Every Tuesday, Beyond Boulders runs a five-question interview with either a current Schweitzer Fellow or a Schweitzer Fellow for Life (ie, a Fellow whose initial year with ASF has been completed, but whose commitment to lifelong service continues).
In our second installment, we chat with Sonya Soni, a 2008-2009 Los Angeles Fellow who believes that the most pressing health-related issue of our time is the relationship between health and human rights in both the developing and developed world. Soni, a Master of Public Health student at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, established Los Angeles’s first micro-health clinic for post-incarcerated female youth, and sparked a growing movement — rooted in advancing the human rights of Los Angeles’s underserved communities through the lens of health care — among area health professionals.
Why did you develop your particular project?
My project evolved from my passion for global health, human rights, and the advancement of girls in both the developing and developed world. My great-grandmother established a health clinic and orphanage for abandoned female youth in a northern Indian village, and I desired to design my project in such a way that would serve a patient population with a similarly transient, high-risk lifestyle.
I noticed that the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall was located directly across the street from my university’s campus, and yet few outreach programs existed in which University of Southern California health professional students had the opportunity to serve our local incarcerated youth. I approached the USC Maternal, Child, & Adolescent HIV Center in order to further develop my project because I knew that the staff approached health care through a comprehensive, human rights framework.
The center was already providing health care services to incarcerated youth in Los Angeles’s three juvenile halls and camps, but its staff realized that no follow-up care was being provided for incarcerated females after they were released from the system. With the tremendous support of the clinic, I was able to create Los Angeles’s first micro-health clinic for post-incarcerated female youth. I desired to use the methods and skills I learned in my great-grandmother’s clinic halfway across the world and adapt them to a city where greater resources existed, and yet little was being done to advance the health and rights of its disadvantaged youth.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
I hope that my project will continually serve not only as a health clinic, but as a sacred space for Los Angeles’s post-incarcerated females, a space that they truly believe in and that is sustained by a grassroots, community-driven effort. I envision that the patients will become leaders not only for the clinic, but among their peers in their communities, so that the lasting impact of my project will extend beyond the walls of the clinic and into the streets and foster homes where a majority of the girls who cannot come to our clinic reside.
Since most of the post-incarcerated females that we work with are commercial sex workers and/or injection drug users, I hope that my clinic will not only cure their physical ailments, but address psychosocial, human rights, and emotional needs in such a way that the clinic will serve as the foundation to the futures that these girls envision for themselves and so rightly deserve. I also hope that my project can contribute to the impetus of a health and human rights movement in Los Angeles that is slowly, but saliently emerging right now.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
I believe that the most pressing health-related issue of our time is the relationship between health and human rights in both the developing and developed world. There have been numerous tireless health and human rights advocates, from social justice prophets such as Dr. Paul Farmer to community health workers.
However, many global health leaders and politicians have pushed the glamorous agenda of delivering public health goods, and have failed to ethically examine the context in which health care is delivered. Because disease is most often a consequence of inequity, social injustice, and poverty, the lives of millions depend on the decisions made my ill-informed leaders and international bodies in which politics, rather than human dignity, drive much of their efforts.
This crisis should be addressed by expanding our purview of what it means to be a global health expert and focusing on deriving the answers to the most complex problems from the most experienced in global health: the patients and communities themselves. This is the only way in which global health programs and primary health care systems will be sustained and thrive on a human rights model.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
The most surprising element of my experience as a Schweitzer Fellow has been the enormous level of support and interest I have received from USC faculty, students, clinicians, and patients. I did not realize that that so many individuals shared my vision for advancing the human rights of Los Angeles’s underserved communities through the lens of health care. This interest seemed to be absent at my university simply because they did not have the structure in which to apply their ideals.
I am blessed that this micro-health clinic has been able to spark a growing movement among USC health professional students. I was scared to initiate my project out of fear that few would accept the relevance and design of my project, especially among Los Angeles’s juvenile justice system. I was most surprised when one of L.A.’s juvenile halls, an institution highly resistant to change and criticism, asked me for the data I collected when conducting focus groups with my patient population so that they could improve their health care services!
What does Albert Schweitzer’s legacy mean to you, and how will you carry it with you after your year as a Fellow draws to a close?
Dr. Albert Schweitzer once proclaimed, “Therefore search and see if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity.” I believe that his legacy is both as simple and as profound as this. His ability to address spirituality and reverence for life through the lens of medicine and service is one of Dr. Schweitzer’s most meaningful contributions to humanity for me. He afforded equal weight to science and spirituality, and understood that they were anything but mutually exclusive.
Dr. Schweitzer assured the world that idealism did not equate to naivete, and that it was the only force that would engender real change and fight inequity in the developing world. I hope to sustain Dr. Schweitzer’s legacy by not only fulfilling my dreams of becoming a pediatrician and human rights activist for child orphans in the developing world, but by carrying out small, daily acts of compassion.
ASF’s Los Angeles program was founded in 2007 as a collaboration between Kaiser Permanente; Los Angeles Physicians for Social Responsibility; Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County; University of Southern California; University of California, Los Angeles; and University of California, Irvine. This year, 19 new Fellows from the area’s top colleges and universities have been selected to join the program’s ranks, each partnering with a local agency and devoting more than 200 hours of service—click here for details on the new Fellows’ projects.