AlumnaeApr 17, 2020

Vanessa Stair '06 is helping change the field of Global Health

With Earth Day approaching and the coronavirus pandemic peaking in New York, our miniseries about Miss Hall’s women changing the world takes us to an apartment in Brooklyn for a conversation about global health with Vanessa Stair ’06, Senior Officer, Corporate Relations at Action Against Hunger.

Vanessa recently completed five years at Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), fundraising in support of medical aid on the ground in 75 countries. The shift from MSF to a less well-known, French-based humanitarian organization was driven by her desire to address the root causes of some of the world’s most acute health challenges: food and water insecurity, malnutrition, sanitation, hygiene, climate change, and — most recently — COVID-19.

To Vanessa, working toward solutions means leveraging access and funds to break the cycle of hunger and put the power of change in the hands of the people benefiting from it. The idea that there is a path — by bringing the resources of the private sector to the humanitarian space — compels her every day. The philanthropic partnerships she forges affect real change in the lives of vulnerable people and influence how companies do business.

These days, her focus, in addition to raising two young children during a lockdown, is on transformational partnerships that benefit fragile communities affected by the spread of COVID-19. These communities in East Africa are reeling from years of drought, floods, locusts, limited medical care, and the highest rates of malnutrition in the world, making the threat of COVID-19 even more dire. Vanessa’s job is to secure funding and private sector expertise to help AAH reimagine ways to address their food needs, continue health services, and scale up to fight yet another battle.

“At Miss Hall’s I learned that every moment matters. I led a student fundraiser for tsunami relief, and the proceeds went to MSF. That changed my life. I experienced how important it is to go in the direction of your fears.”

Financial aid made it possible for Vanessa and her sister, Lauren ’09, daughters of Jamaican immigrants in the north Bronx, to attend MHS, and Vanessa is forever grateful. Now a Miss Hall’s Trustee, she has requested we use this forum as a way to activate the MHS network at this critical time in support of our Community Action Fund, to make sure our students have what they need to stay safe, healthy, and learning during this pandemic.

“I learned to take risks at Miss Hall’s and discovered my moral compass. Giving girls a space to make mistakes and grow in a compassionate community is a tremendous gift. Even now, the MHS values stick with me —, especially authenticity. It makes me good at what I do with my seat at the table.” - Vanessa Stair ’06

Excerpts from our Interview with Vanessa

On remembering the most vulnerable: 
There is not a country in the world that was prepared for COVID-19; however, we in very privileged circumstances, including myself in New York, the hardest-hit city in the U.S., have to remember the most vulnerable people — people who are food insecure and who suffer the highest rates of malnutrition, people who are in refugee camps, people who are internally displaced, people who are already dying of things like malaria and the common cold, people who really have suffered, especially in places like East Africa where the health systems are particularly fragile.

On how the pandemic has affected Vanessa's work with Action Against Hunger:
The coronavirus not only affects the safety of our healthcare workers and the safety of the people we’re serving, but it also affects the safety of the programs we’re trying to implement. So, if you can imagine trying to do a mass vaccination campaign for cholera or a food distribution or treat 500 plus individuals in one of our stabilization centers — that’s not possible because of the density of the population we’re serving. So, what’s happening is a reimagining of how to continue our services to prepare and protect the people we are serving in these vulnerable communities, as well as our community health workers — just to prepare and scale up and, consequently, to adjust for the loss in funding. Many of our biggest supporters are restaurants and other companies that are suffering, so there is a smaller pool of private funding available now as the economy responds to the coronavirus. It’s really hard to adjust to all of this in one moment. My work has gotten a little more complex, but the work on the ground has gotten much more complex.

On what we stand to learn from the coronavirus pandemic: 
I think as the world watches countries like the U.S. and Italy grapple with response, they might see how essential universal healthcare is or how we’re so interconnected, how we are a borderless society. There's nothing that's going to stay contained. Even a mild outbreak in a fragile context could push people beyond the brink. I hope what will come out of this is that we will see the need to protect our most vulnerable communities. We can’t just say it doesn't affect us, it doesn’t matter to us. You think of our delivery workers and how essential they are to everything happening now — I hope there is a feeling after this where they are more valued, where people will get paid a living wage and have access to healthcare. I hope individuals will think more thoughtfully about the most vulnerable communities, because it really does affect us. If we think about coronavirus, marginalized communities, like black and brown communities, are most affected, and, again, people in places like East Africa, where the healthcare system is already fragile. I hope people see this as an opportunity to change our perspective on interconnectedness and also personal responsibility. It's not just you and your family. It really affects everyone. It doesn't have to be political. Right now, everyone should have access to healthcare and be paid a living wage and have access to protective materials. Hopefully, the virus will show that this is a universal concern.