HEAL Spotlight: Meaza Getachew

  • Name: Meaza Getachew              
  • Originated from: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  • Global public health areas of expertise: Global nutrition financing, advocacy, and policy
  • Educational background: University of Maryland, College Park (B.A in political science)              
  • Jobs before your current position: RESULTS Educational Fund/ACTION global health advocacy partnership
  • Best advice you’ve ever received: “Don’t look at what people say…look at what they do” – my mom
  • Advice you’d give to emerging global public health professionals: Talk and connect with others in your sector. You can learn so much from just having a conversation with a person!
  • Recent blog post: Systemic Racism is a Public Health Crisis
  • Twitter handle: @MeazaGetachew_

Your story

I was born in Ethiopia and moved to the United States when I was a baby, so I consider myself Ethiopian-American. We moved here because after I was born, my mom got sick. They found some gallstones in her bladder and because of the lack of quality healthcare in Ethiopia at that time and because my mom’s mom had previously also come to the States for healthcare before, they were able to get a visa and bring her here. She was in the hospital for almost a year.

I don’t remember any of it, but when I think about it now, knowing everything I know now about breastfeeding, having the baby be constantly held by their mother, etc.…I didn’t really get to experience any of that during my first year of life. My grandpa and aunt took care of me and brought me over to the States. From there, we remained in the States and received our citizenship and passports. Once we got our passports, we were able to travel back to Ethiopia to visit, which we did when I was around six or seven. I remember visiting a rural area in Ethiopia and asked my dad why all these little girls weren’t in school, why they were working on the farm. My dad told me that typically, for certain cultures here after a certain age, girls just stopped receiving an education and had to work at home. That made me angry, even at a young age, knowing all I had access to in the States and feeling like that’s not fair.

I wanted to learn more about the inequities between and within countries—gaps in gender and access to care and how to break down societal barriers for women. I don’t know if I always knew I would go into the public health sector. My dad is a doctor, and he would always tell me stories about what it was like being a doctor in Ethiopia compared to the US. From a young age, he would say that when he retires, he’ll go back home to Ethiopia and open a free clinic–and his desire to help his people has only gotten stronger. With my dad as a guide, when I went to college I thought I’d go down the pre-med route and be like him. But I took a semester of biology and was like “Nope, this isn’t for me.”

I realized that I’m a lot more interested in the sociological and historical aspects of and barriers to health as well as the societal frameworks that prevent progress in health particularly for women. I took a lot of classes related to politics and development, particularly looking at Africa and why certain African countries haven’t progressed, looking at aid and where aid goes, and how aid is oftentimes a form of colonization because it indebts certain countries.

Understanding the bigger picture of how all of this operates got me interested in issues like women’s health and nutrition.

After college, I went straight into the workforce. Obtaining a graduate degree is something I might do, but so far, I don’t feel like it’s holding me back in any way. I’ve been getting hands-on experience in different pockets of this space. I first worked in the development fundraising space with local nonprofits to build out their fundraising portfolios. I worked with 8-10 clients at a time who did diverse work: public health, music and arts, community building, etc.

It gave me a bird’s eye view of how different organizations operate and support their local community and what that work—when done successfully and efficiently—could look like.

I ultimately left because I wasn’t into the whole consulting world and decided to move on. I was interested in advocacy from there. I spent most of my college time learning how to do policy analysis and how to build good policies for people, so having the academic background in that space, I figured advocacy would be good to explore.

I worked for an organization called RESULTS Educational Fund and was supporting their program development team on their global health advocacy partnership. I learned how to build effective public awareness campaigns and frame messaging around tuberculosis, child health, and other issues, taking those messages to policymakers to increase their understanding of the issue.

As much as I loved working on different issues, I wanted to focus on one issue. That’s when I joined 1,000 Days. I’m really interested in nutrition and health of women and babies, and the 1,000-day window was such a groundbreaking science when it was published in a 2008 issue of The Lancet. We’ve done a lot to communicate it but there’s much more to be done on raising awareness of how critical maternal health is, which often starts when women are in their adolescent years (not when they become pregnant).

When I was younger, I witnessed how barriers to health and education impacted girls my age, girls that looked like me but lived in a different country. I’m constantly thinking about why there are certain ceilings that we still haven’t broken through in different regions of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that Western countries don’t always have the answers. It’s starting to force many of us to understand how globalization works and the importance of systems, ensuring that systems work for everyone. I’m hoping we can learn from that moving forward.

