Return to the Previous Page
Go to the Department of Communication and Journalism to Learn More about Majoring in C&J
The Chronicle of Higher Education's Career Network
Monday, July 29, 2002

Blending Academe and Activism

By COURTNEY DILLARD

Humanities at Work

Guidance from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation on careers for humanities Ph.D.'s

 





I am tired and dirty -- really tired and really dirty. I've just finished an internship, and it feels nothing like turning in a paper or finishing an exam. Not only do I need a cup of strong coffee, I need a shower and a week's worth of sleep in my own bed. Strangely, though, I feel great.

I've spent the last week on the Colville Indian Reservation in a part of northern Washington state so remote we had to take a small ferry to get there. I worked with a team of veterinarians, veterinary students, and representatives from the Humane Society of the United States to offer a weeklong clinic for spaying and neutering pets, and to conduct animal-care seminars on the reservation.

The project is part of a campaign called Native Nations that is designed to raise awareness of animal-population problems on Indian reservations. The program recruits veterinarians and veterinary students from around the country to develop their skills while serving remote regions that typically lack animal-care facilities. As a doctoral candidate in communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, my contribution was to the program's "humane education" component, which focuses on teaching the basics of animal care and safety to elementary-school children.

In graduate school, I had intentionally crafted a career plan that blended academe and activism. I had been studying animal protection as a social movement, and had participated in various campaigns over the years. After I moved to Oregon and began writing my dissertation, I thought that an internship would be an effective way to demonstrate how the discipline of communication studies could contribute to the goals of animal-protection organizations, strengthen my regional contacts, and perhaps open doors to future consulting opportunities.

The first step I took to set up the internship was to contact the Oregon representative of the Humane Society. I had met her during a campaign to ban body-gripping animal traps, and she suggested that I look into the Native Nations program. After a conference call with representatives from Washington and California, we set up a nine-month timeline to achieve three goals: to raise public awareness about the program, to develop a humane-education curriculum, and to carry it out. My first task was to persuade a reservation with an animal population problem to sign up for the program.

From September to December, I reached out to various tribal leaders to promote the program. Native Nations was already active in much of the West, but many reservations in Washington and Oregon were still unfamiliar with it. After several meetings and conference calls with staff members from the Humane Society, I set up a plan to introduce tribal leaders to the program, highlight the fact that it was a free service, and alert them to the follow-up call I would make in a few weeks. While I sent out information to a number of tribal leaders, I quickly identified three reservations that I intended to pursue more vigorously. All three had clear problems with pet overpopulation, as well as contacts willing to help us promote the clinic.

I spent the next several months trying to speak with the key decision makers for each of the tribes and securing permission for the event from the tribal councils. Of the three reservations we pursued in earnest, the Colville Reservation was the only one that signed up to act as host for the clinic by the deadline. While my work in the field of communication studies helped me to sell the idea of the clinic, I learned a valuable lesson here. No matter how attractive your campaign is, or how needed the service may be, if you cannot get opinion leaders in the community to champion your cause all the way through, you will not be successful. Whom you know really does matter!

By February, my colleague from the Seattle office of the Humane Society, Stephanie Bell, and I began to explore the details of offering the clinic and the seminar on the Colville Reservation. The first step was to confirm the tribe's commitment through a meeting on the reservation. After being deterred for two weeks by a snowstorm, we made the seven-hour drive north to meet with representatives from the tribe. In addition to laying out the expected day-to-day operations of the clinic for the tribal police and other representatives, we surveyed the stray-animal population. The animal-control officer assured us we would be able to spay/neuter more than 50 animals a day. We also spoke with a representative from the state extension service who expressed interest in setting up school visits. Finally, the tribe agreed to house and feed the volunteers while we were working on the reservation. Before concluding the meeting, we set a date for the event: May 21 to 28.

I spent March and April collecting various pamphlets, brochures, and other materials on animal-care education. Even though I had developed materials while teaching during graduate school, I encountered new challenges in creating this curriculum. First, very few publications had been crafted with an eye toward Native American populations. And some of the material that was directed at these populations ignored the uniqueness of reservation life and the existence of historical Indian perspectives on animals, and perhaps even insulted residents of the reservations. By modifying existing documents and creating new approaches in our own curriculum, we were able to develop more-effective messages. For example, many of the existing materials for schoolchildren talked about animal care in terms of obedience school and in-house pet training. Recognizing that most families on the reservation keep their animals outside and have neither access to nor money for obedience classes, we focused on providing basic care such as food, water, and shelter, and talked extensively about dog bites, which are a major problem.

May finally arrived and we packed up the vans with everything from educational grab bags for the kids to hundreds of doses of rabies vaccine for the animals. The team consisted of four volunteers and staff members from the Humane Society, three veterinarians, and close to 40 veterinary students from several institutions, including the Universities of Pennsylvania and Tennessee. We set up three clinics on the reservation, in gymnasiums and a community center. We all slept in sleeping bags, usually under the operating tables, and every night after the last animal went home, we swapped stories over pasta and salad. Members of the tribe often would join us. I learned a lot about vet school, as well as a Native American culture that historically has great respect for animals. I was also pleased to discover that almost everyone on the reservation was happy we were there and supported our work.

While the vets worked at the clinic, I had two very different venues to engage in humane education. My primary responsibility was to give talks to a number of elementary-school classes. Often, because the schools were small, they would combine classrooms into an assembly. I would spend close to 30 minutes talking about animal care, dog behavior, and dog bites. I would then close by answering questions. While I had spent the last several years in the college classroom, on the reservation I learned a lot about the uniqueness of a young audience. I had to repeat myself often, and constantly had to try to refocus the students' attention on my message. Many children wanted to tell me about their animals, or the time they were chased by a dog, or what their cat liked to eat. By the end of the week, I had given my talk to almost 100 students.

When I wasn't in the classroom, I was interacting with older members of the community who brought their animals to the clinic. My persuasion skills were challenged in myriad ways every day: I tried to encourage wary individuals to get their animal spayed or neutered, talked with various people about caring for their animals better, and even taught vet students how to more effectively handle frightened and potentially dangerous animals. Some pet owners worried that the operation would hurt the animal or make it lazier, and often I was able to calm their fears. One skeptic eventually brought in his seven cats, two dogs, and even a neighbor's dog for treatment. Whenever I persuaded someone to bring in his or her pet, or worked with a vet student to be more patient with an animal, I felt a sense of accomplishment. It made all the sleepless nights on the gymnasium floor worthwhile. By the end of the clinic, we had altered 358 animals.

My internship was a wonderful experience. It confirmed my belief that academics can make a powerful difference in the wider world. Having completed my Ph.D. this summer, I hope to begin a career that keeps to my goal of combining academe with activism. This fall, I will teach communication courses such as "Mass Media and Persuasion" at a small, liberal-arts college in the Portland area. I will also continue my work in the arena of animal protection. Through the contacts I established during my internship, I will be writing grant applications and developing advertising campaigns for local and national animal-protection organizations. One specific project I will work on involves the promotion of vegetarianism to young Portlanders. I would highly recommend this internship experience to anyone -- even those academics who might not immediately be attracted to nonacademic work. I may be tired and dirty, but I know one thing for sure: I have never felt more useful.


Courtney Dillard recently received her Ph.D. from the department of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin.