(This Alumni Profile was taken from the Fall/Winter 2016 Saint Michael’s College Magazine)
Leadership is about giving power, not just taking it.
When Jamila Headley was asked to lead the Health Global Access Project (Health GAP), she had her doubts. Not about the mission — changing policies affecting access to lifesaving treatment and care for people living with HIV around the globe — but about her ability to do the job of leading the organization through a difficult funding and political context.
Health GAP, an international advocacy organization started in 1998, when almost no one living with HIV/AIDS in poor countries had access to lifesaving medicines. Within just a few years, the organization had helped to catalyze a major turning point in the global response to HIV, with funding and political will for the response growing exponentially in the 15 years that followed. But in the past three years, leaders in the United States and around the world seem to have begun to shift their attention away from this still very important issue, and funding for important treatment and prevention programs, and for organizations like Health GAP, has been harder to come by. It was against this backdrop that Headley was asked to help define a new strategy going forward.
Headley grew up in Barbados. When she was young, it was a country with one of the highest HIV rates in the Caribbean. AIDS was still considered a “gay disease,” and treatment could cost $20,000 per person. Headley wanted to be a doctor, but she soon realized that doctors could only do so much. Economic barriers were preventing real progress in the fight against HIV.
Headley applied to Saint Michael’s because of a class on the politics of the global AIDS epidemic taught by Professor of Political Science Patricia Siplon. Siplon also introduced Headley to Health GAP and in 2005, while she was a sophomore at Saint Michael’s College, the organization invited her to join its steering committee. “I was the youngest person in the group at the time,” she recalls. “But they saw something in me and helped to nurture that.” Headley won a Rhodes scholar¬ship and went to the University of Oxford in 2007–08 to further her studies in global health. She went on to get her Ph.D. in Public Health in 2012. In 2014, after working for two years with George Soros’ private foundation (the Open Society Foundation), Health GAP asked her to join their leadership team as managing director.
According to Headley, leadership, like politics, involves power. “It’s about being mindful of power dynamics at every level. It’s about giving power, not just taking it.” Good leadership, she says, is also grounded in integrity. “What you say must match up with what you do.”