Inner Lantern glow-up 

  • Lesson learned over the last year: Writing down my thoughts, especially goals, is so important.
  • What’s your current life motto: “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”― Toni Morrison
  • Advice you’d give to someone thinking about switching careers or looking beyond their current path: It’s hard to switch. It’s easy to get comfortable in a job, especially if no one is treating you badly and if the pay is fine. When I was considering transitioning jobs, I knew I didn’t want to go back to school…eventually I might, just not at that time. I suggest being aware of what you’re working towards and being honest with yourself if what you’re doing now is contributing to your goals. This is something I’m trying to figure out every day as well. Whether you want to call it a big goal or career objective, when you envision your life 30 years from now, what do you want to be doing? What is the actual thing you want to do? How do you want to contribute and spend your working hours on? For me, I always knew I wanted to bring a change to the world—I know that’s vague, but I kept it general for a reason and didn’t want to be tied down to a specific area. The drive to transition for me was when I realized my current position wasn’t contributing to my larger goal of creating some systemic change in the world. After consulting, I decided to do something different, though still in the program development and fundraising space, still working with funders, but it allowed me to do it on behalf of one organization and one issue.
  • On Toni Morrison and creative energy in work: I read an article where Toni Morrison talked about her writing process for Beloved and how she had to create her own fictional world without race and the pressures and stereotypes that come with being a Black woman. Once she was able to be creative in that way, she was then able to write Beloved. I’m not a creative writer at all, but in my work, I often have to think about narratives and a new way of crafting messages to get policymakers to understand the nutrition issues we’re advocating on. Part of that comes from understanding the bigger picture and how that picture impacts policymakers’ understanding of the issue…and meeting them where they are. I think about crafting messages through that lens all the time.
  • What is one of your proudest accomplishments: I supported the development of my previous organization’s Anti-Oppression Values and co-created the guide for responding to oppressive behaviors within anti-poverty work.
  • If you didn’t have to work what would you do: Travel to countries to learn how to cook their staple dishes
  • Favorite movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Memento
  • On creating goals: This is something I work on every week with my therapist. I’m goal-oriented when it comes to everyday tasks, but when it comes to big picture thinking, I need support there. To those also needing support on this, I suggest writing things down and talking with others about goalsetting.
  • Currently reading/listening to: I’ve been obsessed with the You’re Wrong About Podcast.
  • Favorite work memory thus far: Not really one memory, but I’ve been nostalgic for physical meetings and coffee chats lately!
  • What job would you be terrible at: Anything creative (design, marketing…)
  • Health equity is, in your words: When all people, especially the most vulnerable, have access to preventative health care and treatment
  • Favorite place to eat in your hometown/area you’re currently living in: Sprig & Sprout – the best Bahn mi in DC!
  • If you could live anywhere, where would you live: Ethiopia
  • What industry do you think will be revolutionized soon: Hopefully the oil, gas, and coal industries
  • Urgent issue(s) in global public health you wished more people knew/cared about: Malnutrition kills more kids each year than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. It’s the silent pandemic that we urgently need scaled up finances and action on.
  • What do you wish you knew more about: Coding
  • What location is at the top of your travel bucket list: Japan
  • What lifestyle changes are you trying to make: I’ve been trying to do some personal reading each night before bed.
  • What is worth splurging on every time: Vinyl records, I have a small but growing collection
  • Best trip of your life thus far: Visited Nepal for work in 2019
Meaza exploring Kathmandu, Nepal in 2019.
  • Favorite candy/snack/dessert: Ice cream
  • Role model: Shirley Chisholm
  • What can organizations move toward a more decolonized world: When organizations talk about their role in the world and their unique value-add, it’s important to also include reflections on privilege and position as an organization to the world and understanding how the work we conduct helps sustain that or helps widen the tent and bring about broader and more effective collaboration with the ‘Global South’. Organizations hold a lot of power in creating change, and it could start small with looking at the phrase ‘capacity building’—why do we always assume that those in the ‘Global North’ are in the position of always teaching or increasing capacity? Why don’t we assume that this expertise in-country? The ways we conduct data collection, monitoring and evaluation, and create frameworks for theories is all from a Western perspective that’s not built to understand local realities which might then impact the larger theory of change. When I look at RFPs (Request for Proposals) from funders, it’s almost always the headquarters staff who lead the proposal development. It would be great to see staff in country offices lead the funding, as they’re the ones ultimately who will then do the work. It starts with empathy. Empathy requires you to pause, think about your privilege and where you fit in the world and how that might not be the case for other people, to be able to understand their situation and not put yourself in a position above them just because you have that privilege. I don’t have the answers and am constantly thinking about how to do this work of decolonizing in my own space.
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