“It’s been a wonderful place to see public health in action, and I’m blown away by the talent and the dedication.” That’s how Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholar (2007-2009) Mehret Mandefro, M.D., M.Sc., A.B, summed up her experience as a White House Fellow to Tom Brokaw in a “Making a Difference” segment on the June 11 edition of NBC Nightly News.
Mandefro is one of 14 members of the 2009-2010 class of White House Fellows, appointed in June 2009 by President Obama. The group also includes Anish Mahajan, M.D., an internist and health services researcher who was a RWJF Clinical Scholar (2006–2009).
Created in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the White House Fellows Program gives promising American leaders up-close, first-hand experience with the Executive Branch of the federal government.
Mandefro had a packed résumé before the White House Fellowship. A physician trained in public health, she worked as a public health practitioner in Kenya, Botswana and South Africa, focusing on access to care, HIV treatment adherence and health-worker training. She also conducted research on the intersection of violence and HIV prevention.
Her internal medicine residency research project is the subject of a feature-length documentary called “All of Us,” which aired on Showtime for World AIDS Day. Her research and the documentary focused on the relationship between gender equity and the HIV epidemic in the South Bronx and in Ethiopia.
Mandefro subsequently produced a film about the late David Jenkins, whose life was in many ways a microcosm of the gay rights movement in the United States. A U.S. Navy pilot, Jenkins was present at the 1968 Stonewall raid that was a trigger for the movement. He was also among the first Americans diagnosed with HIV, and went on to coordinate AIDS outreach programs in Philadelphia. He died in 2007 of Parkinson’s, after battling AIDS for decades. Mandefro’s film, “David the Piano Player,” tells Jenkins’ story, including his early experiences with violence, his battles with disease and poor mental health, and his eventual journey of healing.
She spent her White House Fellowship working in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Others in her class were in a variety of other agencies and the White House itself. Asked by Brokaw how the experience has helped her as a doctor and a citizen, she said she’d urge her fellow Americans to “learn about the military. As civilians, we have pretty much no connection to that reality, and we have two wars.”
The White House Fellows program has a distinguished list of alumni that includes Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence; former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao; retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark; former Secretary of State Colin Powell; CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta; U.S. Senator Sam Brownback; historian and writer Doris Kearns Goodwin; former Univision President Luis Nogales; and U.S. Court of Appeals Judges M. Margaret McKeown and Deanell Tacha.