Q&A with Joanna Galaris – Impact and Systems specialist

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As we begin this discussion, would you tell us a little about yourself:

My name is Joanna Galaris, I hold dual citizenship: I am Greek and American. Between the ages of 4-18, I lived exclusively in Western, Southern and Eastern Africa and the Middle East. I wanted to be a doctor until I came to Rwanda in 2011. That summer, a physician persuaded me that global health was an interdisciplinary field, not exclusive to clinicians. My superpower is that I can identify almost any species of any bird that you’ve seen in Rwanda based on your description or photograph.

How did you get into Monitoring and Evaluations as well as Systems?

When I moved to the United States for the first time as an undergraduate in college I struggled to watch international news on TV. News anchors tended to paint a tragic, one-dimensional picture: The Middle East was full of violent, religious extremists and Africa was starving and ravaged by disease. Even INGO workers and journalists with lots of international experience were often telling stories in a way that inspired one-way sympathy instead of bi-directional solidarity.

These stories I was hearing championed intervening agents as saviors of indigenous people, and few reflected on whether the intervention they had chosen (often in a conference room across an ocean) was effective in the long-term or sustainable within local systems. In university, I learned that one way to challenge this paradigm was by developing monitoring and evaluation systems so that international organizations (even if they didn’t report on their failures) could actively examine and reflect on whether they were achieving what they set out to achieve, and how they could do better to learn from and serve their communities.

This is why I completed a Master’s in Development Practice, a program at Emory University that combines hands-on learning and field experience with rigorous training in a broad range of academic disciplines, with a strong emphasis on M&E.

What is your favorite thing about working at PIH/IMB?

I wear two hats at IMB. Most days I’m working with the Informatics team to improve our data-driven decision making through the M&E department. Other days, I’m working with senior leadership on new opportunities for growth through proposal writing. Both roles cut across departments, which gives me the privilege of learning new things about IMB staff, the work that we’re doing, and what’s on the horizon. I like working at IMB because reinforces what I am learning about Rwanda- a country deeply deeply rich with vibrant possibilities, qualities and homegrown innovations that many places around the world could draw inspiration from.

What are some of your favorite milestones from Working at PIH?

1/ Watching the scope of the M&E department deepen and broaden: I’m extremely excited about the new collaboration between Research and M&E: the Internal Evaluation Working Group. I hope that it will foster more data-driven decision making and organizational learning within IMB by building our internal capacity to design and carry out evaluations. I also love watching the Informatics Coordinators work hard to develop their skills through Kwicarana Informatics coursework, which enables them to provide districts and programs with high quality technical support in planning, reporting and data visualization.

2/ Watching program leaders adapt and innovate: Whether it be adapting interventions to a changing burden of disease, rising to meet an internal IMB system challenge or designing a brand new intervention as part of a funding proposal, it’s always exciting to see our staff identifying challenges, problem-solving and following up to make things happen.

What are some of your take away lessons from the work you do daily?

The biggest learning I’ve had this year applies to leadership and facilitation: The best leaders/facilitators do not claim to know all the answers. They simply ask the right questions at the right time to the right people.

In your career, have you ever been in a situation where you felt like giving up your chosen career path basing on the challenges you were facing at that time?

In 2016, I was living in Greece during the height of the refugee crisis. At the time I was ready to specialize in gender-based violence prevention in disaster response situations. I thought that this was my path. Once I was engaged in the work, I realized that actually what I loved best was taking a systems thinking approach with inter-disciplinary teams who had the space, time and support to reflect on their challenges and invest in a collaborative processes of quality improvement. This was challenging to do in a tumultuous disaster response context.

When I was offered the chance to come to Rwanda, a country devoted to systems strengthening across sectors, to work for IMB, an organization rooted in social justice, to be a part of Global Health Corps, a community of reflective learners, I knew that this was an opportunity I could not pass up. Although leaving Greece was a tough decision to make at the time, I have never regretted it since.

Lastly do you have any advice/recommendations for your co-workers or people who want to follow in your footsteps?

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves must be open to change if we want to grow and change as people. As a young professional, if you come to a fork in the road and you choose the easy path because you’ve told yourself that it’s your destiny, it’s good to pause for a minute and consider that the unfamiliar path could be a growth opportunity. I am a natural control freak who loves to plan everything (5 years in advance, if possible). However, when I remind myself to lean into the flexibility and humility required to risk taking paths where I’m less in control and less certain of the outcome, I find that I’m rewarded by more learning and more growth.

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