Meet My Friends: Joanna Breitstein

Joanna Brietstein

I met Joanna while sitting on the foam-tiled floor of our daughters’ daycare, as Christmas music played in the background.

For months, my daughter had come home buzzing about a little girl named Aria, and here, at this holiday party, was Aria’s mother, in the flesh. A celebrity! … and the gateway, as I saw it, to potential playdates, i.e. my lifeline to a way to pass the time with a 1-year-old in the city in the middle of winter.

At that first playdate, I was delighted to discover that Joanna was, in a word, awesome — warm, intelligent, and passionate about her work with both the TB Alliance and the i.HUG foundation, an organization she founded to help the children of Uganda. Soon we brought our spouses into the mix, and much revelry followed, both with and without our kids.

Here, Joanna talks about going from being Goth Jersey girl to a communications exec, and keeping up with the “movement” of motherhood. I already knew I admired Joanna, but reading her answers to these questions only deepened my respect and gratitude for the work she does. She is the bomb.

You’ve told me you were a Goth girl in high school. Now you’re married, a mom, and a communications executive in the health field. What parts of Teenage You do you see in yourself today, and which parts seem foreign from today’s vantage point?

I lacked a lot of confidence when I was young, and I see the lasting damage that has caused. Sometimes I forget I’m a grown woman with valuable expertise and I instinctively take the seat at the back of the room. But the chaos and confusion of those teenage years seems very far away. I know what I want, and realize, maybe more and more each day, that most issues in life are not black and white.

You’re the head of communications for the TB Alliance. First, can you tell people what that means? What exactly do you do? And while you’re at it, why should the average American be concerned about TB? 

TB Alliance is the only non-profit organization in the world dedicated to developing better, faster treatments for tuberculosis. Most people don’t realize that TB is a major killer, particularly for the world’s most vulnerable populations, and now kills more people than HIV. Part of the reason for that is that the treatments are so bad. The saying goes, “TB anywhere is TB everywhere.”

As head of communications, I’m responsible for the branding and marketing strategy, as well as building the communications “infrastructure” that enables the organization to carry out its mission. The organization is constantly evolving, so over the past six years, my job has changed, too.

What set you on this path professionally? Was there a trigger moment you can remember, when you knew you wanted to do health communications, or work on TB specifically, or was it more a series of gradual steps that led you to this career? 

I started my career as a healthcare journalist covering pharmaceuticals in 2000. I covered the business side of medicine, focused on pharmaceutical marketing.

And while it was challenging, I couldn’t help but keep my interest from wandering. In the ensuing years, I began to write about HIV and the other major healthcare challenges facing Africa. I was moved by the individual stories of people living in poverty and the healthcare disparities they faced.

One of those stories came from a person who was living in Uganda and taking care of orphans living with HIV.  I received an email from this person in 2004, and we began to correspond regularly. It gave me the reason I needed to apply for a writing grant to go to Africa and tell this story first hand.

Still, no one was more surprised that I was when I found out that I had won a Kaiser Family Foundation fellowship. The grant paid for my reporting trip to Uganda. I remember landing and just thinking I was in a different world. But after spending so much time in Uganda, hearing the stories of its children and people, I came to the opposite realization — that, sadly, we all inhabit this same, small, interconnected world.

I was in the homes of families of the dying. I went to the hospitals. I could never forget what I learned on the trip. All of a sudden, I became aware of my responsibilities. 

After that, I no longer wanted to write about Viagra, or the business side of the pharmaceutical industry. Once home, I began to write about neglected diseases–not only HIV, but TB, malaria, and others–and their relationship to poverty, publishing my photographs. In 2006, I decided to host my first photography show in my boyfriend’s (now husband’s) bar in Soho. That night, I raised the money I needed to start a charity. So I did.

It took me three years, but in 2009, I finally switched professions to focus on diseases of poverty full time, landing my current gig having actually interviewed the organization previously for an article I had written on TB.  

So that first trip to Africa triggered a transformation…it would just take years to unfold. 

Not one to slack, you are also the co-founder of the i.Hug foundation, which increases access to education for vulnerable children in Uganda to accelerate their path out of poverty. What inspired you to start this organization? 

 In Uganda, I saw the incredible plight of children—malnutrition, lack of education, access to sanitary conditions, and the daily violence they were forced to withstand. When I came home, I couldn’t sleep for a long time. Every time I closed my eyes, I was haunted by the children with big eyes, protruding stomachs, hanging on the gate watching other children go to school. At first I thought I was traumatized by my time in Africa.

But then I came to realize, the trauma happened when I came back home to New York. It became exceedingly apparent that the world had forgotten these children in need. At the same time, I couldn’t help noticing all that we waste. I became angry—and then I decided to do something. The i.HUG (I Help Uganda Grow) Foundation was then formed. Today, the organization provides a range of programs that help accelerate access to education and enable vulnerable children to go to and stay in school.

Out of curiosity — as a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up? Do you see any connections between that, and where you are today…even if they may not be patently obvious? 

I guess I never really knew what I wanted to do, and never felt compelled to pursue one particular thing. My eyes were opened to the field of global health, and once that happened, it became difficult to picture doing anything else.

We met because our daughters were BFFs at daycare in Brooklyn. You and I have talked a lot about the challenges of carving out time for self-care and a social life on top of the time we spend with our families and at work. If you could give one piece of advice to You from three years ago, when you were just starting out as a mom, what would it be, in terms of how to achieve this balance?

Joanna with her daughter, Aria, at Coney Island

Joanna with her daughter, Aria, at Coney Island

Let’s face it, it’s not easy to achieve balance. But my advice would be to find ways to have fun, connect with friends, and spend meaningful time with their partners. This is all food for the soul, and makes you a better person, in addition to being a better mom.

What has been the most pleasant surprise of motherhood, for you?

I never expected to be good at being a mom! It has been a nice surprise.

What has been the greatest challenge?

The constant movement and number of activities that have to be completed. Some days, I look up and can’t believe its only 10 am, I feel like I had a full day already.

Who are your role models?

Women who have been able to achieve professionally, personally, and still find time to live passionately.

Bonus question: If you could teleport anywhere in the world to play hooky tomorrow, where would you go, and what would you do?

You’d find me on a sandy beach, listening to the waves, pina colada in hand, snoozing the day away.

Now This:

  1. Support the incredible work of the i.HUG Foundation.
  2. Help the TB Alliance fund the development of new drugs to fight this disease that affects a third of the world.
  3. Meet more of my friends.

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