Mar 20
March 20, 2015

Ceiling Breaker for Female Leaders in Public Health


Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a self-identified “Jamericanadian,” was born in Vancouver, Canada, but spent her first 5 years in Kingston, Jamaica, where her family is from. When her father received a Fullbright Fellowship to work at Stanford University her family immigrated to Palo Alto, California. Nadine says she’s been fortunate to have many strong, female mentors throughout her life, with her mother as her role model. Nadine’s mother, Hortense Hyacinth Burke, raised her to believe that there was nothing she couldn’t do, and instilled fearlessness in her from a young age. Hortense worked as a private duty nurse at night so she could be there for Nadine and her four brothers when they got home from school every day. Resolute in ensuring that her five children received a good education, Nadine’s mother always encouraged her to reach for her dreams by reminding her, “The sky is the limit, baby!”

Despite the confidence her mother instilled in her, Nadine still encountered many challenges as a woman when it comes to her career. As she was finishing her medical degree and applying to Harvard for her Master’s degree in public health, a male professor expressed pronounced skepticism, reminding her that Harvard is really hard to get into. Later, she discussed her Harvard ambitions to a well-respected female department head, and mentioned her feelings of self-doubt. Nadine vividly remembers the professor’s response: “Never limit yourself. There are plenty of people in the world who are happy to do that for you.” Nadine went on to excel at Harvard, building a career as a leader in the national public health space and research arena.

As founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, and an advisor of Too Small to Fail, a joint initiative of the Clinton Foundation and Next Generation, Nadine has continued to follow her passion in working to eliminate health disparities. However, even in a leadership role, she still feels the need to overcome barriers and low expectations as a woman in her field. Recently, at a very high level meeting with health care leaders and major donors, she was asked to present about the work of her organization. After a brief presentation about the organization’s work to improve the health of children and adolescents exposed to adverse childhood experiences, a male peer approached her saying, “Wow, that was really impressive. Don’t get any smarter!” She was stunned, but drew on the strength she learned as a child playing football in the park with her brothers. She was often underestimated as the only girl on the football field, which she learned to use to her advantage. She says: "I believe the only way most of us make it through the barriers in life is with the help of people who believe in us and set us up to succeed. I’ve had a lot of people block and tackle for me along the way."

Nadine continues to prove that through adversity, we can all find the strength within ourselves to succeed. Her hopes for the next generation of women and girls is that they have a level of fearlessness ­– the same trait Nadine’s mother instilled in her – so they can empower themselves to succeed. Nadine said, “As a woman, and as a Black American, I ache inside when I see young people who don’t believe they can succeed.”  Just as her family and her mentors believed in her, Nadine is a firm believer that everyone, despite their gender, age, or background, has the ability to pursue their dreams. 

Learn more about Too Small to Fail and Dr. Burke Harris’ work.

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