We Lead: Episode One with Dwan Dixon

March 1st, 2022 | Story


In our first episode of We Lead, a podcast series celebrating diverse women in leadership, learn from Dwan Dixon, a major catalyst in the development of the series, on how her unique identity makes her a successful leader, and not despite it.

Intro: This is We Lead, presented by Voices of Public Health, the JSI podcast. The women who lead JSI’s global health programs come from all walks of life. Their stories are as diverse as the countries where they work and the people they serve. In this series, we’ll hear from women and leadership at JSI to learn more about their personal and professional journeys, and what they’ve discovered along the way.

Hi, I’m Hayley Dowdie, a program officer in JSI’s International Division. Thanks for tuning in. Today, on our first episode of We Lead we’re talking with Dwan Dixon. Dwan joined JSI in 2017, and leads an impressively large US-government funded HIV program in Zambia, which is called USAID Supporting an AIDS-Free Era, or SAFE. With 142 million in funding, SAFE provides critical HIV testing care and treatment services, and currently provides antiretroviral treatment for more than a third of Zambians who are living with HIV. Before joining JSI, Dwan lived in Lesotho, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa, leading complex health and HIV programs in more than 17 sub-Saharan African countries. She joins us today from Lusaka. Hi Dwan, welcome to the show.

Dwan: Hi, it’s good to be with you today.

Haley: I’m very excited that we’re recording this debut episode of We Lead with you specifically today. So I understand that you played an integral role, you were essentially the catalyst in the development of JSI’s We Lead campaign. What motivated or inspired you to participate?

Dwan: I’m a woman, a Black woman, a Black woman who’s a single mother to four rambunctious, extraordinary human beings. All too often, I, like countless other women of color, especially Black women, are just a statistic, and our stories of perseverance, leadership, and achievement against the odds is rarely told. Aside from being a Black single mother, I’m also a leader, and I strongly believe that I’m a successful leader because of my unique identity, not despite it. My story is the story of many, and it’s important to me to tell, share, and hear it for everyone.

Haley: I appreciate that, and that truly resonates with me as well as a Black woman who is new in this field, so thank you so much for sharing that. The We Lead campaign, it really is designed to share the stories of JSI’s women leaders. What role do you see storytelling playing in International Development work? Why do you find storytelling to be important to JSI’s work?

Dwan: Well, I believe stories give us context beyond the statistics. We at SAFE are 1000 staff members and 1200 dedicated volunteers strong. We are clinicians, pharmacists, lab techs, community-based volunteers, strategic information assistance, technical supervisors, and coordinators, drivers, operations, and administrative and finance staff. We’re also all the 300,000 mothers, fathers, young adults, children, farmers, fishermen, and fisherwomen, laborers, professional students, and homemakers we serve for not just a stream of statistics, we are individuals, families, and communities. And we all have stories, in our context and in public health. These stories remind us of why we do the work we do, and most importantly, who it’s for. Without context, people turn into numbers only, I know this well. Good public health work relies on much more than that. It requires that we understand the needs of the individuals and communities we serve, through not only our perspective, but theirs as well.

Haley: I’m very much looking forward to hearing your personal story today, and so with that, I do want to transition to your personal story. So within your 20 years in International Development, you’ve accomplished so, so much, and I’m really looking forward to learning more about your professional experience, of course. However, to start us off, I want to get to know you as a person. Oftentimes, when we meet and hear about accomplished individuals, such as yourself, you know, we don’t always have that opportunity to get to know them as humans. So tell me about yourself, who is Dwan, and I guess moreover, how would your friends and your family describe you?

Dwan: I hope that most who know me would not hide the fact that my children are my world. I’ll be ancient by the time they start their own families, but I’m measurably thankful for the role of being their mother, specifically. Nine times out of 10 when I’m joyful, which is often, it is because of them. In addition to being, you know, a mother, I think many will say that this work is not just my profession, but my passion, my calling, and I feel ridiculously lucky every day to do it. Others might go the extra mile and say, you know, that I’m well suited to this work. I’m fiercely independent, contemplative, and sensitive, probably to a fault. I believe folks who know me really well, privately, will say that I am very reserved. I like observing, listening, and reflecting, and that the person at work is not naturally an extrovert. They might give you a tad more and really tell on me, Haley, offering that I have wanderlust running through my veins, and I can’t seem to keep still. Always one foot in one place and reaching out with the other foot to land somewhere else, and, you know, they would be completely right. I often say even when I’m home, I’m not at home, always finding a reason to keep traveling. So I hope they wouldn’t tell on me, but I think some folks would. I think that’s probably what they would say about me in a nutshell.

