August 16, 2016

Communication grad travels worldwide to promote human rights and better access to health care

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By Rachael Eedy

Frequent travel is part of her job as a Communications Officer for the Public Health Program of the Open Society Foundations, a private philanthropy focused on human rights and development. When we spoke, Alissa had just returned from a trip to Brazil to her office in New York. She had new information on the Zika virus epidemic, and was contemplating how the Summer Olympics might impact vulnerable residents in Rio.  

Alissa finds travelling extensively for work fulfilling yet exhausting. She’s grateful for the opportunity to visit countries such as Malaysia and Kyrgyzstan, but she’s not there as a tourist. Consulting with partner organizations, and seeing things first-hand, helps Alissa better communicate efforts to treat disease, addiction and mental health disabilities.

“Globally, many people are unable to access health and social services that many Canadians take for granted,” Alissa explains. In certain countries with limited resources, people may be denied healthcare because they are homeless, identify as LGBTI, or are members of ethnic minorities, like Roma communities in Europe. The Open Society Public Health Program supports organizations who help marginalized people by advocating for health practices and policies that are fair and inclusive.

Open Society Foundations are the leading funder of human rights programs, with a 2016 program budget of 930 million, and partnerships with organizations in over 100 countries. Programs funded by the Public Health Program include scholarships for Roma students to attend medical school, and needle exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C in countries like Kenya and Colombia. “We believe in and fund programs that take on controversial issues and address the inequalities that cut across society—including race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and citizenship,” Alissa notes.

Alissa’s role at Open Society includes writing publications, media outreach, and devising communication strategies. One of the innovative communication pieces she helped create was a pop-up museum in New York to advocate for international drug policy reform. Celebrities including Piper Kerman from “Orange is the New Black” made guest appearances, thousands visited the display, and millions of mentions were generated on social media.   

Reflecting back on the career path that lead her to Open Society, Alissa lists the early academic and work experiences she values most. Classes with SFU professor Peter Chow-White sparked her interest in health communications and issues of race and gender in the media. The “On the Hill” applied media course, and video production labs, provided her with experience in news reporting and film.  

While in university, Alissa worked part-time as a lab assistant at St. Paul’s Hospital. This job gave Alissa experience related to public health, and allowed her to enter the highly competitive communication job market with more than a degree.

After graduation, Alissa held communications positions with the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Vancouver-based agency Signals Design GroupRobyn Sussell, her supervisor at Signals, helped Alissa build expertise in branding, public relations, and social media that continues to be essential to Alissa’s work today.

When asked if she has advice for current students, Alissa responds that everyone has their own unique path in life. She encourages students to travel, think critically, and find the opportunities that suit them best, and set them apart from others.