Ophelia Dahl Receives Radcliffe Medal from Harvard University

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PIH co-founder joins list of awardees including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Dolores Huerta, Toni Morrison

Posted on June 12, 2023

Ophelia Dahl, then executive director of Partners In Health, during the earthquake response in Haiti in 2010. (Photo by Ron Haviv)

PIH Co-Founder and lifelong social justice advocate Ophelia Dahl has received the Radcliffe Medal, a Harvard University honor that recognizes individuals who have had a transformative impact on society.

The medal is awarded each year by Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, one of the world’s leading centers for interdisciplinary exploration. Past recipients include Melinda French Gates, Dolores Huerta, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Toni Morrison.

Dahl’s work in global health began at 18 years old in Mirebalais, Haiti, where she went to volunteer at a school for children with disabilities. During her first year there, she met Dr. Paul Farmer, who was working at a rural clinic in Cange. The seeds of a lifelong friendship—and a movement for global health equity—were planted.

In partnership with Haitian leaders, doctors, and nurses, Dahl and Farmer began to provide free health care to the community, making lifesaving treatment accessible to thousands of patients and advocating for global policy change. This work eventually led to the founding of Partners In Health in 1987, alongside Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Todd McCormack, and Tom White.

In the years since, Dahl has continued her tireless advocacy and leadership in global health. She served as PIH’s executive director for 16 years and now chairs the Board of Directors. She also helps lead the Roald Dahl Literary Estate, which manages the works of her late father, the writer Roald Dahl, and is a trustee at Wellesley College, her alma mater.

Dahl sat down with PIH to share reflections on her life in global health, her experience as a woman in leadership, and some of the greatest challenges—and sources of hope—she sees in the world:

First off, I wanted to congratulate you on receiving this award. So exciting! You’re among an amazing group of leaders to have received this: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hillary Clinton, Melinda French Gates. They’ve all had a very deep and lasting impact on human rights. How did you react to learning the news of this award?

I was surprised and extremely honored. It’s an illustrious list of past winners who’ve dedicated their lives to [service], whether it’s law or global health or education. One thing they have in common is that they’ve all been involved in their fields for a long time and seem to have focused in one area for a long time.

While I feel immensely honored, I also feel as though there are many people who do very difficult work in the same space, and I have been privileged to have found my people and allowed my own career to unfold. It hasn’t felt like a career in many ways. It’s really felt more like a long and ever-expanding collaboration.

You met Paul Farmer, PIH co-founder, at 18 during your first trip to Haiti and you worked together for more than 30 years. He was often at the forefront of our work as kind of the “face of PIH.” You stayed somewhat out of the spotlight, focused on the work, pushing our mission forward. What does this award mean for you and, perhaps, for all the others who are working behind the scenes?

The thing that became interesting to me early on is the realization that I didn’t need to be an academic, a clinician, a researcher, a supply chain [analyst], or a businessperson…social justice work and “global health” as it has become known, i.e. the work of PIH, is a field that embraces everybody. I applied myself where I was needed. In any job or any movement, it’s rare that you get things done on your own. I tried to invite many other people in and to get to know those people and connect others to the work. Anytime I go and visit PIH sites, I’m reminded that, whether it’s the people cleaning the hospital or doing malaria testing in a lab, so many people are absolutely integral to this work.

It’s been more than a year since Paul’s passing. Your life and career in global health have always been so deeply connected to his, in so many ways. Any reflections you’d like to share, as you remember his life and legacy?

He is woven into every aspect of our work. When I think about the complex weave of what we do, across teaching and research and service provision, building a university and sustaining it…there’s really not a day that goes by where I don’t think about Paul’s commitment to this mission and how many people he brought in. He invited anyone who was interested, however tangentially, across those fields and more broadly. He brought tons of young people into this through his writing. I also think about his rigorous, boundary-pushing standards and the way that he embraced complexity, never shying away from it. He kept saying, “If it needs to be done, then we must find a way to do it.”

Partnership is in PIH’s name and really key to the work we do and moving it forward. When you and other co-founders wrote the PIH mission statement over 30 years ago, you discussed partnership, specifically this need to draw on the resources of the world’s leading academic institutions to fulfill our mission, which is both medical and moral. Can you talk about the role of academia in partnering with implementers such as PIH?

One of the things that Paul and Jim [Kim] realized early on as co-founders and as academics themselves is that there would be a limit to what an NGO could do on its own. We were not in a position to build academic systems and disciplines and if we wanted to create health systems, we would need to have people who were trained to do it. We’d need to create what Paul referred to as a “feedback loop,” so we’d also need to join it to research and teaching.

UGHE is PIH-U[niversity] to some extent, but it’s grounded in academic standards. Throughout PIH’s history, we have been connected with teaching hospitals and academic institutions.

All of us felt strongly that we could not simply have an organization that was supporting research in a country where clearly the health indices were terrible and not do something about it at the same time. These things feel indivisible to us: research, teaching, and service.

