Lori DiPrete Brown

Today I am honored to be invited to comment on “Transforming Leadership in Global Health” at the CUGH pre-conference session offered by Women in Global Health. I am looking forward to meeting new people and seeing old friends! It is a great way to get ready for International Women’s Day. I’ve been given two questions to think about- so I thought I would think out loud a bit here on my blog in preparation for the session.

“What is one piece of practical advice you would give to someone starting out?”

It’s hard to pick just one – there are so many practical things to be done! Learn to drive a stick? Learn to change a tire? Learn to speak three languages? Take a self-defense class? Always carry chocolate? Maybe you should buy that quick dry underwear and have the courage to travel with just two pairs… I have not yet done all of these things, and practicality is not my strongest suit. I am more of a dreamer with practical friends…. but maybe I can narrow things down to two essential, if not always practical, pieces of advice.

First, always pack a book.

And by that I mean make time for, brake for, reading and the arts. It is important to stay curious, take the perspective of others, keep learning, and hold space for the passions of your youth. In some ways that raw young being will always be your most authentic self. Remember her. This reading is a way to honor the roads you didn’t take — maybe that of a poet, or a painter or a comedian. (I know I have a rockstar inside, and yes, I let her out now and then…). The openness that results from this practice will enable you to let wonderful things happen in life and work

Everyone feels alone at times — on a team, during field work, forty-thousand feet in the air…. and women leaders are no exception. We feel alone, divided, overwhelmed, not up to the task. We carry an extra stone or two, and most of the water. Books can be friends who love you in these difficult moments. You can lose yourself in one, or find yourself in one, or write one yourself.

Second, always be yourself.

And continue to become yourself. Be brutally honest with yourself about who you are and who you are not. Be critical about your work, and use feminist approaches to help with that – develop embodied, dialogic, subversive and truth-telling practices. Smile and laugh and sing when you want — and please be stern and scowl freely too! And then try to be very gentle with yourself — I’ll even use the word tender — and go about the business of getting the work done. That’s what leadership is. Knowing what the work is, and getting it done. Be warned — if you are pleasing everyone you might not be doing very much…. you may have lost your edge, or you may be sacrificing the difficult truths in a way that is at odds with what transformative leadership should mean. Try to cultivate humility, persistence and hope along with some fierceness or fearlessness in yourself. It will be necessary and essential if we are going to create justice for women, foster human thriving, and ensure the survival of our earth herself.

“How would you catalyze change to create a better future?”

There are so many ways to make change. I don’t think there is one right way. Rather the future depends on everyone doing what they can, from where they are, and as who they are. While all the time cultivating trust in the world, despite the odds.

For me right now, leveraging the power of higher education for a better future feels powerful and possible and important. We have started doing this in a gender-informed way at the University of Wisconsin through a campus-wide, local to global, women and wellbeing initiative that we call 4W – Women and Wellbeing in Wisconsin and the World. Our mission is to make life better for women and make the world better for all. We focus on developing leaders, and we work to bring research to practice and practice to scale. It is a great model that can be implemented at Universities of any size. I think we are unique right now, but my dream is that this would become a very ordinary kind of program -business as usual – so that universities become safe places for women and everyone to grow and thrive and lead. I’d like to see Universities lead here, so that the many societal institutions that are failing women right now, in fact, failing everyone, can follow the example, and change, and make life better for all.