Becca Sheff

By Alex Park

At a time in her life when most people had no idea what what their calling was, Becca Sheff already had a pretty good idea. Having graduated high school a semester early, she left her home state of Massachusetts to train as a wilderness guide in the Colorado Rockies. After becoming a certified Wilderness First Responder, a desire to see more of the world led her to live with relatives in Zimbabwe, then already four years into a total socio-political collapse at the hands of its despised president. After one terrifying experience during her month there, she first set her aims on a career in international development. A political science major and African studies concentration, she’s now writing an honors thesis on the political affects of remittances in Senegal, where she completed her semester abroad. Looking back on her life experiences until now and ahead towards graduation, we sat down to talk about her chosen career path, and the challenges facing the development field today.
Take us back to that moment, or that period in time, when you started to seriously consider an international development career for the first time. I was really dissatisfied in high school. I think a lot of people were. I graduated a semester early so I could go on to something different, so I spent a semester training as a wilderness guide in the Rockies. I was living in the snow, I got this medical training, I was having a great time. And I was like, this is amazing. But I was learning that there was this other part of me that was looking more globally. I was thinking, I’m concerned about injustice, and all these broad things that I don’t know how to talk about yet. And my family and I went to Zimbabwe that summer, and it gave me this vision that there was this entire world out there that I wanted to be able to understand and interact with, which shaped my studies at Macalester, which was why I went to Senegal, which shaped why I’m looking at the kind of jobs I’m looking at. It just kind of built on itself.
At the time you were in Zimbabwe, you saw rampant poverty, a political situation that was in free fall, and all the while, the government was demolishing entire townships which they considered opposition strongholds. At the same time, you were living with relatives who were very much involved in efforts to support the people there. Did you want to be part of that? No, I didn’t. I wanted to know, how do aid workers do what they do in that situation? Zimbabwe really stimulated my thinking. I wanted to have the vocabulary to understand what was going on here, because it’s very confusing. Your world is very narrow when you’re actually on the ground. Sometimes we don’t give aid workers the benefit of a doubt, because they don’t see the big picture. You see one or two bulldozers and a couple of displaced families and a truck with a cage in the back filled with people going to a displacement camp. And you see that in a day, driving around. You see guys with guns- they’re all government people- and you say, what the hell is going on here? So I wanted to be able to understand that. And I felt like understanding was the first step to taking action. I wanted to gain the tools to advocate for that situation. You see that, and you want to make sense of it.
I saw the presidential motorcade while I was there. I never thought that I was going to be shot as much as I did on that day, actually. My dad was driving my aunt’s car, because she doesn’t drive, and there were like seven of us in the car, and we lived in a neighborhood that was adjacent to the president’s neighborhood, and we were driving down the road- I forget where we were going- and all of the sudden, my aunt says “pull over, pull over, right now!” So we pulled over and stopped the car, and you have a convoy: the first is a jeep with soldiers in the back with guns with bayonets leveled at the crowd, pointing out like spokes on a wheel. They’re probably going 50 MPH. Behind it you have three black limousines with tinted windows, also going fifty miles an hour, followed by two other army trucks. And that was the president, moving around the country. You wouldn’t have to do that if you weren’t the dictator of a military state. It was unbelievable. After they passed, my aunt said the reason she told us to pull over so quick was that they do shoot you if you don’t get out of the way. So I wanted to know, how do you live and work in an environment like that?
Do you see yourself, and your future, in development work in Africa? Yes and no. I could see myself doing work in the field, maybe a year or two from now. Next year I’m looking for positions in the U.S., because you really don’t have to go abroad to do international development work, it just depends on how close you want to be to providing direct services. That’s really what the question is: would I rather be a humanitarian aid worker on the ground in Darfur assisting with camps, or influencing policy somewhere? I think that’s the balance. It’s not a question of, am I doing development work in Africa or not, it’s about, how close do I want to be to providing direct services.
I’m actually applying next year for more policy-oriented positions. I’m applying for some lobbying groups in DC and a couple NGO’s in and around the U.N. in New York. That’s where I see myself in the short term. In the long-term? Sure, I could be in Africa somewhere. But I don’t want to be in a position where I feel like I’m taking employment opportunities from Senegalese. I think that’s part of the challenge. But, I am looking into Peace Corps. It’s not all bad. It gets a bad rap at Mac, but it’s got some interesting stuff going on.
