, because that’s what the book is about.

GD: Wow, so what is Partners in Health (PIH)?

KI: PIH is a global health organization that focuses on long-term healthcare infrastructure in places that are health insecure. I still struggle with the problems of humanitarian aid and of going into a different country and setting up some sort of system, but what I like about PIH is that even though they are based in Boston, they really form partnerships with organizations in communities that provide resources to build up the infrastructure, that is then run by people in the community. It’s a partnership. I think that does try to dispel some of the power dynamics that come with humanitarian aid, but I have my dilemmas and often question if this is what I want to do.

GD: Why do you have these dilemmas?

KI: Working for a really large organization where you don’t necessarily see the impact, you don’t know where the money is going, or if it is being used properly, and this condescending idea of ‘helping’ the ‘Other’ who is far away. There are many problems close to where I am now, and if I were to work in my own community locally, it would take out a lot of the intermediate steps where there is a potential for ethical dilemmas. Communicating face-to-face with someone is so different from communicating across borders.

GD: Well, certain sections of the media are just flooded with images of the impoverished ‘Other’ in need of saving, and it can be very exciting to feel like you’re doing something about it. What made you problematize that? Was it particular instances with the work of PIH?

KI: You know, I still really like PIH. Of the other organizations involved in global healthcare, I most strongly believe in it. But reading more and, for example, taking this class called Environmental Justice, was a huge part of me questioning the work of large healthcare organizations. Earlier, I thought that in healthcare if the intent is good, the outcome would also be good, but then talking to other people really make you think about the implications of what I was doing and what was problematic.

GD: So the group of PIH that you have on campus is in collaboration with PIH in Boston?

KI: Yes, I love the connection with PIH in Boston. I feel part of the national, actually global, community in many senses. I would go to group training sessions over the summer and feel a sense of solidarity, which was really new to me when I joined. It’s also what made me stay. I would Skype with someone from PIH every other week, who would give me constant motivation and advice.

Initially, when I really wanted to be part of the movement, I never felt like I knew what I was doing. It was just me and my friends, who have no interest in global health at all, who were helping me setup the club at Colby. I didn’t have sign ups, but then my friend Lucie told me that I had to aggressively recruit. I would go up to people and ask, “Do you believe health is a human right?” and of course no one could say no, and then I got a lot more signups.

I still sometimes feel like I’m not necessarily the best person for the job, but I really wanted to be part of the movement, and it didn’t exist at Colby, so I just had to start it. I’m still figuring my way through it, and it’s hard to keep a group of sustainable people, because students at Colby are just so over committed and walk in and out of clubs and organizations, but it’s going.

GD: That gets us to the core of what we want to talk about today. How do you work through the way college students engage in social causes, with your interest in global health care and PIH’s work?

KI: I try to set the tone at the beginning of the year by talking about why I am involved or why other students at Colby are involved. A big part of that is convincing people what they are doing is affecting real people’s lives and is part of a greater picture. For example, for our fundraiser last fall, we raised money for a new maternity ward in Liberia. Fundraising isn’t the most comfortable thing to do, but I think what made people want to fundraise for something like that was just knowing that the money was going to a national movement of organizations fundraising for our goal.

I heard from someone at PIH talking to a community health worker in Liberia, who said that they needed basic amenities like rooms and beds. They can’t, for example, have a pregnant woman next to a sick person. It’s a huge cause of death, when a pregnant woman is recovering and is next to someone with tuberculosis, for instance. Making things tangible for people and removing boundaries is what I have tried to do to keep people motivated. It’s hard to do but PIH really provided me with the tools that made it easy to do that.

GD: Do you see this work as campus activism?

KI: I don’t think that I do so much. I think activism is slow-burning and is a commitment. I’ve been trying to think about what is activism looks like on college campuses and I think what is perceived to be campus activism is very short term involvement in projects.

GD: Like what?

KI: Like, for example, attending a protest. Some of my friends say “Katie, you become such an activist” because I attend protests. And I don’t understand what that necessarily means; just because I attend a protest doesn’t say anything how involved I am with that issue.

Activism for me, is being committed to a movement and staying with it for the long term. I would call our work community organizing maybe, but this is something I definitely need to think more about. PIH has been a really great introduction for me to getting involved, and I hope it remains for the people in the club in the future.

GD: How do you see yourself staying involved after graduation?

KI: Yeah, that’s a big question mark! I was initially drawn to the global movement of PIH in the urge to help the ‘Other’ in a very neo-colonial way, but now I think I would be focusing more on the local issues of the community where I end up. Of course that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t still be involved with PIH.

GD: Where do you think this comes from, the guilt, the urge, to help the ‘Other’?

KI: I’ve really struggled with this. This is how people get involved in ‘activism’. Voluntourism is such a huge thing in American high school culture. And if that’s what you’re being encouraged into, it’s a problem, because those years really do shape how you think of things. I’ve only been able to rethink these things in this institution of higher education, but so many of the things I’ve learned can easily be taught in middle school or high school.

GD: So you think it’s more meaningful to be involved locally?

KI: Right, because this urge to help the “Other” that is far away and needs you and your sympathy, just paints a picture of people as two-dimensional and as victims. What does it mean to victimize someone? No one can just be labeled a victim, people are much more complicated than that; they can advocate for themselves. That just makes it clear to me that working with people themselves is more important. And it’s harder, because people complain and don’t get along with other people, and that adds so much more complexity to people than just being labeled a victim or someone to help. It makes them real.

GD: Yeah, it humanizes them.

KI: Yeah, exactly.

GD: How do you conceptualize ‘local’? Does that mean the US, or NH or…

KI: Probably where I settle. I couldn’t call the US, or even NH, my community because they are so vast and different.

GD: I do understand what you’re saying about being part for a community. When you start living in a certain place, you start interacting with the people, culture, and start understanding what needs to be done, as opposed to sitting in Boston and funding something that is 9,000 miles away.

KI: Right, exactly. It is hard though. It is problematic to sit in Boston and fund something that’s far away, but in some cases it leads to real changes in infrastructure. It’s very hard for me to reconcile the two.

GD: It’s very possible for something to be contradictory, though, and being okay with that is very necessary in thinking about these things.

KI: Right, it lives in the middle.

GD: What would you like to end with, Katie?

KI: I would say that people need to start considering and reflecting on themselves, and why they want to be involved and where is their impulse coming from. Yes, that’s what I would say.

GD: That sums it really well, I think. Such senior advice.

K: Well, what can I say! I try.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.