By Susan Hitchcock
Founder & Host Emerita of Women in Leadership
Growing up in a family that lived and breathed political campaigns, community engagement, and social equity, Paige Alexander was blessed with amazing early life experiences. Her parents were major influencers in her life and the “bedrock” of her family. They provided Paige and her three older brothers with both a “worldly view” and a sense of their place in the community.
Whether or not ‘destiny’ had any part in how Paige’s life and career would evolve, it certainly makes for a compelling story about an inspiring leader.
Early life – special memories
Atlanta was home to Paige and it was here she received her education through high school. Among her favorite memories are “kitchen table dinners” at home with top leaders of the day including John Lewis, Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson.
In 1979 when Paige was in middle school, her mother took her on a very special trip. That trip included a prestigious White House Rose Garden invitation where she met then-President Jimmy Carter along with British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. “To this day,” Paige said, “I still remember the outfit I had on and the excitement I felt. I told my mother I would never wash my hand again after shaking hands with the president!”
Later, when Paige was ready for college, she chose a highly respected one in New Orleans. She went on to graduate from Tulane University Newcomb College with a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications and social psychology in 1988. Regarding her liberal arts education, Paige pointed out, “I don’t know how much it prepared me for individual tasks, but collectively, everything I have ever done has dealt with the psychology that I learned in college – whether it’s parenting or running an office or cultural appreciation. And working overseas, the psychology piece was such an important base for me, and communication as well.”
Something else happened in the summer of ’88 while Paige was working on the Democratic National Convention. Typical of her parents, they generously opened their home to at least 15 people who needed a place to stay while attending or working on the convention. “They were in sleeping bags all over the house,” Paige said. As luck or fate would have it, one of those convention guests was a young man named Stephen Grand. Four years later Paige and Steve were married and began their own journey together, a journey that would include a family of five: two daughters and a son. Their journey would take their family from Atlanta to Boston to Washington, D.C. and to multiple opportunities abroad from Prague to Amsterdam.
Lessons learned from a multifaceted global career path
Paige’s career trajectory has been anything but a straight line. It includes working for the same organization more than once (the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and travelling extensively, e.g., from Europe to Africa. Her career also spans multiple sectors: political campaigns (e.g., Clinton-Gore); government roles (two Senate confirmed USAID leadership positions); academia (Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government); NGOs; nonprofit (founder of IREX in Europe, a civil society, democracy and educational NP); and lastly, the international development sector (the European Cooperative for Rural Development (EUCORD).
Purposeful and significant describe all of Paige’s work and there’s no better example than the position she held from 2017 until 2020. While living in Amsterdam, working in Brussels, and travelling to Africa, she was the executive director of EUCORD. EUCORD is an organization that works to bring market-led solutions to marginalized farmers in Africa. Their ultimate goal is to sustainably improve the livelihoods of families and communities.
“I wasn’t an agricultural economist,” Paige explained, “and no part of my liberal arts background taught me anything that could ever get me into that field. But what I did have was information and experience as a policy leader and a nonprofit leader and I had worked in political campaigns. All of those things came to rest in my work in Africa. I was totally out of my field, but I could talk to the Heinekens and the Dannon’s of the world and say, ‘don’t you want to locally source what you need, so you don’t have to pay the shipping cost?’”
Another valuable lesson came from Paige’s IREX experience. “I learned the importance of implementing organizations being ‘on the ground’ and having the cultural sensitivity necessary to run programs in partnership, as opposed to a client. When you’re doing policy, you’re deciding things at a high level and you’re giving out money to people to do the work. I liked being the people that are doing the work on the ground.”
When she returned to Government work in the Obama administration in 2011, she learned just how important is was to be able to take those ‘on the ground’ messages directly to policy leaders. “When I was in government, I felt I could be a bit of a translator between understanding how policy works and how the NGO world works. I loved being back at USAID for that.”
Opportunity knocks – in the midst of a pandemic
While still relishing her fulfilling role with EUCORD and living the good life in Amsterdam among the bikes and canals, something unexpected came about. You could call it a “foretold / destined” career opportunity. After all, as a young teen, Paige had met President Carter and was awed by him. What actually happened was that in late 2019, she became a top candidate for the role of CEO of the Carter Center. In February 2020, after several months of interviews and processing, she accepted the selection committee’s offer with a starting date of June 2020.
What an incredible opportunity – to return to her hometown of Atlanta, reunite with her extended family, and lead a highly respected global organization founded by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and focused on global health and peace! However, when March 2020 came, Paige said, “The reality was that we were about to move back to the U. S. in the middle of political and economic strife, a reawakening of racial issues, and a global pandemic.” But despite those conditions, back she came. And when she did officially step into her new role 2 ½ months later, the Center offices were closed, everyone had adapted to virtual work but no one knew for how long.
