Feature Stories

Dr. Roberta Baer has been sowing the seeds of engagement for years

"I've been doing these kinds of classes for years, even before it was called service-learning," said Anthropology Professor Roberta Baer, who seamlessly weaves service-learning pedagogy and community-based research into her ongoing work with Burmese refugees.

Baer, who has been with University of South Florida since 1984, said the campus was relatively barren in the early years—devoid of trees and lacking in community-based activities. She slowly and methodically built up connections with the larger community. All the while, she raised two children, who are now teenagers, and managed to continuously find new ways to improve the community through her research.

Of late, she has added to her list of community-based accomplishments working on the development of a community garden, where Burmese and other refugees can supplement their income and their diets with traditional herbs and vegetables.

She began by working with a small group of Burmese refugees who were seeking "an indication of the condition of the community and [its] needs" in order to develop an ethnic-based community organization that would meet federal guidelines. Prior to her association with the burgeoning group, she had worked in Mexico and with local migrant farm workers, but had no connection to Burmese refugees. "It was fortuitous," she added.

Dr. Roberta Baer (center) and students working at the Burmese garden.

                                Dr. Roberta Baer (center) and students working at the Burmese garden.

In addition to helping develop the Tampa Bay Burmese Council, for which she is an Advisory Board member, she has written five publications about her applied anthropology/service learning projects. One of the most recent products is a health needs assessment of Burmese refugees, which stemmed from a study she conducted in 2011 with a group of her graduate students.

The class conducted the assessment by interviewing the adults in 25 local refugee families as well as conducting women's focus groups addressing the health issues the Burmese participants faced after moving to the United States from refugee camps.

One of the major findings of the health needs assessment was the prevalence among the Burmese refugees, particularly the school-age children, of dietary acculturation, which means one group picks up cultural norms of another group with which they are associated. In this case the Burmese, she found, have been "picking up bad habits of mainstream America."

Baer is thrilled with the ongoing collaboration with the Burmese, even though, as she admits, "I don't speak any of the [at least four] languages with tribal variants, including Chin, Kayah, Karen, as well as Burmese." Instead she relies on interpreters, as well as some of the Burmese refugees who are learning English, to help her with the research. This includes conducting conduct focus groups, where participants are speaking in five languages, including English.

Baer’s students working in the community garden.

                                                    Baer's students working in the community garden.

As Baer elaborates, "I'm just coping with the fact that I speak none of the languages, but I have a pretty good rapport with the community," which she said is the key to gaining their trust. As a result of all the wonderful work she has done on behalf of the Burmese refugees, they have invited her into their community and into their families.

"Anthropologists tend to interact with the people we are working with more than any other discipline," said Baer. She has been invited into people's homes and to their weddings. "There is a lot of reciprocity that goes on," she continued.

Most of the families she works with were farmers in Burma, Baer explained, who "left because of armed conflict." Many lived in refugee camps for ten to fifteen years. And while "the older people remember Burma," she continued, "the younger people only remember the refugee camps."

There were also a group of political dissenters, she added, many of whom "had some college, spoke English before they came, spent less time in refugee camps, and became service providers" in the U.S..

Baer said that the United States "screens people who are eligible for resettlement in the United States [and] who have no option to go back to Burma." She continued, "They were sick of living in refugee camps. It was pretty ghastly." Many from the population she works with choose not to talk about why they had to flee their government or their lives in the refugee camps. "They are interested in moving on." As Baer explained, the "Burmese government was awful. Many left home in the middle of the night. They were treated badly and some were tortured."

Florida has the largest population of refugees in the country, and Tampa is second only to Miami as a refugee relocation site, according to the Tampa Tribune.

Florida was a sound choice for the refugees because it offers a similar climate to their home country; however, Baer noted, "Employment is hard [to find] here. Four families left this summer and went to the Midwest."

Baer said this is why she is really "encouraging the garden project, because the refugees are primarily without formal skills to make a decent living."

Father Berhanu Bekele, of the Saint Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox church offered his land to the Burmese refugees to use to develop the garden. He said, "Dr. Baer and the Tampa Bay Garden are united like a flesh and a soul. Dr. Baer was involved at the Tampa Bay Garden to accomplish her personal commitment toward humanity. The participants of this group (the Tampa Bay Burmese Council) indicated a desire and interest to produce familiar vegetables and fruits for self consumption. This is our mission too."

