Becoming the inaugural Desmond M. Tutu Professor in Public Health and Human Rights is one of the signal honors of my life. It is one for which there are many people to acknowledge and to thank. First and foremost of course, is the Archbishop himself, this magnificent man, but let me speak about Father, and the professorship, in a moment.
First, my deepest thanks to the principal donors of this endowment, Kathy and Ed Ludwig. Their generosity has been matched only by their deep engagement in the work of our Center and of our wonderful School of Public Health. Kathy, as you’ve heard, chairs our advisory committee and does so with grace and wisdom. The Tibetans have a saying about the kind of deeply decent people who quietly do good for others in this world—the good heart. Kathy has the good heart.
The kind of work we have done in conflict settings, with LGBT communities in Africans and Asia, with ethnic minorities facing persecution, is not easy and can be politically tough. We know that. So rare is the institution, and the leadership, willing to support this kind of work. And that’s why Mike Klag is such an extraordinary Dean. Mike’s also been a donor to the professorship, and for that commitment I am especially grateful. His team, graced by Barbara Verrier, continue to be hugely helpful. That Hopkins President Ron Daniels is also a donor, gives us confidence in the commitment of the University to this emerging field.
None of us work in isolation. Our Center faculty, staff, and students are our critical core, and I’m so gratified that people with the talent and passion for this work, which Stef Baral exemplifies, continue to find in the Center their professional and intellectual home.
Our partners and collaborators are the key to the work in the wider world. No better example can be found than in Linda-Gail Bekker and her team at the Desmond Tutu HIV Research Foundation. Linda-Gail, as many here know, will be succeeding me as the next President of the International AIDS Society, so Fathers deep engagement in the AIDS movement is secure! It’s wonderful to have our IAS team here today, including our outstanding ED Owen Ryan, whose support to me has been invaluable. I want to also acknowledge and thank two wonderful research colleagues who are here today, Dick Chaisson from Hopkins, and Patrick Sullivan from Emory—it’s having colleagues like these that make our work so rewarding.
And then there is my family. My husband Mike couldn’t make this trip—he’ll be here for the AIDS Conference in July, which Father has graciously agreed to open, but I’m delighted to say my family is represented today, by my sister, Dr. Kate Beyrer. One other family member, of our family of choice, is our beloved Michele Bohana—who first introduced me to Father. She’s using our Center to bring ethnic Kachin community leaders from Burma together with Tibetan refugees.
And then there is the Archbishop…
What does it mean to bear his good name? I’ve thought a great deal about this, dare we call it a burden, or a charge? Because of the many attributes that this holy man embodies—one is certainly his uncompromising stand for justice. He has been the most resolute of voices for those facing rights abuses—and held any and all accountable for their wrongs. He has been unwavering, in his non-violent resistance to the evil that was Apartheid, in the great human undertaking that was the Truth and Reconciliation process, in the struggle for the rights of women in his church, for LGBT rights worldwide—for the inclusion of all in his Fathers tent. And for that integrity we are all in debt—and I, for one, am thoroughly intimidated.
In addition to his resounding name, this professorship is in Public Health and Human Rights. And perhaps we should think about what that might mean. What are we are attempting when we try and bring these strands of together? Human rights from the time of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, whose edicts are perhaps the first articulation of the rights of citizens as opposed to rulers, are aspirational. They are universal. Meant for all and meant to be protected for all. While public health is a science, a population-based discipline that has been called compassion at a distance. We’re focused not only on the precious individual life, but on the health of the community, the population. I’d argue that at their cores, is a basis in our shared humanity. In the dignity every individual bears by virtue of our inter-connectedness with each other. Father has called this Ubuntu, my faith tradition, Tibetan Buddhism, calls it Compassion. And I think in the heart of every epidemiologist, every lab scientist toiling away at malaria, or cancer, there is this same altruistic impulse. We do the work we do because we want to make a difference, to reduce suffering, and to save precious human lives.
When we bring human rights into the public health domain, we bring a focus on the health—the wellbeing—of the excluded, because they too are deserving of our compassion—and have the right benefit from the fruits of our science. And when we’ve brought population based sciences to human rights, we’ve tried to add to rigor, to documentation, to the toolkit that can help make connections between civil conflict in Burma and safe motherhood, between homophobia and HIV risks in Africa, between cholera and misrule in Zimbabwe. And we can work on interventions that may help improve both health and rights. That’s the goal. But it is not easy work. And that is why inspiration and community are so vital.
What do we hope to do with the Tutu Professorship resources? Our center has always been committed to research, teaching and advocacy, and that will continue. The beauty of having resources to support innovative and cutting edge research, including work in challenging environments where many donors will not go is that we’ll be able to fund work that would be otherwise impossible. In terms of teaching—and research, we’ve already identified the first scholar and her project. Dr Cassia Wells, a physician from South Africa who’s currently in the preventive medicine residency at JHU, will be coming to Cape Town, working with Stef and Nancy Phaswana-Mafuya on their HIV projects with gay men and sex workers in Port Elizabeth. So we’re already well underway.
Let me end by saying that there is no greater joy than having Father and Leah here with us today. You gave us a scare last year. But as a lovely lady running an orphanage under Father’s patronage in Masiphumalele said me to years ago: May he live forever!