Barbara Bush discussed her career in global health and other pressing issues in conversation with World Affairs Council President Rickey Bevington.

Barbara Pierce Bush had her conscience pricked for solving global health inequities during a transformative trip with her parents to Uganda.

But she understands that not everyone can board Air Force One and tag along with the president and first lady to kick-start a program that will save an estimated 25 million lives over 20 years. 

“By no means do you need to travel to work on global health issues,” Ms. Bush said during the World Affairs Council of Atlanta’s International Women’s Day breakfast March 8. 

The pandemic, she said, showed that improving local health is vital to global health strategies. The presence of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is a testament to this fact, focused as it was at the outset on combating malaria across the South. 

In an interview with Council President Rickey Bevington, Ms. Bush acknowledged the great privilege that she and her twin sister, Jenna Bush Hager, enjoyed in joining their father, George W. Bush, on trips around the world. 

But her work empowering local health workers and inspiring leaders in Africa through the Global Health Corps, which she founded nine years ago and where she now serves as board chair, has illustrated that change comes from a commitment to community. 

“There are people that you can support and serve in your own community. Atlanta has an enormous immigrant population if that’s interesting to you. Really, I think what’s most important is figuring out what lights you up.” 

Originally bent on studying architecture, Ms. Bush said she was waylaid en route to a design career by the trip to five African countries in 2003 as the Bush administration launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. 

The ongoing campaign distributes antiretroviral drugs to those suffering from AIDS in Africa; the U.S. has spent $100 billion so far on the plan, enabling many to live normal lives with a disease that would be a “death sentence” without the drugs. 

“Of course, it’s cliche to say that travel changed my life, but it did. I remember when we landed in Uganda and there were hundreds of people waiting in the street for drugs that anyone in this room could have had access to,” Ms. Bush said. “These drugs were available in the United States, but pharmaceutical companies didn’t distribute them to the continent of Africa because they didn’t think they could make a profit.”

The disconnect between the developed and developing worlds hit home in a new way.  

“I just couldn’t believe as a 21-year-old, the injustice, of course, that where you’re born could dictate whether you lived.” 

She “became obsessed” with global health and the idea of ensuring that existing innovations — drugs, training or otherwise — made it into the hands of those in need of them. 

Ms. Bush questioned why there was no Teach for America-style program to use human capital from the U.S. to cultivate young health leaders across Africa. 

After a meeting with co-founder Jonny Dorsey, and the Global Health Corps was born, despite the self-described introvert’s hesitation to lead an entrepreneurial venture. 

Through nine years at the helm, she learned that solving health challenges requires interdisciplinary collaboration — like the Rwandan architects employed to design hospitals to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and the Gap logistics professional that devised drug-delivery plans in Tanzania. 

“That’s been one of the aspects that’s been incredibly fun — showing new pathways into a field that young people are interested in but might otherwise have opted out because they aren’t a doctor or a nurse, so they wouldn’t have seen what their role could be,” she said. “But of course, as we all know .. the more skill sets that you have at the table, the more different solutions that you’ll come up with.” 

No longer in an operational role at Global Health Corps, Ms. Bush now works with the National Basketball Association, which she says is “walking the walk” on equity in health and other sectors in the U.S. cities where its teams play, partnering with nonprofits working on community health, expungement of criminal records, voter registration and other issues. 

In the wide-ranging conversation, Ms. Bush paid homage to the women who influenced her life, including her straight-shooting grandmother and namesake, Barbara Bush — first lady to President George H.W. Bush — who illustrated how to disagree in love. 

Her maternal grandmother, Jenna Welch, collected National Geographic magazines and taught the twin sisters about constellations, exemplifying how curiosity about the world can create impact even without extensive travel and education. 

The wide-ranging conversation at The Carter Center, which included an audience Q&A, covered such topics as the urban-rural health disparities in Africa, what it’s like to be both the grand-daughter and daughter of a president, and how the U.S. can learn from health care delivery models around the world.

Ms. Bush also outlined her Georgia connections: Her husband, Craig Coyne, grew up in Alpharetta and went to Georgia Tech like his father, while her 17-month-old daughter is named Cora Georgia in a nod to the state where her dad grew up.

The UPS Foundation sponsored the event, with which was hosted in the Cyprus Room at The Carter Center. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...