I’ve always thought of one’s success or failure in the Peace Corps having so much to do with the person. People have told me it’s like crossing a desert or sailing across and ocean solo – all you have to rely on is yourself, and that experience changes you. I think one thing that has helped me to feel more comfortable with scarce resources in Senegal was all my experience backpacking and doing wilderness travel … Just being able to live on fewer resources comfortably made it easier for me. I think I had a little bit of an advantage in that way. But everyone has their limits. You have to know what’s healthy for you. You have to have a healthy sense of self no matter where you are in the world. I think the reason I felt comfortable in that situation was because I knew how far I was pushing that boundary … and I think I could do it for two years.
One way or another, do you see your career going towards development? I’m kind of torn because I really want to do international development work. I don’t really mind at this point if it’s policy work or direct services, but eventually I think I’ll be drawn more toward direct services. But also I love backpacking. I love being outdoors. And that’s a part of me that I can’t set aside. This summer I’ll be working again as a wilderness guide, and if nothing comes through next year I can continue that through the fall.
Speaking of your outdoors experience, you’re also a certified Wilderness First Responder and you’ve done some medical work in the past. Do you think you might go into humanitarian or aid work? Maybe. But humanitarian aid is so problematic. Not to say that development work isn’t, but there’s so much that I would like to see changed in humanitarian aid that I wouldn’t want to be implicated in the service ethics of it right now.
Go on. Humanitarian aid can be really imperialist. That’s a word that Macalester throw’s around a lot, but humanitarian aid is so intervention oriented. Whether it’s political-military intervention, or more post-natural disaster relief, what you see consistently is that there’s very little consideration of the capability of the people in that environment. There’s a lot of efforts now to integrate local staff into the process of distributing aid, and I think that’s great. But a lot of times, aid agencies aren’t willing to look at the resilience and coping strategies of the people they’re serving; they tr
eat them more as passive recipients of aid rather than people with complex personalities and agendas and interests. The mere fact that people around the world survive daily on much scarcer resources then we have access to is incredible, and I don’t think that most of us could be as resourceful as many people are. Aid workers are trained not to see people as resourceful, but rather to see them as needy- there’s a fundamental shift in how aid workers conceptualize their work that needs to happen.
It’s amazing, how you think doing good for Africa would be that simple, but in reality, it’s not. You can’t operate on your principles alone. And I think at Mac it can be immobilizing, that constant demand that we keep evaluating our actions, because then it’s so easy to drop into feelings of hopelessness knowing that whatever we do may have some awful, unintended outcome that you can’t foresee despite all the critical analysis tools that we’re given at Macalester. And so you feel like you gotta not try in the first place. But then we’re losing some of the people with the energy and the enthusiasm and the idealism and the tools to make an impact. As seniors, as we start to look out and think about what we’re doing next year, I think it’s a real shame that there is this hopelessness.
You talked about a state of paralysis being experienced here at Macalester, induced by an overload of self-reflection. Do you yourself experience that paralysis? Yes and no. It probably depends what thoughts I’m having that day and what classes I’m taking that semester if I’m feeling empowered or paralyzed. I once took a service-learning sociology class on non-profit organizations, and I was working with Planned Parenthood, feeling like I was providing necessary services. It was this very open experience. But then you take a class like, Advanced Themes in Human Rights with Professor von Geldern, which is a fantastic course. But you sit back and you think, gosh, the world is so fucked up and everything we do makes it worse.
Speaking with Yoel Clark two weeks ago, I remember that he said that the more he learned about Judaism, the more he liked about it, but also the more he saw in the religion that confused him or just seemed hypocritical. But, he said, those parts that he didnt like was work that he needed to do. Is development like that for you? It is like that. If we’re talking about NGOs that do international programming, I think there are a number of organizations out there that do very good work, very ethical work. Some of them are very big, some are very small, locally oriented organizations. So sure, I could work with an organization that aligns really closely with my own principles and I could expand their work. Or, I could have a different kind of impact, working at a larger organization that diverges a lot with my own principles where eventually, maybe, I would be able to influence their approach. I think you have to choose, to work with an organization that already aligns really closely with what you believe, or if you’d like to go in and be a change maker and transform organizations that are doing work that is damaging. There’s value to both kinds of contributions.
Is it realistic to think that you, as one person, could make change in a large bureaucracy? I wouldn’t ever say that I’m the one whose going to make a change, but I do think you can gather together a mass of individuals with similar principles who want to change things up a bit. There’s a difference in asking, is it impossible and asking, will it be hard work, and will it take a long time.