Young Champions Give Birth to Global Maternal Health Collaboration

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By: Claire Bangser, Senior Program Manager, Ashoka

The following post originally appeared Ashoka’s blog. It is reposted here with permission.

Nine months ago, fifteen complete strangers in twelve different countries independently packed their lives into suitcases. They packed dress clothes and swimsuits, t-shirts and traditional items from home, flip flops, high-heels, laptops, books, and photos of loved ones. They said goodbye to the friends, parents, teachers, bosses, peers, siblings, and even their own children to jet off to a new country, a new home, a new job, and a completely foreign way of living for the nine months to follow.

These fifteen strangers came from fifteen unique walks of life: an Ethiopian mother, an Omani Master’s student, an American finance-manager-turned-social-entrepreneur, an Indian engineer and mother of two, a Kenyan community organizer, an Iranian educator and midwife, a Pakistani doctor, and a Brazilian artist, to name a few.

The common thread between these fifteen perfect strangers was an unrelenting passion to transform the lives – and specifically the health – of women and mothers.

Each of them proposed a new solution to improve the maternal health field and each of them was selected by Ashoka, the Maternal Health Task Force, and a panel of expert judges to become a Young Champion of Maternal Health.

In September 2010, the fifteen Young Champions flew to New Delhi, India to meet each other for the first time and participate in the Global Maternal Health Conference – a convening of 700 maternal health leaders and experts from around the world organized by the Maternal Health Task Force. During their week together in India, these fifteen strangers came face to face to become colleagues, peers, and friends. Young Champions formed a unique and almost tangible bond that would prove to hold strong during the nine months ahead.

During the first and second trimesters of the Young Champions of Maternal Health Program (September 1 through February 28), the Young Champions went through a wide range of experiences and growth pains – learning to apply their previous knowledge and experiences to address a maternal health issue in an entirely new context. They worked closely with their host organizations and Ashoka Fellow mentors to design projects and programs that would unite the institution’s existing solutions with the Young Champion’s unique perspective and insights. At the same time, the Young Champions found themselves deeply entrenched in the successes and struggles of social ventures on the ground.

There is no doubt that each and every Young Champion faced immense challenges during this time. The combination of working in a different country (and often in a foreign language) far from family, friends, and familiarity; a different cultural context with its own traditions, norms, and obstacles; and a new host organization with foreign processes and unique challenges to address the sobering issues around maternal death and disability, was taxing and extremely difficult. During the hard times, Young Champions connected with one another. They shared their struggles, frustrations, fears, ideas, and successes. They inspired each another to persevere and challenged each other’s perspectives and approaches.

In the ninth month, the Young Champions packed their suitcases once again. This time, they convened in Accra, Ghana, a hub of maternal health innovation in West Africa, for the Young Champions Future Forum. The three-day gathering brought the Young Champions group together with leading social entrepreneurs (including four Ashoka Fellows) and high-level maternal health experts (including Dr. Fred Sai) from Africa and the U.S. Over the course of three days, the YC group received targeted guidance and social entrepreneurship skills training to help them put their maternal health ideas to action. They shared maternal health and social entrepreneurial knowledge, strengthened their professional networks, and inspired one another to sustain the momentum that the YCMH program has built.

Despite their many interactions through phone, email, and Skype over the course of the nine-month program, this face-to-face meeting was a catalyst for innovation and collaboration moving forward. In one staggeringly inspirational session, each Young Champion presented a “pitch” of his or her idea and plan to improve maternal health. The constant sharing of field-specific knowledge, experiential wisdom, new hopes, goals, and innovative ideas, ultimately birthed significant new collaborations. One creation resulting from this gathering is the Maternal Health Innovation Fund – a US-based 501c3 – to be jointly founded by the Young Champions – that will raise an initial $150,000 to provide seed capital to high caliber social entrepreneurs focusing on maternal health.

As the Young Champions pack their suitcases once again – this time to return home – they have a new set of tools, ideas, and skills to pack in with their souvenirs. Though the nine-month program officially ends next week, there is no doubt that this group will give birth to real change in maternal health for years to come.