By: Caitlin Chandler
Meaghan Derynck is somewhat of an MVP at the Torchlight Collective. In addition to being Torchlight’s go to person for advocacy and policy around tuberculosis, she’s worked on a wide range of projects for different clients. These have included creating a toolkit of best practices for SRHR service providers working with adolescents and youth in urban settings, developing an advocacy campaign for universal health coverage (UHC) focused on key populations, and helping out behind the scenes with the operations side of the business. Meaghan is based in Ottawa, Canada, where she is also a consultant with the Paris-based International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. We chatted to learn more about Meaghan’s background, some of the current issues in the TB response and why mentorship is more than just career advancement.
Before joining Torchlight, you worked closely with community groups on different health issues, including tuberculosis (TB). We often hear how equity issues affect the HIV response, but TB receives less attention. From your perspective, what are some of the main human rights issues affecting access to TB prevention and treatment?
Outside of Torchlight, all of my work currently focuses on community engagement and involvement in the TB response. The TB and HIV communities are very closely linked, but each have unique challenges, and the TB community is often grappling for its own platform independent of HIV. Many of the human rights issues are similar, particularly inadequate and inequitable access to diagnosis and treatment, especially for marginalized populations. Also, a lot of health systems aren't equipped to deal with TB in conjunction with other health challenges.
A good friend and colleague who passed away recently used to recount how the 2nd time he got TB, he was living in Delhi with no fixed address and was using drugs. He tried to get treatment for his TB, but they told him he needed to go to rehab because he was using drugs, and they also couldn't provide him with any services without ID and proof of address. So he went to a rehab centre, but they wouldn't admit him because he had active TB. It took him over 6 months to be able to access treatment. His story is in no way unique and happens constantly everywhere. In all the conversations now around Universal Health Coverage and how to make health accessible to all, we're talking about 'putting the last mile first' - the more we build systems for health by first focusing on what our most marginalized populations need and then working outward from there, the more we guarantee that the needs of all are being addressed.
What does community involvement in health responses look like to you? Why does it remain important?
No one understands a disease better than someone who is living or has lived through it. Period. Understanding the science and epidemiology behind a disease is one thing, but unless you've had to navigate a health system that stigmatizes you, misdiagnoses you, disbelieves you, feeds you toxic drugs, and oppresses you, you do not understand disease. Affected communities need to have active roles in all aspects of service delivery from developing policy, determining best practices, being actively consulted in R&D of new tools and drugs, providing patient support and helping other community members access healthcare.
How did you initially get involved with global health work?
Ten years ago, I decided to transition my career a bit and go back to school. I did a post-grad in International Development. After graduating, I was having some trouble figuring out where I saw myself fitting into the field. A lot of the traditional approaches to development that we'd been taught were problematic to me, so the idea of following the same path as a lot of my classmates who were off on internships to implement programs in countries they'd never even visited - let alone worked in - didn't feel right. I'd always had a strong interest in health and human rights, particularly as they related to HIV, which is what led me to apply to work with the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS. (GYCA). There, I met future Torchlight co-founders Lindsay and Reshma - and the rest is history!
What have you learned working at Torchlight on different projects?
The team of brilliant people that we have at Torchlight are inspiring and humbling in all the best ways imaginable. With every project I learn more and more of what my own strengths and weaknesses are, as well as the depth and breadth of knowledge of all of our partners and colleagues. It's an incomparable experience, being able to work with and learn from different clients and peers on a regular basis on such a wide array of projects. The most brilliant ideas for making change in this field seem to always be simmering just below the surface, and working with our clients to draw those ideas out and make them come alive is what gets me up in the morning.
As your career has grown, how have you accessed advice or mentorship? What role did this play in your growth/development?
I've been incredibly lucky to have some of the best mentors throughout my career so far; they've all been women, and they've all grown from or grown into friendships. My version of mentorship has always been very informal; it's been women reaching out to say, "You'd be great for this job, I'll coach you through it and put in a good word," or former colleagues staying in touch and being a friendly ear on a rough work or personal issue, and grabbing a coffee or drink to catch-up when we’re in the same place. At its core, my experience with mentorship has always been rooted in having each others’ backs and having a genuine vested interest in seeing each other succeed and thrive, in all areas of life. While some may see mentorship as an exercise in career advancement, I believe that we do this work because it reflects the type of world we're trying to build, and that is so much more than just a job.