Monday, August 1, 2011

What I Learned

Finishing the first two years of my service with Peace Corps has given me cause to reflect. I came into this experience with certain questions, which I suppose I am now in a position to answer. In one of my first blog posts (May 5, 2009) about Peace Corps, entitled “Why I’m Going”, I wrote the following:

I want to face head on some of the fundamental questions I have about life:

How can a person who has grown up with privilege find ways to give back?
What kind of work is worth doing?
How will I define myself while existing outside of my own culture?
What kind of comforts can I live without?
And what will giving up those comforts teach me about what is truly
important and meaningful?

Here are my thoughts after two years in the field.

1. How can a person who has grown up with privilege find ways to give back?

It’s harder than it seems. PC is the second program I’ve done that involved stepping outside of my own economic class (and race and ethnicity) to give back to the larger world. (The other was as an urban bilingual school teacher with the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows.) In both programs I have felt frustrated with how difficult it is for a well-intentioned person to have a meaningful impact.

Now I think the best, in fact the only way to truly make a difference – whether you come from privilege or not – is to be a full member of a community, for the long haul. The people who can have the most impact are those who are where they are to stay. So it makes sense to find something you can commit to – a school, a town, an organization – and stick with it for longer than a few years.

This is not to say that I didn't have an impact at all during my time in my site, only that my impact was necessarily limited by the short-term nature of my stay there.

2. What kind of work is worth doing?

I have had plenty of time to think about this question during my service, especially as it relates to my own career choices. I have come to the conclusion that it might not be so bad to work in an office, doing something administrative or organizational. I used to only want to work in the field, directly with needy populations; now I wouldn’t mind being a bit higher up the totem pole, where I have the opportunity to influence what gets done and how it is done. I realized that my particular strengths - in analysis, writing, organization, strategy, teaching and training - can perhaps be put to better use in an office environment.

Living in a rural community also made me wonder more broadly about whether traditional agriculture – once the holiest of holies for me – is worth preserving, given the insecurity inherent in it. I’ve wondered whether it would be such a bad thing for the peasant farmers in Nicaragua to move through the same stages of development that American farmers went through, resulting in less farmers with more land making more money in an overall less risky system. A system in which more people move off-farm, and farmers become more like business people. For me, this is a really big question, since it gets to the heart of what the goals of development should be. I’m still not sure where I stand. On the one hand, it is amazing and beautiful that some people still live in pre-industrial societies, entirely dependent on natural cycles and seasons. On the other hand, it is heartbreaking when crops failures mean that whole villages go without. I have certainly learned what a blessing it is to be able to earn a steady pay check and not have to rely on the vagaries of weather and commodity prices for my food and livelihood security.

Certainly, two years as a development worker in the field strengthened my resolve to continue in this field. A friend of mine who is exceedingly smart and who works as a public school teacher told me that the reason she enjoys teaching is that the big questions in urban education continue to fascinate her. I feel the same way about the big questions in development.

3. How will I define myself while existing outside of my own culture?

I have found that as a foreigner – especially a blond-haired, blue-eyed foreigner from the most powerful country in the hemisphere – that other people are all too anxious to define me, and I have developed a lot of patience dealing with people’s misconceptions about Americans. I have also found that how I define myself is not nearly as important as how I interact with people – humility, sensitivity, sincerity, and showing interest in other people’s lives transcend cultural lines.

4. What kind of comforts can I live without?

I can live without a lot of things. I lived for the past two years without running water, air conditioning, a car, screened windows, a toilet, a kitchen sink, a couch, a real mattress, cell phone service, consistent internet access, etc, etc, etc. Whether I want to live without them long term is another question. If anything, I have learned how very difficult it is to give up the comforts of modern life and how unlikely it is that most people with access would willingly forgo such conveniences. Which is kind of a scary conclusion, really. I went into this experience excited to live as simply as possible. I ended up feeling worn down by the small, daily sacrifices of living like many people in the rural developing world and anxious to get back into the cultural loop. I am still pondering what this will mean for my personal consumption choices and what it implies for our common environmental future. (More on this in another post, perhaps.)

5. And what will giving up those comforts teach me about what is truly important and meaningful?

I discovered that any hardship is more easily borne with a sense that “we’re all in this together”, whether it comes from being part of a family, a community, a group of friends, or even – as in the case of fellow PCVs – from like-minded people with a common mission.

I saw the importance of being part of something larger than oneself, and I was inspired by the solidarity my community showed during flooding in 2009’s rainy season.

I learned that a good sense of humor is the most powerful tool for confronting frustration, loneliness, and disappointment. Like when your leather shoes grow an inch of green mold or when ants lay eggs in your underwear.

So, with this post I am closing one chapter of my Peace Corps experience – living and working in the field – and opening a new one – living and working in the capital city.

More on life in Managua to follow.