Kate Otto, Women LEAD’s newest supporter of the week graduated New York University with a BA in International Relations and a MPA in International Health Policy & Management. Kate Otto works in the field of public health, at the intersection of new technologies and human behavior. She currently works with the World Bank in Ethiopia, where she monitors how mobile phone tools affect maternal health outcomes. Kate takes part in many service-driven communities, one of them being the Catherine B. Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship, and the Academy of Achievement program. She is also writing a book called the Everyday Ambassador: How to Be a Global Citizen in a Digital World. You can check out her work on her website, TEDx talk, Facebook page, and her Twitter.
How did you first get involved in your field?
I was very blessed to be raised in a healthy family and a generally very healthy community. I never knew a lot about health as a social justice issue until high school. While I was in high school, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a local shelter that providing housing and support for Rhode Islanders living with HIV/AID. Just then, my journey to understanding health as a matter of social justice began! I saw pretty quickly how difficult life became living with HIV, not just the physical complications and mental health implications but also being judged by society. Through the lens of HIV/AIDS, I continued volunteering at home and then started doing so abroad – a semester in Ghana, a summer job in Tanzania, a fellowship in Indonesia – all aimed around the same themes of addressing health in both medical and social ways.
Could you talk a bit more about those three experiences? What were you doing in those countries?
I majored in International Relations in college, eager to become a ‘worldly’ person, and while originally I had planned to study French at the Sorbonne as my semester abroad, I changed my mind the day I read an advertisement for a Ghana program. I knew very little about Africa, but felt that if I wanted to be more worldly I should see much more of the world, learn from other people’s perspectives. And the semester definitely delivered — imagine learning about the trans-Atlantic slave trade from a West African professor? It was a powerful experience in re-learning world history and seeing that the way I was raised was just one of many, many perspectives. I also had the chance to volunteer throughout the semester with an HIV/AIDS clinic and with my friend Anita, who was a Ghanaian student at the same university, hosted a poster-design competition for students throughout Accra about overcoming the stigma associated w/ HIV/AIDS. I loved the experience of hearing those young students create their own messaging and campaigns – and we ended up raising about $10,000.00 for the clinic too.
While in Tanzania, I was asked to replicate a similar program (as in Ghana) in Tanzania by a gap year company called Work the World (now called GapMedic) – I had met the co-Founder while in Ghana. In Tanzania, I worked with a local NGO partner and 8 schools/youth centers to create an HIV testing campaign and testing day – a successful event but more than that, another heavy set of lessons I learned in terms of my role as a foreigner abroad, how to cultivate leadership, honing patience and cultural communication skills, and seeing how my small project fit into a much bigger picture.
In Indonesia I spent the year on a Henry Luce Foundation Scholarship with a local drug rehabilitation and HIV/AIDS center called Rumah Cemara (rumahcemara.org) and they transformed my life as well in a multitude of ways. Their model of care is ‘peer support’ – so almost all employees are living with HIV and recovering heroin addicts (for the first time in my life I was a minority for being neither) – and their results are brilliant. They deeply understand their clients not just as numbers or disease or conditions, but as emotional beings, and they’re treated like friends, like family.
In all of those experiences, what have you felt was your biggest leadership test, and how did you overcome it?
I would say that in each of those experiences, my biggest leadership test was the moment in a project when I needed to “let go” and trust my teammates and partners. As someone who tends to take on a lot of work (and enjoy that!), I am sometimes very successful because I can ‘do everything myself’; multi-task, create efficiencies, work tirelessly. However one person is one person, and I was humbled each time when I realized that I was indeed only one of a greater team, and unless my entire team felt empowered and was at their best, then even my best efforts wouldn’t create success.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted you during your work or outside of work?
The first woman that comes to mind is my friend Glory, who was one of my high school students during the summer in Tanzania. She was very bright but also very financially poor, and about a year after I had left she called me in the US and explained to me that she was being held back from graduation because her family couldn’t afford $300 in accumulated school fees. (Her mother had died and her father had other wives, who didn’t treat Glory well since she wasn’t ‘their’ child). My family happily sponsored her to graduate high school, and then Glory and I had a heart to heart about her goals and dreams, and she explained she wanted to teach more people about her country and become a tour guide, maybe even run her own company one day. So I agreed to fundraise for her college degree, and she’s finishing up Year 1 right now! (http://www.indiegogo.com/glorycollege?a=566228) The reason she’s so impactful in my life is for a few reasons (1) she’s a loving, positive force; (2) she reminds me how much in my life I have to be grateful for – having access to loans for college, having a stable, secure family; (3) she represents to me the strength and resilience that I think lie deep down in most people, she calls upon it so often to keep pushing through to new levels of success; (4) she engages people in her life fruitfully – she joined Facebook and meets and makes new friends all over the world who learn about her efforts
How did you create the concept of “everyday ambassador”, and when did that become the blog and book?
When I was preparing to leave Indonesia after the year, I had a few different career paths set before me – directing a national health non-profit’s Boston office, staying in Indonesia and continuing in development work, teaming up with the World Bank and returning to Africa – and I had no idea on which way to go. So I started reading back through old journals and blog posts, and compiled essentially a memoir type of document, for myself and my own reflection. Months later I realized it might be interesting to others thinking about ‘how can I make the best impact in a globalized world’ and so I changed my website to be everydayambassador.org and began crafting a book proposal and refining the text. Through the comments and feedback of friends and colleagues, I realized the right ‘place’ for EA was in bringing up the issue of our generation’s time: in a world that’s limitlessly ‘connected’, are we actually getting farther away from each other. I certainly had many ‘crash course’ experiences abroad when I learned how to meaningfully work w/ others (not just demand results or expect perfection, like we can do from our devices) — and I began to hear a lot of people sharing similar stories. So I’m continuing to compile them as I prepare the book, and very excited to see where it will go!
Did you ever feel any discrimination as a woman/female leader in any of the places you worked in?
As for discrimination, unfortunately yes, though it’s subtle and silent. The times I have observed it, I have found to be true what has been revealed in sociological research to date: when men adopt ‘leadership qualities’ they are hailed as powerful, and when women do the same they are considered to be emotional, mean, and or harsh. I do my best to be cognizant of these biases without feeling constrained by them, and one thing I do that I always encourage my peers and younger women to do is to not perpetuate such stereotypes (women play a role in that too). I think gaining respect is a result of being respectful towards others first, and in cases where the party in question is simply disrespectful, then I think that is always worth calling out and addressing in a direct way.
To add to that advice, what you advise young women who want to go into the health field?
My advice to young women would be no different than my advice to young men: get to the roots. Understand in a deeply human way what causes disease, and whether you end up working at the downstream end of treatment or more upstream on prevention, make sure you have the bigger picture in mind. Accept that you’re one small part of a big system, and learn that system inside-out (whether it’s a community health level or a national Ministry). And if you’re designing any kind of ‘solution’, test-test-test. Make sure what you’re creating makes sense to intended users.