Q & A with Brett Utian

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Tell us a bit about your background
I was born in Cape Town, but moved with my parents at an early age to the U.S., where I did all my schooling. My undergraduate study was in development economics and I later completed a post-graduate MBA in international management. I worked for a number of years in international banking, specifically with a large U.S. credit card provider in marketing and business development. I also worked for some time with Charles Schwab in management, before the dot-com bubble burst in the late 1990s. At which point I applied with the U.S. Peace Corps and after being accepted spent just over two years in Lesotho as a Community Health Advisor focusing on the HIV / AIDS epidemic that was ravaging the country in the early 2000s. It was a very intense and humbling experience, where we operated on the ground with a minimum of resources. This fueled my passion for community development, especially in the health environment, while understanding the limitations of our work. After Peace Corps, I worked at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine with Prof Jerry Coovadia, assisting with a number of research studies on HIV / AIDS centred around PMTCT (prevention of mother to child transmission). I then took up the position of Programme Manager for a large HIV / AIDS and TB prevention, care and treatment programme located in the Southern Cape, transferring to the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town.

How did you come to be working in Thembalethu?
Our project was for a number of years centered in the Eden District, but we felt that we should take a more focused approach, where we could tailor our programmes to a specific community, in order to have a greater impact. After a situational analysis in the area, we selected Thembalethu.

What does your day to day work entail?
Most of my daily work centres on attending meetings and managing the various projects underway at any given time.

Any long term projects you are working on?
We are finishing the construction of a youth and science centre in Thembalethu, George that will provide recreational and educational resources to the children and youth in the area, with an emphasis on building their capacity in mathematics, the sciences, and English. We also hope to increase the number of students in the area applying and graduating from tertiary institutions such as UCT.

What have you learnt that surprised you during your time there?
I think the thing that has surprised me the most is that disadvantage communities are often seen to lack resources, however, there are internal assets and an incredible resilience in these communities, which needs to be supported and grown and ultimately better understood. Many of the answers to how we best provide health and social care and support services can be found with the people living in these communities and their voices need to be heard.

What has been your greatest challenge so far?
The greatest challenge has been operating in an environment of extreme health and social problems, which are all part of the poverty cycle. While we have had many successes and made a significant impact in the area, it is a constant challenge providing the holistic support services necessary to impact lives on an ongoing basis.

Brett Utian is Programme Manager for the Isisombululo Programme, he lives in Knysna with his wife and daughter. He has responded in his personal capacity.

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