This July, we joined 80 organizers to participate in the annual Partners In Health Engage Training Institute, where leaders from PIH Engage teams across the U.S. gathered to develop community organizing skills, strengthen relationships across teams, and craft the grassroots network’s year-long advocacy, community building, and fundraising campaigns to advance global health equity.
For some, a family member had experienced discriminatory barriers in receiving quality health care. For others, a personal illness or that of a loved one gave new meaning to the fragility of life. Others still were appalled by the lack of resources or systems available to health professionals in impoverished settings they had gotten to know. While each of the participants at the 2019 PIH Engage Training Institute had different stories that brought them there, we were all united in the shared belief that health is a fundamental human right and the desire to build a coalition to advance the obtainment of that right.
While much of the structure of the Training Institute has remained relatively consistent since 2012, there were exciting additions this time around. Advocates — including students, long-term volunteers, and PIH staff from 28 states and at least four countries — brought new energy and ideas to the movement. Most notably, the Training Institute took place in Washington D.C. for the first time, allowing Engagers to directly channel their advocacy skills to take action on Capitol Hill on “Hill Day.”
Engagers travelled far and took time away from their academic and work commitments to work together to strategize for ambitious year-long organizing campaigns. This commitment illustrates, in part, both the severity of the health inequities before us, as well as the power of a grassroots movement to demand the changes we need.
On Hill Day, Engagers took a big step in advocating for those changes by meeting with staff from more than 60 U.S. Congressional offices to advocate for increasing government support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria by $650 million to $2 billion total per fiscal year, as well as bilateral tuberculosis treatment and prevention programs by $104 million to $400 million per fiscal year. The Engagers also took the opportunity to educate their members of Congress on the global movement for universal health coverage as a mechanism for urging greater involvement of the national government in the movement.
On the morning of Hill Day, some Engagers (ourselves included!) expressed anxiety about meeting face-to-face with members of Congress and their legislative staff. To remind all of us of our greater goals, Ancito Etienne, a PIH major gifts coordinator on the development team, shared his story as a cancer patient whom PIH helped in Haiti, where he experienced severe barriers to accessing health care. (Learn more about Ancito’s story in this Facebook Live recording on World Cancer Day last year.) Since his recovery, Ancito has become a tireless advocate for health as a human right. In D.C., he shared his story with the group and reminded them of the social and economic barriers the sick face in settings of poverty. He said he is only alive today because others before us advocated on his behalf, and that he was a prime example of how advocacy can save and change lives. Following his words, Engagers expressed a renewed sense of confidence and determination to advocate for an end to unnecessary suffering due to lack of access to health care.
Throughout Hill Day, we were invigorated by the Engagers’ ability to secure commitments from our elected officials. In one legislative meeting we attended, Engagers spoke with experienced policymakers about complex issues of disease burdens and policy processes, while also clearly articulating the medical, moral, and social justice-based case for the Senate to take more ambitious action on issues of health and human rights. Following these meetings, many Congressional offices expressed that they would support increased funding for the global health programs discussed.
In our more than five years of personal involvement with PIH Engage, this Hill Day marked the most ambitious advocacy action the network has taken in a single day. None of this would have been possible without Engagers’ dogged determination to channel their values toward serious preparation for these meetings — repeatedly calling Senate and House offices during lunch breaks to schedule meetings, studying the issues and researching their Congress members’ records late into the night, and gathering for mock-meetings up until the moment they entered the offices.
This Hill Day proved to be a huge display of advocacy that pushed the needle on Congress’ willingness to act. But what excites us most are the bonds that were formed among individuals committed to the movement for global health equity, and how we can continue to leverage those relationships for deeper, long-term commitments to advance the right to health.
Nick Seymour is the grassroots strategy coordinator at Partners In Health. He works with the Global Policy and Program Development team at PIH and the PIH Engage Steering Committee to support volunteer organizers who are building the right to health movement.
Ancito Etienne is from Haiti and is a former Partners In Health cancer patient. As a major gifts coordinator at PIH, he supports the senior development officers in their efforts to engage, solicit, and steward donors. This fall, Ancito will be pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.