An in-depth interview with an Ethiopian American doctor who is talking, healing and inspiring.
Mehret is a public health physician using oral histories to teach about health, a role she describes as an honor and a privilege. “I take it seriously but most of all, its fun to teach. This is the best part about my job and I love it.”
Having left her native land of Ethiopia at just one and a half years old, Mehret grew up in Northern Virginia. Northern Virginia is part of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and is home to the largest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia. “We are over 100,000 there now. So, I grew up going to Amharic school at my dad’s church in addition to regular school.”
Mehret describes her childhood as being no different than most immigrants in America. “My parents were pretty strict about speaking Amharic inside the house and drilling in that I was Ethiopian first.” She cited both her parents as important sources of inspiration. “My mother is the best definition of love that I have. The kind of love that leaves you changed forever, and my father is a constant reminder that there are some things worth fighting for that are much greater than you. Ethiopia is his first love and always will be.”
As a child, Mehret wanted to be many different things including a dancer but when she was accepted into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, her aspirations started to change.
During her college years, Mehret had “the good fortune” of having Dr. Jonathan Mann, the father of the health and human rights movement, as a professor. His course Public Health, Human Rights and HIV came at a critical time in Mehret’s own educational experience.
“I had just spent a semester abroad in Kenya as an Anthropology major where I had interned rehabilitating malnourished children at a feeding camp and was so disturbed by what I had seen.” This experience made it difficult for Mehret to make sense of how that world and hers at Harvard connected. “Dr. Mann’s framework in that class, using human rights, gave me a language to make sense of it all.”
Touching Lives Across Oceans
Mehret has traveled and worked as a public health practitioner in Kenya, Botswana, and South Africa. “These were different experiences at different stages of my learning. I found public health before I found medicine.”
In Kenya, Mehret interned at a Family Life Training Center that was mostly focused on issues of food security and malnourishment. “But in the process I began to see the toll HIV was having on the community because most of the beds in the local clinic were occupied by HIV patients.” In Botswana, she was involved in a HIV vaccine trial and was in charge of developing community education materials for the trial. “This meant I was out in the community speaking and teaching about HIV.
I learned a lot about what the Batswana people thought about HIV, and even more about what it was going to take to build trust around these issues.” Then in South Africa, Mehret became involved in HIV treatment as well as education about antiretrovirals at a clinic just outside of Durban that was treating patients for free. “I got to see some patients, but more importantly I got to go out and help teach health care professionals about antiretroviral therapy.” This work took Mehret to South Africa’s prisons where she taught nurses about antiretroviral. “I was astounded to see the toll of the epidemic. It was literally everywhere.”
In Ethiopia and the South Bronx, Mehret analyzed HIV-positive women’s experiences with stigma. The work she did in Ethiopia was Mehret’s medical anthropology thesis for her public health degree. She describes stigma as being very much related to issues of discrimination in general and says it’s about the issue of the “other”.
Mehret explains, the “other” can be race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or in this case HIV. “What I learned about comparing experiences of HIV across the ocean was the huge issue of domestic violence. Domestic violence cuts across race, class, and ethnicity.” Mehret used to think it was issues of relationships that connected across race, class, and ethnicity.
“But what I learned was that the way Ethiopian women talk about all of that was really different from the South Bronx women. Largely due to cultural norms around sex in general and also because food, housing, and access to medical care were ahead of their concerns about HIV.” What a woman will do to provide for her children also tended to be similar. “They were dependent on their partners for housing, and money for example. Their dependence actually meant that if domestic violence was in the picture, they would shut up and take it. That’s part of what made me realize that for some women, our current HIV prevention messages are actually hurting them.”
Using Film to TeachMehret, who uses film to teach, says that media influences outcomes and can change the perception of the masses on issues. “Film can get people to a common place. The things I try and teach about, like race, gender, class, power and how this relates to HIV sometimes requires a leap for people to understand so, a common place is useful for a productive teaching discussion.” During her residency, she started to use a film called A Girl Like Me, made by Kiri Davis,to teach about the profound effects of race. “I will never forget the physician’s responses to the film. It changed the nature of the teaching session completely. That’s when I knew I had found a powerful tool for my work.”
The use of film as health awareness also comes with many challenges. “Awareness is only going to take you so far without a mobilization plan that capitalizes on the opportunity to teach.” Mehret says this is why it is so important to think about message framing and what you are asking of audiences when making a film. “For me I approach film from my medical anthropology background so it’s the actual process of listening to unheard voices that represents the greatest potential of film to teach.”
