Sparking a Global Health Movement for Young People: Kristen Eddings’s Vision (and a Party)

Xconomy Seattle — 

Young people get a bad rap in the media. They slack off, don’t vote, and have no money and no voice in society (except for a few outliers like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg). If they are being asked about business or some serious issue, many are afraid they’ll say something dumb on the record. Some actually do.

Every once in a while, I talk to a twenty-something like Kristen Eddings who has a rare combination of drive, focus, and poise. Eddings called the other day to pitch me on an event she’s orchestrating on June 3. Her goal is to rally 500 people in their 20s and 30s from around Seattle for what’s being called “A Party With a Purpose.”

The idea is that Seattle has a talent pool teeming with youthful idealists who want to make a difference for global health, but don’t really know how. Undergrads at the University of Washington often get pumped up by inspirational global health books like Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” but good luck trying to execute on that vision if you’re under 30. If you want to make decisions at a place like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, go ahead and get your MD/PhD, toss in a master’s in public health, and spend a few years overseas working for the World Health Organization. Do all that, and then maybe you can get a good job when you’re 40 and already have a mortgage and kids in school.

OK, I exaggerate a little, but it’s not far off the point Eddings was trying to make. She’s a Seattle native. She’s 25. She has a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from Seattle Pacific University. She’s a program assistant at the nonprofit Washington Global Health Alliance. That doesn’t exactly put her on speed-dial with the president of the WHO.

But there’s that focus and fire. A few minutes into our phone call, I tried to tell her politely that she has a fine idea for an event, but that it’s not really a story. She had this to say:

“It’s not really a story about an event. This party is the beginning of a young people’s global health movement. This is going to be viral. It’s going to be a big deal.” Eddings added: “Young people feel they have something to contribute, but they cannot get a job in the field. This is a way that more of them can contribute.”

OK, she got my attention.

So who is this young woman? She caught the global health bug on a summer abroad experience in Sierra Leone, the tiny nation in west Africa, where she taught English in an orphanage. But what was really holding back that country, Eddings felt, was the horrible state of health conditions. She was determined to make a difference.

Naturally, there weren’t a ton of entry-level positions in global health. But Eddings found herself a full-time job working for Lisa Cohen, the executive director at the fledgling Washington Global Health Alliance on March 1, 2008. It was the first and only hire Cohen made until about a week ago, and it made a critical difference for the Global Health Alliance in its formative days, Cohen says. After less than two years on the job, Eddings was featured in a book by Lubise Binder called “Ten Ways to Change the World in Your Twenties.”

“Kristen is amazing,” Cohen says. “There are a lot of people who are passionate about global health, but she really brings it all together with a focus, and a real adroitness. She’s young, but she’s strategic. I talk to my husband a lot about what a phenomenal working experience we’ve had together. I trust her completely.”

A big opportunity to show what Eddings could do came in October last year. She went with Cohen to a meeting at the Gates Foundation with Fil Randazzo, a senior program officer, and Lisa Verhovek, the manager of community relations. They were there to brainstorm about how to better engage young people with global health issues. Verhovek’s twenty-something assistant, Lacey Birk, was there. “She’s cut from the same cloth as Kristen,” Cohen says of Birk. “They had a vision from the beginning. Some people are talkers. They are doers.”

Ideas got kicked around, like you’d expect. When it was done, the two go-getter assistants were asked to research the issue and come up with a proposal. They proceeded to combine the concepts of changing the world, and having a party, because those are two things twenty-somethings want to do. They recruited a steering committee of advisors with experience at Boeing, Vulcan, and Russell Investments that didn’t include the usual global health suspects. They found underwriting support to pay all the expenses of a evening event at the swanky Pan Pacific Hotel, featuring local blues/reggae/world pop band “Publish the Quest” and a DJ “spinning a mix of MJ and Black Eyed Peas.” No podium, just a very short program, and “a sweet swag bag.”

And so “A Party With a Purpose” was born. Make it fun, they figured, and you can make a difference. By getting 500 people paying $25 a ticket, the idea is to generate enough in ticket sales to make a small but tangible difference, on a specific global health cause. In this case, they envision supporting 63 centers to treat the dehydration that people suffer from rotavirus infections.

We’ll see whether Eddings and Birk can indeed pack the room, and whether young people can actually have a good time while raising their awareness of rotavirus. Crazy as it sounded to me at first, Cohen sure sounded confident these two will make it happen. “This is really just the start for them,” she says.

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