Working for Change: Jeannine Scott '83

By Daniel Steckenberg ’06

Jeannine B. Scott ’83, senior vice president at Africare, has been working for Africa and Africans since her junior year at Vassar.

In 1983 the major crop in Senegal was groundnuts (also known as peanuts). They can be difficult to grow, since they’re sensitive to their environment and hard to harvest in certain kinds of soil. And the fact that land use and payment for common farmers were tied up in a kind of tithing system made the crop an even less advantageous one to grow.

Jeannine Scott ’83 wrote her senior thesis about these problems. It was titled “Neo-Colonialism/Underdevelopment: A Portrait of Senegalese Agricultural Development, 1960–1980.” In it she explained her concern for how a groundnut-based economy would impact Senegal in the coming years. The nation, which was already in the grips of widespread poverty, wasn’t engaging in the best possible recovery plan. Scott suggested that farmers should invest in crops that would be more profitable and thus give them some degree of independence. “Today,” she says, “groundnuts are still the major crop in Senegal, but people are also looking at alternative ways of developing economically.”

Ever since she became aware of her African heritage as a child Africa has been, for Scott, a source of pride for its history and contributions as well as a source of concern for its many shortcomings. Now the senior vice president at Africare, one of the world’s largest African aid organizations, she tries on a daily basis to create opportunities to effect positive change throughout the continent. She’s spent her adult life shuttling back and forth between Africa and Washington, DC. In March alone she visited Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, and the Southern Sudan—meeting with prime ministers, princes, farmers, and the destitute widows of AIDS victims, while overseeing Africare’s current programs and planning new initiatives.

Scott grew up in Louisiana, and for all the world traveling she’s done, you can still hear New Orleans in her voice. The mix of French, African, and Native American cultures made her hometown a place where one couldn’t help but be culturally aware, she says. “You could be a part of many communities at the same time.” Her mother, a schoolteacher, made sure Scott and her two sisters took advantage of their surroundings. Although Scott went to a predominantly white school, her mother made it her job to educate her daughter about her African roots and about the existence of a larger African-American community. She “was always bringing stuff home and putting it on the table for us to read,” says Scott.

By the time Scott came to Vassar, she had a good idea that she wanted to focus her studies on Africa. “I was always lecturing whoever was willing to listen,” she says. “I had that youthful militancy.” Vassar was the perfect place to transform her concern about the African continent from an emotional protest to political advocacy and action. With her interest in international relations and a possible career in law in mind, she decided to major in political science and Africana studies. “Vassar opened up a whole new world for me, but it did so gently,” she says. “It let me be independent, but it also nurtured me and didn’t let me fall off the deep end.”

Jeannine B. Scott '83
Jeannine B. Scott '83
When Scott reached her junior year and had the option to go abroad, she looked for a program that would take her to Africa. (She had never been before.) Not finding anything based in Africa, she went instead to Paris. She took classes on European and African issues at the Sorbonne and other prestigious schools. But then one day, desperate to get to Africa and make a difference somehow, she walked into the Senegalese Embassy and boldly asked for a job. She wasn’t scared at all, she says. “They could either say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The worst that could happen was I would be turned down.” But she wasn’t turned down. And once she convinced her parents to let her go, she flew to Senegal that summer to work for the ministry of information.

In Africa she “got bit.” Her summer job convinced her that she was meant to be working for Africa, full time. When she graduated from Vassar she went to an international relations program at Yale and then found a job at Africare. “I was hell-bent on getting a job that allowed me to do developmental work in Africa,” she says. During Scott’s first week on the job, Africare Director C. Payne Lucas put her to work writing urgent proposals for grants to help alleviate the drought in the Sahel region. “He said, ‘You’ve got all these degrees from fancy schools,’” put her in a room by herself, and told her to figure it out. Her efforts “pulled in four million bucks,” says Scott. And with that, her career was born.

Problems in Africa, as Scott well knows, are never simple, whether related to public health issues, famine, or poverty. (Africare, involved in every level of every major difficulty facing the African continent, has more than 150 projects going there at any given time.) AIDS, for instance, is “a mighty tiger you have to battle all over the continent.” To stop its spread Scott cautions that the epidemic must be viewed as “symptomatic of something larger.” People living in poverty are more prone to contracting HIV. So while Africare works not only to get medicine and training to local doctors and to educate the local population about how the spread of the disease can be stopped, it also invests heavily in helping the economic situation in the region—by training farmers in new techniques, digging new wells, teaching basic marketing to improve sales, building post-harvest facilities so crops don’t go bad before they can be sold, and working to improve the infrastructure so that goods can reach the market.

In her work, Scott has to be able to work with the bankers that finance Africare’s projects (a stint at the African Development Bank in the Cote d’Ivoire helps with that), the doctors who come to the village to administer vaccinations, and the actual villagers digging ditches or learning how to plant a new crop. Yet her most difficult job may be to stay hopeful. “Some of the issues I’m working on now are the same ones I was working on when I started,” she says. “When it comes to the fourth time, I think, ‘Why do I still do this?’” For all the starts and stops, and all the discouraging news that comes out of Africa each day, she is one person who refuses to give up on the continent.

The last time Scott was in Uganda, she visited a school that Africare helped set up for orphans of the AIDS epidemic. The “life” and “promise” she saw in the faces of the children inspired her. “My biggest motivation is to work for a brighter future for Africa’s kids,” she says. “There is so much at stake for them.”

In Rwanda, a country still recovering from massive genocide, Scott talked to a formerly destitute widow, who, through the help of Africare’s programs, had successfully started growing soy to make her small patch of land profitable. The money she made from this one change led her to start a catering business and buy her own cattle. She now has her own employees and can afford to send her children to school. As Scott says, “It’s little, but it’s progress—and it’s monumental in the life of the person you’ve touched. If I really want to make a difference, I empower that woman to provide a better quality of life for her child. And that generally means raising her income. Better care and education for the kids—those are the first steps that you need to have a more productive society.”

The true measure of her work in Africa is the number of individuals she’s helped, and how many of them were women and children who can pass on the fruits of her charity to the next generation. There are no easy solutions in Africa, and every piece of positive news seems to come with two negatives. But Scott’s focus is on the work, not on the results. “To me,” she says, “it’s a privilege to be welcomed into somebody’s backyard and to work with them. It’s bigger than a gift. Yeah, it’s the right thing to do, but it’s a privilege to be able to do so.”

Steckenberg graduated from Vassar with a degree in Engish. His senior thesis was titled “The Quest for Authenticity in the Fiction of J.D. Salinger.” He will remain at the VQ through the summer before he travels to Shanghai, China, to teach English and see what the wide world has to offer.