The Bush Twins Talk Social Impact
We had the opportunity to sit & talk with Jenna Bush-Hager and Barbara Bush through Charlotte Lately about their new book, “Sisters First”. They discuss how their family and time in the White House has shaped them and their efforts in impacting the world.
Can you tell us a little bit on what people should expect from your new book and what might surprise them?
J: “We wanted to write this book because we know how lucky we are to have each other, so it’s really a love story to each other and that part isn’t surprising. But i do think what we found in writing it and going on this book tour- we have been to 15 cities so far- is that we get to share our own story, tell our own story and the authenticity and the truth of it lived out after being in the public eye for so long. It’s really empowering for us to tell our own stories and I think that’s been surprising even to us.”
In your book you say you hope to dispel stereotypes- what would you like people to think of when they hear your names?
J: “We don’t really know what people think when they hear our names and I think one of the great parts of growing up in the public eye is that we care a lot about what people we know think of us and care less about those people who have bad thoughts of us that don’t know us. I would say I want to be known as someone who tells good stories, who tells important stories with authenticity, and that’s what is most important to me.”
B: “I’m definitely more private than my sister, so even writing this book in the first place was more out of my comfort zone, but also I’m thrilled that we did it. I work a lot on global health issues and it doesn’t necessarily matter to me what people think of me- it just matters to me that I do good work and support those that I work with. I’m lucky to work in 5 countries right now with our team and work with people that are trying to change the world every day and that to me is what motivates me every day.”
What inspired you to create Global Health Corps. & how involved are both of you in the organization?
B: “I got inspired to start GHC largely through travel with my parents. We were so lucky that we were in college and right out of college when our dad was president, because that was the time when you’re really trying to figure out what you want to do with your life. So, by traveling with them it opened my world in so many ways and exposed me to incredible people affecting change. On one trip I joined them on, I had been studying architecture and was thinking I would be an architect. I took two weeks off of my design internship that summer of my junior year and traveled with them for the launch of PEPFAR which provides free drugs for those living with HIV in countries where they couldn’t otherwise access drugs. It really, as cliché as it is, it really opened my eyes when we landed and saw hundreds of people waiting in the streets in Uganda for drugs that we had had in the US for years. It was such a shock to me that you could be born in a country and it would dictate whether or not you could live because drugs weren’t being distributed there. I was really angered by that and then on the flip side, I just realized that I was inspired by the fact that it was an incredible time to be working in global health because we have so many discoveries. We have so much of the information and drugs and ways of staying in contact that we need to make sure people live a healthy life and so that is what inspired me to work in global health and to take advantage of everything we have at our disposal now to ensure others can live dignified lives. To that effect, I founded GHC and I currently am the CEO of Global Health Corp. We have worked with a thousand young leaders from all over the world who serve with us solving health issues every single day. We are very much based off the Teach For America model in terms of bringing great young talent to the field of global health and shaping them to continue working on these issues throughout their lives and so this is what I do all day, every day.”
You both have traveled and done your research on many important development issues such as food security, women’s healthcare, etc. with your organization. What do you wish more people understood about the importance of investing in healthcare in developing countries as well as our own country?
B: “I hope that what people realize when you talk about global health is that there is so much positive change we can make in this space. I am always surprised when I meet people and I tell them I work in global health and they say “man, that must be so depressing” and, actually, so much of what I work on is solvable and that is such a luxury. While problems are not solved, we know what we are working towards. So I see little wins every day in terms of looking through the work of our fellows who are serving other people. It’s inspiring to me that they’re working on issues that while, maybe aren’t solved today or tomorrow, but in their lifetime they can solve. I strongly believe we will have an AIDs-free generation in our lifetime. And on the flip side, I am also really inspired by the fact that at GHC, we accept 2% of the young people that apply to our program, so that just means a thousand young leaders want to work in global health which is building the pipeline of those that will continue solving these issues throughout their lives... which is inspiring to me.”
You’ve said your mom is a “closet hippie”. How has she influenced and shaped you?
J: “Well, our mom has shaped us, as I’m sure most people would say this about their mothers in so many ways. She loves music, which is why we said that- she loves reggae music and she didn’t sing a traditional lullaby. She sang us “Rock-a-baby” by Bob Marley. I think she shaped us because most importantly we always knew we were loved unconditionally so now as a mom myself, I know that this is the most important thing. If you love your kids unconditionally and show them that, they can be more brave and do things that you never knew you had the confidence to do.”
Some of your values and passions contrasted with those of your family’s legacy. Can you elaborate on the importance, especially in current times, of forming your own stances outside of political party?
B: “Yeah, definitely. I think it’s interesting- I don’t know if our values have necessarily contrasted with our family members.”
J: “Yeah, I would say our values were in line our family members.”
B: “Yeah, but some of our beliefs might be in contrast. Our parents certainly raised us to think, be curious, and think critically to form our own opinions and I think that that is a huge luxury that they gave us to believe in our own opinions and know that if we care deeply about something it’s our responsibility to do what we can to affect change. So, one story that I talk about in Sisters First is when I ended up doing a video for marriage equality in New York in 2011and after I did that a number of people, strangers, would come up to me and say, “Thanks for doing that. That was brave of you to betray your family.” I was so shocked that that was the takeaway because it wasn’t a betrayal of my family and my family didn’t see it as a betrayal. I actually talked to my dad a number of times before doing the video about whether or not I should do the video and if I was comfortable doing it and if it was a way to affect a positive change by using my voice. My dad really coached me through my thinking around it and so it wasn’t a betrayal in our family. In fact, it was sort of living out what they had taught us to do in terms of using our voice to affect change. He didn’t see it as a betrayal, even though it was different in beliefs, and I think that is what is really important right now, that that’s okay. I imagine most kids have disagreed with their parents on something, but it’s not an affront to their parents. It’s important that we respect others and listen to their opinions and also feel comfortable listening to their opinions and taking that into account. I think that’s a huge luxury that our parents gave us- listening to our opinions and sharing theirs and it was always constructive and certainly opened my eyes to different viewpoints and I think vice versa.”
In your USA Today interview you spoke about not considering politics because then you are part of the problem and how divisiveness is turning great people away from politics. What is your message to people who want to affect change without getting political?
J: “I think what we said in that interview is that we used to say “no, we didn’t consider politics right away” and now that it has become more divisive, we are little less emphatic about it, because we do want people to run for political office. It’s important, I think, that people consider running for office, that smart people consider running for office. Now, that everything is so divisive, with social media and cable news having obviously taken control of the media cycle, it’s harder. People are more easily criticized and so we just don’t want to be so emphatic about it because we do want good people to run and there are tons of ways. I mean, Barbara started a global health nonprofit, I was a teacher. There are tons of ways you can give back without running, but at the same time we want smart people to lead our country as well. So it’s both really. It’s not either/or.”
B: “Yeah, you can do both.”
J: “There are so many ways to serve others and connect with others and support them that isn’t political and then there’s also a political route and we really believe in both. I think we are both kinda choosing to do the first route which isn’t political but also matters and really most people care about other humans and it’s important that we all ensure we are being inclusive and serving others in whatever way we can.”