Return to Headlines

Global Health Rock Star Visits Carrboro High School Class

Carrboro High School social studies teacher, Matt Cone, has a reputation for hosting speakers of international renown and impact. Anyone familiar with his history should not have been surprised to see his classroom packed to overflowing on April 4 as dozens of students and adult guests awaited the next famous visitor. When Paul Farmer, author, medical anthropologist and founder of Partners in Health (PIH), the international health care nonprofit, walked into the classroom, people clapped and smiled. A 90 minute master class in global health was about to begin.

Farmer was 34 years old when he was named a MacArthur Fellow for his work in Haiti, where he established a rural health care clinic to provide treatment to the impoverished residents who suffered from AIDS, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. Nearly 30 years later, after founding PIH and developing a model for community-based health care widely used around the world, Farmer brought an informal, warm style into Cone’s classroom. As soon as he sat atop a table in front of his audience, he asked, “Who has a question?” Nearly every student’s hand shot up, and the discussion began.

Cone’s students always prepare for their eminent guests by reading widely and engaging in as much research as possible, so they can bypass the usual introductory remarks and jump right into specific and nuanced questions. Many of them had read the acclaimed Tracy Kidder book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” about Farmer’s work in Haiti, but their references ranged across many aspects of the speaker’s professional life.

One student asked Farmer whether he views “effective altruism” as being out of place in broader global health movements. Another student asked if international health care activism should supersede all other kinds of activism. (Farmer responded that he doesn’t elevate any activism above others.) A student noted that she hopes to make a career out of art and computers, but she is uncertain how she will connect that work to social justice. (Farmer assured her that PIH and all other social justice organizations depend on technology and design to convey their message.)

Student Dhara Buebel said, “Speaking with Paul Farmer was an incredible experience that deepened my understanding of global health, as well as life in general. In response to a story told by a former student, Paul said something that stuck with me: ‘people need to quit more often.’ I had never heard this, and as a student and a child I am always told the opposite.”

CHS senior, Becca Brownstein, said of the experience, “I came out of it feeling inspired after hearing Dr. Farmer speak so respectfully about the many varying ways that individuals have contributed to PIH's success. He reminded me that a positive difference can be made from nearly any career path, so long as one follows what they are passionate about. I was also struck by his comments on cultural humility when entering into a culture that is not their native one, as I think approaching a situation with this perspective is not only much more respectful of those you are working with, but also generates more productive conversations and effective solutions to the problems being addressed.”

Cora Therber, a junior, said, “It was really fascinating to have Dr. Farmer come in and speak with us, because we had read his book, so getting to have a dialogue with someone you had studied so much was a really rare opportunity. He has so many ideas and work behind him that I really support, but the biggest lesson I learned was the value of working with all sorts of people in order to create the best possible outcome.”

Cone said, “My students have met with Farmer in many places--Missouri (when I taught there), Massachusetts, California, North Carolina and even Rwanda (chance meeting at the airport). I had one class read “Mountains Beyond Mountains”  in the spring of 2004, and I mailed the students' journals and a small bit of donated money to PIH. A staff member at PIH sent a very gracious e-mail back to me. I responded by asking if my students could talk with Paul by phone. (This was before Skype was a big deal.)  PIH agreed to the request and so we spoke with Paul and his colleague, Ophelia, in the fall of 2004. For many years, we had an annual call with them. I remember them calling us from Haiti, Boston and Ethiopia. The calls were such a thrill for us but, of course, they weren't as cool as having Paul come to our class. This was the first time that Paul has come to my class.”

Those who had the good fortune to find a seat or standing room to hear Farmer share his stories, opinions and analyses will likely remember that afternoon at CHS for a long time!