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Serving and Advocating for Those Without a Voice: Annette Stixrud

As a podcaster for justice, I stand with my sisters from the Women of Color Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms.

In my last episode, Katrina Nilsson-Gorman shared her experience spending three months in southern India, and this week’s story from Annette Stixrud is partly based in Tamil Nadu as well. Annette has spent much of her life working overseas as an educator and public health nurse. As a friend and college classmate of my parents, she met me when I was a child, but she's also become my own friend since she returned to the U.S. in 1990.

Annette Stixrud and Christopher Gettel-Gilmartin

The most vivid and precious memory we have of Annette, which we didn’t even discuss on the podcast, is when our son Christopher was born at 24 weeks gestation. Annette was working at Legacy Emanuel Hospital, running the Northwest Parish Nurse program, and she immediately came to Mike’s side when I was undergoing emergency surgery. She took a shocked, terrified dad to lunch and gave him hope and comfort. That support has continued ever since, and we are just one of the families in our faith community who has benefited from Annette’s genuine caring and love. I call her Saint Annette, a title I know she’s not crazy about, but anyone who knows her will agree.

I’ve always admired Annette and knew she was a badass, but I loved hearing some of the stories she shared about facing down “the man” and advocating for those who didn’t have an advocate. She is my role model for standing up for the oppressed.

Annette Stixrud and cat | Finding Fertile Ground Podcast

Annette (Foege) was born in Iowa, and her father was a Lutheran pastor. She grew up in two small towns in Washington, Chewelah and Colville. She learned that people are not always very nice to pastors, but her parents would always say, “don’t look at what people do to the message. Hang onto the good.”

Her father earned a meager salary and had six children. When her oldest sister went off to college, one of his parishioners announced they were paying her father too much money...but a poor widow in the congregation stood up to him, announcing that she would give an extra $100 to the Foege family to help educate their children. All six children went to college, and Annette and three others went on to earn master’s or doctor’s degrees.

“We all worked and helped each other through college. We looked upon our money as belonging to the family.”
Annette Stixrud as a child | Finding Fertile Ground Podcast
Looking uncannily similar to her daughter Lindsey!

One of Annette’s brothers, William Foege, also went into public health. He is a world-famous physician and epidemiologist who devised the global strategy to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. He has directed the Centers for Disease Control, cofounded the Task Force for Global Health, and has worked for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carter Center. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2012, when President Obama called him a leader in “one of medicine’s greatest success stories.” He recently got some publicity when he wrote a letter to the current CDC director, William Redfield, admonishing him to take stronger action on COVID-19, and the letter was leaked to the media. Annette is driven by the same passion as her brother, to help people lead healthier, more whole lives.

Annette (second on right) with her dad and highly educated siblings

Annette’s innocent question about racism sparked an important discussion between her parents. She remembers hearing in school about Black children in the south who wanted to go to school with white children and how the president had to send in federal forces to protect the children. She came home and asked her parents, “why does the color of anyone’s skin make any difference?”

Her father said it didn’t make a difference, but her mother said it did. When she explained that her father had taught her about the “sin of Ham” (one of the most destructive false teachings in the Bible), Annette’s father said, “Your father was wrong.” Later when her father married an African-American couple, Annette’s mother took the bride shopping and was stunned when people wouldn’t wait on them in stores...then she understood the sin of racism.

Annette and Neal Stixrud | Finding Fertile Ground Podcast
Young Annette and Neal

Annette went to Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, where she met her husband Neal. Even though her parents had taught their children that girls could do anything boys could, Annette’s mother had told her she needed to iron her older brother’s shirts in college. He expected her to iron his shirts every Saturday night, and if they were not ironed, he expected her to leave what she was doing to get the job done.

One night her brother came to interrupt Annette when she was on a date with Neal to ask for his shirts, and she left the activity to go home and get it done. But the next day Neal said, “You don’t have to iron your brother’s shirts. He knows how to iron. Every other boy irons his shirt; he can iron his.” This was 1958, and this was not the last time Neal encouraged her independence as a woman.

After they got married, she began her career as a teacher in Bellevue, WA.

“They gave me so many children with health risks like asthma, hemophilia, cerebral palsy, and I decided I needed to learn more because I was scared to death the whole time that something would happen to them.”

She was the one teacher who would take them because she wanted them to have a normal classroom.

