2017 GlobeMed Summit Closing Dinner Speech by Alyssa Smaldino
LET US MARCH. LET US MARCH. LET US MARCH. LET US MARCH.
“White folks, your love will not trump hate! Your resistance will trump hate!” Silence.
I turn and stare at the biggest, whitest policeman, and I scream: LET US MARCH. He smirks and laughs me. Everyone else joins the second time, he stops laughing, we get louder the third time, we try charging the escalator the fourth time. LET US MARCH. LET US MARCH.
Wow, I reflected later. Where did that courage come from?
Rewind. July, 2011. A bar in Rwanda with my friend Alphonse. “Woah, did you see what’s on TV?” I asked Alphonse between sips of beer. There was video of the Rwandan genocide on the screen. “Ya,” he replied nonchalantly. “Why would they show this footage in a bar on a Friday night?” “Why not? We’ll never get past it if we don’t confront it, and here we are in community with each other. We should be open and talk to each other about it.”
Looking back on that moment, I think about the factor of community. Einstein said, “what an amazing piece of human nature to have that emotion that connects us to community.” Indeed. Rwandans build community in so many ways now: Umuganda, cooperatives, gacaca. How could they build the bravery to transcend that horrible time without community?
Fast forward. November, 2012. The home of Martine and her family in Togo. “Only one of my children contracted HIV during birth”, Martine said. “Jean-Pierre, come here!” A small, slim, shy 16-year old boy approached. My heart felt that feeling you feel when you encounter something you didn’t expect, that you haven’t experienced before, that you’d never want to experience. Jean-Pierre was the first child I’d ever met who shared his experience of living positively with me, and I kept thinking about how similar his personality was to my brother’s. “The community health worker has really helped my other kids understand enough so they don’t treat him differently,” Martine said. “The education she has given our family helps us know it’s not our fault, and know that we are going to be okay.”
I wondered: Would Jean Pierre be able to survive without the free education he and his family receive from Hope Through Health’s trained, well-paid community health workers? Education. Deep, intentional, lifelong learning: another key factor for cultivating bravery.
Fast forward. August, 2016. A conference of grassroots organizations and donors in Uganda. I was seated at a roundtable and had just seen a panel consisting of foundation heads who were potential donors to the organizations represented in the room. Our table consisted of myself, one other Executive Director from the US, about six African Executive Directors of local organizations, and two people who led Foundations that were prospective funders to those of us at the table. The African leaders were reflecting, “It’s just hard for us to go through all the steps and processes the donors outlined…” “Ya, and even if I did all of that, English is my third language, and I don’t have any connections to these people, so I probably would just waste my time,” one of them responded. Their despondence was matched equally by the donor representatives’ defensiveness. “Well, it’s hard for us to know who makes the most impact. If you can’t prove that in an application we need someone we trust to verify that, blah blah blah.” The conversation continued, and I waited, listening.
A moment of silence opened. I questioned: do I take the risk of not getting money from these people? “Maybe what we need to talk about is power,” I decided to share. The grassroots leaders’ eyes lit up. A weight lifted from them. The donors fidgeted. “Power is what gives some of us access to these donors, and not others. Power is what allows me to write a beautiful proposal, but not my friends here. Power is the problem, and shifting it is the only solution.”
The donors continued with their defensiveness, and the other NGO leaders at my table seemed more carefree. Needless to say, I didn’t raise any money that weekend, but I did make a lot of new friends, and, most importantly, I remained grounded in my integrity. Take risks. We can’t be brave without taking risks, and practicing bravery in each of those moments. As Howard Zinn said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” So know what you stand for, and stand for it. Because we all know this train is moving fast.
I could go on and on. The stories I’ve had the immense privilege to witness and experience through GlobeMed have completely transformed me. In all the cases I’ve shared, and those I haven’t, the ways I’ve seen others garner bravery and how I’ve cultivated that myself has been by listening to constantly search for truth. I ask myself: who is society trying to separate me from, and how can I connect with them and listen to them to understand the truth of what binds humans to one another?
At a conference similar to the one I described earlier, I was frustrated with everyone’s lack of willingness to say the truth. It kept getting clouded by abstract notions of “best practices” and other bullshit. I wrote this simple poem:
It is in
It is in
Together, we can make truth “in” by searching for it and speaking it constantly. But, don’t forget what Mary Oliver says: “truth by itself is enfeebled; it is merely the truth; it is without force less the heart’s desire is there too.”
