Off the Cuff with Helene Gayle

Helene Gayle, the current president and CEO of CARE USA, will be Oberlin’s 2011 commencement speaker this May. Gayle, a heavyweight in the public health world, reorganized CARE to focus on addressing humanitarian crises through helping women in the effected communities; Gayle also chairs president Obama’s advisory council on HIV/AIDS. The Oberlin Review spoke with Dr. Gayle about her brother’s connection with Oberlin, her decision to go into public health and the difficulties facing Oberlin graduates as they decide where to focus their own energies.

John Light, Editor-in-Chief

I hear from our College president that your brother went to Oberlin, and attending his Commencement weekend helped influence your decision to go into public health. What’s the story there?

D.A. Henderson was the Commencement speaker, and I heard him and I was in medical school at the time. I had been thinking about public health as an option, and Henderson was one of the co-founders of the smallpox eradication program. And I’ll talk about this at Commencement, but he kind of verified what I thought I wanted to do, which was — Wow. You can eradicate diseases off the face of the earth. You can work with people. You can do something that makes — not just as a physician, you know, in medical school you think about treating one person at a time, but thinking about how you can make a difference in whole populations is what he spoke about. And that was — for me, that was inspirational.

Oberlin has a lot of students who end up pursuing public health careers. Building off the last question: What were some of the factors that influenced your decision to pursue a career in public health?

You know, I had always been very socially involved, so throughout high school I was very involved in social movements, civil rights, anti-apartheid, you know, other forces that were very much part of my time back in the ’60s, early ’70s. So public health just made sense. It was like putting together all of the social activism I had been involved in and combin[ing] it with medical [training] for my profession.

Where should students going into public health direct their energies?

I don’t think there’s any one place. I mean, I did a lot of my work internationally. But I also think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done here in America. I mean, we have some of the greatest disparities between life expectancy for blacks and whites, or Hispanics and whites here in America. And we should be — in the richest nation in the world that’s unconscionable. Look at where you want to put your energy. If you look at rates of maternal mortality around the world, for instance, they’re huge. You can look at countries like Afghanistan or in Sierra Leone or wherever, and the number of women dying just because they’re giving birth is inexcusable.

For those unfamiliar with your work, could you describe some of your current projects?

Well, one of the big things we’re doing [is the organization] CARE was started 65 years ago with the care package — bringing food and substances to people in Europe who had been affected by WWII. And we’re bring back the virtual care package, and that’s a big focus for us because while development was not the same as it was 66 years ago — it’s not just about food or giving people substance — but it is about how you build capacity for people around the world. We would love people to click on and learn about our virtual care package to send a child to school or give a woman a loan for microfinance, or some of the things that really help to give people — it’s kind of metaphorical — to move from giving a fish, to teaching people how to fish, to looking at why are there no fish in the stream to begin with.

For those graduating students who aren’t planning to go into public health, do you have any advice on how to decide what they should go into?

Just make a difference in the world. Public health — that was for me — you know, public health and medicine. That made a difference for me. But you can do it by economics, you can do it by English — but just think about can you give back to society what society has given to you.