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Pulitzer Center Update November 14, 2013

Facing Global Public Health Head On

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Before the international response to the earthquake of 2010 one challenge Haiti didn't face was...

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From Meghan Dhaliwal's student fellow project: Two women cross a field in Cité Soleil. They carry necessities for the day on their heads. Image by Meghan Dhaliwal. Haiti, 2012.

Editor's note: This article is written by our colleagues at Boston University. Anne Donohue (associate professor) and Elizabeth Mehren (professor) are in the College of Communication. Jennifer Beard (assistant professor) and Monica Onyango (clinical assistant professor) are in the Center for Global Health & Development and the School of Public Health. Through November 2013 five BU students have been Pulitzer Center Campus Consortium international reporting fellows: Anna Tomasulo, Jason Hayes, Meghan Dhaliwal, Kerstin Egenhofer and Lusha Chen. Other BU students have participated in a separate international fellowship program called Pamoja Together.

Late in 2010, Boston University joined forces with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Our entry into Pulitzer's Campus Consortium coincided with the launch at BU of a collaborative effort between the College of Communication, the School of Public Health and the Center for Global Health and Development. We had no infrastructure, a meager budget—indeed, our project did not even have a name. But we had a purpose, and that was to look at the intersection of journalism and public health at times of crisis and disaster.

The BU partnership with the Pulitzer Center builds on the Campus Consortium model with an annual high-profile event and reporting fellowships for communication and public health students to report on critical global health topics. To date we have held three ambitious symposia. The first focused on Haiti one year after the earthquake, the second on child brides, and the third on the intentions and challenges of foreign development assistance, as well as its impact on recipient countries and their citizens.

The goal of these gatherings is to create a public forum where journalists and public health professionals and students of both disciplines come together in heated, yet constructive debate. We will discuss the ways in which we often do not work well together and sometimes drive each other crazy, with the objective of articulating a common sense of purpose in telling compelling stories of individuals, communities, and populations that draw the attention of donors and the general public to the great challenges to health, well-being, and social justice.

In addition, we have sent five BU students to the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C, for summer fellowships. The staff at Pulitzer headquarters has helped these students to identify reporting projects and has connected them to organizations, journalists, film-makers, and others who mentor them during reporting trips that typically last two to three weeks. These students have reported on child marriage in Nepal, cholera in Haiti, cash assistance to spur economic development in Malawi, and the challenges faced by Burmese women sold into marriage to Chinese men. The work of our Pulitzer Fellows has appeared on the Pulitzer Center web page, The Huffington Post, GlobalPost, Dowser and other key outlets.

Now would probably be a good time to note that we at BU are four women professors, two of us working-stiff journalists by training; one an expert in maternal health and providing health services in emergency settings; and the fourth a PhD in English literature teaching professional and scientific writing to public health graduate students. We have no titles, no official structure and an entirely ad hoc system of delegating responsibilities that is based on shared workloads. Our management style combines with a propensity to jump on projects without worrying too much about what we are getting ourselves into, as well as an inherent tension between our professional cultures. All this allows for boundless creativity and inevitable frustration once we get to the implementation phase. Little wonder that we have become known at BU as the Insanity Sisters, the name reflecting the fact that we continually leap before looking, debate every move, and lose a lot of collective sleep along the path to hosting vigorous discussions and facilitating student global health reporting.

At some point in 2011 we started calling ourselves the Boston University Program on Crisis Response and Reporting. Under our new mouthful rubric, we applied for a Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Our response to the Round 9 communication & advocacy challenge—"Aid is working, Tell the world"—took us to a small town in Western Kenya with a new public university. There we fell in with Dr. Charles Oduke, a professor of philosophy on the faculty at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology (JOOUST). We added one more partner institution to the mix when we were joined by the Great Lakes University of Kisumu (GLUK), a relatively young private university specializing in community health. Our goal? To bring 10 Kenyan and 8 Boston students together to tell stories of development aid in Nyanza province from the recipient point of view.

When the Gates Foundation chose our proposal as one of 10 winners for Phase One funding from a pool of close to 1,000 applicants, we once again faced a naming challenge. We decided to call our project PamojaTogether, "Pamoja" being the Kiswahili word for together. As we formed a team of students from Boston University and two universities in western Kenya, our goal was to create a communications forum—a sort of global newsroom—together.

Bondo Town sits on the Kisumu-Uganda Road in Siaya County, approximately an hour west of Kisumu and seven hours from Nairobi. It is the home town of Raila Odinga, former Kenyan Prime Minister and recent presidential contender, and sits hard by Nyang'oma Kogelo, the home town of President Barack Obama's father and current home to his grandmother Mama Sarah. For 12 days, we brought together students from BU, JOOUST, and GLUK in Bondo Town which they used as a home-base while traveling around Lake Victoria to interview Kenyans about their experiences with and perceptions of foreign assistance. We brainstormed story ideas with the hope of displaying multimedia content on a public platform, Our plan was to look at how the presence or absence of outside financial assistance affects issues such as (to name only a few) the plight of the disabled, job training for women wishing to leave the sex trade, malaria in pregnancy and promoting sustainable agribusiness.

We are especially proud of the variety of stories our students took on, including the discrimination faced by gay men in a country where homosexuality is against the law, HIV prevalence is relatively high at 6.5% ,and where both women and men who have sex with men barter their bodies to make ends meet. Women involved in sex work tend to get a lot of attention from both the press and public health programs looking to reduce new HIV or other sexually transmitted infections. But men who have sex with men are just starting to be noticed both by the media and by public health organizations. The stories of children with disabilities and the schools and organizations working to improve their position in society are altogether under-reported. And, while stories of foreign assistance are common in the U.S. media, they rarely present the perspective of those living in aid recipient countries.

Among our biggest challenges in Kenya was that we simply didn't have time to take on all the topics we would like to have addressed. If such an abundance of meaningful material awaited us in one province of one African country, imagine what we could do in other places. We saw first-hand how these Kenyan and American students dug into the work, together. It is our hope now that the stories written by our students, through the Pulitzer Center fellowship program and PamojaTogether Global will be the springboard for an ongoing effort to humanize global public health through rich and informative story-telling.

Image by Lusha Chen. Myanmar, 2013.

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