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Barbara Bush: ‘Young people want to work on social change issues’

About an hour south of Rwanda’s capital, young adults from around the world gathered this summer in the city of Gashora to reflect on their year of service working to improve global health care.

They were part of an organization called Global Health Corps, which pairs young adults under the age of 30 with a nonprofit health organization or government agency. The group’s 32-year-old CEO, Barbara Bush, might have been expected to take a different career path – her parents are former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush. But she, like many young people of her generation, found her calling was in service.

“I think, at least in the United States, the political scene right now is so polarizing,” she told Fusion’s Alicia Menendez .”If people want to work on social change issues with the desire to get stuff done and to create an impact, I think it’s easy to navigate into different institutions like nonprofit or the private sector.”

Barbara Bush co-founded GHC in 2008 with her twin sister, Jenna Bush Hager, and four others. The group works in Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Burundi, Malawi and the United States. But you don’t have to be a doctor or nurse to participate. Fellows have professional backgrounds ranging from journalism to architecture to business.

“My parents certainly raised my sister and me that if you care about issues you can work on them, and it’s your responsibility to use your voice,” she said.

She was a senior in college when she visited East Africa with her parents during the 2003 launch of the President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. She saw hundreds of people waiting for lifesaving drugs that had been readily available for years in the United States.

“Had either you or I been born there, our fate would have been so different and just the lack of justice in that struck me so enormously,” she said.

When Bush returned from the trip, she changed her major from architecture to health care. She says Wendy Kopp’s Teach For America model inspired her to create GHC.

Barbara’s interest in social justice echoes that of many young Americans. According to a 2013 poll from Harvard’s Institute of Politics, nearly half of Americans age 18 to 29 agree that politics has become too partisan. But interest in giving back to the community remains high. In 2009, the National Conference on Citizenship said young adults have a 43 percent service rate, compared to only 35 percent for baby boomers.

Menendez asked Bush was surprised that many young people are choosing to create change outside of Washington, D.C.

“I think it does alarm me, but at the same time I’m not surprised by it,” Bush said.

Menendez asked if Bush sees the organization as progressive. She said, “We see the organization as progressive in that we want to make an impact and move forward and we’re not interested at all in a business as usual attitude.”

The first class of GHC fellows numbered 22. But now, six years later, they’ve reached 128. Fellows are placed in cross-cultural teams of two at each of GHC’s 59 partner organizations – one fellow from the placement country and one fellow from abroad. Rwanda is the country with the greatest number of fellows, most of whom grew up in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide.

“Their norm was growing up in a refugee camps, not even stepping foot into their countries until they went to university,” Bush said. “And now, right now, Rwanda is an unbelievably stable, safe, one of the most economic, fastest-growing economies in the continent of Africa.”

The Rwanda graduates will now come back to their native country with a year of experience in global health under their belt — ready to tackle problems closer to home. They will still be a part of the community of GHC fellows, exchanging ideas with their peers about how best to solve shared problems. That, said Bush, was the idea from the beginning.

“We started the Global Health Corps model on the idea that you can’t make progress in the world if you don’t have great talented creative people working on change,” she said.

We will be continuing our coverage of Rwanda’s genocide survivors in a one-hour special that looks into the global effects of a generation displaced.

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