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YSPH Alumna Highlights Importance of Diversity in Public Health

February 09, 2021
by Colin Poitras

As a first-generation Black woman in America, Yale School of Public Health alumna Ffyona Patel, M.P.H. ’14, says her racial and cultural background is an important asset in her international public health work – both in terms of connecting with local partners and in reflecting the diversity of the places where development occurs.

“In my experience, it makes a real difference to local stakeholders to feel like implementers ‘get’ the context and are personally motivated to work side-by-side toward advancements,” Patel said. “It is doing development with and not for, or to, beneficiaries. And seeing yourself reflected in your partners is an important way of bridging relationships equitably.”

At the same time, when working in her U.S. teams, Patel said she is often the only African American in the room.

“There’s so much to do to increase diversity in international development and to invest in the growth and leadership of Black and Brown professionals – and women – within international development organizations,” she said. “Women are incredibly essential to advancements in public health worldwide, as they make up the majority of frontline health workers, but there’s still much to do to elevate women to leadership positions throughout the sector.”

Highlighting an important aspect of the call for diversity, Patel continued, “Just as important to note, conversations around diversity often focus on race or gender, leaving Black and Brown women out of the running for key leadership roles. I’m committed to staying connected to YSPH through mentorship and recruitment efforts to help build a diverse pipeline for the next generation of international development leaders.”

As an associate/scientist at Abt Associates, Patel has worked with stakeholders in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Togo and other developing countries to advance their health systems and improve health outcomes. She is currently Regional Program Manager for the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Integrated Health Program in the DRC, one of USAID’s largest bilateral programs in maternal, newborn and child health.

Patel’s collaborative approach to international health was influenced by a course she took early in her career at the Yale School of Public Health. The interdisciplinary course focused on improving health care sustainably in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there in 2010.

As part of the course – Sustainable Development in a Post-Disaster Context – Patel traveled to rural Haiti and worked directly with staff at Hôpital Albert Schweitzer. She and her classmates carefully designed and implemented technical-assistance projects based on the hospital’s priority needs.

Conversations around diversity often focus on race or gender, leaving Black and Brown women out of the running for key leadership roles.

Ffyona Patel

“We worked hand-in-hand with staff to ensure our support was context-specific and realistic, key to any intervention,” said Patel, who is Haitian American and passionate about seeing Haiti – and countries like it – evolve out of development assistance. “That experience set the tone for how I approach every project in my international health career.”

Today, Patel works with health care leaders around the world, bringing her expertise in health-systems strengthening, adaptive management, and evidence-based programming to countries where populations are vulnerable, financial and human resources are limited, and access to quality health care is a challenge. Such realities only serve as motivation for Patel.

“To me, this is where development actors should want to be,” she said. “If it was easy, it would have been done already. It is very rewarding working with local leaders to develop systems and stimulate good governance that leads to improvements that are sustainable and country-led.”

Patel credits the YSPH with providing her the essential training required to analyze and support complex and fragile health systems, ultimately to improve population health outcomes.

“YSPH gave me an incredible foundation in health politics and policy, health care management, and international health,” said Patel. “Being at YSPH gave me access to top scholars who cared about engaging student minds and developing leaders, not just lecturing or publishing.”

Her advice for current and future YSPH students: “Go for what you’re passionate about, even if it’s outside of your concentration. At Yale, you have an opportunity to take classes across the university and collaborate with professors and students from every school of thought. Multidisciplinary approaches are highly valuable and further set the stage to amplify diverse voices. There are so many possibilities!”

Ffyona Patel will be discussing her career path and answering student questions, including questions about summer 2021 internship opportunities at Abt Associates, on Wednesday, Feb. 17 from 12:00-1:00 p.m. Virtual. All YSPH students are invited. Please sign up at - space is limited. The event is co-sponsored by: YSPH Offices of Alumni Affairs and Career Management.

Submitted by Ivette Aquilino on February 09, 2021