Working with Father Bekele's church, Tampa Bay Garden, received a grant from the federal government for the garden so that they could "scale up," she said. "I was invited to be on the advisory committee for the garden in the fall of last year," she continued. "I offered to determine baseline data on what the families involved in the garden are eating before they started ramping the garden up."

Students engaged in a fruitful campus-community partnership.

                                         Students engaged in a fruitful campus-community partnership.

Baer "got the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships [OCEP] funding to look at what the garden families are eating—[what we call] dietary recalls looking at what they ate for one day." She and her thirty undergraduate students and four graduate students looked at one adult and one child per family, and she chose to study Saturdays, which she called, "the most Burmese day, because nobody is working." She and her students also did focus groups with the men and women to look at attitudes toward American food and Burmese food, as well as perceptions of body size and image. They also catalogued the kinds of foods and plants in the garden and observed how the Burmese use them for dietary and medicinal purposes.

One of the most interesting findings of the focus groups was that the Burmese have a strong aversion to cheese. Burmese parents don't want their children to eat cheese, which they attribute to weight gain. On the other hand, the children end up eating pizza, a staple of school lunches. Oddly enough, they like it with pepperoni, which Baer said the children feel "kills the taste of the cheese."

Baer values the service-learning grants she received from the OCEP for both spring and fall semesters of 2014. The funds helped her pay translators and transcribers. "I could not," she said, "do the Burmese project without this kind of funding."

This semester, she has a new class engaged in this research. She and her 14 undergraduate students are doing one focus group with boys and one with the girls. They are also collecting food recalls on what the Burmese children eat during the week, with particular emphasis on the school provided breakfasts and lunches.

Aside from the issues of the language barriers, Baer noted, the work becomes complicated because she must work around the schedules of her students—which is often trickier with undergraduates, who are often balancing full-time jobs and full course loads, as well as juggling the schedules of the Burmese children.

Even though she is a veteran of combining service-learning with community engaged research, "this is where the nightmare comes in, my worrying if I can pull this off," she confessed as she ticked off the details of the enormous amount of coordination required in pulling off a major project like this during the course of a semester.

Although she tries to involve her students as much as she possibly can so that they gain a rich understanding of the research process, in the end she said, "I may have to just go back myself to do some of the mop-up."

Meanwhile, in the classroom this semester, her students have all "read about the project, are learning about the methods they are going to be using for dietary recalls, and how to run focus groups," which is a skill-set usually reserved for graduate students.

"They will be involved in as much of the data collection as we can manage," Baer said. "They will analyze the data; and they will prepare a report and present it based on the data analysis"—all during one semester.

Next up, she is planning a project for the fall of next year, which involves more research about the adults' eating habits, such as what they take to work, what they buy when they are working, and what kind of dietary acculturation has taken place for them during the week. And for after that, she's realized that the babies and toddlers are yet to be studied.

"It's very challenging," Baer remarked. "I involve the undergrads as much as I can. It's a fine line involving undergrads, including respecting their schedules, keeping your sanity, but keeping enough data so it is valid scientifically. I'm trying to do the best I can."

She said of her work, "It's a place where you can do research that has a real social value. It is not just going to sit on the shelf. The students just love it. You should see the evaluations!"

Recently, Baer introduced the owners of the Refinery, a local fine-dining establishment, to the Burmese farmers, and "everybody fell in love." The Refinery is interested in purchasing vegetables from the Burmese garden. She hopes this arrangement will help the Burmese begin to focus more on marketing the produce from their garden as well as selling at farmers' markets.

The hallmark of a great applied anthropologist is giving back to the community. Baer has done that in spades. She hopes the success of the Burmese garden will help retain what is special about their culture; can help the children be proud of their heritage; and perhaps most importantly, ensure the Burmese can sustain a healthy balanced diet supplemented by the fruits of their own labors.

Baer's first report made it all the way to the federal government; and, rather comically, someone on the garden advisory board unwittingly handed her own report back to her, noting that he had been sent it by Office of Refugee Resettlement She hopes this report and her other research will get to policy makers so that there will be added funding for programs like this for refugee resettlement offered throughout the country.

Despite the fact that the project sometimes keeps her up at night, Baer reflected, "I'm glad it is being supported. I'm delighted to have funding for these projects. I could not do it without the funding. I'm committed to it—I think it's important in terms of my commitment to applied anthropology and to our students."