By Joelle Leib ‘17
Barbara Pierce Bush was invited to speak at Garrison Theater on March 24 as part of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program, which seeks to bring conservative voices to campus. In her speech entitled “Confronting Today’s Global Health Challenges,” Bush highlighted the success of her international organization Global Health Corps (GHC), which champions global health equity, and encouraged Scripps students and the greater Claremont community to pursue a career in social justice.
Five years ago, the then-28-year-old Bush founded Global Health Corps with the mission that all people deserve access to quality healthcare. To accomplish this, GHC partners with existing organizations in the United States and eastern and southern African countries, identifies where the organizations can improve, and places two talented and creative fellows--one international and one native--to work with each organization for a year. Bush says she hopes that her fellows will not only create significant change while they are in the program, but that also upon their departure they will continue to contribute to the healthcare field from their jobs in a multitude of sectors, including business and technology. Thus far, GHC has worked with 450 exceptional fellows and will welcome 150 new fellows, selected from a pool of over five thousand applicants, this July.
During her father’s first term as president, Bush was a student at Yale University interested in math and design who dreamed of becoming an architect after graduation. Her career path took an unexpected turn in mid-2003, the summer before her senior year, during which Bush was able to take two weeks off from her trendy design job in New York City to visit Uganda, Nigeria and Senegal with her family. At the time, President George W. Bush sought to implement the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to alleviate the tremendous impact of the AIDS epidemic in African nations by administering life-saving drugs for free to people who would otherwise have no access to them.
“When we landed on that trip, I was struck for a number of reasons,” Bush said. “One reason that I was struck was that there were hundreds of people waiting in line for drugs that if you were born in the United States you would easily have access to. And I’m sure y’all have seen this and luckily this isn’t the norm now, but people who are HIV positive who don’t have access to drugs, I mean [if that were you] you would look like a skeleton. You would truly be wasting away, so it was just these very visceral images.”
A self-described idealist, Bush was shocked by the injustices of health care inequity that prevented the people she met, “born at the wrong place at the wrong time,” from receiving medication to treatable illnesses. Her relatively short trip impacted her enormously, and upon returning to Yale, Bush felt compelled to solve this health care crisis that required medication and resources that already existed but were not being allocated fairly. Thus, Bush abandoned her architecture major in favor of a humanities major that would allow her to take as many classes about global health as possible.
After graduation, Bush wanted to work in the field of healthcare, but did not have a clear idea of how she could make an impact without having a degree in medicine. Her twin sister, Jenna, introduced her to two young entrepreneurs who were equally as passionate about health care after having met them at a party. Together they came up with the idea for GHC, which was strongly influenced by the success of the program Teach For America. Now GHC is a critically acclaimed organization, earning accolades for “Best Social Justice Start-Up,” amongst others, like Glamour Woman of the Year, that recognize Bush’s strong leadership.
As a female leader and a feminist, Bush is especially interested in women’s health equity and serving a population that generally receives poorer health care than their male counterparts. “I think when you think about feminism it’s about equity,” Bush said. “It’s all based on should we have equal opportunities, should we have equal pay, should we be treated equally, and I agree with all three of those sentiments.” Bush says she strives to operate off of these principles in her work and emphasizes women’s issues like death from childbirth in particular because they are preventable but still very prevalent.
Despite her family’s heavy involvement in politics, Bush says she is more interested in changing policies than engaging in politics, particularly policies that generate change for women. “If women aren’t healthy, it’s really hard for them to hold jobs, [and] it has a huge impact on their families then,” Bush said. “Health is the backbone to all the other opportunities that we are given. And I don’t think that’s political at all. I think it’s a very human desire for people around you to have opportunity and to remember that when we’re talking about health.”
Bush says she is thankful to have a wonderful team of young women whom she works with who bring a diversity of voices to the table. For other young women interested in working in social justice like herself, Bush suggests finding what you are passionate about and pursuing it. “One thing to always remember is that you don’t have to do this work alone,” Bush said. “People are always willing to help you, but usually we’re too shy to ask them for help.”
Although Bush’s legacy strays greatly from that of her family, she cites her family’s dedication to public service as a major influence on her career choice. To Bush, her parents and grandparents sought to serve people through politics, her sister, who is a teacher, through education, and herself through healthcare.