Q&A: Barbara Bush Shares Goals in Global Health, Familial Inspirations

Barbara Pierce Bush, co-founder and chief executive officer of Global Health Corps and daughter of former President George W. Bush, came to Scripps College March 24 as guest lecturer in the 9th Annual Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program. In the words of Scripps President Lori Bettison-Varga, Bush has “committed her life’s work to improving access to quality healthcare in some of the world’s most underserved areas. She is an exceptional leader in the field of global healthcare.” Before giving her lecture on her organization at Garrison Theater, Bush sat down with TSL to talk about her goals as a leader of Global Health Corps, confronting challenges in healthcare policy and how her family has inspired her career path. 

TSL: You have cited a trip you took to Africa with your family as a pivotal moment in your life. What about this trip inspired you to change your life plan and focus to global health care?

Barbara Bush: When I was in college I was an architecture major. The summer of my junior year, I had a great job in design in New York City, but I was able to take two weeks off—my parents were traveling for the launch of PEPFAR, which is the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief. The idea of PEPFAR is to provide free antiviral drugs to people that are HIV-positive. And when we landed on that trip, I was struck for a number of reasons. I mean, one reason that I was struck was that there were hundreds of people waiting in line for drugs that, if you were born in the United States, you could have easily had access to.

I was always a super idealistic person, and could not wrap my mind around the fact that you could be born at the wrong place at the wrong time. And these people waiting for drugs were simply born at the wrong place at the wrong time. It was no fault of their own that they couldn’t get access to drugs. And so I was extremely struck by the lack of justice in that and the lack of equity.

TSL: As you moved forward in your work with Global Health Corps (GHC), what are your goals for the organization and things you hope to accomplish? Where do you see GHC expanding its efforts?

BB: We at Global Health Corps are building the next generation of global health leaders, and so our goal is to competitively recruit great young talent and bring them into the field of global health with the idea that they’ll solve current global health challenges, like HIV, like women’s health issues, like obesity and diabetes, like ebola. And so we are trying to bring great talent and really creative people to a field that needs more solutions.

Since we’ve started, we’ve been able to work with 450 exceptional young leaders who work every single day solving global health challenges, and we’ll add 150 more this July. We received over 5,000 people that applied to those 150 positions. It speaks to this interest—and I don’t think this’ll surprise y'all because you’re on a college campus—the interests of young people that want to work on social change issues and want to solve problems. We’re excited to see our alums end up in leadership positions, where they’re changing policy, or they’re using advocacy, or where they’re the next entrepreneurs, building companies that can solve global health challenges.

TSL: What advice do you have for future female leaders interested in social justice?

BB: I think it’s really important to figure out what you are excited about and what you want to work on every single day. The thing that’s great about working on social justice is that you serve other people. Your goal is to work with other people and solve problems, and that’s extremely exciting and challenging. And I think one thing to always remember is that you don’t have to do this work alone. People are always willing to help you, but usually we’re too shy to ask them for help. It’s important to remember that you can reach out and ask people—if you are working on issues that are important to the world, people are excited to help you. You just have to have the courage to actually ask them to help you.

TSL: You’ve alluded to the idea that health shouldn't necessarily be a political issue. In your field, how do you see the balance between politics and policy when you’re approaching health care?

BB: I think it’s important to remember that politics is very different than policy. Policies are created to serve people. And policy change can have a huge impact, affecting millions of people. And so, I’m very interested in policy obviously because I think if we have smarter health policies, then we can have a much healthier population in the United States or in the other countries where we work. Health in the United States over the past few years has been very polarizing, and yet, I think everyone—I hope, at least—would agree that everyone should have the opportunity to live a healthy and dignified life. And if you’re not healthy, it’s really hard to get educated. Health is the backbone to all of the other opportunities that we’re given, and I don’t think that’s political at all.

TSL: How does GHC operate differently in the United States versus abroad in less developed countries?

BB: I think the difference is that in other countries, our fellows are doing a lot of building health systems, whereas in the United States they’re working with an existing health system that needs to shift, and those are two very different skill sets. So one is more entrepreneurial, building a health system, and the other is intrapreneurial, how do you, inside, try to move a system to serve more people.

TSL: How did growing up in a very political family, with a long history of involvement in government, influence and inspire your interest and work and shape how you formulated your views on healthcare?

BB: My parents and my grandparents were serving their country via politics. My sister ended up being a teacher, which is also service, but doing it via education. In the same way, I think embarked on a path that involves serving other people and problem solving, and I think that those can be the same sort of values that can look different based on what position you’re in. I think that’s what I learned most from my family, the importance of serving other people and the importance of stepping up and trying to solve problems rather than stepping back and not engaging.