By Hua Wang • October 22, 2011•Writers in Residence
One of the "founding mothers" of the service-learning movement, Betsy was awarded the Outstanding Volunteer Award in Dallas, Texas, for her creation of The Praxis Project, a service-learning model which has been replicated at over 100 campuses across the country. Betsy joined Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics and was appointed Chair of the Dean's Advisory Committee for Service-Learning.
In her course on Women as Leaders in the Hart Leadership Program, she developed a long-term partnership with Chewning Middle School, where her students mentored at-risk middle school girls. In 2006, Betsy received the inaugural Robert L. Sigmon award for her significant contributions toward furthering the practice of service-learning in North Carolina.
As a theologian and educator, Dr. Alden has been engaged in women's leadership as a feminist community activist, a United Methodist clergywoman since 1974, a member of commissions on the status and role of women in church, civic, and national organizations, and on several national boards, including the National Partnership for Service-Learning, Ministry to Blacks in Higher Education, the National Campus Ministry Association, and the Presbyterian Church's (international) Self-Development of People Committee. A wife and mother of three grown children, Betsy has "learned by doing" by balancing family, career, civic, and personal commitments.
Hua Wang: How do you define activism?
Betsy Alden: Activism is anyone who actively engages in a cause which will make life better for other people.
HW: What is your most satisfying public service experience?
BA: My most meaningful experience is the creation of service-learning programs. Back in 1980, I taught at a community college in Dallas and worked with students who had jobs and families. A lot of my students told me that their life has taken on a routine and they wished there was some way they could contribute to their community.
I decided to find a way to combine volunteerism with schoolwork. I wanted to give my students the feeling of doing something good for the community and, at the same time, to accomplish something worthwhile with their schoolwork. I found placements with community organizations and allowed my students to integrate their service with their research. My students loved the experience! Pretty soon, over 900 students were involved in service-learning. People were positively affected at both the student-level and the recipient-level, and better relationships were developed between colleges and the communities.
HW: Were you involved in service-learning in college?
BA: Service-learning did not exist when I was a student. People volunteered, but students didn’t volunteer. Instead, they were involved in marches and demonstrations as a way to oppose the Vietnam War. Some students are adopting the same tactics today for AIDS Day—they are using sit-ins and demonstrations as a way to educate the public.
You can become an activist in terms of putting yourself on the firing line, dealing with people one-on-one, or writing a letter to the editor. There are many ways of changing public policy—some people want to be “out there” while other people are quieter. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, was petrified of speaking in front of people, so she wrote speeches and nursed her baby while Susan B. Anthony gave the speeches and travelled.
Female activists approach activism differently from men. Females work more often from the grassroots level and are more connected with a cause because they or someone they know are affected by a social issue. Men, on the other hand, are usually involved with a cause because it would be advantageous for their company to be on the board of a nonprofit organization. Men always had positional leadership while women had to work from the ground up.
In terms of challenges, women need to be taken seriously and have the confidence to go out there and speak up, even if they don’t have the credentials. Dolores Huerta, for example, was just as effective as Cesar Chavez in organizing farm workers. However, because she was an uneducated farm worker, she had a harder time of getting her name in the paper and gaining publicity.
HW: How does religion tie in with activism?
BA: My activism comes from my faith—much will be required of those to whom much is given, those who have been blessed should be a blessing to others, etc. The serving is often a gift to the “helper.”
My most important mentor was a campus minister who knew how to make things happen in the campus environment. He proved that you didn’t have to merely stay in your office and meet with students. Instead, you got out there and you found out what was not happening and should happen, or vice-versa. You address those situations and speak boldly from your faith perspective and say this is not right. We held Peace Studies courses during the Vietnam War, we protested the hostage situation, and we prayed for victims of injustice.
Men who go into campus ministry have a strong feminine side. These people have seminary degrees but they don’t want to be a pastor of a large church where they got more money and prestige. Instead, they want to make a difference in people’s lives. My male mentors guided me from a values perspective rather than from a gender perspective.
HW: What are your three personal values that you wish would be more widely honored in society? Why?
BA: Women’s rights, child advocacy, and feminist issues are high on my list. I wish it would be WAY higher on society’s list. I mean, before 9/11, no one worried about the poor Afghan women besides the Feminist Majority. Until Afghan women became a useful tool to rally support, they weren’t even on the government’s radar!
Attention to a sense of calling or mission in life--not enough people listen to their inner hearts, voices, or compass to guide them about how they want to live their lives.
The third value (a lifelong crusade of mine) is an alternative lifestyle that doesn’t buy into moneyed values. In the late 1970s, I drove past a huge billboard in Dallas that had the slogan, “Oh come, all ye successful.” The slogan was perverting the hymn of “Oh come, all ye faithful.” The whole idea was to take faith away and put success in its place. I was so angry that I decided to invite the person who came up with Alternative Celebrations to my house and we launched workshops and used the media to raise consciousness about how absurd it is to spend all the money on ourselves for Christmas. Our slogan was: “Whose birthday is it anyway?” If it is Jesus’ birthday, then why are we giving ourselves presents?
Every time I told my parents my next project, they said: “You’re going to do WHAT?” It has all been fun.
HW: Why did you go into teaching?
