Eye-Opening Journey

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Professor Bette Dickerson encourages students to take an alternative break & work with others on issues like empowerment, rights and HIV/AIDS

Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA) members. Photo by Nicole Mularz
During the disco era in the late seventies and early eighties, the dance floor would become electric when all-the-rage hits like “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real,” “Dance Disco Heat,” and “Do You Wanna Funk” were spinning. “I was a big fan of Sylvester’s music and during that period many people lost scores of friends and family.” For Bette Dickerson, Sylvester’s AIDS-related death truly personalized the epidemic.

Since then, she’s lost many friends. “[I think about all] the faces of the many I know that are HIV-infected and affected, and the tragic, mostly unnecessary AIDS deaths, particularly on the African continent,” laments Bette (pronounced “Betty”), an American University sociology professor. “I have experienced the loss of those I have worked with [professionally] in the United States and in South Africa, and I continue to work with scores of HIV-infected and affected.”

In 2007, the award-winning teacher co-created Alternative Break, a program sponsored by American University’s Center for Community Engagement and Service, (CCES), which enables students to travel to South Africa. The three-week sojourn takes place annually, with Bette accompanying the students as faculty advisor.

Each trip’s theme is different. Some have focused on ethnic conflict, workers’ rights, poverty eradication, rape and gender violence, child abuse, and women’s empowerment. However, no matter what the theme, the students are exposed to the hard reality of the devastating AIDS epidemic that has ravaged each country. The Cape Town trip in December 2010 concentrated on the rights of HIV-positive individuals and at-risk populations. The students experienced working in health clinics, shadowing doctors as they interviewed patients, visiting public and nonprofit organizations, and even assisting with the workshops for adolescent girls.

Some Alternative Break students have opined that South Africa may be handling the epidemic better than we are. “Everywhere you go you’re bombarded with posters and radio spots and TV spots and soap opera story lines,” concurs Bette. “Condoms are everywhere, in public and private spaces. The country recognizes that lives are still at stake, so many are infected, and everyone is affected. The U.S. does not have the same proactive stance nor countrywide acknowledgement of the continuing impact of HIV/AIDS.”

This month, Alternative Break will return to Cape Town and the topic will be “Examining Youth Empowerment and Child Well-Being in Post-Apartheid Society.” Due to the popularity of Alternative Break, Bette developed an extended version titled, “Community-based Learning and Service Program in South Africa,” which offers to those interested eight weeks in Africa during their summer break.

“The epidemic has fostered and stimulated my continual service, learning, and research,” Bette says vibrantly. In fact, one of the Alternative Breaks took place in

Professor Bette Dickerson.
New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the theme centered on HIV/AIDS. Bette is inspired and motivated by her feelings of loss for those in her life who succumbed to AIDS. Through the years she’s been active in fundraisers and events such as participating in AIDS walks. “They naturally undergird my work,” she says.

“I partner with scores of South African organizations also. My work in South Africa is ongoing, not just during those times when I supervise students there,” notes Bette. “My participatory action research lead me there to participate in various convenings that include the University of Cape Town’s conference symposia, “Beyond Reconciliation: Dealing with the Aftermath of Mass Trauma and Political Violence” and “Legacies of International Trauma: Cross-Cultural Studies on Dialogue, Empathy, and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Mass Violence and Genocide.”

Bette is also associated with other South African organizations such as Mothers2Mothers, which provides education to pregnant women and new mothers living with HIV, and Grassroots Soccer, which combines HIV prevention for youth with the most popular sport. One of her upcoming conference presentations will be on the ongoing research project with Grandmothers Against Poverty and AIDS (GAPA) in Khayelitsha, South Africa. GAPA is an all-encompassing organization that supports the grandmothers who are caring for their grandchildren whose parents have died from AIDS.

What keeps this innovator motivated? “The continual love, support, commitment, and strength I get from others…is what keeps me going,” she states plainly and directly. “That gives me the energy to continue honoring my commitments and moving forward, in concerted efforts with others, to overcome challenges and reach worthy goals. You can’t stop when you meet and build relationships with so many who have every reason to give up—but they don’t. When directly faced with such empowerment and resiliency, I find it impossible to stand by and do nothing, like the people I’ve met in Africa.”

Bette’s passionate kinship with Africa is rooted in her lineage. Several years ago she took a DNA test that identified her ancestors as originating in Hausa, Nigeria. “My interest in South Africa also probably stems from my undergraduate years protesting and staying abreast of the U.S. disinvestment social movement targeted at apartheid,” reasons Bette. “In addition, South Africa was the African country many Americans learned the most about because of the attention paid to the oppressions of the apartheid system.”

In 1994 she published African American Single Mothers: Understanding Their Lives and Families. “It was a collection of original works by an interdisciplinary group of sister-scholars presenting informed, insider views of the topic,” Bette explains. “In contrast to the stereotypical matriarchal family, the mother-centered family was reevaluated to present a clearer picture of the actual structure and functions. African-centered and Black feminist perspectives were used to examine the history, legal dilemmas, media images, and religious values of these families. The role of children, grandparents, fathers, as well as the government and the economy were explored,” she says, taking a breath, inserting, “[and] more effective and culturally-sensitive policy approaches were suggested as well.”

Through GAPA, grandmothers work to keep children of the community safe by providing an afterschool program. Photo by Nicole Mularz
Bette’s currently in the midst of updating her tome. “Particularly,” she says, “in light of the growing urban poverty and weaker extended family ties.” She’s also writing two other books—one examines sexuality and Black elder women and the second book deals with intersectional approaches to the family institution.
Bette’s life ambition is to open people’s eyes through travel, through teaching, through writing—though it can be overwhelming at times. Not everyone is ready to listen. “HIV/AIDS is a pandemic that has no cure and is still severely impacting the world. That includes the U.S.,” states Bette, pausing, then adds in a penetrating reverb, “…which we tend to forget.”

Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.

December 2011