By Michelle Armstrong"It's hard to capture anything of significance in a few minutes when you've lived in a country that's touched your heart," says Reed Dickson as he reflects upon his experience living in Namibia, Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). "I can't say enough about how valuable it was." Even today, his life in New York City is permeated by memories of teaching in and learning about a nation almost 8,000 miles away from his hometown of Lafayette, Indiana. "Peace Corps was calling me," and as Coordinator of TC's Peace Corps Fellows Program, it still is.
Like his parents and siblings, Reed attended Purdue University and thought his future might follow in the footsteps of an older brother whose success in the stock market had garnered media coverage and accolades in the press. But Reed, who also has an acumen for numbers, enrolled in a composition class that he says "blew my mind." It was then he realized he "needed to study what I love," so he who was once headed to the likes of Wall Street declared a triple major in creative writing, English, and education. Amazingly, he completed his degree in four years. During his time at Purdue, Reed substitute taught as well as worked during the summers at an alternative school. He decided he wanted to teach English, a career from which he derived immense satisfaction during his practicum.
While he thought that life after college would lead him to a local classroom, he was intrigued by an on-campus presentation by the Peace Corps. "It seemed very challenging," he recalls. "I was looking for something to broaden my horizons and broaden my sense of perspective." He talked with PCVs at Purdue who insisted that he apply to the program. Following his graduation in 1996, Reed taught at a community school during the summer and was offered a high school teaching position; however, Peace Corps invited him to begin service in Africa that fall. Given the choice of going to either Lesotho or Namibia, he first choose the former, but was later told that it was no longer available as an option. He calls the alternative-serving in Namibia-"something like fate; a very good experience."
The teaching of English in Namibian schools was unheard of prior to the drafting of the country's constitution in 1990 which declared it a republic independent of South African governance. Despite this ban, the school at which Reed taught had demonstrated a steadfast commitment to resistance as the first in the region to teach the subject. This effort was indicative of its sense of history and pride that Reed calls a rarity among Namibian schools. As the school's only PCV, Reed taught English classes comprised of 20-48 children. The school possessed a rich sense of heritage, yet he witnessed the impact of the media on students' self-perceptions about their skin color and culture. "There's no amount of talking to certain kids that can convince them they're beautiful; that has to come from the inside," he expresses, and he worked to filter the images prevalent in television shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Baywatch that "seemed only to exacerbate any negative self-image that a student might have." Reed aimed to use his pedagogy to build pupils' self-esteems, utilizing the teaching of English to help students be reflective through the processes of writing, revision and reading. In addition to this content area, he taught math while also coaching the school's debate and drama clubs, conducting its school band, and providing guitar lessons. Ironically, he began to forget his own skin color while teaching in the bush, but the question of privilege emerged when he ventured into the city and was granted special treatment because of his race. "It got me to thinking about power, privilege, class, and America . . . the race issue is also a class issue. You can look at legal books and say things are equal," says Reed about the politics in Namibia, "[but even] after apartheid, 90 percent of the land [in Namibia] is owned by whites." His time there taught him that "race needs to be talked about . . . regardless of the race of the teacher."
He began reading Baldwin, Angelou, and studying the works of race theorists to expand his knowledge of black history. While his students had never shied away from writing about race, he helped them formally address the topic by showing them Eyes on the Prize and Malcolm X: Make It Plain, and having them debate the civil rights strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. "It was my sense that, in taking positions on race and reform, they also took positions on themselves, and developed a stronger sense of pride both in their history [of growing up in a society of apartheid] and in their school's history."
When his two-year stint in the Peace Corps concluded in 1998, the organization asked him to stay a few additional months to act as a trainer for its secondary education component for about 30 incoming volunteers. Afterwards, Reed traveled on a 'round the world ticket and spent time in Ethiopia, Nepal, and Japan before returning Stateside. He flirted with moving to Los Angeles to study screenplay writing, but opted instead to return home for a period during which he worked as a writer's assistant for the area's New Harmony Project. Reed was pulled to teach, but says, "I felt like I needed to teach in a place less isolated than Indiana. I wanted to understand America better." Still using the airline ticket on which he had returned from Africa, Reed came to New York after speaking with Daniel Tamulonis, the TC Peace Corps Fellows Program Coordinator at that time. While English is not considered a high-need subject area for which the TC Program typically recruits returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), Daniel was able to assist Reed in finding a position at the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching. Working with a largely Dominican, Puerto Rican, and African-American student population, Reed taught Grade 9 English, writing, family group, and a teaching seminar. Serendipitously, his course schedule required him to include Cry, the Beloved Country in his lesson plan, allowing Reed to "bring back what I experienced [such as] music and [former] students' writings." He also sponsored the drama club and was the assistant basketball coach.
An avid writer, Reed decided to step away from the classroom to devote more time to this passion, but joined the TC staff when an Assistant Coordinator position for its Peace Corps Fellows Program became available. Daniel's return to grade school teaching in 2003 resulted in Reed's promotion to Program Coordinator which entails supporting RPCVs who come to the College by aiding them in pre-service training and placement in New York City schools. Moreover, Reed was instrumental in soliciting the philanthropic support of College trustee Elliot Jaffe and his wife, Roslyn, who recently presented the Peace Corps Fellows Program with a gift totaling nearly a half million dollars to perpetuate the program at the College. They have also established a $900,000 scholarship endowment that will be designated each year to Program Fellows. "Our Fellows are able to bring to classrooms a sincere interest in world cultures," Reed says.
But writing remains close to Reed's heart. He spends at least an hour each day in this creative capacity. "When I have time to think or relax, I write. It's my other life. I love words. If you look at the problems the country faces, it's education and communication which have the possibility to transform [society]. I have a drive to write essays and fiction that get people thinking about the importance of education-that's my thing." In fact, an award from the Vermont Studio Center will underwrite his two-week sabbatical to the New England state this April to do just that. He would ultimately love to make films about teachers and to create radio documentaries while continuing, of course, to write.
Reed paraphrases author Alice Walker who offers that while she doubts the world can be saved, she believes we can make it a better place. After all, that is key to the Peace Corps vision. He plans a visit to Namibia in December, and speaks fondly of the country's inviting landscape and the openness of its people. "Despite all of their challenges, the people had a gratitude towards their natural environment that surrounded them. The people were full of warmth and full of life." On a weekly bus trip to the market with his class while living in Africa, one of Reed's students gazed about her and commented, "Everything is beautiful." Looking at the work to which Reed and others like him commit themselves, we start to believe that indeed, it is.previous page