The heart’s desire. You all, the GlobeMed network, have illuminated my heart’s desire. The depth and power of the relationships I’ve formed with so many brilliant people through this work have grounded my resistance in love. In addition to community, lifelong learning, risk taking, and a search for truth, the relationships are what truly give me the courage to be radical, visionary, and—most importantly—my full self. Every day.
Thank you so much for being a part of that.
To my parents, who are watching from home right now, and my whole big Italian family, thank you for all of your love, sustenance, and support throughout the years.
To current and past members of the board of directors, especially Paurvi Bhatt, Brian Hanson, Rob Topping, thank you for investing so many hours in my development and challenging me to think more critically about my decisions while giving me the autonomy to ultimately make them on my own.
To GlobeMed’s supporters, especially the Global Health Fellows Program II, which has enabled and elevated the work I’ve had the privilege to lead, and people like Jeff Richardson, Marjorie Benton, the Hanson family, and many more, who have been with GlobeMed since the beginning and continue to sustain us.
Badi Foster, I’ll never be able to thank you enough. As I prepared for this weekend, I went back through my notebooks, Google docs, Evernote, and post-its that make up the “collage” of my learning life, and there are what I call “Badisms” all over. Your wisdom, kindness, and grandfatherly love have catalyzed my growth and made me a better version of myself.
To former GlobeMed staff, especially Jon Shaffer for hiring me, Maya Cohen, Bianca Nguyen, and Sarah Endres for being there in the early days and continuing to be rocks for me on my best and worst days, Amee Amin, Beth Larsen, Leah Salama, and Jenna Pugrant, Pships for life. I literally could not have done the work without your comradeship and support. Caroline Ngyuen, Roz Dillon, Anupa Gewali, Olivia Koshy, Dominique Hazzard, Paris Prince, Parth Joshi, and all our student staff, there were tough times, but because of your friendship I mostly only remember things like WednesdayWoo, retreats and karaoke. And Victor Roy, for always being there to challenge me, question my questions, and hold GlobeMed to the highest standards. Thank you all.
To GlobeMed alumni, especially Jamie Cartwright, Jason Pace, Tana Chongsuwat & Kaleigh Post and others on the Alumni Association for your never-ending passion, commitment, and leadership of the Alumni Association. When I reflect on who I’d go to in a moment of crisis, or if I wanted to build something big and bold, hundreds of GlobeMed alumni come to mind. You sustain me.
To GlobeMed students, you keep my flame alive and continue introducing me to more innovative, new ways to fight for justice and equity. Thank you.
To GlobeMed staff, you’re literally the best team I could ever ask for. One day recently I was sitting at my desk and staff and fellows were running between our three small rooms, dreaming, planning, laughing, and I teared up a little bit because leading a team as incredible as you has truly been the best part of a really awesome job, and I don’t know if or when I’ll find that again. Balungile, your wit and creativity brings me joy every day. Priya, your persistence, drive, and unbelievably high expectations for yourself show me what excellence looks like. Sunshine, you were the first person to put anti-oppression into simple terms for me, and your commitment to constantly being critical inspires me. Brittany, your ability to be equally and insanely passionate about EVERYTHING sets the bar for what it means to care. And Alexis, your steadiness, patience, and ability to balance logic and emotion are a breath of fresh air and have taught me so much about myself. Thank you all for doing so much more work than six people should ever be responsible for. I hope you all support them! Sign up for monthly donations! They deserve to know you’re in it with them in a tangible way.
Finally, GlobeMed partners. When I started working at GlobeMed I wanted to understand – what does equity in working relationships really look like? How could we build true, deep understanding of each other by working with each other as humans with equal personal power and potential? You taught me what that looks like, and so much more. I apply lessons I learned from you all every day.
I’ve also thought a lot in the past six years about whether the principles of partnership I learned from GlobeMed could be applied to a romantic partnership, and I’ve learned over the past nine months that it is possible. So, last but not least, thank you to my forever partner, Gerald, for sharing your immense love and compassion with me, and helping me become a better partner and human every day. I love you.
And I love all of you. I can’t wait to be on the other side of this microphone with you next year, and for many decades to come.