Shifting Power: Lessons learned from the CCGH

Anna Socha - Headshot

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by Anna Socha

This past October, I was thrilled to have received the CCGHR travel bursary to attend the Canadian Conference on Global Health (CCGH) and the Global Health Students and Young Professionals Summit (GHSYPs). I am a recent graduate of the Master of Science in Global Health program from McMaster University with a passion for interdisciplinary research, reducing health inequities, and social justice. I learned a lot from these busy yet fulfilling days in Ottawa, and below, I want to share a few strategies I learned on shifting power from privileged groups to historically marginalized groups, a necessary step in achieving health equity.

The theme of CCGH was Governance for Global Health: Power, Politics, and Justice. Speakers from academia, policy, healthcare, and non-profits were invited to talk about important questions in this time of political polarization, growing income inequalities, and rapid technological advancement. Living in a time where fear tactics and ‘othering’ are widespread within politics and the media, I am glad that speakers were able to help me understand how power inequities manifest within global health and how I can personally work on these issues from my place of privilege.

A key step towards shifting power is first being able to recognize privilege and racism. Dr. Lisa Forman said, “Visibilize what we take for granted; recognition is fundamental.” Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” was recommended by panelists as a guide for identifying the daily effects of white privilege. In reading through this piece and reflecting on my own white privilege, I can start to label words, behaviours, and systems within society that are discriminatory and those that favour or supress particular people based on class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location. As global health practitioners, we need to be able to identify the injustices in order to address them.

To shift power, we also need to be able to appreciate and create safe and welcoming spaces for different forms of knowledge and expertise. Kluane Adamek, the Assembly of First Nations Yukon Regional Chief, described her Indigenous colleague as someone who “did not pursue a post-secondary degree, but had a PhD in the land.” She spoke beautifully of Indigenous traditions and the value they hold in addressing climate change, among other issues. This quote led me to reflect on how we have yet to create systems that equally value and welcome knowledge from diverse backgrounds in global health, though I think there is a lot of progress being made. This article speaks to the power inequities in global health research and guides readers through questions such as “who is driving the research agenda?” I think to appreciate other types of knowledge, such as Indigenous knowledge, we should start by becoming aware of the impacts of colonialism and how Western ways of knowing have led to a multitude of problems for many groups and countries around the world. Humbling ourselves is something I believe to be integral to global health work. The talks at CCGH emphasized that creating systems that not only value, but also provide safe, open, and accepting spaces for people from underrepresented groups, such as researchers from LMICs and Indigenous knowledge holders, is a crucial endeavour within the global health arena.

Lastly, in a session on ‘Confronting Power and Privilege’, I learned steps for practicing allyship, which challenged my previous understanding of how to be an ally. Specifically, to be an ally one should: (1) stop trying to ‘help’; (2) step back and make space for those experiencing oppression; (3) shift both symbolic and material power; and (4) be alert to how your actions can backfire. By not trying to help and stepping back, you can allow those who are experiencing oppression and those who know the problem best to lead. For example, this can be practiced by simply speaking less and listening more. Often the desire to help can remove power from those who we may be trying to help.

As a recent graduate, attending CCGH and GHSYPs was a great opportunity to see all the different paths I could take to work towards health equity. I left with new perspectives, connections, and ideas about what I hope to achieve in the future. Below, are three quotes that contain actionable advice for global health practitioners; these words are ones I will carry forward with me as I forge a career in the complicated, but ever important, space of global health. I hope that others in a similar place as me can see value in this advice and practice it in their own work too.

 “Think about who is not present in the room.”

“Go into places where people think differently than you.”

“Make sure your choices reflect your hopes and not your fears.”

CCGH - Anna SochaAnna Socha is a recent graduate of the Master of Science in Global Health from McMaster University. She specialized in ‘Science, Technology, and Society studies: Implementing Innovations on a Global Scale’ at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and completed her field practicum in Norway. Her graduate research focused on addressing institutional racism against Indigenous peoples within health systems and policies in Australia. Her practicum research in Norway investigated strengths and weaknesses of the Norwegian healthcare system in vaccinating migrants. Personally, she loves hiking, being outdoors, and meeting new people! Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter!