Katie Bartels: Helping, Empowering, and Raising Awareness ☆

Katie Bartels is a 2009 Returning Peace Corps Fellow with a TESOL degree.  She served in Mozambique for two years, was a Secondary School ESL teacher for the New York Department of Education at Kingsbridge International High School, and ran an international program for Save the Children.  Katie currently serves as a Program Officer at PCI Media Impact, an organization that uses creative media, the power of storytelling and the reach of broadcast media to mobilize individual, community and political action in the areas of sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, sustainable development, and human rights and democracy.

Please tell us about your Peace Corps experience.

In the Peace Corps, I was an education volunteer and taught English in a rural high school in Mozambique.  I also helped organize and design a country-wide conference for women about health and education, which received funding from Emergency AIDS Relief.  Teachers chose certain female students to attend this week-long conference, where we addressed gender empowerment and HIV/AIDS.

What were the politics in your host country?

In 1975 there was a very violent civil war between two political parties (which ended in 1992).  The country was still recovering from that. The primary language in Mozambique is Portuguese.  My site was a smaller village a couple of hours north of the capital city.   It was right on the coast so there was a lot of tourism.  Many white South Africans migrated north to this little town and opened resorts.  And a good number of my students worked at these resorts for the English-speaking white South Africans.  So the desire to learn English was high in my village.  The students wanted to be employable, and also, Mozambique is surrounded by countries which are all English speaking.  Mozambique is the only Portuguese-speaking country in that part of the continent.

Did you feel good about the reason that you were teaching these kids English?  Or was there any internal conflict?

What I tried to instill in my teaching was to not only use my classroom as a type of linguistic lab, but also to use it as a platform for dialogue.  The interaction between white South Africans and local black  Mozambiqueans was extremely tense.  There were residue apartheid behaviors in these white South Africans, since many of them were from the older generation.   Opening up that dialogue was very sensitive, since my students worked for these people.  We talked about what they liked and what they didn’t like, and we used my class as a “thinkspace”.

Did the politics of the U.S. (and the fact that you are an American) enter your classroom, or was it a non-issue?

The fact that I am a white American volunteer certainly was an issue when it came to interacting with the white South Africans.  They assumed I would have the same racial mentality that they did towards the locals.  But I didn’t.  I tried to interact on a non-judgmental, neutral platform with the white South African immigrants, who were rapidly increasing in number in the town. Economically, white South Africans were bringing in jobs.  But sometimes that was hard to see because they wouldn’t interact with locals.  Most importantly, I wanted to stay on a certain level with my students and the locals who I lived among.  Therefore I didn’t want my students to see me interact with the white South Africans.  It was a very challenging part of my stay.

We’ve heard from other Peace Corps volunteers that a sense of isolation was pervasive.  Two years is a long time to spend in a village in Africa.   Did you feel alienated from family and friends?

I would say it was only in my last four or five months did I start to feel comfortable and “at home”.  It was a big challenge to be a woman and alone.  And given some of the work I was doing—encouraging women to find their voice in a highly paternalistic society—it took me a long while to form really trustworthy relationships with women.  But I did in the end, and that was by far the most rewarding part of the experience.  I learned a lot from the friendships I formed with women.

Mozambique is a huge country.  It is almost the size of Maine to Florida.  So we had our cohorts scattered across the country, but for the conference I worked on the cohorts would all come together a couple of times a year.  And that certainly helped.

After Mozambique, your next stop was teaching ESL to high school students in New York.  I’m wondering if and how your Peace Corps teaching experience prepared you to teach in a big city setting.

It did in certain ways.  I was shocked to find that schools in New York City have similar challenges as a rural school in Africa.  There is a similar lack of resources, a lack of desks, even!  In Africa, I had 60-80 students. In New York I had 30, so I could deal with this overcrowding.  I Mozambique, I had to teach to a national exam.  Which is sort of the same ‘teaching to the test’ that I had to do in New York, which is really bad, in my opinion.

What was the population like at your New York City public high school?

It was a high school for all recent immigrants, most of them illegal.  The students are primarily from the Dominican Republic, West Africa and Bangladesh.  I taught there for three years.

Your path next lead you to Save the Children.  How did that happen?

I made the change because I really wanted to get into international education development.  Working with immigrants at the public school and having so many kids come in with literacy levels in their native languages at an all-time low said a lot about the structure and quality of education in their country.  Save the Children had a pilot program that they were implementing, “Healing in Education through ART”, or HEART.  They brought me on board for a three-month consultancy project to visit sites where the project was being implemented to assess the successes and challenges, plus write the manual so they could implement the program in other countries in English-speaking Africa.

