White House Champions Mailman School Grad Sagal Ali

February 22, 2012

Since coming to the United States at an early age, Sagal Ali (MPH ’09) has been driven to improve conditions in her native Somalia and among immigrants in her adopted hometown of Columbus, Ohio. On January 30, she and 13 others were honored by the White House as “Champions of Change.” They were recognized as "trailblazers for American diaspora communities" and cited for “helping to build stronger neighborhoods in communities across the country, and […] working to mobilize networks across borders to address global challenges.”

Currently, Ali works to promote early literacy with the Columbus Metropolitan Library Ready to Read Corps. The city has the nation’s second largest Somali immigrant and refugee community, where up to 80% of children entering kindergarten in some schools aren’t adequately prepared to succeed. According to Ali, “the Somali-American community faces numerous socio-economic challenges because many families come directly to the United States after having lived in extreme poverty or as refugees.”    

Ali holds a Master of Public Health from the Mailman School, where her focus was Health Policy with a concentration in Global Health. She is also a former Amnesty International Human Rights Scholar and worked on refugee health issues with the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program and the University of Michigan Medical School.    

Her time with the Mailman Global Health track, she says, “changed my life.” During her practicum with UNAIDS in Africa, she saw potential for increased involvement by the diaspora community in health and development issues facing the Horn of Africa. To help bring this about, she co-founded the online forum Iftiin to connect and mobilize students and young professionals of Somali descent and help them become what she describes as “agents of change, peace, and sustainable development in their country of origin.”    

This idea was put into action last year, when a severe drought and famine hit the region. Iftiin successfully mobilized Somali diaspora youth through social media and, in partnership with The African Future, supported some of the first food shipments to enter Somalia. Ali also co-founded End Famine to raise awareness of the crisis and help aid organizations implement long-term solutions to chronic food insecurity in the Horn of Africa.

Back in Columbus, Ali sees her efforts to help young Somali-Americans as something that will bring about positive changes across borders. “By benefitting from opportunities here in the U.S., they can successfully contribute to their communities in the United States and at home.”    

Ali, as her new sobriquet attests, is a perfect example of how one person can be a catalyst for change.

“I am incredibly proud of her,” says Mailman professor Anne Paxton, DrPH, who directs the Global Health track. “Sagal is the kind of leader whose professional and personal growth we're thrilled to have had the privilege to support.”