Dr. Mary T. Bassett

Director, Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights

How old is your organization? The François Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University was established in 1992 with a gift from Countess Albina Du Boisrouvray, in memory of her son François.
What sector do you work in? Public Health
How long have you been working in this sector? 20 years in academia (17 at University of Zimbabwe, two years at Columbia and approaching one year at Harvard), 30+ years in public health
How long have you been with your current organization? 10 months

Describe a key event (local, national, global) that has impacted your sector in the last 40 years?
In 1982, at a time when public health experts thought that infectious diseases were a receding threat, the first cases of HIV/AIDS were diagnosed. The AIDS epidemic had begun. Like all epidemics, while most were vulnerable, risk tracked along the fissures of social inequalities, both within the United States and across the globe. This epidemic, which took so many in the prime of life, brought into focus the relationship between human rights, social marginalization, and health. Today, Africa remains the only continent with a generalized epidemic and African-Americans have the highest burden in the United States. Recognizing that this disparity is social in origin was a key advance.

How has the conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion shaped your organization over the past 40 years (or since it was founded during this time until now)?
Under my leadership, the New York City Health Department embarked on an effort to apply a social justice and racial equity lens to all of its work. This included an internal reform effort, known as Race to Justice, to educate all staff about the role of race in the United States, historical and contemporary. As Director of the Harvard FXB Center, we will turn our attention to US domestic rights issues. The New York City Health Department focused its attention on this under my leadership, and as a result, renewed its focus on community engagement.

What have been the biggest trends affecting your sector in the last 40 years?
The biggest challenge to people who work in public health, whether in government, academia or nonprofits, is the widespread conception that a conversation about health is a conversation about access to high-quality personal health care. Certainly, we all should be assured of medical care, but that this care is only a small share of what keeps us healthy: housing, jobs, education and so on, are central to healthy everyday lives.

What is the single greatest challenge you face today in your sector?
The right to health continues to be challenged. We are witnessing this in efforts to change the definition of the federal poverty line and shrink eligibility to safety net services, in attacks on the Affordable Care Act and on reproductive health services.

What leadership qualities are necessary to succeed as a nonprofit executive today?
Key are ability to articulate a vision and raise funds.

How do you see shifting views on race, gender, sexuality, age, immigration status, educational achievement, wealth, poverty, and health affecting your organization in the future?
So long as people’s health and safety are threatened because of who they are, not what they do, there will be need for a human rights approach to health.

What are your sector’s biggest challenges in the future, and what must be done to address them?
We have a responsibility to address structural racism. This refers to the totality of ways societies foster racial discrimination and affect the risk of adverse health outcomes, including environmental and occupational health inequities, marketing of health-harming substances in communities of color, political exclusion, and state-sanctioned violence. The public health sector can start to address this by looking inward and examining how their policies, programs, and practices reinforce racist ideas. The New York City Health Department explored this under my leadership, and as a result, renewed its focus on community engagement.

Why did you want to serve in your current position?
I have committed my working life to advancing health equity. The Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights is wonderful platform from which to pursue this work and cultivate the next generation.

If you were just starting out in your sector today, what advice would the person you are today give to the “newbie”?
Follow your passions.

Please name three qualities that are inherent in being a strong leader.
A strong leader leads by example. Three qualities that are key are a positive attitude, empathy, and a commitment to excellence.

Find out more
Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights Website
Twitter for Dr Mary T. Bassett
Twitter for Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights


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