Rebecca de Souza is most interested in inequities: class, race, and gender, and how they intersect, causing people to be marginalized or disenfranchised—something she has experienced since coming to the USA from India in 2001.
Coming from an upper-middle-class background in India, she was aware of wealth disparity, but it was relevant to her only from a distance. Since coming to the US, she has experienced marginalization in terms of race and ethnicity here, which has helped her understand social structures in India as well.
Rebecca did not expect to experience marginalization when she came to the US. She remembers, in 2003, one of her friends in graduate school telling her that she walked around acting as though she did not know that she was different. She didn’t realize she was different or that people saw her as different. That was a big revelation for her, and helped her understand what it means to be perceived as different.
Although she is middle class, it’s not unusual while working at the food shelves for her to be thought of as a client and not a resource. People often believe she comes from a different class background because of her race. Trying to figure out what to do with this and how to use it has been an ongoing struggle. Yet she realizes that each of us has spheres of influence and can hopefully bring about change.
As a professor of courses in health communication and campaigns, community empowerment, and community engagement, she has a lot of opportunity to make a difference, and Rebecca believes that it is her job to help shape the ways people think. She does that unapologetically. It is necessary for her to talk about social issues, health disparities and how different people are affected. She asks the big question: Why do they exist? Her lens affects what she does to raise critical awareness and a critical consciousness about the effects of racial stigma and our racialized medical system, which is biased against anybody different from the mainstream.
Rebecca’s research focuses on these issues. In graduate school she studied HIV and AIDS and age-related issues in India, examining how communities are stigmatized and marginalized, and how to build power within those communities. Currently her interest is hunger and food insecurity in Duluth. She looks at how stigma impacts the system in which people are hungry and need to ask for food or food stamps, or go to the food bank.
For Rebecca, the connection between faith and action is real. Raised Catholic, she went to church, did what was expected, but never had a clear connection with her faith. That changed when she came to the US. Alone and isolated, an immigrant, without family around, she found her faith strengthened, her faith journey actually begun. She had a literal “road to Damascus” experience, when suddenly everything made sense and was clear. She understood Jesus in a very real way, not as an external character, but somebody who is helping her. She finds the promise of Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind,” dear because at times she feels none of those. With this gift from God, she is more fearless in her writing and teaching.
The Bible is liberating for her. Jesus interacted with multiple kinds of people. She sees herself in every one of them: the two prisoners on the cross next to Jesus, Mary and Martha, the woman at the well, the woman touching Jesus’ cloak, the Centurion. Within us are all these parts.
Her faith and very long journey have been a struggle and perhaps will continue to be. It has inspired in her action that is rooted in humility but is also confident. It seems paradoxical, yet she thinks to ground ourselves we have to come to that point. Otherwise life becomes too difficult and impossible to navigate.
Rebecca is not drawn to celebrities, but to everyday people, heroes and heroines of everyday life. People like her mother and sister who, within the constraints of their lives, are able to do their jobs, touch her heart and inspire her.
A quotation from Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail reminds her of what she has to do and the focus she needs to keep: “Your self-sacrificing devotion to your purpose in life and your unwavering faith will carry you through times of difficulty.”
Interviewed by Susan Mullenix