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Ruth Messinger

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Ruth Messinger’s visit to Haverford, where she gave a lecture in one of my classes, had dinner at the Haverford Sukkah, and gave a public lecture, was meaningful on a number of different levels.  The obvious was that it was inspiring to hear about her work with the American Jewish World Service, her past political involvement, and her ideas on how to solve some of the world’s most serious problems.  As someone who has concerns and skepticism about US involvement in humanitarian work around the world, it was refreshing to hear about the ways in which AJWS tries to let local community-based organizations guide funding focuses and share their insight.

I was also very much moved by the personal conversation I had with Messinger when she came to visit my public health class.  At the time, I was taking pre-med courses but was still unsure whether I wanted to go to medical school or go to graduate school for public health.  She explained that whether I am a clinician or doing public health research/policy work, I will be doing something important, but will inevitably experience some degree of frustration.  What Messinger suggested I do, therefore, is figure out which kind of work would make me less frustrated.  If I became a doctor, and treated patients one-on-one in a setting like a community health center, I would be doing crucial public health work, and would feel good being able to see the immediate effect my work had on the lives of my patients.  But, I would feel frustrated knowing that there are so many systemic problems affecting my patients, that I have little ability to change while in a clinical setting.  As a public health worker, on the other hand, I would feel good about looking at the large picture, and being able to tackle systems-level change around the world.  I would be able to confront WTO intellectual property law, for instance, which blocks many poor countries from accessing generic drugs.  Or I would be finding new ways to spread prevention messages.  Or helping to figure out how to make people adhere to their TB treatment.  But, I would be frustrated, because I would often see only incremental change, after years of work, and would often not have the gratification of seeing the lives I’d touched.  So, Messinger, explained, I had to figure out which kind of work would bring on less frustration – did I want to work at the individual level or the systems level?

I’ve been thinking about this question since I met Messinger three years ago, and have come to the conclusion that I am the second kind of person.  I want my fight for health justice to focus on the systemic, broader problems – even though I absolutely see the importance in helping patients in a clinical setting.  I am incredibly grateful to Messinger for providing me with such a stark choice, and helping me to figure out what kind of work most moves and inspires me.  So much of what I’ve done since then – such as the research project I undertook as part of my study abroad program, and my current job at ASIAC, reflects this self awareness.   I don’t necessarily want to work for an organization like AJWS, but the work they do has had a big, albeit indirect, impact on my life.

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