Angela Wall, PhD. is the communications director at Breast Cancer Action, the San Francisco-based advocacy group that calls itself themselves “the bad girls of breast cancer.” She’s a cultural critic, rabble rouser, mama, organizer, communications expert and feminist who’s doing important work for women’s health.
This week we had a great conversation about health activism, the use of humanities degrees, and opportunities for women working in the health non-profit sector.
What is your job? What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
I’m the Communications Director at Breast Cancer Action. We’re a feminist health organization that advocates to stop cancer where it starts. We’re different from other breast cancer organizations because we’re very political. We also question the dominant primarily pink paradigm of breast cancer activism through our Think Before You Pink campaign.
A big part of my job is thought leadership which includes writing, editing, and motivating. I’m always conveying the urgency of why protecting women’s health is an important issue.
BCAction has a unique brand and a powerful, fiery, passionate voice. I’m the gatekeeper of that voice, and it’s my job to make sure that all publications that go out reflect this. I talk to the press, do media outreach, set up interviews, work on the strategic aspect of campaigns and help program staff to publicize and organize their materials. I’m the go-to publicity person.
You took a bit of a winding path to get to this position, and I’d love to hear you ended up doing this work. You have a PhD – what was your experience in academia?
I have PhD in Feminist Cultural Theory (Cultural Studies), so my first inclination was to be an academic. My dissertation was on reproductive technologies and reproductive health: the whole mess of what it meant to be a woman in a world of new reproductive devices and technologies at the end of the 20th century.
After I finished my degree, I taught at Georgia Tech in the Literature, Communication and Culture program. It was a heavily male dominated environment, and I while I loved teaching and the students, I got burnt out. Being in academia wasn’t what I felt passionate about.
So after you left academia, what did you do?
Eventually, my partner and I moved to San Francisco, California where he got a job, and I worked for a small tech start-up, doing focus groups, consumer research and general marketing. At no point in my life would I ever have thought that I would end up in that role. Advertising was the belly of the beast! I worked for three years for a great company, but at the end of the day I hated the idea of working for the corporate sector, so after I had my daughter, I quit.
How did you connect with Breast Cancer Action?
Unlike many women, I didn’t get involved because of a personal experience; it was more out of a political impetus. When my daughter started preschool, I began volunteering in the BCAction office a couple days a week. I wanted a place to re-enter the working world, and a feminist non-profit that focused on women’s health seemed like a great place to do that.
A friend and I did had done a pro bono project for BCAction whilst I’d been working, using our marketing experience to perform focus groups to look into what prompted women to take action in breast cancer. We explored how women understood the word activism. This research helped shape the organization’s strategic plan. When the director of communications quit several years later, the then Executive Director asked if I would step in while they hired for the position. I began as a consultant and eventually extended to a permanent hire. I’ve been working at BCAction now for almost four years.
Did you have any training or background in health issues before you started doing this work?
As a graduate student, I was really involved in ACT UP, reproductive rights, and abortion clinic defense. As I mentioned, I also wrote a dissertation on reproductive rights. I don’t have any medical training though.
I had considered getting an MPH, but there are very few times when I actually need that medical background. I think that not being a scientist actually ends up being an asset, since part of my job is to translate science and medical language for the lay woman. So much of the work of BCAction connects the dots between all that’s said and written about breast cancer and its actionable impact on women’s lives.
Much of my educational background worked on challenging the whole construct of what counts as factual objectivity in science and pulling to the forefront the reality that science is grounded in a cultural network of language which is subject to a whole host of conventions, traditions, and biases. The idea that writings about science are somehow more objective and less biased than other kinds of writing is a false dichotomy. Scientists carry their own cultural experiences and biases into their work even if they think they don’t.
Research is persuasive because so often so much is at stake: there are funders, stakeholders, future grant dollars etc., tied up in research results. We have to put it in context and peel back layers to understand the full story and connect the dots.
This is particularly true when it comes to drug trials. So many of them are funded by pharmaceutical companies and they are not unbiased: they are not in the business of putting patients first or advocating for improved women’s health, they’re in the business making money and are held accountable to shareholders.
What are some of the things you like about your job?
One thing I really appreciate is that my day-to-day job requires that I use the critical thinking skills I acquired through my humanities education. I have to ask questions like: why is coverage of this issue in the New York Times wonky, what’s being left out and why? What’s in need of critique? Where are the gaps in the presidential debates? What’s not being said? I have to use my critical thinking skills to draw out the ways in which women are not put first when it comes to the health agenda.
There are days when I feel like I was specifically trained to do this job.
What advice would you give to women who are interested in working for a health advocacy organization?
I love being able to tell women who are trained in the humanities that there are alternative career paths out there! Teaching is not your only option. Nor do you have to go into the corporate world. You have very specific skills that a whole variety of organizations can use.
The best way to get your feet wet is to do an internship or do some volunteering. Many non-profits require self-driven, motivated people. The pace is fast and there are not a lot of resources for training, learning and professional development. Identify organizations that you are really interested in, whose work and writing lights a fire under you, follow their campaigns, blogs, Facebook, and mailings.
Ask yourself, does that sounds like something that interests you enough to do eight hours a day? You need passion to do a non-profit job—your reward does not come with your paycheck.
My experience has been that women are generous about opening doors for other women looking to follow this career path.
Thanks Angela! I’m so glad to have made this connection, and look forward to some great future collaborations.
Would you like to be profiled as part of this series or do you know someone who you think I should talk to? Drop me a line at jcmoffett at gmail dot com.