Working Toward a Mission Danika Brockman '21 interviews Natasha Lerner '13 about making a difference in women's health.
“I sought out Washington and Lee because of the Shepherd Program. No other school I visited offered such a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to gaining skills, knowledge and experience to improve people’s lives.”
~ Natasha Lerner ’13
Editor’s note: In this series, “Living the Shepherd Dream,” current students in the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability at Washington and Lee interview alumni of the program who are working in a field that interests them. In this installment, Danika Brockman ’21 interviews Natasha Lerner, program director for family planning at Boston Medical Center. At W&L, Lerner was a global politics major and earned minors in poverty and human capability studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies.
Danika Brockman is a junior majoring in anthropology and minoring in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. She hopes to work in the field of gender inequality in health care, particularly in international contexts, and use anthropological strategies to lessen that inequality. She would like to reorganize institutions and empower women with education and support to control their own health. During summer 2019, she did a Shepherd internship in rural Nepal.
Q: What information and experiences led you to your interest in women’s health?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in women’s and health issues. I have been deeply influenced by both of my parents’ careers and values. My father is an infectious disease physician who specializes in HIV/AIDS. My mother is a travel writer, and she was a women’s studies major in the 1970s when women’s studies programs were just being founded. She burned her bra for the ERA marching in Washington, D.C. I grew up fortunate to have a lot of opportunities, one of which was traveling the world thanks to my mother’s job. I remember from a very young age being deeply upset with inequality in this world – economic and gender inequality particularly.
I committed to a career in public service very young, but I wasn’t sure what focus it would take. Over the years, I have worked on issues like gender mainstreaming, sexual assault and domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, and international development. All of these areas are very important to me, and my work continues to touch on them. Ultimately, my passion is sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). I am drawn to this issue area because at its core SRHR is about the attainment of social and political self-determination, bodily autonomy and well-being, economic opportunity and equality of human beings. These principles drive me.
I sought out Washington and Lee because of the Shepherd Program. No other school I visited offered such a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to gaining skills, knowledge and experience to improve people’s lives. At W&L, I was a politics major and planned to stay more in the political realm in my career. However, as I began exploring programs and policies that lead to the results I want for women, public health approaches appealed most to me as technically sound, evidence-based and affecting systems-level change.
Q: What opportunities did you find in Lexington and at Washington and Lee that catered to your interest in women’s health?
I volunteered at Project Horizon throughout my time at W&L, which showed me the role service-based organizations can play and furthered my understanding of the complexities of sexual and domestic violence. For my poverty studies capstone, I completed a community-based research project for Project Horizon in which I conducted a needs assessment on expanding Project Horizon’s services to LGBTQ victims of violence.
In my coursework, I was able to explore how women’s health and lives are affected by the society and culture in which they live, as well as the events they experience. In a true liberal arts fashion, I was able to explore issues related to women’s health and rights in literature, law, economics, politics, philosophy and business. For my women’s and gender studies capstone, I analyzed theater plays written by women about war to explore women’s perspectives of and experiences in war – a viewpoint that doesn’t usually make it into historical documentation.
At W&L, I was able to form close relationships with a handful of professors who challenged me, motivated me and supported me. My mentor was Professor Tyler Dickovick, whose humor, thoughtful discussions and belief in me guided me to where I am today.
Q: What kind of opportunities would you like to see at Washington and Lee surrounding gender inequality?
The Greek system at W&L can create a complicated gender dynamic on campus.
In so many ways, I am exceptionally grateful to have been in a sorority. My sorority helped shape me into a compassionate friend, encouraged me to do well in school, gave me a sense of belonging, and challenged me to think about the best ways to foster community. I watched the sorority community help friends out of domestic violence situations, support sisters with health issues and spur friends to apply to graduate school.
On the other hand, the Greek system is flawed and exacerbates many gender issues. I think W&L has made significant efforts since I was a student to improve gender relations and make Greek life more inclusive. It is important that W&L continues to openly engage on the issue of sexual assault, accepting students of all sexual orientations and gender identities, and fostering more shared college life between men and women.
I think it is great that W&L trains all students on green dot bystander intervention, that so many students volunteer at Project Horizon, that Take Back the Night events are so well attended, and that the student health center provides sexual and reproductive health services. Since I graduated I have heard the WGS program has grown and now includes sexuality studies. These are all positive trends for gender equality on the W&L campus and I hope to see the trend continue.
Q: What sorts of inequalities have you become aware of in health care that you think most people are unaware of?