Haley: I love it, and I imagine that wanderlust energy has rubbed off on your children, I’m sure they will be globetrotting before we know it right?

Dwan: Who knows, they are going to say, “Look, my mom dragged us all over the world for years and years.” So, we’ll see, 20 years from now, but I’ll be too old, and I won’t have any hearing. So, I won’t have to hear it.

Haley: So, Dwan, how do you feel your unique experience has guided you to where you are today?

Dwan: I think it’s done so in two ways. When I was young, my heroes were always those who were of service to the community. Because I was in a low-income working-class family, I was often a beneficiary of community services. And who doesn’t want to be just like their heroes, right? My life trajectory continually evolved in a positive way, because people served their communities because they believed in the work and saw it was necessary. I believe this early exposure, this influence left an imprint on me that to be of service is a reward in and of itself. Secondly, I often joke that I can’t stay still, right? I think the fact that I adapt so easily, that I can come and go, has made it easier to experience so many different amazing cultures and opportunities in the 17 years that I’ve lived on this continent. I don’t think I could lead SAFE, or any team, the way I do without having had a well of different experiences to draw upon. I believe my value-added is that I share and I work to make it even better somewhere. So that I can return it and hopefully give it back better than when I found it.

Haley: So when you think about your professional success, specifically, you know, it’s really important to acknowledge and reflect on the challenges. What do you feel that you had to overcome to get to where you are today?

Dwan: Racism. Funny saying that, given that I just told you, I’ve been gone for 17 years, and I live on a continent in a place where individuals, many individuals look like me, mirror what I look like, but it’s racism. I couldn’t hide it or hide away from it if I tried. You know, nearly 20 years ago, I was serving in my first real job in International Development. And Haley, I was a program officer just like you and a lone soldier, as a young Black woman serving in a predominantly white, upper class, male-dominated field. I should also add that I was the only Black woman in my International Development graduate program as well. I felt like an outsider, and in many cases, I was. I was often twice as qualified as my peers, having both lived abroad and a dual graduate degree holder. And yet, I was not considered for the coveted short and long-term assignments, assignments that build exposure, experience, and credibility in this field. I was overlooked, and it was discouraging and felt incredibly unfair. You know, however, there were other women of color who acknowledged my work and supported my potential. They were the ones who extended me a helping hand and made space for me. And each time I was offered space, I took it hungrily. I mean, I just devoured it and used it as a springboard to the next step. So, Haley, if you give me a chance, I’m going to name-check here, right? Because, you know, it’s about paying it forward and paying it back.

Haley: Exactly.

Dwan: Because again, stories and the people in them are important. You know, in my first position as an Associate Program Officer, Darlene Andrews matched me with my first short-term assignment to Nigeria and Ghana. Barbara Rieckhoff, a staunch ally for this particular woman of color, fought fiercely for me to get my second short-term assignment to Lithuania and Kaliningrad. Sujata Rana, along with all the other women who powered the Community Reach Team at Pact, supported me to provide capacity-building support for civil society organizations. And lastly, Malika Magagula, Chief of Party, who showed me it was possible to be here, right where I am in this capacity. She showed up and showed up big to the home office and donor tables every day. She made my first long-term assignment to South Africa, now almost 17 years ago, possible. When others were dismissive or supportive, but not yet ready to extend a hand, these women not only stood up for me, but paved a bit of the way for me to grow. I doubted many times, Haley, that I would survive in this field, but it was because of other women, these other women, many of whom were women of color, who didn’t ask or expect me to change, that I’ve had staying power all this time. So, you know, with that said, there is racism, it is still as pervasive and persistent as it was then when I started. But now I, you know, I’d like to think that what I’ve accomplished and what I can still contribute is so much bigger than it, and then I can continue to serve, despite of it.

