Learning the power of community in rural India

Sarah Kammerer

UIC grad Sarah Cole Kammerer spent nine months piloting a family planning in India as a Fulbright fellow. Photo: Sarah Cole Kammerer Photography

Sometimes it takes going far from home to realize the importance of community.

During her nine-month Fulbright fellowship in India, Sarah Cole Kammerer lived in a rural town without regular electricity and refrigeration, where many different languages could be heard at any time.

“I thought I would never be able to connect with people from a place so different from my home,” Kammerer said.

“But through our conversations and interactions, I was able to see, in many ways, how similar we really were.

“I learned and very much believe that people are ultimately motivated by the same thing — a need to understand and connect with each other. It took traveling to India, thousands of miles from home, and piloting a program based on community mobilization, to really understand how important community was.”

Kammerer, who graduated with a master’s degree in public health in May 2012, stayed in the rural town of Chakradharpur, in the state of Jharkhand, India, from August 2012 through May 2013 to pilot a family planning program.

Her program used participatory learning to bring women together as a community to talk about their health.

Her pilot program was run in conjunction with Ekjut, an Indian nongovernmental organization based in the region.

“Jharkhand is one of the poorest states in all of India with some of the worst health indicators,” Kammerer said.

She engaged women through storytelling, role-playing games and other methods to discuss health issues such as contraception, reproductive rights, cultural preferences for sons, family support and safe abortion methods.

Women who participated in the pilot program decided to host a meeting to share what they learned with the community at large.

“Regardless of where you live, there is a high risk of maternal mortality when women give birth when they are young, old, high parity, or have children spaced close together,” she said.

“By planning their families, women can reduce this risk.

“Ultimately, we wanted to see if women were willing to discuss family planning matters, traditionally very personal issues in a community setting.”

Kammerer decided to get her master’s in public health after working in politics for several years in Washington, D.C.

She was involved in presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2007, then became a policy analyst, working on the bid for the 2016 Chicago Olympics, then health care reform legislation.

“I realized my passion for working with women in underserved communities on matters related to their health,” she said. “But through my experiences, I learned how and why community mobilization is important.”

Kammerer started a new job this month: senior manager for programs and community engagement at Bright Pink, a Chicago nonprofit that promotes early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women.

She also has a passion for photography, a skill that helped her capture memories from her trip to India.

“Photography helps me tell stories,” she said.

“I think that everyone has a story and I just try to show a glimpse into who they are.”


Photos: Sarah Cole Kammerer, left

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