Thursday, March 1, 2012

Heifer Canada and Heifer Senegal: A Sabbatical for Professor Dorn Van Dommelen

Dorn Van Dommelen has worked with Heifer International for about 5 years now to incorporate service-learning into a course confronting global issues of poverty and sustainability (GEOG/INTL 101), and he designed his sabbatical to enrich that work. With that in mind, he organized trips to Saskatchewan, Senegal, and Heifer International (HI) headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas with two objectives:
1) To help HI with their new program development working with colleges and universities that they are calling "College Cornerstones" - UAA students have been a part of that already; and
2) Visit the two countries for about 2 weeks each for a closer, more intimate look at their HI programs.

In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Van Dommelen visited the Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative and the Riverside Market Garden. The Harvest Moon Initiative is a group of small family businesses that have joined together out of a concern about being edged out by large agri-business. They've combined forces to support the school, restaurant, etc. in their community by taking them over, and they pool the food they grow and network with local food buyers in the city of Winnipeg. Each week, they take turns delivering the produce by van.
The Riverside Market Garden is located on the Flying Dust First Nations Reservation, and like many reservations, there is a great deal of poverty and unemployment. Elders brought 20-40 year-olds together and set aside 12-20 acres of land (land is often leased out to non-native farmers) to grow potatoes, greens, crucifers, corn, tomatoes, berries, etc. The group sells locally to native and non-native community, and their cash crop, potatoes is sold through a middle man for larger stores. The objective is to produce sustainable jobs locally plus provide better nutrition through eating locally grown food. The project is not yet economically viable and depends upon a relationship with the Canadian government to keep workers on unemployment in this training program.Van Dommelen said, "Heifer Canada's staff was extremely welcoming to me . . . they viewed my visit as an opportunity to hear constructive criticism from an outsider. . . In the end, I am convinced that a visit by an outsider seems to give country staff an opportunity to reflect on their own work and to view their work as someone with a critical eye would see their work."

The trip to Senegal in early November was to the city of Chess, about 40 miles from Dakar. Chess, (pop. about 400,000), is a former colonial city fallen into disrepair with a lot of extreme poverty. It was a different experience in that only a couple of hundred Westerners are seen in the entire city and then only in the western hotels. This was a site that insisted that Van Dommelen bring something to contribute if he wanted to come for the experience, and he worked with the site director, Gustave, who was trained as a sociologist. Gustave enlisted his aid in writing a project concept focused on youth education, and Van Dommelen translated a proposal based on a pilot project Gustave is currently running, teaching schoolchildren about the value of sustainable development. In this role, Van Dommelen was able to act as a culture broker between the Senegal office and HI headquarters.
HI has projects in Senegal in Dadack, Baback, and Diarre, mostly consisting of sheep and re-foresting.
The villages also depend upon a cash crop of peanuts, but all food is consumed locally, as Senegal is in food deficit and has to import food just to feed its citizens. Some villages also grow millet for local consumption. One of the interests of the Senegal office is to study rural-urban migration that disrupts the local projects when people start to run out of food and go hungry in-between crops. Then the elders call people together and send those selected to go and work in the city to send money back for the rest.
Van Dommelen has gotten busy this spring since returning from the one semester sabbatical but wants to hold onto the new ideas he's brought back with him. When asked how he thinks it will impact his teaching, Van Dommelen replied, "In Senegal especially, I got to see things that I didn't expect; I saw the depths of problems and the difficulty of overcoming issues up close. In Canada, I saw things that didn't always work well, and it's given me the ability to critically view projects that I'm teaching about."

Van Dommelen hopes to pursue opportunities both for students to travel for field courses in one or both countries in the future. He also wants to pursue research opportunities with HI projects in Canada and/or Senegal. He has already written a "mini case study" that he's using in a course he's teaching this spring on Global Population Issues. The implications for Alaska Native issues linked to the First Nations issues occurs as a mutually beneficial opportunity to Van Dommelen, and an opportunity for external funding to support student engagement activities and faculty research.

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