Opinion: The global health remedy we need is a strong dose of youth leadership

Staff members at the Global Health Corps. Photo by: GHC

The world today is not the same world that many of us grew up in. I’ve recently returned from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and reminders of this were everywhere, from the construction of new roads in response to massive urbanization, and the blossoming of local apps such as Taxify and mPesa as part of the global explosion of technology.

I had the privilege of connecting with over 100 young health equity leaders — the outgoing class of Global Health Corps fellows — who are very much of this new world. For them, working across borders and boundaries in a tech-driven, highly connected society is the norm — it’s all they’ve ever known. They are Rwandan architects, Ugandan journalists, American bankers, Malawian data analysts, Zambian artists, and more. They are bringing their diverse expertise to the task of eradicating health inequities, and they are relentlessly optimistic about our future.

If we want to accelerate our progress in solving global health challenges, we have to invest in this next generation of leaders. We need to ask ourselves: Am I sharing what I know and what I have with the young people who will shape our future today, this week, this year, and beyond? If the answer is “no” or “not enough,” it’s time to level up.

Commit to mentorship

Working to build equitable health systems is a long game, and it’s a task that will far outlive each of us. Our best hope for accelerating progress as individuals is to be catalyzers and multipliers for others. Being a mentor to a young leader is one of the most impactful and rewarding investments of time and energy that established leaders can make. By building trusting relationship across generations, we can more quickly bridge the gap between the lessons of the past, the challenges of the present, and our shared vision for the future.

We’ve made amazing progress in global health since the birth of the field just a few decades ago, and moving forward will require learning from what worked and what didn’t. Global health giants have weathered storms such as the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis and high rates of child mortality from malaria, and come out on the other side stronger. Cross-generational mentorship is a way for this wisdom to be shared so that the journey to achieving health equity is shorter and less bumpy.

And mentorship is not unilateral. When done right, with openness and humility at the center, it is transformative for everyone involved. My life has been deeply enriched by the sustained relationships that I’ve experienced as both a mentee and a mentor. Every time I show up curious and open as a mentor, I walk away better than I arrived.  Need some hope to keep going or some inspiration to look at an old challenge in a new way? Chances are a young mentee can help you out. No one is starting from scratch — everyone, no matter how young, has something unique and special to give. And we can all benefit from harnessing the curiosity and out-of-the-box thinking that comes with being a beginner.

So make a commitment to mentor a young leader — or two or three or 10 — today. To start, I know almost 1,000 incredible young changemakers in our community around the world who would be thrilled to connect with you. Just last month, Mark Dybul, former executive director of The Global Fund, and Agnes Binagwaho, vice chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, brought their insights from decades of global health work to a training for our incoming fellow class and have served as advisers to our fellows for years. While finding time to mentor may feel challenging, we all know we can make time for the things that matter, and investing in the future matters.

Pull up a chair and pass the mic  

The decision-making table in global health has long been surrounded by older, white male academics and clinicians. It’s time to pull up some chairs, or even create a whole new table. Or maybe it’s more a stand-up desk, or a hoverboard? We need to remain intentional about including a more diverse range of leaders — young people, and especially young people of color, young people who aren’t health practitioners, and young people who have firsthand experience living in the communities and among the populations most deeply impacted by global health inequities.

“The next time you get a speaking invite, consider passing the mic to a young leader with a valuable but under-represented perspective.”

— Daniela Terminel, CEO, Global Health Corps

Each of us is privileged in some, and likely many, ways, and we have to take stock of what platforms our privilege affords us. Ask yourself: What spaces and levers of influence do I have access to that others do not? How can I expand access to these spaces and equip young leaders to inhabit them?

Eloquent, insightful young professionals with expertise on a range of health issues are out there, and they’re hungry for opportunities to weigh in. It’s on all of us to do what it takes to make sure they can: Invite them to be speakers on main stages, provide funding for them to participate in high-level convenings, and engage them as facilitators and moderators to shape the conversation. The era of all-white, or all-male, or all-age 30+ panels is over. The next time you plan or attend an event, invite young leaders to join you and find a way to amplify their voices. The next time you get a speaking invite, consider passing the mic to a young leader with a valuable but under-represented perspective.   

Young leaders have the fresh eyes, strong voices, and unique perspectives that are sorely needed to save and improve lives. Since joining Global Health Corps in January, I’ve seen firsthand that they are the greatest lever for change in global health. It’s time to commit to throwing our collective resources into equipping them to take the reins by mentoring, pulling up chairs, and passing the mic. Our future depends on it.

About the author

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    Daniela Terminel

    Daniela Terminel is the CEO of Global Health Corps, which mobilizes the movement for health equity by building the next generation of health leaders. Since 2009, GHC has placed and developed creative young professionals from diverse backgrounds into high-impact health positions in Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, the United States, and Zambia. GHC’s vibrant, global community of emerging leaders is nearly 1,000-strong and growing.