“It helps to teach other children that not everyone has the same capacity to run around and play, and I just felt it was a whole learning experience for children,” said Annette. She believes that children who are able to learn about caring for other kids in school “will usually rise to the task and will become better citizens and better people because of what they know.”

Once she started working, Annette really enjoyed what she it never occurred to her that she was working.

“No one would have ever had to pay me a cent; it was pure joy being with those children.”

I chuckled when Annette made that comment, because she has retired many times over the years, yet she is still working, teaching faith community nurses. She keeps trying to convince me she’s going to retire, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Annette has lived a life of service. She has been called to it.

After three years of teaching these children with special health needs, Annette began nursing school. Their first daughter, Lindsey, was born 44 hours after Annette graduated with her nursing degree.

Annette Stixrud graduating from nursing school | Finding Fertile Ground Podcast
Graduating from nursing school, pregnant with Lindsey

“We call that planned parenthood,” Annette jokes.

Annette comes from a family of missionaries, which inspired both her and her brother to pursue public health and work in developing countries. Realizing their callings to be people who care about other people, Annette and Neal decided to enter the mission field and become missionaries. Because Neal was in school administration and Annette was a teacher and nurse, they were sent to Tanzania in East Africa.

Their 60 students were mostly children of missionaries or expats, but they also had African children.

“We loved every single one of them. We learned so much from them about enjoying the African people around us. These children were our translators because they all knew Swahili.”

I asked Annette about being a mom who worked outside the home for most of her life. I don’t think she realizes how unusual that was for the time. When they lived in Africa, she worked a lot as a volunteer in the mission school, but she was able to spend a lot of time with her children in Tanzania when they were little.

Annette and Neal Stixrud as new parents, Finding Fertile Ground Podcast
Happy new parents

After they came back to the states when Lindsey was seven and their son Corleigh was five, Annette and Neal moved to Eugene where they lived for three years. She waited until Corey was in first grade to go back to (paid) work. When an employee at Lane County heard Annette’s story about helping an African woman who couldn’t feed her baby (Annette nursed the baby herself and taught the mom how to nurse her own baby), she offered Annette a job and asked her if she’d ever thought of working in public health. For the next few years she worked with young mothers, helping them be mothers to their babies.

Young Stixrud family | Finding Fertile Ground Podcast
Young Stixrud family

I asked Annette if she got push-back from others, going back to work when her children were young. When they were first married, she told Neal she wanted eight children and he responded, “Really? You’re not going to work?” His mother had been a working mom, so he has always supported Annette’s life of work and service.

After their time in Eugene, the mission board called and asked if they would go to Kodaikanal, India, where they lived for nine years and taught at Kodaikanal International School in a beautiful setting, 2,200 meters high in the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu. They formed strong bonds at the school and had many wonderful adventures there. Now their son Corleigh, who met his wife Nandita there, is principal of the school, and their beloved grandson Tarun is a student.

Their last mission experience was in Egypt, where Annette worked with the Coptic Orthodox church, finding new programs for women.

Annette has a different outlook on what it means to be a missionary than the usual stereotype.

“If anyone goes to a country and figures they know more than the people there do, they are sadly mistaken. From our eyes, we think we know what they need, and we know nothing’s only polite to go and say to people and say, ‘what do you need?’”

For example, she described walking to one village where the villagers asked Annette and her health workers if they could build a hospital. She then asked, “what do you REALLY need?” The men wanted a birthing hut so young women expecting babies could go into the hut and give birth to the babies by themselves, without a midwife. But then the mothers found her. Annette shares the story of how she was able to help the mothers while pacifying the men, a tactic she used many times over the years!

“You listen to what people need and want and not second guess...because you don’t know.”

The people in the villages taught her a lot about listening, and they had such joy. She loved being able to experience that with them.

“God was there a long time before we were. I learned a lot more about people’s spirituality by listening to their questions about God. All of us have questions about God, and when our whole purpose is to convert people to our ways of thinking, it’s not very respectful. I felt it was important to listen to what they believed and how they believed...listening to each other only enriches what we know about God.”

When I asked her if she worked with missionaries who were more into conversion, she laughed out loud.

“I know I became far more informed about what Hindus believe, and there were so many similarities. It’s a very rich religion and very devoted. I really appreciated what I learned.”

