We are holding space in our hearts for Dr. Paul Farmer, who passed on Sunday. Dr. Farmer was a founding Board member of Partners for Dignity & Rights who helped to shape and inspire our work through his deep commitment to economic and social rights in the United States and around the world.
“I’m feeling very emotional as I read tributes to Paul Farmer pour in from across the globe,” said Sharda Sekaran, our co-founder and Board member. “I imagine that we all share a sense of awe and loss from having known someone with a nearly otherworldly commitment to human rights that emanated from the core of his being.”
Cathy Albisa, our co-founder, shares, “He was a radical pragmatic idealist. And that combination within Paul carried no contradictions. He had an unshakable belief in democratic public institutions and dedicated his life to ensuring such institutions were embedded with human rights values. He did not eskew charity, but his faith was in human rights and building universal, high quality, equitable public health systems. His beliefs formed every aspect of his being and his actions spoke far louder than anything he ever said and wrote.”
Our former Co-Executive Director Kenyon Farrow has said, “His legacy is about a vision of decolonizing global health as it’s currently structured. Those of us who work in health with an approach that is not exploitative of communities owe him a great debt.”
You can read full messages below from Cathy and Sharda.
We send our love and condolences to Dr. Farmer’s family, friends and colleagues, and are eternally grateful for his unwavering and steadfast commitment to social and economic rights for all people across the globe.
Message from Cathy Albisa, Founding Executive Director, Partners for Dignity & Rights
“Paul Farmer made the impossible possible throughout his life. He made this organization possible when he offered his leadership to a small, quixotic group with only three staff members and a budget shortfall in its first year. That we had a mission no one in 2004 thought could be taken seriously in the United States barely registered as an obstacle for Paul. He made healthcare for the poor as an imperative possible, and changed the relationship between medicine and people in poverty across the globe. And that is just the beginning of what Paul Farmer did in his too short life.
But he did not merely do extraordinary things. It was who he was that indelibly marked everyone he touched.
He was a radical pragmatic idealist. And that combination within Paul carried no contradictions. He had an unshakable belief in democratic public institutions and dedicated his life to ensuring such institutions were embedded with human rights values. He did not eskew charity, but his faith was in human rights and building universal, high quality, equitable public health systems. His beliefs formed every aspect of his being and his actions spoke far louder than anything he ever said and wrote.
I, like so many others, can’t stop thinking about Paul. Every conversation plays in my mind as I remember how his face would light up about practically everything. How he found beauty and hope in the darkest corners of our humanity. How he could have such remarkable professional success and be so genuinely indifferent to it, while holding a profound concern for making a difference in the lives of oppressed people everywhere. He not only healed the world, he loved all of us in it without exception. And Paul Farmer was a joy to be around – whether discussing Spider Man movies, how he didn’t really like the subway but loved the snowflakes, or pathologies of power across the globe. Because no matter the moment, the topic, the challenge, or the place, it was Paul. We will never stop missing him or being honored and grateful to have been touched by his magic.”
Message from Sharda Sekaran, Co-Founder and Board Member, Partners for Dignity & Rights
“I’m feeling very emotional as I read tributes to Paul Farmer pour in from across the globe. I imagine that we all share a sense of awe and loss from having known someone with a nearly otherworldly commitment to human rights that emanated from the core of his being.
In 2004, I co-founded the organization now called Partners for Dignity & Rights with a holistic view of human rights: right to vote, for example, is an equal value as the right to health. Because how can a person engage in active citizenship when everything else in their life is in peril?
We confronted inequity as a human rights issue and we focused on poverty domestically in the US using an international frame. This work was considered disruptive, radical, and socialist-y. Many in the mainstream human rights community would not touch us.
In 2003, Paul Farmer’s “Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor ” was published. It offered an unflinching challenge to the human rights community to fight systemic inequities that devalue the lives of the world’s poor.
Pathologies of Power resonated with me. It was how I first learned of Paul Farmer. I took the book to my co-founders in the tiny closet-sized office we worked in and announced “This guy thinks like us. We should invite him to be on our board!” Very young and idealistic of me. At this point, Paul Farmer already had a bestselling book written about him and won a MacArthur “genius” award. But he actually agreed to join the board of our unknown startup org with no money, a lofty long-shot mission and a closet-sized office.
Over the years, I learned that was Paul Farmer’s nature. He was motivated by sublimely genuine personal commitment and seemed immune to prestige. He cared deeply and managed to juggle board duties while building clinics, being a public figure and still attending to patients. Paul Farmer served on our board for so long that he was there after I’d left for grad school (he wrote a recommendation for me), had other jobs, and eventually joined the board myself. He treated me with the same constant level of kindness and respect throughout.
My dream is that the human rights vision inspires love for humanity and dedication to making a world where every person has equal possibility and the chance to thrive. Paul Farmer’s legacy is anchored in that vision. He resonated hope in every person he touched.”