Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Alum Profile: Dexter Van Zile '87

When did you graduate from UPS?

I graduated from UPS in 1987 with a B.A. in Politics and Government with an emphasis in international relations. The Cold War was over, but a vestigial belief in its existence was still serving as one of the primary organizing principles in how we thought about international politics. Belief in the Cold War was a dying faith. We were still mouthing the hymns, but not with a lot of enthusiasm.

Phil Phibbs was president of the school and it was becoming increasingly clear that the school had become something special – largely as a consequence of Dr. Phibbs's leadership. Such irony. I used to rake him over the coals in The Trail on a regular basis. Most of the calumny I subjected him to was undeserved, but I was easily bored, had space to fill and he was a convenient target.

What have you been doing since graduation?

I joined the Peace Corps went to Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), right after I graduated. I left the U.S. in July 1987 to work as a public health agent and spent the next 15 months getting sick with boils in my skin, malaria, dysentery and finally, hepatitis. Bugs crawled into my skin and laid eggs. I tell people that I fulfilled my obligations as a public health volunteer in Africa by serving as a receptacle for all the microbes that would have afflicted my neighbors. That is how I contributed to their health.

Eventually, I was sent home in late 1988 about 50 pounds lighter. Believe me, I could afford to lose the weight, but it was still a pretty disconcerting.

People in the bars would point to me as I walked passed them on the road, laugh and call me Kalongi SIDA. (Kalongi is a common name in the DRC ; SIDA is the French acronym for AIDS.) It sounds horrible now, but at the time, I shrugged and laughed with them. (There's an old trope amongst the Peace Corps types: Volunteers come back from South America as revolutionaries; from Asia they come back philosophers; from Africa, they come back laughing. I guess that's what happened to me.)

I could go into more detail about my time in the Peace Corps but the easiest way to describe it is that it was the worst 15 months of my life, but probably one of the best things that happened to me.

Being sent home early was a source of shame and guilt. I felt I owed the Peace Corps – and more importantly, the village I was living in -- another year, but I was too sick and unhappy to stay. My entry into the Peace Corps was like being thrown down a well. It was disorienting, but ultimately fruitful once I got out, which took a while.

After the Peace Corps, I bounced around working at a number of jobs before going back to Washington to get a master's degree in Political Science/Environmental Studies at Western Washington University. I went to WWU to figure out what it was that I wanted to accomplish with my life. If I had a better sense of what I wanted to accomplish, I might have applied to a more prestigious school, but Western was a good place to get my bearings.

While taking classes at WWU I worked in a nursing home. I wrote my thesis while working at a convenience store/gas station in Bellingham. My thesis was about the attitudes toward conservation held by commercial fishermen in Washington. At the time, I had fantasies of enlisting the commercial salmon fishermen in Washington State into the cause of reforming forestry practices in the state. (Salmon need healthy streams, and healthy streams require healthy forests.) Eventually, I learned that pavement was a greater threat to salmon runs than clear-cuts.

During my summers in Bellingham, I worked for the Washington State Migrant Council at one of their Migrant Head Start Centers in Lynden Washington and when the center would shut down for the season, I'd work harvests on a potato farm in Lynden.

The three summers I spent at WSMC as a health aide were sort of a penance for my early departure from the Peace Corps. I figured that after being sent home a year early, I still owed somebody (God? The U.S. government? The Universe? I dunno) another year doing public health work similar to what I would have done in the Peace Corps if I had stayed. After my third summer, there was part of me that understood that the debt had been paid. (I know that acting on these motives does not make for a lucrative career, but I can't complain of boredom or monotony.)

After getting my master's degree, I worked at an oil refinery at Cherry Point (Whatcom County), then on a fishing boat in Alaska. I worked on the Pamela Rae, owned by Bob Thorstenson, Jr., (AKA "Thordaddy") a UPS graduate and fraternity brother of mine. My time on this boat would prove crucial later in my career.

During all of this, I would write freelance articles for the commercial fishing press.

In 1995, I came back to Massachusetts (my true home) and got a job writing for a chain of weekly newspapers outside of Boston. I worked for two years as a reporter, then as an editor. The readership was small and the topics only important to a relatively small number of people, but I loved the job. I'd get late night calls from people in the towns I was covering asking me to look into stories. People relied on my impulse as a crusader to get their stories out. My liberal arts background from UPS and the experience I had writing my thesis at WWU helped me do some good work I was proud of when I left.