Clearly this wasn’t the introduction and assimilation process that Paige would have wanted, but interestingly, her experience in Amsterdam had prepared her for a better ‘work life balance’ that Europeans have always prioritized. “This took some getting use,” Paige said, “compared to working in D.C. where my phone was like an appendage.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2021, a year into her CEO role. Paige hasn’t met the full staff in person, but she has met with the Carters in Plains numerous times – and she has a clear perspective. “We will always keep the north star of the program work we are doing around global health and peace, the importance of the villager at the end of the road and the people that we’re working with on the ground. But the reality is we need to change and grow to meet today’s challenges. Seismic changes have happened to the U.S. and globally with COVID as well as the fact that the Carter Center’s been around for 40 years.
We have a founder who started this in the eighties with a very strong sense of what he and Rosalynn wanted it to be. Together with their support, we’ve grown, the issues have grown, and the people have grown and we need to make some adjustments. Nothing drastic, but sort of a 21st century reboot.”
One major focus that hasn’t changed for 50 years since it was started by Rosalynn Carter: the focus on mental health. “The Rosalynn Carter Institute and Carter Center have mental health programs. We’ve always said mental health is really an invisible condition, but this past year has been the perfect storm for mental health needs. We have journalists who are writing stories about this, and we give them mental health journalism fellowships, and it’s great. That’s part of mainstreaming and de-stigmatizing it, and letting people know these issues exist – and during COVID even more so.”
Career insights and forward thinking for a changed world
“It’s all a learning experience. This whole journey for me has takeaways from different facets of life, whether it’s cultural learning on the ground, or board governance, or programmatic or financial pieces – they all make up a whole institution. And I have a huge appreciation for being an American and for having democracy at my fingertips, being able to raise my voice when I feel that something is not just, and all of the things that most of the countries that we work in are really still struggling with. Democracy is a long process and continues to be something we’re striving for, but I feel we are very fortunate to be here.”
“As happy as I am to be an American, it’s because we have checks and balances in place. The pendulum swing that happens here happens all over the world. We have circuit breakers but many other places don’t. We’ve monitored 113 elections in 40 countries, however, we can’t be credible if we’re not looking at our own backyard. We have to look here at racial justice issues as they relate to human rights issues and at election transparency and credibility – issues that we’ve worked on for 38 years overseas. It’s part of being resilient. You can’t go in and make an assumption about being first and foremost, American, and better than everybody else.”
“What lessons can be learned from international situations and how do we bring that to bear domestically in a non-partisan, not politically polarizing way? This is one area of expansion that we’ve done that hasn’t been done in our 38 year history. We haven’t done these types of peace programs, conflict resolution, democracy programs, or rule of law domestically – but all have a bearing here in the U.S. now. So now there is a domestic piece including a racial injustice focus.”
BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals)
“One that we started on the health side is eliminating and Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). And this includes eradicating one called Guinea worm, and we’re getting very close. It was affecting as many as 3.5 million people a year in 21 countries when we began – a true scourge on society. We’re now down to 5 countries and 6 human cases in the world! We can eradicate this disease through surveillance and interrupting transmission like we’ve done. It’s entirely behavior change because there’s no vaccine or drug treatment for it. You just work to get people to collect water differently than they have done for generations and use filtration when drinking from ponds. In all of history, only one human disease has ever been eradicated – smallpox, in 1980 after a herculean global vaccine campaign that took decades to complete.”
“We’re thinking about how our global health program works in line with neglected tropical diseases that we want to continue to eliminate and eradicate. And we are focusing on community awareness public education. A big part of that is going to be health system strengthening.”
“While we are looking at democracy and building the proper institutions and human rights and all the things that are important on that side for the peace portfolio, we have to then figure out how to match this with health system strengthening. When you have a good government that has a leadership role, you can strengthen the health sector, everything from mental health and parity issues to behavior change and better water collection. That’s the way we are looking at the health / peace nexus as well as in conflict situations – getting people to stop fighting because we have a health crisis and we can offer health interventions that they want. We did this in 1995 in Sudan when they stopped fighting so we could get in and break the transmission of Guinea worm.”
Destiny or not, we (i.e., Atlanta, the Carter Center, and indeed the world) are extremely fortunate to have Paige where she is right now. We look forward to her leadership and the outcome of her far-reaching goals regarding peace and health. She also inspires us with a shared dream: the end of the pandemic and creation of a different form of ‘normalcy’ with more compassion, greater appreciation for our time together, and gratefulness for what we have.
Did you enjoy this article? Check out our Women in Leadership Program to learn about other SHEroes like Paige, our Women in Leadership Signature Series, podcast, and more!
August 2021 – Interview and profile by:
Founder of the “Age of SHEroes”