Africa: Waging Justice: The Alchemy of Living with Optimism

Photo: Book Cover
Waging Justice: A Doctor's Journey to Speak Truth & Be Bold.   
30 October 2018
guest column

We are living in a time of huge social and geopolitical upheaval. Institutions and established doctrines that once appeared predictable and protective now seem crazily unmoored.

In the face of these difficult circumstances, it is critical that we do not lose our vision of a better way and our faith that real transformation is possible. More of us need to practice what I call "persistent optimism" to combat the injustices in the world. Over my lifetime, I've learned to fully unleash my own optimism to overcome fear, cynicism and despair. This alchemy of clear-eyed optimism mixed with courage is what fuels my drive to pursue justice for all relentlessly, no matter the odds.

My lifelong quest for justice brought me to Africa more than 20 years ago as a young doctor, husband, father and activist. I worked variously in Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia as those countries faced the death and destruction of the AIDS epidemic at its height. Many of these stories are recounted in my recently published memoir Waging Justice: A Doctor's Journey to Speak Truth & Be Bold.

Have you ever lost hope or felt powerless? In Waging Justice, I explore my innate, urgent and sometimes mystifying impulse — which began in childhood — to find personal power, resolve conflict, fight for justice, and discover peace. In the recounting of my struggles, demons, embarrassments, failures, and hard-won lessons and successes, I learn to turn my deep-rooted anger and disappointment into full throttled, open-hearted, soul-satisfying action.

My story begins with a difficult childhood in Philadelphia, USA, where I grew up the son of a hardworking but belligerent Jewish sandwich shop owner. It then takes a trip through the long, grueling days of medical school, punctuated by romantic crisis: The woman I have fallen ferociously in love with, who is also the daughter of my former therapist — the first person to help me make sense of a chaotic childhood — is engaged to marry another man.

While my personal life twists and turns, my professional life soars. After earning a master's degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University, I begin work as an epidemiologist for the CDC and then USAID, which takes me to the epicenter of human devastation in Africa. There, equally frustrated and energized, I make a conscious decision to dedicate my life to ending the world's fiercest and most intractable pandemics — AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

My wife and make the decision to move our growing family to Zambia in 1996 where we both work to combat diseases and care for children, especially those orphaned by AIDS. Our journey gifts us with an adopted son.

But it is not enough to be in the field, facing the despair of the AIDS crisis. I return with my family to Washington, D.C., to become part of the historic, fractious political movement that finally drove President George W. Bush to lead the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria and the launch of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

I have been fortunate to join forces with many politicians, activists and celebrities along the way. The first time I met musician Alicia Keys, I had the honor of serving her a cup of tea just before she sang her part in a remake of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" to raise money for AIDS in Africa and for survivors of 9/11. That was in 2001, and we've been friends and collaborators ever since, working together to protect the most vulnerable children on the planet. His Excellency Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a mentor and fellow advocate, also joined me to demand action on the AIDS crisis in the pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and other influential media.

The memoir culminates in 2015 as I commit my life to global efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — the world's ambitious agenda for achieving social, economic, environmental, gender and racial justice by 2030. The SDGs are shaping the future of all people and our planet in a historic convergence of justice and hope.

Already, three years have passed since the SDGs were adopted, and my commitment and faith in this agenda is intensifying with each passing moment. The SDGs and the Paris Climate Accord have disrupted the notion that the global status quo is acceptable and unmoving.  I believe we are living in the early stages of a new paradigm — an era of climate-smart, sustainable development where humanity joins forces to end poverty and create winning lives for everyone, everywhere, while living in healthy balance with Earth.

My persistent optimism is justified. Africans are now accelerating the African renaissance and overcoming the massive obstacles that have blocked progress for decades. Communities, cities and local governments throughout the continent are mobilizing in support of the SDGs, adapting and prioritizing the time-bound, measurable targets to match the most pressing challenges where people are living and working.

At a time when headlines and public discourse are full of ugly, divisive cynicism, I have experienced things and met leaders who have made me more optimistic than ever for the future of our planet and our species. We need only cut through the noise and pursue our sense of bold optimism.

This is our moment. Let's wage justice for all so that we can meet our human obligation to pass on a better world to our children.

Dr. Zeitz is Co-Founder of SDG Compacts and the Sustainable Development and author, Waging Justice: A Physician's Journey to Speak Truth & Be Bold.

Twitter: @paulzeitz

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