My Circuitous Path to Public Health

This week is National Public Health Week!  APHL will be posting stories from staff on our blog all week.  However, these aren’t your typical public health stories.  They aren’t from our program staff or the folks working in the laboratories; they are from staff whose jobs could be done anywhere for any type of organization yet they choose to work in public health.  Their journeys to public health are unique, but what keeps them here is quite similar.

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By Jody DeVoll, Director of Strategic Communications, APHL

It was 1993 the year when it seemed that the US might actually do something about its costly and unjust healthcare system and I was out in what was then the outer reaches of the DC suburbs working in… banking.

Now, there was nothing wrong with the electronic payment network represented by my employer.  Among other things, it’s responsible for direct deposit, which we all like, particularly on pay day. But I just could not feel passionate about batched electronic payments.

Jody DeVoll with friends in Orungo, Uganda, 1996

Perhaps, I thought, I could blame my parents for this dissatisfaction. After all, as committed state civil servants, they had instilled in me the values of service and hard work.

But truth to tell, I’d always been a quiet, nerdy sort. In my early teens when others my age were reading Seventeen magazine, I was glued to Gandhi’s autobiography, a hefty volume that I propped against my lawn chair as I worked on my tan. (Yes, I am now aware of the effects of sun exposure!) Like Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer and Eleanor Roosevelt, I wanted to make a difference in the world, albeit on a more modest scale.

As I neared college age, my career choices were presented as a) teacher or b) nurse. I chose “a”, and pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in Education. Since this was the sixties, the assumption was that I would have a husband who would bring home “a good salary” to supplement my modest earnings as a teacher. Wrong! But I digress…

So in 1993 with my education completed and multiple years in nonprofit communications and other assorted nonprofit functions, I asked myself, “What next?”  Maybe, just maybe, I could contribute to the campaign for health care reform. Here was a human rights issue to which I could commit myself wholeheartedly. I left the banking association; it was like jumping off the high dive into a cold pool.

But the organizations leading the charge in health care reform were not taking volunteers, much less staff, so I looked outside the US for opportunities in Global Health. Preparations were underway for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and I grabbed the opportunity to volunteer with a group of women in health and development who were drafting language for the conference platform.  This effort evolved into a stint as coordinator for a coalition advocating around the Beijing conference for action against the rising incidence of HIV infection in women.  In Beijing, Chinese visitors sidled up to our exhibit cautiously as if they feared they would become infected with HIV by brushing against it. After China there was Uganda, where I learned much and earned nothing as a consultant at an exchange program for women directors of non-governmental organizations, and Nigeria, where Abacha’s security forces tracked our small band of health and microcredit activists across Lagos. Note to self: Never visit a country controlled by a corrupt and ruthless dictator, especially prior to local “elections.”

A lucky – if crazy – American, I returned to the States where I continued my pursuit of gainful employment.  I considered a doctoral program to augment my credentials, but was advised that I’d never recoup the cost of tuition at mid-career. What’s more, my generous partner was rightfully pushing me to just take a job!

So I did take one in… banking. What can I say? I had the right experience, and eating is good. This time around I was working for a US Treasury social marketing campaign promoting a new debit card targeted to recipients of federal benefits.  I slogged through the days and continued to pursue a position where I could contribute to public health.

Then a miracle occurred: I learned of an opening for a communications director at the Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs.  I applied and landed the job. Finally, I had achieved my goal of a paid position doing meaningful work to improve the public’s health! Less than two years later, I was fortunate to move to another public health association active in both domestic and international spheres, the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). APHL has proven to be the best managed organization I have worked for in my 30+ year career, and, in my opinion, it just keeps getting better.  As for making a difference in the world?  Well, I’m supporting the people who are doing just that – the public health labs.

Now if the Supreme Court would only rule in favor of the Affordable Care Act, I would truly have reached public health nirvana.

 

More stories from APHL staff for National Public Health Week:

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