When was the last time you attended a conference where you were challenged with new ways of thinking, seeing your work and the world around you? The SwitchPoint conference hosted by IntraHealth recently convened unusual people from many different industries to create social change. I had the opportunity to participate and my head is still spinning (in a good way). The two day conference included power talks from scientists, artists, activists, engineers, entrepreneurs, gamers, researchers and emerging young global leaders. This was combined with microlab learning opportunities to bring people together to brainstorm as well as a number of impromptu group activities created interesting connections.
I was a bit intimidated to head into a conference where I didn’t know anyone, in a forum that was unfamiliar, with a crowd composition different from my norm (e.g. including young, male tech ‘geeks’ – when do I EVER mix with them?). However, I believe that if we want to make change happen, we have to get out of our comfort zones – so I did. Participating in the event was kind of like mental power yoga and totally invigorating. Here is a snapshot of some of the work that really grabbed my attention.
In Rwanda (and other places on the globe) about 18% of women and girls miss up to 50 days of school or work each year because of their biology (e.g. menses). Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) is working with technology combined with public health to make a difference. Working in a small community, SHE recognized that young women have limited access to feminine hygiene products and washrooms to enable them to care for themselves at school or work each month. There are also many myths and taboos about talking about menstruation that leave girls in the dark about their biology. SHE worked with engineers to develop and produce a sanitary pad out of banana fibers – a local product that was considered “waste”. Local girls created the packaging and the company employs local women. The product is considerably cheaper than the name brands and much more available. Oh yes, and environmentally sound! SHE also has had legislation passed to assure that each school has a washroom for girls and has slowly begun to foster conversations among women about this important topic.
Kennedy Odede, founder of Shining Hope for Communities, grew up in Kiberia, the largest shantytown in the Nairobi Area of Kenya. He went on to start a program that tied free education programs for girls to an increased availability of services (e.g. electricity) in their community. He stressed that, “you don’t have to be rich. You just have to be ready to say YES to make change.” This resonates with the EWSE focus on leadership by passion not position and our belief in supporting all women who have an idea and want to create a different reality for themselves, family or community.
Jumping to a different topic, technology is simply amazing – holy wow! Enabling the Future is a new global volunteer network that makes artificial hands for kids using 3D printers and recycled products – for between $30-$50 per hand. The fingers on these hands totally move! This was a small idea that went global – giving over 5000 children (and counting) a new vision of themselves and more opportunities to do whatever they wish. Inspiring – check them out!
I had NO IDEA how many sensors are in our mobile devices and the technology that exists now that can support positive health behaviors. With billions of cell phone and internet users on the planet, it is time to let go of the health education pamphlet and capitalize on this potential. There has been a lot of interest in the Gabby preconception health program – the opportunity to scale up Gabby to a simulated, interactive game exists NOW. Speaking of which, games are being developed that intrinsically teach biofeedback and stress reduction to the players. For example, there is a horror game called Never Mind that requires the player to remain calm (monitored via sensors) in order to move to the next level. There are simulated ER games that do the same for medical students. Using the “candy crush” concept for good, the Half The Sky movement has created a Facebook adventure that raises awareness and funds to empower women and girls. The game provides great information while raising real money for women across the globe. There are other cool mobile games being developed by USAID for people in hard to reach countries – click here to check them out.
Some of the most powerful moments of the conference emerged from the artivists (yes, that is spelled correctly). For example, Lisa Russell with Governess films launched a new initiative called “I Sell the Shadow” to create a portal for socially conscious entertainment. She spoke about narrative justice and how this concept flipped her career of documenting problems in other countries for aid agencies upside down. Her words affirmed that our photovoice work is on the right track and something we must pursue. By providing a space for women to tell their own stories – to highlight what IS working and why it is important as well as highlighting local challenges and solutions – we are helping to rewrite the empowerment story. Check out this cool Charter of Storytelling Rights by David Denborough.
Finally, Ben Wikler stressed the importance of the art of storytelling. In fact, if there was a subtitle for this conference it would be something about the importance of stories – it was mentioned by almost everyone. He suggested that to tell a good story the headline is key, highlight the moment of decision that defined your challenge – the switch point, and describe it visually so people can imaging themselves there.
A SwitchPoint is an “aha” moment… a spark of a thought that leads you down a new path. I absolutely had a moment or two in thinking about what our coalition could do. How can we create boundary-spanning leaders? How can we support break out transformation? Could public health and social workers explore having their desk in community, entrepreneurial co-working spaces? We need to learn more about strategies underway in technology that support start up weekends and design sprints. Wouldn’t it be exhilerating to take on a community maternal and child health challenge in partnership with artists, businesses, consumers and tech designers? What could we change by asking, “can you help me build this?” instead of “what do you think?” How can we push ourselves to open up our minds to the potential that is out there, and then have the courage to jump in? How can we create SwitchPoint moments?Sarah Verbiest, DrPH, MSW, MPH is the Director and Co-Founder of the Every Woman Southeast Coalition. She is also the Executive Director for UNC Center for Maternal and Infant Health and the CDC Senior Consultant to the National Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative.