As a boy 20 years ago, PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Rajesh Panjabi fled civil war in Liberia with his family. Now he’s back, helping create a community health care network to serve a ravaged country.
By Ford Cochran
National Geographic is on Maine’s Atlantic coast for the 2010 PopTech Conference, which will be webcast live from the Camden Opera House beginning at 9 a.m. EDT this morning. Last night, I spoke with Dr. Rajesh Panjabi, M.D., co-founder and executive director of Tiyatien Health, an organization working with rural communities and the Liberian government “to advance health care and the fundamental rights of the poor.” Panjabi is among 15 new PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, part of a program launched with support from National Geographic.
You left Liberia 20 years ago?
My family and I escaped the war in 1990. We ended up going to Freetown first, and then eventually got resettled in America. We were settled in North Carolina.
But now you’re back in Liberia. Tell me about the work you’re doing there.
After I had a chance to become a doctor here, I felt very lucky about the opportunity I had been given, and I wanted to find out what had happened to the people I had left behind in the conflict. 15 years after I left, in 2005, I went back, and started to work with government and communities in a rain forest to form Tiyatien Health, which is “justice and health” in English.
The focus of our work is to try to model, pioneer really, a new way of resurrecting health systems where infrastructure has been destroyed. We’re trying to put community health workers at the backbone of the health care system rather than doctors. Instead, we feel doctors can play backup.
Your work caught the attention of people here at PopTech. How did that happen? How did you become a social innovation fellow?
Last year, one of the initiatives we’ve taken on with our community health system is to treat mental health conditions in a country that has been ravaged by mass levels of rape and other forms of violence. We have used our community health worker system to do that, and in that work we were recognized by the Ashoka Foundation. Through the Ashoka Foundation, PopTech discovered our work.
From there, we applied for this PopTech program on behalf of our organization, and that’s how we’re here.
So you’re part of this cadre of 15 new Social Innovation Fellows, and you’ve spent the last week here in and around Camden getting to know one another and getting training. What’s that been like?
It has been extraordinary. The focus has been at two levels. One has been on the nuts and bolts of learning how to be a social entrepreneur. How to engage new sectors, new fields, in your work, so that your work can become more creative, but also so you can share the importance of your work with others. Media training, how to communicate your ideas, how to think about pitching your story. Just to be able to build support–the leadership skills.
But there’s a second level that I believe is even more meaningful, and that’s something I think PopTech holds very dearly, fundamentally. It’s the idea of community building, the idea that authentic relationships and authentic communities are truly what the world needs to be able to rely on the knowledge and the power that we all have to make change. That is the sixth course, or the sixth sense, that I think PopTech has been trying to build for us.
We feel so deeply honored to be here. It’s incredibly inspiring to be around other people who are also dealing with difficult problems and realizing that it’s possible to solve them. It’s courage-building, because there are so many challenges along the way when you’re starting your work, or as PopTech says many of us are at the early stages of our work. That sharing of vulnerability, but also the ways we’ve overcome the vulnerability has been really immense.
We closed out the Fellows Retreat yesterday. We got in a circle with postcards on the ground, each of which described different attributes of the human condition: Joy, Sadness, Despair. We were asked to pick up one of those and reflect upon it, and it was a powerful experience to hear what everyone said.
I think what was underlying it is that each one of us, if you’re an innovator or an entrepreneur, had to deal with this moment where you had to make a commitment. Up until that commitment is made, there’s an incredible amount of doubt: The doubt about whether the problem can actually be solved, the doubt about whether you’re actually the one to do it or whether you have the right idea.
Until that moment when a commitment happens, having someone believe in you, having someone have faith in you, really counts a lot. I would argue that most of us in this group and in the world of entrepreneuria had somebody or some people that did that for us. I think PopTech is trying to do more of that, encourage it, not just for the fellows, but for the whole community, as I see it. It’s part of why I’m so excited about the conference.
You and the other Social Innovation Fellows will be presenting your stories throughout the PopTech conference. But you got a chance to share them first with a group of about 600 high school students from across the state of Maine here in the Camden Hills High School, correct?
We did. Each of us is working on different parts of the broader social problems of our time. Some are working in health. Some are working in energy. Some are trying to build a movement of citizen scientists. What was interesting is that each of the fellows, I think, was trying to get the same message across to the students, which was that we each have, no matter what our age is, a chance to do something with our lives. For me there was a moment at the age of ten, a moment that was the birth of conscience for me.
Everyone has an opportunity to find that moment for themselves and ask whether they can try to help change the world.
You can watch Rajesh Panjabi tell his story live from the PopTech stage on Saturday afternoon, October 23, or view the entire PopTech 2010 conference as it happens.
Photos of Rajesh Panjabi with Venus, a community health worker (top), and with Emmanuel, a patient and friend who suffered AIDS and tuberculosis, courtesy Rajesh Panjabi
Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.
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