I work in family planning, increasing access to contraception. There are many inequalities in access to contraception that people might expect, like how your insurance type (or lack of), zip code, race, marital status, income and age all affect your ability to access contraception and the method of your choice. What people may be less aware of is how health care can be coercive, biased and stigmatizing, especially to vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. It is so important in health care services and public health programs that we value the process more than the end. We must ensure work done to address health inequity is done in a patient-centered and rights-based approach. My aim in family planning is not to provide more contraceptives in a quantitative sense. It is to ensure that all people have access to high-quality care, which includes respectful counseling, information and the method of their choice. Recently, a number of nonprofits and governments have made it their mission to increase utilization of long-acting reversible contraceptives (IUDs and implants). This numbers-driven approach to family planning is exceptionally concerning and risks contributing to a long history of coercion in reproductive health care.
Q: How has your training so far prepared you in your career?
W&L provided me with a strong liberal arts education. This meant that when I graduated, I left Lexington with a lot of knowledge, good writing skills, critical thinking skills and an appreciation for interdisciplinary approaches and collaboration. This knowledge and “ways of thinking” gave me a strong foundation. But I needed some concrete skills to do the jobs I wanted – you know – making a budget, managing logistics, designing a logic model, motivating staff.
I pursued a Master of Public Administration (MPA) because I found the degree to be very skills-based. I may have refined my topical expertise, but I did so through the exercises of learning how to write an executive memo, conduct a stakeholder analysis, create a mission statement and perfect an elevator pitch. My MPA gave me a toolbox.
I have known for a long time that I want to work in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights. However, what that looks like on a daily basis was not always clear to me. I used my internships throughout college, my masters and my first jobs to try out different departments to see what I liked most. At DoSomething.org, I worked in program outreach; at House Works, I worked in policy and advocacy; at the Women’s World Summit Foundation, I worked on grant making and campaigns; at W&L, I worked on research; at the Center for Reproductive Rights, I worked in development; at the United Nations Development Programme, I worked in organizational management; at the Council on Foreign Relations, I worked in social media; at EngenderHealth, I worked in knowledge management and evaluation; and at the BUSPH Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health, I worked in grants management and student engagement. Getting to test out different skills in my toolbox, all while working toward the mission I believe in, allowed me to identify what I actually wanted to do on a daily basis, not just the field in which I wanted to work.
I decided that a terminal degree made sense for my career for a number of reasons. The reason for pursuing a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) specifically: It is a degree for those in public health practice – be it nonprofit, government, pharma or consulting. Unlike a PhD, a DrPH is not research focused, and unlike an MD, it does not prepare you to be a clinician. A DrPH is for people who aim to become senior leadership in public health organizations. This appealed to me, because I had experienced dealing with supervisors who rose to their positions because they were great researchers or clinicians, but once in leadership positions they did not have the skill set to lead, to manage, to motivate employees, to make decisions that allow for more effective and efficient work. Like other doctorate programs, the DrPH includes coursework, a practicum, a comprehensive exam and a dissertation. But unlike a PhD, where you become an expert in a single topic, the DrPH approach is to make you a generalist, to expose you to all of the departments and issues that are integral in practice-based organizations. The DrPH combines research, management and policy. This skill set has given me in-depth understandings of systems and flexibility to respond to the unknown ways in which public health will change overtime.
I currently have my dream job. I work as the program director of family planning at Boston Medical Center. I am the director of the Partners in Contraceptive Choice and Knowledge (PICCK) program, which is a five-year grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services to provide education, training and technical assistance to Massachusetts’ 44 maternity hospitals to increase access to contraceptive care.
What advice would you give to students looking to make an impact on gender issues in health care?
1. Gain skills! Passion and knowledge are fundamental to success, but what the Shepherd Program taught me is that achieving results require a trained workforce of skilled professionals.
2. Think creatively and critically. Challenge whole systems, but don’t let the ideal be the enemy of the good. There is a lot we can do now. Don’t be discouraged.
3. When doing public service work the process matters as much as the impact. While our work may be evaluated on outcomes, we have to make sure our means are ethical.
4. Do internships! Really use the opportunity to have internships while a student. At no other point in your career can you drop into an organization for a couple of months and test it out to see what you like and dislike in a job. It is so helpful to understand what type of organization, office culture, department and mission works for you. We spend more time working as adults than doing anything else. Figuring out what you want out of a job is important for getting yourself to a position that is fulfilling, happy and works for your personal life.
5. Lastly, the following advice was given to me by my supervisor during my Shepherd Program internship while I was involved with HIV/AIDS advocacy. There was an activity we were doing and I was clearly being shy. She told me: “You have to make the comfortable a little uncomfortable if you want change. But is it not just the people in power who you have to make a little uncomfortable to get them to do what you want; as an advocate, you’ll be even more effective if you are willing to make yourself a little uncomfortable as well.” This sentiment has really stuck with me and I have taken it to heart in my work outside the advocacy realm. My advice is to pursue your personal mission even when the tasks make you uncomfortable. This is not only likely necessary for the change that you want to affect, but it will help you grow immensely as a person.