"Is the Peace Corps truly accomplishing what it promotes itself to be?"
Many people both within and outside of the Peace Corps network have mixed feelings on the effectiveness of volunteers and the goals of the organization. For two years, I've had many conversations, and read a lot of articles and social media posts from groups like No White Saviors in an effort to critically analyze myself and the organization I've represented in Ecuador since May 2017.
Twenty-seven months later, and my answer still remains: "it's complicated."
Let's call a spade a spade: Peace Corps is *not* a grassroots organization. It is not a development agency. I did not "make the most of [my] world", and it is not the "hardest job [I'll] ever love." What drew me to the organization through its marketing and what we learned in our 3 months of Pre-Service Training did not match up to the actual Peace Corps experience in Ecuador.
Peace Corps' impact has changed dramatically since JFK's original idea, because our world (and the US's role in it) has dramatically changed since 1962. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to me that the organization's goals and structure have kept pace with these changes. With thinly-veiled racist calls to return our country to a fabled epoch of perceived "greatness", Peace Corps should be challenging us all to rethink our methods of "service to mankind."
We should be serving out of humility, with an emphasis on creating human connection through an exchanged of shared skills and ideas. Peace Corps volunteers are not the exclusive answer to society's problems. This shift should be reflected in the projects and community members we partner with, who we recruit, how we train volunteers, and how we hold each other accountable.
Peace Corps was the vehicle that brought me to my life in Ecuador, but if I'm being honest, it is not what kept me here. The success that I was able to find in my projects within the Community Health framework of Peace Corps did not come through my main counterpart organization, which, since it was a government institution, is the very antithesis of "grassroots" development. The success I found was by tapping into my own strength of community organizing and project management through empowering women, which was all built on relationships that took months to build.
Women like my co-worker, Miran, who does daily door-to-door house visits in the rural communities and "showed me the ropes" from Day 1 through Day 822.
Women like the sisters of the catholic church who led our town's weekly club for the elderly, and Marjorie and Maira who ran the ones in our neighboring towns that I would work with on a monthly basis.
Women like Dra. Ariana & Dra. Myriam who led the youth club in Cascól where we focused on sexual health.
Women like Laura who trusted me to take on the Bailoterapia group, and Angelica, Cindy, and Diana who stepped up to help me run it and transform it into a movement they named Cambiando Vidas Pajan.
Women like Tanya & Jacki, sisters and shopowners who helped me start a weekly walking club.
Women like Patricia who leads the youth sponsored by Compassion International along with the women who cook for the kids every day.
Women like Amarilis who, as vice-president of her town's women's leadership association, invited me to do exercise classes in her community.
(It should be no surprise that one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to achieve gender equality and women's empowerment!)
What Peace Corps did offer me, however, was the sense of security and peace of mind in knowing that all of my basic needs were met. The freedom in not having to wonder about personal finances or healthcare gave me the ability to focus all of my energy on fostering the relationships to harness the power necessary to build sustainable change.
Perhaps this is what Peace Corps should promote itself to be: not a grassroots international development group, but a humanitarian arm of the US government that funds its citizens willing to restore human connection across cultures, through empowering people to build bridges and solve complex problems that begin with the common understanding that we're all in this together. A girl can dream, right?
Until then, I will continue to tell others that my Peace Corps service was ultimately about learning that true sustainable change starts with loving and affirming the humanity in others while living out the prayer:
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Ultimately, perhaps ironically, I learned firsthand that "making the most of [our] world" and doing "the hardest jobs [we'll] ever love" starts at home. For two years, I successfully built a second home as an outsider in Ecuador. Now, I'm finding my way back to my first one to do it again.
Thank you, Peace Corps.