BA: It is in my blood—my grandmother and mother were teachers. I was holding school on my front porch when I was in 3rd grade, and I wanted my own grade book for Christmas when I was ten years old. When I was a senior in high school, I took a vocational preference test. I found the results ten years later—under the “girls” section for my numerical score, I found “nurse, teacher, and social worker.” Under the “boys” section for my score, I found “clergyman.” Even then, I had the inclination to become a minister but I didn’t think it was an option in my case. It wasn’t until 1972 that women started becoming ministers. I went to seminary because I was interested in the questions that people were asking and not because I thought I would ever be a minister. Now, at Duke, I have the best ministry I can possibly have. I even get to do weddings for my students!
HW: What do you want your students to get out of your class?
BA: I want them to get a strong sense of themselves as capable women who can make a difference in the world. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible was the first book that gave me a clue that women had done scholarship in theology. In 1962, I was active in supporting the ERA. My daughter ended up majoring in women’s studies at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and through her, I was exposed to women’s issues from an academic perspective. I decided I wanted to be active in campus ministry and to offer courses on women’s perspectives of the Bible.
HW: What advice do you have for female undergraduate and graduate students who are seeking to connect academics with activism?
BA: I want students to have a sense of the rewards of activism so that they learn to prioritize service and not let cultural/social values, shopping malls, and high paying jobs distract them from their mission. You are becoming a better person and making the world a better place if you learn to fulfill your own possibilities. You can become an activist in many different capacities, including fundraising, working for a cause, or having charity balls.
I have never had a student who was committed to the service say that this is a drain on his or her time and energy. They often say that the service is empowering and enriching, that they are ready to go out and do whatever they need to do because they feel so good from the experience.
HW: How does activism disrupt or enhance scholarly work?
BA: I want more professors to see the service implications of research. For example, if you are doing research on tests and learning in public schools, you might tutor students rather than merely pass out the tests to contribute to your research agenda. Even if you produced a document that contributes to the field of learning, it is not automatically service unless there is an activism component. Some professors are hardwired for research and it is their calling and mission, but unless they connect research with its effects on public policy or social change, they are missing something. I wish more professors would get out of their desks and offices and into the community.
I took a professor who was a hard nut to crack to the Salvation Army to look at some of the socio-economic issues he addressed in his classes. He was captivated by the kids who welcomed him with open arms and made him feel like he mattered. He LOVED the experience and started volunteering at the Salvation Army. It could just as easily have turned out to be a negative experience but you don’t know unless you try.
HW: How can Duke as an institution better contribute to the community?
BA: Duke does what it can without requiring service. While I do not want mandatory service, I wish there was more funding to pay service-learning facilitators and faculty. In terms of advocacy, the University President’s speech to each freshmen class includes a component on how important service is. There is also the Community Affairs, Community Service Center, and Hart Leadership Program that provide the structure and foundation for civic engagement.
HW: What does it mean to exercise leadership?
BA: To exercise leadership, you need to be clear about your own direction and focus. You need to lead a life where others will find inspirational and will be motivated to lead in the same way or follow in the same direction. Leaders lead the troops into the arena and set up the programs. They are often creative innovators who create something new, get bored when things are running smoothly, and want to move on and create something else. There is another type of leaders that wants to take a project in a new direction or expand the structure.
HW: What about the drawbacks of leadership?
BA: Most people enter leadership to do good but power, money, and prestige often corrupts people. As a leader of an organization, you often have to schmooze and compromise your values. In my own life, I have made choices that “prevented” me from going to the next level because I didn’t want to give up freedom for new opportunities.
HW: Were your parents involved with the community?
BA: Yes—my parents were civic leaders in a small town where they got to do everything. They led by example and were involved with the church, the school board, and the savings & loan. I am different in that I would not join a club to socialize and serve—I rather create a new program or hang out with students.
HW: Do you remember your first act of public service?
BA: Yes, but it might have been a negative experience. We lived across the street from the Presbyterian minister’s house. One day, a couple wanted to have a wedding and needed witnesses. The minister called my house and the groom gave me a dollar for being a witness. Next Sunday, I put the dollar in the offering plate and the minister was so impressed that he preached a whole sermon about my gift. It had a negative effect on me because it made me feel like you got recognition for doing something good and the public ought to know about it and you should be rewarded by some affirmation or praise. For some period of my life, I expected to get public recognition for everything good I did. I even did things to get public recognition. The good part was that I became an achiever and a scholar and was attentive to PR. The bad part was that I wasn’t always doing things for the right reasons. It was not until I went to seminary that I began examining my personal reasons for service. What if I had put the dollar in the collection and no one ever said anything about it? Would it have changed my life? You never know.
HW: What is the ethics of service?
BA: Courage, compassion, and change. Service involves being willing to stand up for unpopular causes and unpopular responses. When my kids were in grade school, there was a busing program that received criticisms from parents who didn’t want their kids to be bused into schools in poorer communities. At the PTA meeting, parents were worried about the quality of education. I asked about the EQUALITY of education. I had a foster daughter who was African American, loud, and funny. People won’t let their kids come to my house because they didn’t think she was a good influence on their kids. My kids suffered from the fact that their mom was “one of those radical people.”
You have to have the courage to back up your convictions. You have to stop seeing others as poor underlings. We are mutually responsible for each other. If you can do one thing to make life better for one person, then you should do it.
HW: How do you transform anger into passion and activism?
BA: At a clergywomen’s conference, we had an open microphone session on righteous indignation. People came up to the mike and talked, yelled, or cried about whatever they were angry about. The session lasted for four hours—people were upset that they were fat, discriminated against, abused, etc. Every issue you could imagine was out there. They gave us beautiful Palestinian tear jars as a way to collect our tears and remember our sorrows—the whole process was very therapeutic.