Interview by Megan Foo, President of Women LEAD’s Hong Kong Chapter
Liz Fortier earned a Master’s of Public Health degree from New York University in 2012, during which she researched harm reduction measures for intravenous drug users, and worked for a diabetes prevention research study in East Harlem. Passionate about the intersections between health, poverty, and gender equality, Liz has consistently undertaken initiatives relating to the health of marginalized populations and improving access to healthcare for those living in poverty. Recently, she has also undertaken a volunteer role as a mentor at the Women’s Prison Association. She is eager to share what she has learned about health and poverty and how those issues relate to gender equity.
Women LEAD: What is your background?
Liz Fortier: I have a Master’s degree in Public Health. I have been fortunate enough to study community health in South Africa, Mexico, and New York City. Studying public health led me to realize how serious gender inequity is globally, and how poverty and a lack of access to health care sustain some of this inequity.
Women LEAD: You are a volunteer at the Women’s Prison Association, an advocacy group in the US that helps women with criminal justice histories see new possibilities for themselves and their families. Can you tell us more about your role with the Women’s Prison Association?
Liz Fortier: I just started volunteering as a mentor for the Women’s Prison Association (WPA). The mentors for WPA support women who are transitioning out of prison. Mentoring has proven to reduce the recidivism rate among incarcerated individuals. My role involves letter writing, phone calls, one-on-one meetings, and group events with my mentee. Some of the women who are in the mentor program have been incarcerated for lengthy periods of time, and they may not have experience using computers, Internet, or other things that most of us rely on on a daily basis. The mentors act as a support for these women who need resources while transitioning their lives out of prison. The Women’s Prison Association works to empower women. The mentors are not meant to provide for or do things for the mentees, but to guide them to the resources they need to empower themselves.
I got involved with the Women’s Prison Association because this population of women is usually forgotten and extremely vulnerable, vulnerable to poor health outcomes, re-incarceration, substance abuse, and sexual violence to name a few. Many of these women have experienced trauma and faced serious obstacles in their lives. They need extra support, and usually receive none. I felt that my time would be best used serving this population.
Women LEAD: Why does women’s empowerment matter to you?
Liz Fortier: Women’s empowerment matters to me for numerous reasons. The scale of gender inequity may differ by location in the world or culture in which one lives, however, to some degree all over the world, women are affected more seriously by poverty, experience sexual assault, violence and harassment at a higher rate, are more often negatively confined by gender roles, earn less money, fail to have educational opportunities or economic opportunities, and often do not receive appropriate health care and reproductive health rights in comparison to men. To me it is obvious that we need to work toward women’s empowerment because the current situation tells us so.
Women LEAD: Why is learning about the intersection between global health, poverty, and gender equality important to you?
Liz Fortier: Much of my public health background involved studying vulnerable populations. Learning about and spreading awareness of the intersection between global health, poverty, and gender equality is important to me because I think understanding these issues could help break down racial, class, and gender barriers globally that lead to inequality and sustain the status quo. We know that gender inequity is a problem, but if we understand its roots we can eradicate it more effectively.
Women LEAD: Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?
Liz Fortier: My mom has been a big impact on why I chose to pursue a career working to help people and advocating for gender equity. She always taught me that service was an important part of life, as well as always standing up for what is right. My mother is an extremely confident and strong woman. She attained her law degree after while raising 3 children. She and my father also raised three of their nieces whose parents couldn’t care for them. My mom recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a political leader in my hometown by winning a position on the city council. I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am without her influence.
Women LEAD: What advice do you have for future advocates for women and girls?
Liz Fortier: My advice to future advocates for women and girls is to keep it up! Since becoming a blogger for Girls’ Globe almost 2 years ago, the organization has grown exponentially, and I have become linked to some highly inspiring girls and women. I think we are on the right track. Women are showing everyday that we will stand up for what we want, need, and will work to make the world a better place to live if given the opportunity.
Women LEAD: Are there books inspiring you right now about gender equality and women’s empowerment?
Liz Fortier: Since Maya Angelou passed last year, I decided to re-read a collection of her poetry. It could go without saying, but her life story is just so inspiring. How she overcame so much in her childhood including sexual violence, and used her experiences for good is a reminder to me of how powerful and beautiful we all are. I couldn’t do justice trying to explain some of my favorite poems, so I suggest picking up a copy!