Annette shared a few stories about working with the Tamil repatriates in Tamil Nadu. After my conversation with her, I decided to do a bit of research. The first I’d heard of Tamils was in the news during the rebellion. We know how history is told through the news, not giving the broader context of why people are rebelling (e.g., Portland and the Black Lives Matter protests). My initial impressions of Tamils as a young person were colored by what I was reading in the news.

Even though Tamil has been called the last surviving classical civilization on Earth, the Tamils have been treated horribly by both Sri Lanka and India. Many Tamils held high positions of authority during British colonial rule, and the British appreciated their strong command of English. After Britain seized the Sri Lankan highlands, they brought in Tamils to run the tea plantations.

When the Brits were booted out of India, tensions rose between the majority Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils. In 1948, Sri Lanka deported 700,000 Indian Tamil tea plantation workers to India and passed the Sinhala Only Act, making Sinhala the only official language. Consequently, many Tamils lost their jobs in the civil service because they spoke English. When the Tamils tried to rebel against the discrimination they were experiencing, the Sri Lankan government brutally cracked down. Guerrilla groups like the Tamil Tigers tried to set up an independent state. Both sides committed atrocities, and the Sri Lankan civil war resulted in 100,000 deaths and war crimes.

The Sri Lankan government began sending thousands of Tamils back to India. When Annette and her family were living in Kodaikanal, about 30,000 Tamils were living in the hills in horrific conditions behind where they lived. Annette was told they wanted a health worker, so she journeyed up to the settlements first by herself, because she wasn’t sure of the situation. She knew that many Indians were resentful of the repatriates.

The repatriates were not paid properly, and they were cold, hungry, and living in little metal entire family with only room for one bed, no matter how many people. Annette was appalled and could not believe how they were living.

She decided to go talk to the person in charge at their employer. This man glared at her and said, “Don’t you make these people unhappy with their wages or they will get no wages at all.”

Annette said, “Is that a threat?”

When he said, “I’m not a social worker,” she couldn’t help but burst out laughing and said, “I already figured that one out!”

He told her she could work with them but she had to keep her mouth shut about the pitiful wages they were receiving. So she came up with an idea of how to help them: she recruited a cohort of 10 girls and 10 boys to go to school in Kodaikanal. When people told her she should be educating all boys instead of wasting education on girls, she shut them up with this response:

“If you say one more word to me that I should have all boys, I will find all girls.”

Annette also shares a deep regret of being what she calls a “do-gooder,” trying to help one of the young Tamil mothers who had a severely disabled child.

To this day, India has not signed the international convention for refugees, so no major human rights organization is helping the Tamils languishing in horrific conditions in India. Still, 60,000 people live in 107 refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, 10,000 of them children below the age of eight, according to latest available data from August 2019.

Annette has always been brave in speaking truth to power and speaking out if she sees injustice.

Annette was one of the first people who shared the plight of the Palestinians, which is incredibly similar to the way the Tamils have been treated. When Annette and Neal lived in Egypt for four years, they often took an overnight bus from Cairo to Jerusalem to visit one colleague working at a school in the West Bank and another who worked at an international school in Jerusalem. This allowed Annette and Neal to see the contrast between the way the Israelis and Palestinians lived. Annette recalls seeing both of their friends weeping about the second-class citizen treatment of the Palestinians. She observed how they are put down at every possibility, and now with the wall and checkpoints, conditions have become much worse.

“It makes me ache that people have to be subjugated to such horrible living conditions and hunger and watch their children grow up like that. I think about what that must do to children. Children are resilient. The Palestinian children I know have had strong, compassionate parenting. It’s such a huge problem when the Israelis cannot see the harm they are doing to another group of people.”

We also spoke of the parallels with Black Lives Matter. At the time the interview was conducted, federal troops had been sent into Portland to quell the demonstrations here and they were brutally oppressing the peaceful protests. Annette sees parallels all over the world.

“This hatred just grows and grows and it is so wrong. How do we get to the hearts and minds of people to try to get in the skin of the other people that they are so harming. How do we do that, I don’t know.”

I asked Annette about her work with Mother Teresa. She’d always idolized Mother Teresa, and she desperately wanted to work with someone who had such a singlemindedness to follow the gospel. Much to Annette’s disappointment, though, Mother Teresa told Annette she really needed a nurse in Madras. After she got over h