Mehret is thankful for her post doctoral fellowship with the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program that has paid for her to get formal training in film and editing production classes. “The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been very supportive of all my efforts to use media as a tool for public health.”
Mehret hopes to use film and her comfort to teach the public about how to engage and advocate in healing our world.
These days, among many other things on her to-do-list, Mehret has been working nonstop to create an action plan for the audience of All Of Us in the form of a free online course through the Columbia School of Public Health. “There is an opportunity to build a much needed social justice movement around human rights and health. That’s what TruthAIDS is all about.”
All Of Us, a feature-length documentary, was filmed as part of Mehret’s internal medicine residency research project at Montefiore Medical Center. During Mehret’s research, she learned that marriage was a risk factor for women contracting HIV internationally. “This is when I realized that the epidemic was about ‘all of us.’ The risk that flows from norms and institutions like marriage has everything to do with conversations about trust on a personal and societal level that often involve women being deceived or exploited.” It was while Mehret was being filmed that she learned about making a film. “I was working with a filmmaker named Emily Abt who taught me a lot about what it takes to make an honest film.”
Mehret describes making a film as a very intimate process that creates trust between people. During this process, Mehret says a bond is created. “There is nothing more vulnerable than putting yourself in front of a camera. The exchange of ideas and experiences lived between the subject and camera creates a bond of trust that becomes sacred.” What amazed Mehret was the way patients opened up their lives and homes to the camera. “I was even more amazed that Sister Zebider did the same in Ethiopia after having had a particularly bad experience with another American camera crew.” Mehret believes there is a real obligation to do right with this trust and maintain the integrity of what people share with you in good faith, even if “telling the truth takes battle,” another lesson she learned. “This project has shown me that social justice is fighting work and media can be used to unite a fragmented social justice movement to do this work.” Mehret says TruthAIDS is the army she is building to take these lessons to the next level. “It’s a movement now and there is work to be done.”
Mehret is the founder of TruthAIDS, a preventative health non-profit organization that uses media advocacy to teach. “Physicians started TruthAIDS and as doctors we realized not a whole lot of people had really been listening to the patients we were serving. If they had, there is no way domestic violence, for example, could have been missing from the HIV prevention messages. Addressing the infidelity that happens within marriages was also missing from the messages.” Listening is what TruthAIDS does best, Mehret explains, and then follow-up on the listening with a program, or advocacy piece using participatory media and documentation. “The potential lies in teaching others how to listen and engage.” David the Piano Player is a film and multimedia project Mehret is currently directing for TruthAIDS.
An upcoming short film titled Dr. Mehret features a book, and an online correlate, among many other things. The film is being made by Kidane Mariam, an Ethiopian filmmaker, who was in the audience when Mehret was speaking at the Left Forum this year. “The project started after an actress in the UCLA Masters of Fine Arts Degree program chose to do her thesis play about my life and work. She read about me in the media and came to interview me and my thoughts on HIV and women in the African Diaspora.” The actress wrote and performed a play that talked about Mehret’s work from the perspective of an African, a healer, and an American. Mehret flew to see this play and was incredibly moved by it. “A friend who was with me for the play and an esteemed filmmaker in his own regard, Julian Breece, was equally impressed with her performance and agreed to film it. Out of this project, the Dr. Mehret project was born.” Kidane has been following Mehret for about 6 months and they are scheduled to take their first trip to the continent together this fall. The whole point of the project is to highlight Mehret’s work and the people she meets through it, and to continue doing this work of “movement” which Mehret calls building. “A movement is built out of authentic connections and untold stories.”
Mehret’s most recent work includes working with boys and men on the issue of domestic violence in Philadelphia. “We can scream all we want about women’s rights but until we get men involved in the problems affecting women, the violence will not change.” She has been working with the Community Research Group at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and is devising a course on Mass Collaborations that is going to put into effect all she has learned. Mass Collaborations is a free course and anyone interested in public health, solidarity, human rights, and HIV can email email@example.com to join.
Five years from now, Mehret hopes to be teaching, writing, filming, and seeing patients. “TruthAIDS continues to grow and is partnering with the public TV channel in Philadelphia to start programming around the societal determinants of health.” Mehret has also started a Living Links project with the A. Toni Young of the Community Education Group, which is all about connecting Africa and America.
“I think the confluence of media, public health, advocacy and human rights is where I will be for the long haul.”
For more information on Dr. Mehret Mandefro visit www.drmehretmandefro.com.