This interview was conducted over email with Briana Acosta, a Masters of Public Health student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a second-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Acosta graduated from Duke in 2017 with a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and a co-major in Global Health. She will be speaking at Global Ideas, Local Impact, the Duke Human Rights Center’s annual celebration of human rights, on March 31, 2022. More information.

Gargi Mahadeshwar (GM): What has been your path to your current position?

Briana Acosta (BA): Upon graduating from Duke, I knew I wanted to pursue health-related research in Mexico, so I obtained funding through the Rotary Foundation to pursue a year of Master’s studies and research focused on HIV/STI prevention among migrant indigenous youth in the region of Chiapas. Working full-time in research made me realize I preferred a more practice-oriented career. So I spent the next few years working in my hometown of Houston, TX as an Outreach Specialist at an anti-human trafficking nonprofit, and later as a Client Advocate working with the families of abused children. This grassroots work directly serving clients from diverse marginalized populations further motivated me to obtain my Master of Public Health here at Harvard to gain the skills to approach these types of complex public health issues in a more systemic way.

GM: Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how?

BA: The human rights issue I engage most with is health equity, particularly among Latinx, other ethnic/racial minority, and migrant populations. Within this area, the specific issues I am passionate about include interpersonal violence, trauma, substance use, mental health more generally, HIV/STIs, as well as sexual and reproductive health more generally. I have conducted research focused on topics ranging from the effects of intimate partner violence on parenting among immigrant Latinas in North Carolina to the role of alcohol in relationships among indigenous university students in Chile, as well as how psychosocial factors like PTSD and resilience influence risk of hypertension among adults in Puerto Rico, the focus of my current project.

GM: How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?

BA: My passion for social justice and human rights more broadly, and particularly within the realm of health equity, has driven my entire academic and professional journey. I see my career as more of a calling than a way to make a living, and it brings me great personal satisfaction to pursue work that aligns with my personal values.

GM: Do you see room for improvement in your professional field’s engagement with human rights issues?

BA: I think there is always room for improvement in engaging with human rights issues. I think the field of public health, like many, needs to be better at recognizing that the personal is political and more explicitly call out human rights violations wherever (and by whomever) they are perpetrated, from Israeli apartheid in Palestine to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and even to the U.S.’s racist and classist system of prisons and cages for kids at the border. I also think public health can be better at employing people who have personal lived experience with diverse forms of marginalization, systemic oppression, and human rights violations in leadership positions that involve decision-making power. Relatedly, I think we can be better at empowering communities to improve their own health by ceasing to see ourselves as the “experts” and following their lead, while simply providing them with the necessary resources to accomplish what they know is best.

GM: How has COVID impacted your work? 

BA: The COVID-19 pandemic simultaneously shed more light on and exacerbated the health disparities that are the focus of my life’s work. Now, there is more public recognition of and attention to the inequities that characterize today’s society, as well as more explicit efforts to address this immoral status quo. Another effect is that the field of public health in general is receiving more recognition, attention, and funding due to the ways in which the pandemic has demonstrated its vital importance in the prevention of health problems and promotion of good health. Prior to the pandemic, public health’s importance was largely invisibilized by the U.S.’s focus on curative clinical medicine (a much more profitable industry). However, we still have a long way to go on both of these fronts. The final major effect has been that it has overburdened public health professionals, who have been doing two jobs since the pandemic started: their normal job and a job related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

GM: What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?

BA: To those undergraduate students, I would say: Always be aware of your positionality in any situation (i.e. what identities and positions you hold and how those relate to the identities/positions of the people you are interacting with or having an impact on). On a related note, always carry out your work with an eye towards intersectionality. Find trusted mentors and peers who truly share your values because it is very difficult to pursue this path alone. Also, make self-care (think: boundaries, advocating for your needs, etc.) a priority because even if you have support, this work is often very difficult, and it can be easy to become disenchanted and pessimistic, so find joy where you can. Don’t put the burden of saving the world on your shoulders — At this point in my life, I have come to terms with the fact that the most I can do is damage control within my sphere of influence. Finally, try to remind yourself that your motivation is not what you’re fighting against, but rather the better, more loving, more humane world that is possible if we are brave and creative enough to imagine it.

Acosta welcomes questions from Duke students at briana.acosta321@gmail.com.