Part of the manual was a facilitator’s guide to training pre-school teachers, since there are hardly any in Africa.  A majority of these African children were orphans, directly affected by HIV/AIDS.  Many grow up with a grandparent or an aunt.  So this program taught pre-school teachers art therapy strategies into the classroom. We taught them how to use local plants to make paint, and how to use elements of their cooking as supplies.  It was all sustainable and readily available.  We partnered with some visual art students from the capital city who came and demonstrated really innovative art techniques to teachers.  We all worked on dialogue strategies, and how to use art to open the dialogue on what was going on in student’s lives.   It was a brilliant initiative and I was grateful to be a part of it.

How would you respond to detractors who may wonder about the place of art in the education of these African orphans, when basic skills—and basic needs, even—haven’t been met?

These are little children who have seen so many things.  It was amazing what came out in their artwork.   And they absolutely wouldn’t talk about it unless they had some avenue to express themselves because in that culture, you don’t talk about someone dying of HIV/AIDS. So art becomes just as important as other skills.  It is a playful age.  We built playgrounds as another aspect of the program, and just as it did through the art, things came out through the children’s play.  To deal with what surfaced, we worked with the teachers, who readily adopted the program even thought it meant more work for them.

Can you give an example of something that a child expressed through art or play?

In a class that I was visiting, a boy drew a picture of a man in a car.  I began a dialogue with him, and the boy told me, “This is the car that took my dad to South Africa”.   There’s a huge movement, especially in the province that I was working, of men to leave to work in South African mines.  So most of the men in the village are gone.  And when they are there working in the mines, they have mistresses and this work migration has been a huge source of HIV/AIDS transmission.  Many of the men die in South Africa, and the kids just never see their fathers again.  So the drawing of the car was powerful to this child, and we would never have known that unless he was given the space to safely talk about it.

On another instance, a boy was playing in the sand, and he began to make a mound with a flower on top.  I asked him what he was creating, and he told me it was a tomb for his mother, who died yesterday.   A lot of things come out, and art is the vehicle for that.

Your current position, Program Officer at PCI, sounds like a natural fit for you.  Is the work you are doing for this organization a culmination of all you’ve accomplished so far?

Absolutely.   I support media programs for social change, which PCI hosts all over the world.  Looking back at my experience in Mozambique, I know that there are so many organizations that work on HIV/AIDS that spit out so many statistics and facts.  The kids can practically repeat them, and they can certainly tell you what not to do and what to do in terms of HIV prevention.  But you are still not seeing the change in behavior.  I also recall the women’s conference we organized.  In working with the female students, we got together to decide how we were going to present our part of the conference, which had to do with relationships.  The goal was to teach girls healthy negotiation skills in relationships with men.  I immediately thought of Brazilian soap operas, which are so popular in Mozambique.  When these soap operas came on, everyone would be crowded around the one or two televisions that were in the village.  So for the conference, I decided to take what everyone knew so well—these characters—and use them as a springboard for conversation.  “Is this interaction healthy?”  It was a project where I really started to explore how to change behaviors.

Studying at TC taught me a more student-centered interaction and type of education, which I have brought to my work at PCI.  We partner with different radio and television stations to discuss different issues in the community.  We train facilitators to write scripts and develop characters, and then broadcast these issues as radio dramas, or as television soap operas.  When PCI was hiring, they saw my work abroad and experience in international education development and thought I’d be a perfect fit.  Beyond programming in Africa, I support an initiative in Alabama. We partner with an organization called Media For Health and produce radio dramas to support the Latino migrant population and the African-American community.  After the segment airs, we host a listener call-in program.  Beyond that, we organize community action campaigns where we rally radio audience members and the wider community to mobilize around an issue.  It is an interesting, three-tiered approach that really works.

How did your education at TC uniquely prepare you for your work today?

I often think about a class I took in the Bilingual/Bicultural Department.  We read a book, Identity and Agency in Different Cultures, which was about how a sense of self is formed by the story around you.  So the type of entertainment education that I am involved with is a methodology that forces someone to change, or rewrite, their own narrative.  They can change themselves, and change their community.  From my perspective, it is a matter of helping, empowering, and raising awareness for the issues and problems in a community.

AT TC, I had the option to overlap and take classes in the Bilingual/Bicultural Department, as well as in the ESL Department.  Traveling outside my department and being able to link was excellent, and was something I could really relate to.  At TC I was encouraged to dive into different educational approaches.  It allowed me to get to know my own teaching style and my own approach, and has helped me to be a more reflective educator.