In 1997, I got married and at the end of 1998, I went freelance. The local newspaper grind was not conducive to family life and a baby was on the way, so I left the business. I went freelance not because I thought I was going to make it, but I was at the end of my tether in local papers and daily journalism looked too much of a grind.

When I told people I was going freelance, it was really a convenient way of saying I was quitting my job and had no idea what to do next. Still, I went through the motions – I bought the fax machine and the computer and started making calls for assignments and surprisingly, I was able to make a living writing for magazines. My two biggest clients were National Fisherman and Robb Report a magazine for millionaires. Every once in a while I could write about philanthropy at the Robb Report, which felt pretty good and the editor is a good friend of mine.

National Fisherman was a great magazine to write for. The nice thing about the commercial fishing industry is that there are too many competing interests for the magazine to paper over problems in the industry. I got to write some good stories that actually helped drive the agenda for fisheries management in the U.S. and that was exactly what the editors wanted. I had learned a lot about the industry working on Thordaddy's boat and it served me in good stead while I was at National Fisherman.

In 2005, I started working for the David Project, researching and confronting the anti-Israel campaign that had taken root in mainline Protestant churches in the U.S.

I grew up in a mainline church – the United Church of Christ – and had become dismayed at how mainline churches had held Israel to a utopian standard of conduct and its adversaries to no standard at all. Mainline churches officially acknowledge Israel's right to exist, but then follow these acknowledgement with a long litany of complaints and demands of Israel that make it sound as if they are doing Israel a favor by affirming its right to exist.

The fact is, Israel's legitimacy is not a settled issue in the Middle East. Churches that want to bring "peace" to the Middle East have an obligation to say so. Instead they have offered a narrative in which Israel can end the violence against it by rendering itself acceptable to those who call for its destruction through concessions and withdrawals. It hasn't worked. It won't work. (END OF POLEMIC).

Now I work for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) doing the type of work I started doing at the David Project. It's controversial work, but it is hugely satisfying and I'm pretty good at it. When I started out doing this type of work, I was bereft of allies, but now, I have a lot of friends, supporters and confidants – who are wiser than I. I enjoy rising up early for this work.

Why and how did you decide to take the career path you did?

I have no idea. I didn't really "decide" to anything, but acted on compulsions that seemed to propel me. Still, there has been an arc. I bumbled through my 20s, found my footing in my 30s and in my early 40s, it feels like I've found my calling. Opportunities became available, and I took them when it felt like I was supposed to.

Are there any aspects of the Politics and Government major of your UPS education that have served you particularly well?

I started the process of learning how to write for professors in the P&G department. Professors at UPS expected good writing and that's a good thing. I also learned that ideas matter. They have real consequences. Thinking about human behavior in a systematic manner is a lot harder than it sounds and I got my start in learning how to do this at UPS.

Do you have any advice of what our students should (or should not) make certain to do while still in school?

Take religion classes. When I graduated, I mistakenly and arrogantly regarded religion as a spent force in human affairs. I should have known better. My Congregationalist upbringing was one reason why I joined the Peace Corps straight out of college – a decision which had profound consequences on me, as you can tell. I was acting out a religious impulse I didn't know was there. It had real consequences.

Suffice to say, the events of recent history demonstrate that religion is not a spent force in human affairs and anyone who is going to assume a leadership role in society should have an idea of how a society's belief systems affect its outlook and behavior. A comparative religion class might not be a bad idea.

It also might be a good idea read The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins. There are other books as well.

Do you have any advice about what our students should be thinking about as they consider their future careers or further education?

A while back, I heard someone say words to the effect that as much as we may be repulsed by reactionaries, they show us what is at stake and as a result, we can't ignore them. Don't ignore or dismiss the reactionaries. (Please don't see this as an endorsement of anyone's reactionary agenda, just an admonition to pay attention to them).

Any other words of wisdom?

Two things:

1. Early difficulties after graduation made me useful and teachable. Don't throw yourself intentionally down a well, but if it happens, don't be in such a hurry to get out. Climb out slowly.
2. Marry well if you can. I have a wife and two children (whose names I have intentionally left out of this entry) and they have been a great source of sustenance for me. This was an accident on my part and emblematic of the unmerited gift of grace.

Here's a recent piece he wrote for CAMERA if you're interested in his work.