This morning I opened my email and discovered a 41-page document from the Moldovan Community Organizational Development (COD) Program Director outlining the goals, strategies, and outcome measurements of the Peace Corps relative to its in-country community collaborative partnerships. It is a comprehensive, coherent and detailed document that goes a long way toward clarifying what I will be doing for the next 27 months. With all the excitement and bustle of shopping, packing, and making the rounds of goodbyes, I almost forgot that I will actually be working for the first time in almost two years. Predictably, the insidious doubting of my own abilities and skills started snuffling round the perimeter of my thoughts: “Can I really be of service to a community of people with a completely different culture? Political and social environment? Economic obstacles? Language?” I slap down this unwarranted disbelief in my own experience and history as the debilitating and ennervating soul-sucker it is – I must believe that I can or I have no business getting on that plane next Monday.
My good friend Stacy, who worked alongside me at Canyon Acres as the CFO for almost 15 years, recently began working at a new agency. I remember how nervous she was, thinking that her experience at Canyon Acres had been so insular and particular that she might not have anything substantive to offer her new employer. After her first two weeks, however, I received an email from her detailing the many meaningful tools and insights she was bringing to the table and how appreciative her new employer was. Most of all, however, she surprised herself at the true value she was able to impart to this new organization. I always believed in her – I knew how much I relied on her wisdom and experience in my own professional endeavors. But, like her, I have a hard time acknowledging the gems in my own treasure chest. I keep the lid shut tight and refrain from assessing my own worth.
Why is it that we women, especially, tend to minimize our effectiveness and value outside the realm of our immediate comfort zone? Most of us refrain from blowing hard on our own horn, downplaying our particular gifts and skill sets in favor of deferring to the overall effectiveness of the team or group or department that garners our allegiance. While this quality girds our ability to integrate easily into collective endeavors, it can also detract from our individual sense of self-esteem and cause us to shrink from challenges that may highlight our own specific talents and abilities.
Of course I don’t want to generalize this observation too broadly: in my professional capacities I have worked with a handful of women who were very self-assured and competent and not at all reticent to shine a light on their own accomplishments. Interestingly enough, however, these women tended to rise quickly to the top of their organization and color the very real successes of their collective efforts solely as testaments to their managerial, mentoring and leadership abilities. There seems to be too few of us able to comfortably reside in that fuzzy territory between acknowledging our own contributions and celebrating the accomplishments of a group.
I look to my Peace Corps service as a vehicle in helping me reach that place. While the Peace Corps itself is a bureaucratic governmental entity drawing on multiple resources and capacities to accomplish its goals, its particular structure lends itself to identifying, clarifying and focusing the individual skills and experience of its volunteer work force. There are no standard jobs that PCVs are slotted to fill; each posting reflects the assessed, time-limited needs of a particular community being matched with the skills and experience of a particular volunteer. Usually, we do not replace or repeat a former PCV’s role in any given project (English teachers are one exception;) each one of us is expected to discover and define a unique service, defined by our own histories, talents, and accomplishments, that we can offer a public administrative body or non-governmental organization collaboratively seeking to build its capacity or strengthen its infrastructure.
Admittedly, our individual stars will be mere pinpricks in the spangled firmament of US foreign aid and intervention, but I hope, after my two years is over, I can feel confident in the genuine light I’ve brought to one little corner of this world. While I will have a great deal of support and guidance in accomplishing my goals and objectives, in the end the measure of my effectiveness will be largely attributable to my own creativity, motivation, and efforts. I will be on my own a great deal of the time, working within a strange environment to facilitate the goals of a foreign community to capitalize its internal resources. In doing so, I hope to accomplish much the same for myself.