During her second week conducting a study on pediatric HIV in Durban, South Africa, Leseliey Welch walked into one of the local hospital rooms to witness a young mother crying over her infant’s crib.
At the time, Welch was pursuing a women’s studies degree from the University of Michigan on a pre-med track, but when she realized that the babies they were interacting with were not going home, but dying of AIDS, she decided to study public health instead.
“That day is when I realized that health is about more than doctors,” said Welch, a lecturer II in women’s studies in LSA, and an intermittent lecturer in health behavior and health education in the School of Public Health.
“Those babies were dying not because South Africa didn’t have good doctors. They were dying because they didn’t have access to the types of medicine that babies in the United States had access to at the time. Health is about politics, it’s about money, it’s about whose lives you value, and how much. So that’s why I study public health.”
Welch received her undergraduate, graduate and master’s degrees from U-M in women’s studies, public health and reproductive health, and business, respectively.
Her interest in health care began in high school, when her teacher recommended her to represent Michigan at a youth summit on HIV prevention in Washington D.C. There, she met young people her age who were living with HIV, and was inspired to become involved in health education, safer sex education, and HIV/AIDS prevention.
Since then, Welch has poured her efforts into improving the health care systems of her communities in Ann Arbor and Detroit.
Her role as the deputy director of public health in Detroit enabled her to establish SisterFriends Detroit, a program that focuses on engaging women in the community to care for each other during their prenatal period, from labor to up to a year after the birth. There are now more than 200 participating SisterFriends in Detroit, and Welch is currently leading a team to establish the first freestanding women’s wellness and birth center in Detroit.
Welch also served as interim executive director for Birthing Project USA, a global initiative that provides resources to mothers, and helped establish the Corktown Health Center, the first primary health care center for the LGBTQ community in Michigan. Welch was driven by her own experiences with the health care system as an LGBTQ individual to make Corktown a reality.
“We all deserve quality, affirming and respectful health care,” Welch said. “It’s so unfortunate that we don’t afford that to one of our most vulnerable populations. And so I think Corktown is filling that gap for the LGBTQ community.”
Welch also is adamant about incorporating her experiences as a community organizer into her teaching methods.
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“I say that I teach from a combination of head, heart and text,” she said. “The whole point of my teaching is to engage students in being active world citizens. To bridge that gap is literally why I teach. I think it’s so important to be able to translate the critical thought you learn here into informed action to really make it matter for communities that we care about.”
When asked about what inspires her daily practices, Welch paused for a moment before answering.
“If we all did what we could, think of what the world could be,” she replied.
“James Baldwin wrote that to be black and conscious is to be in a constant state of rage. I think that, on some level, to be conscious of any injustice is to be in a constant state of rage. You have to turn that anger into action. You have to take it outward in a way that makes things better, or else you won’t survive.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
A student was angry after a group of his classmates presented on an article about HIV in southern Africa. He shared that he did not like the way the presenters talked about his culture, and it inspired an amazing conversation between the students about what was problematic, why, and how to think critically about what we read. I love the moments in teaching when students challenge each other and rumble with tough issues, or envision new solutions to societal challenges.
What can’t you live without?
Love, laughter, coffee, ice cream.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
Hill Auditorium — so many great speakers, concerts and shows.
What inspires you?
Faith that love wins.
What are you currently reading?
I love reading and read multiple books at a time. Current rotation: “Becoming,” Michelle Obama; “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” Deckle Edge; “Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds,” Adrienne Maree Brown; and “The Lessons of Ubuntu: How an African Philosophy Can Inspire Racial Healing in America.”
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
Nesha Haniff and Lisa Kane Low. both showed me what transformational teaching and learning looks like.