Haley: Absolutely. Thank you, Dwan. And, you know, I have a couple of follow-up questions for you. One of the things that you said really stood out to me was, you know, someone showing you what was possible. And I love that, I love hearing that. And I’m wondering if you can say more about that, in sort of what it means to have someone show you what is possible.

Dwan: Possibility, as I mentioned, you know, it doesn’t necessarily have to be someone coaching you, or even sharing words, I think, sometimes, you know, outward words of encouragement. It could just be showing up, just being present, you know. Many of these women, it wasn’t as if they went out, you know, outside the halls of the organization we were working in and put up a picket sign, you know, and said ‘Dwan must, you know, get this opportunity.’ A lot of it was, again, just being there, knowing that there was someone else there in a place that was the next stepping stone for me. And most importantly, for them being themselves. That’s the hardest thing to do I think sometimes, especially when you don’t see yourself represented as the majority or in the majority of the tables that you’re trying to sit at. Being yourself is the way to show up and to, you know, bring authenticity, and a contribution that is different but still valuable. So that’s what I would say, is possible. And I’m reminded of that here, where I work in Zambia. And, you know, showing up means that, you know, I show up as my authentic self. And that reminds people that there’s room for them too, to be their authentic selves, as they are, not expecting them to change, but only to give what they have to give.

Haley: And you hit on this earlier, it’s so important to, you know, think about systemic racism in the history of International Development. And so I’m curious if you could speak to your experience with navigating through a field that is, in some ways riddled with, you know, the remnants of racism, and how that has played out in the workplace, either when you’re based in the U.S. or when you’re based abroad?

Dawn: Well, when I entered this field, it was the individuals who held the position that I hold now, Chief of Party, were by and large, white, American, and European, and male. And over the course of 20 plus years, that’s changed quite a bit. You don’t see Dwans everywhere, but you definitely see more women in this position, a lot more women, and you see individuals, not only of color, but representing, you know, the host countries that we are working in. And I think that’s a plus all around. I really believe that we, you know, we’re not having conversations or maybe the conversations we need to have about diversity and racism and discrimination, and how do we all work together for more inclusive environments. That’s a place that we need to go as the community of International Development professionals.

However, we are making inroads, and perhaps it’s just because change is always happening. There is value in having a diverse set of contributions, we all bring something to the table. And I think just as what I shared with you about others who paved the way for me, the one thing that I see all the time is that the more I open up our project to having more diverse voices at the table to make decisions. The more we get out of it, the more we grow, and I think this has a ripple effect within this particular sector. The way to deal with it is for individuals like myself, who’ve benefited from individuals making space for me, that I continue to pay it forward and encourage others within my team to do so as well, and my colleagues in other organizations, I think it just requires the challenge, the ask, and not so much the expectation.

Haley: In some ways, we all have a responsibility. And as you say, I mean, you emphasize the importance of community, and I imagine that sort of how you got into this field or shifted into this field, which we’ll get into a bit late, is you know, serving your community and looking out for each other. I think it’s a beautiful concept, and it’s something that when it’s baked into leadership has the potential to do amazing things, as you’ve said. So I’m going to shift gears just a little bit and sort of get at your journey to and through public health. So I know that you grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, as you mentioned, and you initially left home to study English and economics, right?

Dwan: That’s right. That’s right. I wasn’t like Josephine Baker, who by the way, is also from St. Louis.

Haley: That’s right!

Dwan: My ambitions weren’t that ambitious.

Haley: She was quite the traveler as well, maybe, you know, kindred spirits, perhaps?

Dwan: Who knows?

Haley: So, Dwan, did you ever imagine that you would end up in this field?

