Debora Freitas López

Data, Empathy, and Community: How to Inspire Healthy Behaviors

CCP’s new leader Debora Freitas López on applying science and empowering communities to improve health and well-being

Interview by Melissa Hartman • Photo by Chris Hartlove

“I was basically setting myself up for a wonderful career in biomedical research,” Debora Freitas López says of her work in labs at the University of Virginia, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and physics. But volunteering as a health promoter in migrant farming communities showed her another possibility.

“I fell in love with supporting people and seeing the impact of what I was doing in terms of their health,” says López, MS, who now promotes health on a much larger scale as executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. She joined the School in March, bringing more than 20 years’ experience leading programs in health and other sectors across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East.

In this Q&A, López shares how data and empathy drive the fields of social and behavior change communication and knowledge management, CCP’s essential role in the misinformation age, and her passion for working with communities.

Tell me about your work as a health promoter, or promotora.

I was working with migrant workers on farms in the Charlottesville area. Every time we went [to the farms], we discussed a different topic with the workers or their family members. We talked about nutrition. We talked about sex education and how to prevent STIs. For mothers, we talked about maternal and child health, and we would give referrals to free clinics in the area to make it more accessible to them.

It seems like that experience was a real turning point for you.

When you’re talking to people about eating better, and they’re saying, “How am I supposed to do that when I'm in the field?” and you’re troubleshooting with them about ways they can help themselves and their family, you realize that nothing is done in a vacuum.

Having that experience, as well as another experience volunteering as a pharmacy assistant in a free clinic, made me realize I wanted to work with people, to support them in being healthier and improve their well-being. It helped me realize that working in a lab was no longer a good fit for me.

But I'm still doing science. It's the science of behaviors. And my work and our work at CCP is data driven. It's just a different type of science.

Has the science changed a lot in the two decades you’ve been working in the field?

It has. I feel that we are a lot more intentional and thoughtful about the work we do and how we do it. A key part of our work is using data to iterate different messages, tweaking as we go, looking at what we can do better. Should we change something as a result of this new data that we received? Could we use approaches from a program we did in Nigeria for a different country? If so, how, and what would need to be tailored? How can we take best practices from one place but still make it relevant to another state or country or region that has completely different cultural and traditional dynamics? We’re constantly considering, adjusting, and measuring the effects of those adjustments.

The field has also expanded its view of health and more clearly recognize the connections between health and education, for instance, and health and agriculture, and health and climate. Again, health doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Everything is interconnected.

I fully believe that you need to empower the community. They need to be the master of their health, and we shouldn't dictate it for them.

During the COVID pandemic, we saw an explosion in misinformation. Have you had to deal with that in your work? How do you overcome it?

Oh, yes. Today, there's just more of it because there are more avenues for it, but our field has always had to deal with misinformation, myths, and misconceptions. Though the basic concepts are still the same, ways in which we address these issues have evolved. It also requires a lot of empathy—and the kind of understanding that is data driven. Understanding where beliefs, traditions, and norms come from in a specific community, and how information is received and considered, requires data and interacting with people where they are at. It is not something we can do by just walking into a community and knowing right away.

And this is why the on-the-ground work of establishing trust and relationships is so important. We need to make sure that key actors wherever we’re working are involved—government, community members, community leaders, traditional leaders, and many others. Having those people alongside you helps ensure that whatever you’re working on is trusted and thus effective, and it also ensures longevity. We want them to be able to move forward even after funding for a specific project ends.

I fully believe that you need to empower the community. They need to be the master of their health, and we shouldn't dictate it for them. We should work with them to come up with solutions that work best for them to improve their health and well-being.

Will you miss working on the ground as a major part of your work?

I do miss working with communities. But I like hearing what our teams at CCP are doing and seeing how we approach challenges in different ways by co-creating with communities to address their own health needs and goals, in 40-plus countries including the U.S.

Since I began, I've held meetings with the CCP teams, which include the Baltimore-based staff and hundreds of staff outside of Baltimore. Whether we’re in Baltimore or Nigeria or Nepal, we’re all one team. And I’m interested in what this community—the CCP community—has to say, what their challenges are, what they envision.

[In August] hundreds of staff and representatives of several of our sister organizations joined in person and online for CCP’s first Worldwide Meeting in four years. It was very energizing to be surrounded by hundreds of talented people who are passionate about what you're passionate about. I’m excited to keep the conversations going as we adapt and push forward our proven approaches and transparent processes to improve health and other development outcomes.