[Story by Soyoung Hwang ’11 and David Williard;
March 17, 2010; http://www.wm.edu/as/news/2010/hibbs_10.php]
Kate Hibbs ’10 knew the many lessons of service before going to the Eastern Shore to serve as a migrant-health outreach worker last summer. Her experience as a stand-out Sharpe community scholar at the College prepared her academically; her experience serving migrant needs in Chicago gave her on-the-ground experience. Still, she felt she stumbled.
“If you’re not aware of your privilege, your service is patronizing,” she said.
Hibbs worked with pregnant women within the migrant community through an internship with Rural Family Development, one of two Eastern Shore agencies that maintains a memorandum of understanding with the Hispanic Studies department at William & Mary. Her primary tasks were to counsel women about pre-natal health practices and to help ensure their access to the medical resources available to them
Hibbs found that the need to acknowledge her own privilege relative to those she was serving became a theme underlying her work. Unknown to her at first, most of the women with whom she would work were from rural, southern Mexico and identified as part of an indigenous culture rather than as “Mexican.” Tensions arose due to the language barrier.
“We’re speaking Spanish with each other as our second language, so naturally there’s communication breakdown. … It’s hard to establish that legitimacy and trust,” Hibbs said.
Hibbs is the first to admit she was “not an expert in pregnancy,” and so being in a situation where she had come in as an “expert” to educate this woman forced her to evaluate her position in relation to that of the pregnant woman.
“I didn’t realize that my command of Spanish was better than hers, and, for her, that’s intimidating because, as an American, I represent the oppressor. … I’m in this privileged position,” Hibbs explained.
Despite what she calls her “folly and rudeness” in going into the woman’s home unprepared for this challenge, Hibbs found an effective way to bridge the gap by asking the pregnant woman to teach her some “Misteko,” the indigenous dialect.
“My interest in her culture, in her background, was huge because not even people from her country take an interest in her culture, and so to have someone do that is not only novel, but for her incredibly empowering,” Hibbs said. “That I teach her and she can teach me is empowering for her and humbling for myself. It’s not just understanding their perspective; it’s truly identifying with their needs.”
Hibbs’ ability to pro-actively navigate those tensions resonates with her faculty advisor, Jonathan Arries, associate professor of Hispanic Studies at William & Mary. “She is an amazing student and an incredible person,” Arries said. “The character of Kate that I keep coming back to is her generosity of spirit. It is the kind of thing we seek to cultivate in the humanities. She is the kind of person on whom you can rely to do what needs to be done, and more. She is a critical thinker who has amazing organizational skills.”
Back on campus, Hibbs continues to nurture the genuine bonds of identity forged with many of the women with whom she worked. She identifies with their struggles to secure health advice and care, as well as with their general struggles to nurture families in situations that seem, at times, unfriendly toward them.
“They call me all the time! I love it,” Hibbs said. “Pregnancy is such an important part of a woman’s life. The fact that I shared it with them, they want to share it with me.”