Dwan: Did I imagine ending up in this field? No, no way. I didn’t even know it existed, right? No, I was all set to be a lawyer. As much as you know, I think back and I think, you know, as much as I expressed the desire to explore the world, you know, others around me shared their opinions, right? There’s always the peanut gallery, who you know, share their opinions that such an interest would leave me poor and destitute. And that scared me, you know, I was already poor, and I didn’t want to stay poor. And then there are the others that, you know, would say, why would you want to do that, you know, there’s so many other things you could do, and there’s so few of us who get a chance to do those things. And, you know, it’s, we keep on it and tell me, you know, be something important, like a doctor or lawyer or anything but that, right. And, you know, I had all these dreams of being an astronaut. And although I don’t think being an astronaut you’re poor these days, but you know, being an astronaut, and anthropologists, things like that. And, you know, they were shot down. And, you know, so I listened and kind of gave up and gave in. And well, I should say, for at least a little while, right? And I think I rebelled in my own quiet way, by going to Brown. I took the most traditional academic route, right, English and economics, I could, but you know, I did it at one of the most liberal institutions in the U.S. And the opportunities and people I found there, they challenged me and knocked me right back into the direction I was always meant to follow, right to where I am right now, here in Lusaka, two decades later.

Haley: And it’s a beautiful journey when you think about it. I mean, we talked earlier about the importance of diversity. In some ways, the diversity of perspectives that you get when you leave home, and the opportunity and the privilege to be able to explore what’s out there. Right?

Dwan: Yeah, it’s funny, because I think about my kids now, I have four small children, and their experience is so different from my own growing up. It’s something that I find that I have to reconcile every day, you know, when you grew up the way I grew up, and I mentioned, you know, coming from a low-income background, that it’s a different world for them. It’s nothing but possibility. Often in the background said, what I came from all you see are barriers, all you’re presented with are barriers, and being abroad, being here with my kids, it’s about possibility.

Haley: Was this field, did it turn out to be what you expected?

Dwan: I don’t think I had any expectations. Remember, I didn’t know it really existed, to begin with. And then when I got a taste for that, there was something going on out here in college and was like, What’s this? You know, there’s, you know, there’s a need here, I see some people working on it. I don’t quite understand what they’re doing. But this sounds like something that might be for me, you know, exploring again. And I don’t think I had any expectations, again, just even entering the field was exploring what it was in the first place, or what, you know, what is this thing? All I knew was that it focused on service, and that was right up my alley. Little did I know that, you know, what I’ve learned since is that it’s not only a field that focuses on service, but it’s also multidisciplinary. And that good public health relies on the contributions of a diverse set of actors, which again, is right up my alley, you know, community working together on community issues.

Haley: For folks who are new to this field, and maybe new in their careers. Is there anything that you wish that more people knew about it?

Dwan: Sure. I mean, I think I would come back to that, you know, public health is about service. We use science, you know, I think of it as sort of as a pot, you know, science, what I hope is good, common sense, you know, dedication and a whole lot of service to hopefully ascertain correctly, what people need and what they want. And it’s a two way street. I think often people think, okay, you put out a public good, I mean, COVID is a perfect example, right? We put out a public good, you know, like a vaccine, that everyone’s just gonna jump on it and trust it. And there’s a whole lot more work that goes around that. There’s bringing a service or product to the table that you hope will help people. And then there is the other piece of working directly with the community to ensure that that service gets to them to ensure that they understand what it’s for, and how it can benefit them. And if they don’t see that or it or we realize that in essence that what we are giving is actually not benefiting them because they won’t use it, because there are barriers or things that we failed to identify in offering the service or product. Again, that’s another challenge. That’s the piece that we have to then go back to the table and work on it again. The whole point of services that you’re serving, that means that we have to always have the beneficiary, the person. They sit at the nucleus of everything that we do, and so sometimes that’s forgotten. Even in public health, even when I say serving, the service part sometimes can be forgotten and our need to want to serve so quickly. And so I think that’s the one thing that I’ve always found surprising. I’m constantly reminding myself because we do forget, we get so excited and so eager to get things moving, and we often forget the center. And that’s what’s supposed to keep us grounded, and every time that we miss the mark, and sometimes we do, it call us back to, you know, ourselves into what we’re trying to do. And inevitably, we make a better product, we build a better service. And we help in ways that you know, in some ways we never even imagined.

Haley: I mean, this is a field that’s constantly changing. And you’ve likely seen many changes both philosophically and tangibly in your career. How would you say that the field has evolved, at least since you first began your career?