Many women look up to you and your life of service. Knowing that everyone is different and there are infinite paths to truly change society, what is your advice for women who are looking at your life and career as an inspiration to get involved?

I would say to absolutely take all of the lessons learned and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. I was really an open book. I had no plans ahead of me, except that I knew I was being affected by all I was seeing in Haiti. I was open to all counsel from many different people, and I had it right there. I had Père LafontantMamito [Yolande Lafontant], Loune [Viaud], and many more examples of good, strong women, including my mother, who had her own career. I also went to a women’s college, which I loved. I felt as though all of the people that I was around were women who were forging paths forward and all of that seeped into me from a young age.

I didn’t know it was somewhat unusual. If I was a 30-year-old woman today, if I was trying to muscle my way in and felt endless pushback, minimizing of my efforts, and subjugation, I’d be demoralized. Because of the examples from early on, I didn’t hesitate to push my way forward.

I came from artistic and creative parents. My opportunities were broad. As a kid, I was given numerous examples, encouragement, and a great deal of freedom, which was both good and overwhelming at times.

You’ve helped lead PIH through many crises over the years, from earthquakes to Ebola outbreaks to a global pandemic. What are some of the lessons, whether personal or professional, that you learned from navigating these challenges?

Every time a crisis strikes, the aftershocks and the response will depend on what infrastructure is already in that country. We can see the difference between the aftermath of an earthquake in a country in which there is strong infrastructure, or a medical system, and the aftermath of an earthquake in a country that lacks that infrastructure.

We don’t think about ourselves as a crisis response organization, but rather one that builds for the long-term. However, if you’re going to do any systems building or improvement of access to health care, you have to also address crises and partner with other organizations doing that work. And our long-term presence in the communities where we work often positions us for effective response to crises, from Ebola to COVID-19.

There is currently a coordinated attack on LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S. and around the world—thinking of the new anti-gay legislation in Uganda, for example. As an inspirational leader who happens to be queer, are there any thoughts or reflections you’d like to share about what is going on or what is truly at stake?

I think a great deal is at stake. And the idea that anybody is persecuted [by] these hate bills, hate crimes, is terrible and outrageous. Places that continue to do this are putting lives at risk. People can’t possibly feel safe in the face of legislated hate. We need to find ways to make all spaces safe for everybody and to also continue engaging people in the often longer work of changing policy. We should accompany those people who need help, and at the same time we should be working on changing the hearts and minds of global leaders who are in charge of these laws. Change is possible. Queer people were being chased out of all kinds of countries only a couple of decades ago and are now welcomed. These policies are made by humans, not by monoliths. I’ve believed all of my adult life that you can change people’s minds through long-term accompaniment.

A lot is happening in the world right now, and there’s this constant churn of tragedy and heaviness. It has many of us falling into despair, or exhaustion, or cynicism. But you’ve made a point of remaining optimistic and hopeful, notably saying pessimism is a privilege most cannot afford. So what brings you hope today?

Years ago, I was on a plane coming back from East Africa, and the plane had stopped in Nairobi. Someone got on next to me; they had been on safari in Kenya. They asked me where I was traveling and what I did. I talked about the places where PIH works, and she turned to me and said, “You know, is there really any hope? Is there any reason to do it?” I just was so taken aback by that: the idea that someone’s gone to a country on safari but has the ability to relegate an entire country, a people, to a state of hopelessness. That is something I carried with me. I still hear her words and reject them.

I hear this with respect to Haiti all the time—that it’s a terrible, terrible mess. It relatively easy for some to write off a country because it is seen as a piece of geography. As soon as you start thinking about the humans forced to live in horrendous circumstances it should become impossible.

We humans came up with this terribleness. We have the ability to address it and stop it. It wasn’t an AI system or something in the solar system that just happened upon a people. All of this suffering and all of the awfulness, even to some extent the natural disasters, are caused or exacerbated by us.

You can feel sad and overwhelmed. I sometimes do but not for long. We have the ability to make a difference. I worry about a paralysis that happens with people like us who have access to tools, funding, and extraordinary connections to others. Some of the long-term changes may not happen in our lifetimes but we can set up the circumstances to create change. And there are some things we can address and change right now.

[In my life] I’ve seen extraordinary change take place. The field of global health, for example, really didn’t exist three decades ago, and now it has become a huge field, for professionals, for students, careers, change-makers. We have multinational funds and political will that have helped to address a pandemic like AIDS very effectively. We have country like Rwanda that might be the first in the world to wipe out cervical cancer. So I feel generally hopeful. How can I not feel hopeful with so much progress already witnessed?

Originally published on pih.org

Decades before they joined the fight against COVID-19, and long before they helped battle Ebola in West Africa, Dr. Paul Farmer, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, and Ophelia Dahl—all barely out of their teens at the time—began a movement that would change global health forever by co-founding Partners In Health. Bending the Arc tells their story.

Every person, no matter who they are or where they’re from, deserves the best health care we know how to offer.

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