Q&A with Karl Johnson, PhD Candidate & CHAP Intern
Morghen Philippi, MPH global health concentration student and graduate research assistant for Research, Innovation and Global Solutions, interviewed Karl Johnson about his internship with CHAP and his life as a PhD candidate in Health Policy and Management.
Can you tell us more about CHAP and the work you did through your internship?
Housed by the WHO ambassador for global strategy, CHAP considers itself a “catalytic philanthropist.” Through strategic engagement and catalytic investments, the organization supports several initiatives at the forefront of building stronger community-health systems, both globally and in the United States. The team is comprised of dedicated philanthropists, strategists, and health economists.
Since starting as an intern with CHAP at the beginning of the summer, most of my work has consisted of supporting CHAP to develop, along with several other community health-minded organizations, the National Community-Based Workforce Alliance. The Alliance is currently composed of 14 different organizations with a mission “to ensure that COVID-19 response and rebuild efforts are equitable, effective and involve, fund, strengthen, and elevate trusted community- based workers.” Practically, I have helped CHAP in several program management capacities as the Alliance has gotten off the ground–coordinating online events, drafting agendas, facilitating meetings, strategic planning, etc. I have also conducted outreach to organizations for which the Alliance wishes to either extend support or highlight as a “bright spot” for others to learn more about. Finally, with the help of other CHAP interns as well as members from other Alliance organizations, I have assisted in the development of two advocacy documents: one which outlines the current dimensions of engagement with community health workers in contact tracing strategies, and another which provides a normative framework for engaging community health workers more broadly in local health department COVID-19 response strategies. We hope to publish the latter document this week!
What were your biggest takeaways from your time with CHAP – including things you learned, skills you gained, or relationships you formed?
Working with CHAP has introduced me to the amazing world of the “community-based workforce.” Composed of folks like promatoras de salud, community health workers, peer navigators, and lay helpers among many others, the amazing individuals which constitute this workforce are identified by their dedication to improve the health of the same community that they live within and know so well. My CHAP experiences have allowed me to speak with several members of this workforce as well as their advocates, and I have come to believe whole-heartedly in their essential place within the big world of public health (a place often disregarded, unfortunately). I would love to spend more of my academic and non-academic future learning about and advocating for these folks—a desire I would not have were it not for my involvement with CHAP.
Working with CHAP to develop the CBW Alliance has also taught me a lot about the difficult yet essential work of coalition building, especially for the sake of advocacy. It is not easy to form cross-organizational relationships during this pandemic, given that at best you can ever speak with people through zoom. Yet I have been so inspired by the relationships we have been able to form, and I have learned much from my main two CHAP mentors—Claire Qureshi and Wendy McWeeny—about what it takes to form those relationships. It is one of my biggest hopes that the friendships I have built through CHAP can be sustained as I continue to discern where my public health career will take me. Public health is all about relationships, and I do not want to lose the wonderful ones I have made this summer.
Why did you decide to study Health Policy and Management at Gillings?
There were several reasons I ultimately decided to study at Gillings. Perhaps first and foremost, there was a lot of research going on that aligned really well with my research interests, including specific faculty within my department that I hoped to learn from. When I attended visit day 2 years ago, I also really appreciated the culture of the school and department—serious academically but also grounded; the students I spoke with reflected this balance really well. It was also important to me that Gillings—and the faculty which compose it—are so dedicated to the work of public health within North Carolina. Having spent some time abroad before starting graduate school, I knew I wanted to attend a university that was a bit more domestic-focused, especially focused on the most proximate communities it can influence.
As you pursue your PhD in Health Policy and Management, you are minoring in Decision Science and Outcomes Research. How do those areas of study relate to your interests in Global Health?
That is still a very open question for me! I love my minor in part because of the unique methodologies it brings to bare on difficult questions in public health. For instance, since arriving to Gillings I have come to really appreciate a “systems thinking” or “complexity science” approach to research and problem solving—an approach that was taught to me by my advisor and one of the main DSOR faculty: Dr. Kristen Hassmiller Lich. Whatever work I end up pursuing in public health—academic or otherwise—I hope to always engage it with these methodological approaches in mind.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where you go and why?
Before COVID-19 reared its ugly head, this past May I was planning to embark on El Camino de Santiago (“the Way of Saint James”), a historic Christian pilgrimage route which either stretches across Spain or the coast of Portugal and ends at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain (the burial place of Saint James). It would have been a two-week hike with my best friend from college—a spiritual retreat of sorts. It is still the place I would most like to travel to in the world right now, and we hope to reschedule our trip for May 2021. To walk along the path which millions of pilgrims have walked throughout the last millennium would be such a remarkable experience.
Though to be honest, I really do not have much of a strong travel bug right now. While there is certainly much to experience and enjoy through global travel, I also find a lot of joy from the simple, small adventures that you can stumble upon with good friends right in “your own backyard”, as it were.