According to the WiLD (Women in Livestock Development) site on Heifer’s Intranet Platform, a WiLD woman is a woman who is “making a difference in their lives and the lives of the families and communities where Heifer works.” This definition is purposefully broad and encompassing, as is Heifer’s overall mission to “work with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the earth.” I’ve always believed that any number of communities in an infinite number of settings can qualify as one of the afore mentioned “communities,” and deservedly so. A group of students can be one of these communities just as readily as a group of coffee farmers in Central America or a women’s self-help group in Nepal. If you’ve followed my logic so far, you’ll agree that the definition of a WiLD woman also can be interpreted broadly.
With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Susan Clark of Virginia Tech University. Susan is a professor in the Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise department within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. That is certainly impressive, but not WiLD necessarily. Susan has been a Heifer supporter for many years. Also impressive, also not WiLD. Consider this….
In 2008, Susan brought a group of her students to Heifer Ranch for an Alternative Spring Program. Of course, the program stands on its own merits. Seeking an even deeper and more meaningful program for her students, Susan sought out Rex Enoch, then manager of Adult Education for Heifer. Rex, Susan and Ranch Education Coordinator Jacob Sheatsley worked out a couple of changes to the program that would allow for a more in-depth overview and understanding of Heifer, better fitted for college students. The program was well received. Susan felt strongly about the possibilities of collaboration with Heifer, and took it upon herself to attend the Heifer U: Seeds of Change program in spring of 2009. Rex visited the Virginia Tech campus that Fall to do a Heifer mini-workshop, and VT students have been regulars at Heifer Ranch during their Spring Break ever since.
After the original Spring Break Trip to Perryville, the VT students and Susan challenged Heifer to be more challenging with their alternative spring break programming. Jacob Sheatsley, who oversees the ASB program at the Ranch, worked with Susan to create a new program that didn’t just talk about Heifer’s model….it placed students IN the model. Concurrent ASB groups have experienced a new version of the program; this version incorporated more hands-on “service projects,” and included evening sessions where the students defined their shared values and then made plans for an actual project to be implemented back in their home community of Virginia Tech. The students were learning by experience, teaching by participating. A variety of projects have sprung forth from these Virginia Tech groups, including soccer tournaments to raise awareness, improvements to the local famers’ market on campus, and a new generation of ambassadors of Heifer’s mission. Most impressively, the students and Dr. Clark went through the process of creating a new minor track of study, entitled Civic Agriculture and Food Systems. The students declaring this minor will learn about issues relating to food sovereignty, civic engagement and democratic participation in community decision making, ecological stewardship, and collaborative teaching and experiential learning. In this first year of existence, the minor has 25 students enrolled.
Susan had a vision, a vision that included students at Virginia Tech working to end hunger and poverty and caring for the earth. Susan, with help from Heifer, was able to apply for and receive a grant from the USDA to fund a series of trips to Heifer Ranch and beyond. To quote Rex, “She was the visionary who helped define what she wanted to happen. She was tenacious in making this happen. She recognized that Heifer's support would strengthen the application, and (from what she told me) it did. She affirmed us throughout the process and we reaped the benefits of her hard work.”
Also funded by the USDA grant was a study tour to Honduras to see Heifer’s Values-Based Planning Model at work. And so, in early March, a group of the CAFS students, lead by Susan Clark, traveled to Honduras and spent just over a week working and learning alongside Heifer project communities there. During the final debrief on the last night in the country, the students described this experience as “transformative” and “life-changing.” Many of these students were graduates of previous Spring Break programs at Heifer Ranch. Based on the results that we saw after the Alternative Spring Break experiences at the Ranch, we should all be looking forward to hearing lots of great things from Virginia Tech.
None of this would have been possible were it not for the diligence and vision of Susan Clark. Heifer provided some resources and some programming, but it was Susan’s hard work, planning, and faith in her students’ education that powered this process. Carmen Byker is doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech; part of her doctoral dissertation will be monitoring and evaluating the efforts of the returning Virginia Tech students. I asked Carmen to tell me how Susan incorporated the Heifer development model on campus. This was her response:
“Beginning with a Heifer Ranch trip to Perryville, Arkansas in 2008, Heifer began to plant the seed of Heifer's model on our Virginia Tech campus and in our Southwestern Virginia Community. Students attending the Ranch asked Susan why Virginia Tech did not have an area of study that highlighted the process of community development through agriculture. Apropos to Heifer's model, Susan began to identify the strengths and values of our campus and community resources to begin developing a minor. She gathered a coalition of partners that included faculty, staff and students from varying departments as well as community partners from our local area and Heifer International. Susan led this taskforce to develop the values-based Civic Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) minor at Virginia Tech. Everything about the development process has used appreciative inquiry by identifying the communities assets to suit the needs of Civic Agriculture and Food Systems.”
Carmen also explained a nickname for Susan that I heard while in Honduras, “At one point during the trip, all of the participants agreed that her nickname should be 'mama bear.' The Berenstain Bears from my childhood days immediately came to my mind when they aptly summarized Mama Bear as ‘the wise, heart and soul of the family, the keeper of morals and manners.’”
I can’t think of any better descriptions for Dr. Clark than “WiLD” or “Mama Bear.” Heifer is lucky and thankful to have a collaborator in the WiLD Mama Bear of Virginia Tech. Her story give us a valuable example of what is possible when vision, patience, planning, tenacity and diligence come together in the mind of an extremely capable and amazing woman. The limits of this collaboration have yet to be seen. WiLD, indeed.