In retrospect, perhaps I was always destined to be a cultural anthropologist. As a child, I moved from country to country overseas, learning the differences between proper manners, prized foods, and other aspects of life in South Africa, England, Belgium and France. When my family finally returned to the United States, I was thirteen and considered an outsider by my peers because I lacked the cultural knowledge of American life that everyone else grew up with. At the University of Virginia, I majored in English and worked for women's rights on campus. I spent my junior year studying at Cambridge University and travelling throughout Europe. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer focused on women's rights, so after graduation I moved to Washington D.C. to work as a paralegal. It quickly became clear to me that there was too much "paper-pushing" and too little substance in law for my interest, so after two years I decided to quit my job and return to Africa, to participate in the NGO Forum that accompanied the United Nations Decade Conference on Women in Nairobi (Kenya) -- and to visit friends, and see if I could find a job. Much to my mother's chagrin, I bought a three-month plane ticket, packed a backpack and left for Kenya and Tanzania.
Women's rights is the thread that has been woven into everything I do, from my role as Women's Rights Coordinator at UVA to my work as the Director of the Institute for Research on Women from 2007 to 2010. I was excited to visit the UN conference, especially the NGO Forum where women's organizations and activists from all over the world led discussions, workshops, and performances. It was an amazing experience that cemented my interest in the importance of a global, comparative understanding of women and gender. During my visit, I stayed with a friend who was working in Tanzania and in one week I was offered two jobs-- so I stayed for three years. For the first year I taught part-time at a Catholic secondary school for boys who were primarily from Maasai communities.
Dorothy interviewing Masaai activist, Moringe ole Parkipuny, at a policy conference in Tanzania in 2006
My primary job, however, was working for the Catholic Church in community development. At that time, much of sub-Saharan Africa was transitioning from a terrible famine and the need for food relief, to figuring out ways to avoid such crises in the future. I worked in an area about the size of Texas with Maasai pastoralists, semi-nomadic herders of cattle, goats, and sheep, who had long been ignored by the state. Our job was to travel from community to community to facilitate discussions that would help residents debate and decide, together, their problems and priorities, and then design programs and projects to address their priority problems.
Because of my degree in English, my first responsibility was to write funding proposals for some of the community projects. I also worked as the women's development field worker, to make sure our team was talking to women for their input and was sensitive to their needs. After the first year, however, I was put in charge of the team, which now had over twenty members. After three years of traveling throughout the area, talking to men and women and listening to their concerns, I had a sense of what life was like at the grassroots level, especially for women. The work was exciting and exhausting, but it left me with a lot of questions: Why were relations between women and men so tense? What was this thing called "development," and was it helping or hurting people?
I had always considered going to graduate school. A PhD in English was enticing, but my experience in Tanzania convinced me that I wanted to study something that felt more relevant to and engaged in peoples' everyday lives. Although I had never had an anthropology course in my life, once I learned more about the discipline, I knew that I'd found my future-- critical studies of gender relations, development, and social change were emerging as central theoretical concerns in anthropology, and the key research methods of anthropology (participant observation, interviews and conversations, living with people and learning their language and way of life) were much like what I'd already been doing for three years in my community development work.
I attended one of the top graduate anthropology programs in the US, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Although I was accepted into numerous graduate programs, I purposefully chose a graduate school where no one was doing what I had done; I did not want to be anyone's clone. I had more experience out in the field than some of the professors. I returned to Maasai communities in Tanzania several times as a student, including a summer of pre-dissertation research (1990) and then two years of dissertation research (1991-1993) on the topic of gender and social change.
While writing my dissertation, I received a fellowship that allowed me to write from anywhere. I moved to New Jersey to live with my then boyfriend (now husband) who was in his second year of teaching in the Geography Department at Rutgers. To my (our) great fortune, the Anthropology Department conducted a search that fall, and I was hired. I was happy to have a job on my own merits and not because of a spousal hire. Since then I have received offers to move elsewhere but, like many other faculty members, I remain very loyal to Rutgers. I especially love the tremendous diversity of the student body, the smart and committed faculty, and the possibilities for interdisciplinary interactions and conversations provided by the numerous research centers and institutes.
Throughout my career, I have had an array of different mentors and advisors, especially senior women. They advised me about my career choices, coping with academic politics, and other concerns. Now that I am a senior faculty member, I try to reciprocate; I mentor graduate and undergraduate students, faculty members inside and outside of my department, and now even a graduate student from Mongolia! I think it is especially important to demystify the process of being an academic and to help men and women who have families figure out how to juggle a solid career, raising their children, and (hopefully) some kind of other interests. Fortunately, Rutgers is very supportive of faculty with children, including an option to slow down the tenure process. The university doesn't want unhappy people with one-dimensional lives to be mentoring students. My mantra has always been to figure out how to make this a sustainable life and a life I want to live. My husband and I both do field work in Africa so it has been a challenge to combine our research with raising children-- sometimes we have brought our children along, but most often we take turns conducting research overseas. Figuring out how and when to do research is a much bigger production when you can't go to a lab or archives. Still, academia is a wonderful fit for me. I love to teach, do research, write, and mentor. I appreciate the range of very different tasks and skills, the flexible schedule, and the power to change peoples' lives through our teaching, scholarship and mentoring.
All in all, I have had a rewarding career so far. I have written and edited numerous books, published and presented my work all over the world, and received prestigious grants, fellowships, and awards. I am especially proud that many of my authored and edited books are widely adopted in undergraduate and graduate classes. I've always tried to write books that would be of interest to scholars in the field, but also accessible to upper level undergraduates. I'm also proud of the long-term relationships I have with my Maasai colleagues-- at this point I have spent over eight of the past twenty-five years living and working in Tanzania. Moreover, some of my work has been used as a resources by Maasai activists in their struggles to protect and control their livelihoods, land, and lifestyles. I feel it is rewarding that my work has affected the lives of Maasai in Tanzania and shaped the ideas of students and scholars in the United States and elsewhere.