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A day in the life of a global health advocate

July 20, 2015 by Kelly Healy

To make an impact on Capitol Hill, you need a passion for policy and global health. Meet Jenny Howell, PATH’s US congressional advocacy lead.
Jenny Howell in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

A passion for policy and global health led Jenny Howell to PATH, where she advocates for US Congressional support for maternal child health, immunization, and malaria control. Photo: PATH/Allie Mooney.

This is how Jenny Howell describes what it’s like to be a global health advocate on Capitol Hill:

So, you have a population, ridden with disease. You have a vaccine that can prevent that disease or an effective drug to treat it. How do you get the support of the influential people who can direct resources and shape policies to get these tools to the people who need them most? How do you get the support of policymakers?

Howell pauses to add this caveat:

“You have 20 minutes to make them care.”

Jenny Howell is the face of PATH’s US congressional advocacy on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. She spends her days advocating for evidence-based policies to save the lives of women and children around the world and to stop diseases like malaria.

Supporting global health is an easier sell for some than others. When a member of Congress is already a global health champion, it’s more about keeping their staff up to date and perhaps encouraging them to take a lead role on a specific effort. But it can be more difficult to engage a skeptic or to get a new member interested.

“No one is against global health on principle, so you just have to find a connection that relates to the member’s priorities and lets the staffer see why they should take action.”

She’s quick to add that policy advocacy isn’t just about PATH, it’s about working together as a global health community. Jenny knows that policy will happen whether or not PATH is at the table. PATH’s role is to make sure policies are built on scientific evidence and expertise from the field.

Part of her job is breaking down the complicated facts and figures we use to communicate global health data and explain innovative health technologies. She has to make sure the information is understandable to a staffer who might be completely unfamiliar with global health or development and probably has dozens of other issues on their plate. To determine what will resonate with staffers, Jenny draws from the years she spent working on the Hill.

“It’s important to communicate a sense of urgency without leaving the staffer feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. You have to make sure the problems seem solvable and the asks seem actionable.”

An average week is anything but

In an average week she’s on the Hill one or two days, meeting with legislative staff and attending briefings. When not on the Hill, she spends her time tracking legislation and leading round tables of fellow advocates to coordinate messaging and ensure the community is unified.

Jenny Howell meets with a legislative assistant.

Jenny Howell meets with Ben Merkel, legislative assistant in the Office of Senator Patty Murray. Photo: PATH/Sally Ethelston.

Her overarching objectives? To build champions for lifesaving global health programs and to ensure that decision-makers have the information necessary to make evidence-based policies that align with the health needs of women and children around the world.

She does this by:

  • Educating members of Congress and their staff about the vital role the US government plays in maternal and child health, immunization, malaria control, and research and development for global health technologies
  • Arming members with the latest facts and figures to answer questions on key global health issues
  • Encouraging members to take action, such as highlighting the importance of US leadership in global health during committee hearings, protecting funding for global health programs, or sponsoring legislation to improve the US government’s effectiveness

Her biggest challenge? The environment in Washington today. (A close second to the sore feet from walking the marble halls all day.)

“We’re working in a broken system where gridlock is the norm and bipartisanship is rare. So you have to figure out how to get around all the roadblocks. But it’s also an opportunity to be smart and strategic.”

Smart + strategic = high-impact solutions

Smart policies don’t always require more money. Ensuring that members on both sides of the aisle understand the value of our investments in global health and the impact those investments make in the lives of real people goes a long way. You can also encourage legislation that ensures the US is being strategic and prioritizing high-impact, cost-effective solutions.

Jenny says every day her work confirms the importance of ensuring the United States continues to play a lead role in improving health around the world. Not to mention the importance of comfortable footwear.