3 Lessons from the Peace Corps

This week is National Peace Corps Week and many of the world’s Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and returned volunteers (RPCVs) are sharing their stories. This past week was also a special week for my campus: USD hosted the international AshokaU conference for Changemakers. I had the opportunity to attend the TEDx event on Friday night where social entrepreneurs and education “futurists” shared their stories.  This woman sold chickens, killed and plucked on demand, out of her home.

In honor of both of these events, I thought I’d share the lessons I learned about changemaking from my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I spent 2002 – 2004 as a Community Economic Development Volunteer in a little town called Sabaneta in the state of Santiago Rodriguez. My primary project was to create a business education training program for women with microfinance loans. I also worked with a local nonprofit organization to open a community-based preschool for low-income children.

During this time, I learned:

1) Go where you’re wanted, not just where you’re needed. Peace Corps only goes into countries and communities where they have been invited. Volunteers are matched with host country organizations that have invited the volunteer to help. The volunteers are placed in communities where the local leadership has agreed to and extended a welcome to the PCV.  As a result, the projects I worked on had unilateral and I also was assured that law enforcement would be friendly. (This was not necessarily true when I crossed into Haiti, for example.)

This simple lesson is profound. It’s about respect. As an educated person from the United States, I have no right to impose my views or ideas on people in other countries. That imperialism has happened far to often in our history. However, when invited, we can dialogue and work together in ways that are generative for both parties. The same lesson is true when I work with vulnerable populations in the United States.

2) Start with a cup of coffee. Even after being officially “blessed” at every level, it was important to start by getting to know those who lived and worked around me. For me, that meant three to six months of visiting the homes and businesses of the women I would work with. I sat on their front step and drank coffee. I helped them sell goods out of their colmado (small store). I watched them kill and pluck chickens for customers as they waited. As I did this, I was able to gain trust and come to understand valuable parts of the culture I would otherwise have missed. (But don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I still missed or misunderstood huge parts of the culture. To some extent, that is to be expected.)

This investment of time paid tremendous dividends when it came to designing a project that worked and that was embraced by the community.

3) Look deeply. I hit many bumps along the road. My microfinance project partner wasn’t as gung-ho as I wanted him to be. The teachers in the preschool kept playing with the toys. As much as I wanted to mange these problems and make them go away, they could only be solved by looking. The first class of kids for the preschool program. They are playing in a small sandbox outside.

I had to look deeply at my project partner’s life. He spent 8 – 10 hours a day on a motorcycle driving up and down bumpy, dusty dirt roads. His kid was sick and he only had enough money for diapers for special occasions. Of course he didn’t want an additional thing (me!) added to his plate. Of course he was defensive at first. I needed to back off and give him a greater sense of ownership in the project.

I looked deeply at the teachers in the newly founded preschool. I saw that, like the children they served, they had never seen toys like this. They had never painted or drawn as freely as we encouraged. They had never dug through a sandbox. Of course they were more interested in playing than teaching. Of course they had trouble adjusting to a fixed schedule. These things were foreign to them and I needed to adjust.

These are just a few of the lessons I learned during my two years in the Dominican Republic. They’ve guided my career as I work today with nonprofits.

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