Dwan: I would go back again to how it’s changed in the sense of a more diverse set of actors in the sector. When, again when I started, my eyes started opening that this kind of work existed, those working in the positions that I held didn’t look anything like the individuals who they were serving. And now that has changed through a lot of work through both our donors, who’ve insisted that there is value-added in this regard, and the organizations that are responding, and have stepped up and said, “Okay, we’re here, we’re ready to meet the challenge.” The more diverse set of voices you have at the table, it’s more difficult to ignore them, you know, it only enriches the conversations we have around management and around implementation. And I just think of what things must have been like 25-30 years ago, when these voices weren’t there, and how programming really may have had quite a bit of tunnel vision, and perhaps things that should have moved forward faster, and have been more responsive to the needs of those that we serve could have been achieved sooner, faster, easier. But we’re learning and that’s part of the journey, to keep learning and what we consider diversity now will change again, and I’m excited about it that you know, if we’re open to it, that it’ll continually change and as a result, the sector will grow and benefit and most importantly, our beneficiaries will continue to benefit from that change.

Haley: I want to talk well, more specifically about your journey to leadership, Dwan, you know, what lessons have you learned to become an effective leader?

Dwan: I think, you know, in this particular field, again, I’m a unicorn. Again, I call this back to, you know, me being a Black woman and a single mother, a single woman who is leading the charge, and part of that is being authentic. I think leadership requires us to be authentic and to have a level of vulnerability that is not always promoted or prized or talked about. Vulnerability means that you know, other people can see themselves in us and can take pride and ownership when we have a win. And also when we have a fail, and we get right back up and try again, and do it. And the next time do it even better. And I believe that’s really important, especially when you lead a staff and complement as large and diverse as the one that I lead. I have, you know, women and men and young individuals who are just starting out their careers and others who were seasoned, and the expectations are so high for what we need to do and the investment is so significant. We all bear a lot of weight, and so we are all leaders in our own regard and just on different places on the trajectory. And so that’s been part of my journey is that I, you know, not fitting in the mold and not encouraging others to fit into some mold, you know, that we all have something to contribute. and I think good leaders are ones who can lead as well from behind as they can from the front. So I think that’s, for me, probably the biggest thing I would say as being a leader and coming from my particular background, that everyone has something to contribute. We need diverse voices and diversity comes in many, many different packages, and it’s up to those of us who are new to the table to ensure that there’s plenty of space to accommodate that diversity.

Haley: I couldn’t agree with you more, and it’s refreshing and inspiring and gives me a lot of hope knowing that there are leaders out there who are really advocating for creating the next generation of leaders. I guess one thing I also want to touch on today is you started out in a different field and came into this and you have blossomed and grown. It’s something that I think so many young professionals starting out, it’s what they hope to see. And so I’m curious, what advice you would give to young people who are starting out in the public health field?

Dwan: Well, I would say that in order to, again, to have staying power, that you have to be of service, and that’s the first commitment that you have to make to this field, especially if you want to work in the field, like how I do, not from you know, a headquarters or home office, if you want to be here in the field, you have to be willing to go where you’re needed when you’re needed and to offer what you can when someone needs a lending hand. And so when I think of my own experience, that meant I’m not a person that gets excited about budgets. But if there was no one on the team who could do it, and we needed someone to do it, you know, that was the time to get in it and do it and look at it as a learning experience and an opportunity to contribute. And, you know, I very much believe that this field is all about that. And, you know, events that we’re going through right now, like with the COVID pandemic, are testing us in that way, especially in this field about contributing and finding any way to contribute. I would also say that not to give up, I would encourage people not to lock themselves in a box to be open, and to try to be as courageous as possible in their choices and their risk, and you know, in taking different types of assignments and just seeing them as opportunities. Even if it doesn’t keep you within this field, they might still open up another opportunity and offer you something you never imagined. Stick with it. You know, don’t give up so easily, because I had my moments and almost gave up but kept coming back and see every opportunity as just that, an opportunity to grow and to learn and to give.

Haley: Thank you so much, Dwan. And thank you for sharing your story with us today. Our team is very fortunate to have your leadership.

Dwan: Thank you.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of We Lead presented by Voices of public health the JSI podcast. We’d love to know what you thought of today’s conversation. Connect with us @JSIHealth on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and share the episode if you liked what you heard. To learn more about JSI’s work to improve health outcomes for all visit our website jsi.com.

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