Women of Rutgers’ Africana House Pitch in to Help Poorest Communities of Dominican Republic

Women of Rutgers’ Africana House Pitch in to Help Poorest Communities of Dominican Republic

Service-learning trips integral part of Douglass Residential College’s Global Village

Dean Jacquelyn Litt accompanied students on a service learning trip to the Dominican Republic.
Photo: Courtesy of Gwendolyn Beetham

'My parents warned me it would be personal, that it would be uncomfortable. They told me I would come back a whole lot stronger, and they were right.'
– Vanessa Mathieu

They’re called Los Bateyes, the ramshackle communities of sugar cane workers and their families that are home to some of the Dominican Republic’s most impoverished souls.

Many of the residents lack basic amenities: access to clean water, education and electricity. Victims of low wages and underlying prejudices, they scrape to make ends meet and struggle to find adequate food to feed their children in a country with the ninth-largest economy in Latin America.

It’s not your typical vacation destination, but a group of black women from the Africana House at  Douglass Residential College (DRC) of Rutgers University – some with family ties to the island nation or its Caribbean neighbors – spent an intense 10 days in the bateyes over their recent winter break.

Jacquelyn Litt, dean of Douglass Residential College, accompanied the students on the trip. Together, they poured cement and built walls for a house under construction. They taught arts and crafts to the island’s children, toured the cane fields and lived in a facility where local lawyers and other professionals assist Haitians who need documentation.

And somewhere along the way, the students also absorbed some of the toughest lessons of their lives.

“My parents warned me it would be personal, that it would be uncomfortable. They told me I would come back a whole lot stronger, and they were right,” says Vanessa Mathieu, a Rutgers junior majoring in public health and the daughter of Haitian emigrants who moved to New Jersey before she was born.

The vast majority of batey residents are Haitian or of Haitian descent; the government estimates the number of Haitians in the country overall at 700,000. Mathieu’s fluency in Creole, the unofficial language of the bateyes, helped her forge a bond with the people she encountered.

“I definitely think my background as a Haitian helped me connect,” the Bloomfield resident says now. “I can’t really relate to the conditions they face, but I felt like I was in their shoes.”

Grant supports service-learning programs

The Africana House, which sponsored the service-learning trip, is part of the Global Village at Douglass Residential College, a group of cultural, language and special-theme houses that encourage students to immerse themselves in the discipline of their choice while living with and interacting with others with the same interest.

The Global Village includes French and Spanish houses, Women and Business, Women and Public Health and Human Rights houses, among others.

From left to right: Edna Antwi, Dean Jacquelyn Litt, and Muna Ilogu helping to construct a house in Batey Monte Coca.
Photo: Courtesy of Gwendolyn Beetham
Each year, residents of one or two of the houses have the opportunity to travel abroad, Litt says. Students from the Spanish House visited Mexico during this past winter break; previous destinations have included South Africa, Romania, Thailand and Cambodia.

The Dominican Republic trip was funded through a grant by the Rodkin Family Foundation, which has a long history of supporting the DRC and the entire university.

Mathieu says getting up-close and personal with the bateyes’ crushing poverty left her feeling simultaneously humbled and grateful for the life she leads back in New Jersey.

“If people living in these conditions can smile, I have no reason to complain about the little things,” she says. “I have a place to live, food to eat – why should I complain?”

Litt and Mathieu agree that the all-black, all-female student presence on the trip made the experience unique among service-learning opportunities.

“I think it meant a lot more to the community we were serving,” Mathieu says. “The fact that we were all female made them wonder if we would want to get our hands dirty. Then they saw these are women who were not worried about their nail polish or their makeup or how their hair looks, but were willing and eager to be hands-on.”

The race factor had a similar impact, Mathieu believes. “They became more comfortable with us because we were all black. It became more intimate.”

Rustic Pathways' approach

Long before the Rutgers students set foot in the Caribbean nation, their preparation was underway.

For months leading up to the trip, they learned about the African diaspora, built ties with one another over their shared ethnic heritage, and pored over the culture, history and politics of the country they would visit. “Through this approach, the program offers a yearlong, immersive experience,” Litt says.

Douglass partnered with Rustic Pathways, an organization that facilitates student service projects around the world, to help set the agenda for the Dominican Republic visit.

Mathieu says she admires Rustic Pathways’ approach to community service: Rather than imposing its will on the population it serves, the organization solicits input from residents as to their most pressing needs -- home improvement, infrastructure, education or something entirely different -- and plans projects accordingly.

In this case, the community identified a family of four with a disabled father and stay-at-home mother who needed housing immediately.

“We developed a relationship with the family,” Mathieu recalls. “Many times they would come and watch us work, the mom especially, and we could see how happy she was, how grateful.”

The Global Village students were not the first group to work on their house, nor the last, but they provided a link in a chain that would eventually provide shelter for the Haitian emigres.