And the question is: why there, not here?

I hope I have been abundantly clear to all of you who have taken the time to leave a comment on one of my posts how much they are appreciated. Writing a blog is a little like standing up on stage (sitting at my desk) alone staring out into the blinding white lights that effectively erase the audience (the blinding white page on the monitor) and floating a monologue (pressing “publish”) that may or may not hit a resonant chord with my readers (comment/no comment.) Actually, I myself read many blogs that I think are wonderful but all too often I don’t take the time to comment as I’m not really sure I have anything pertinent to say. That’s bad etiquette on my part, given my first hand knowledge of what a boost it gives the writer to see that someone was moved enough to join the conversation.
Anyway, I received a comment on my last post – 9-5 – that posed a very incisive question, one that I’m pretty sure must have bounced through the minds of more than a few people who know me, but was never actually put to me in person: So why are you there providing volunteer services in a foreign land rather than here helping your own community/country/people? As the commenter truthfully pointed out, there are many poverty stricken, marginalized, under-served communities in the United States. And if all of us just focused on taking care of our own, perhaps there wouldn’t be the perceived need to fly halfway across the world to provide meaningful service to humanity?
This comment definitely made me sit back and go “hmmm.” Initially, I was impelled to react and, fingers poised above the keyboard, I sifted through the myriad arguments tumbling through my brain in an effort to decide which one to put first. But then I stopped. I realized that this was an important question that deserved thoughtful consideration, as (I confess) there have been more than a few times that I have asked myself the very same thing. So I’ve been mulling it over all day. And here’s where I’ve landed:
The Peace Corps’ mission has three simple goals:
1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Perhaps because of their simplicity and clarity, these goals have not changed in the 51 years since the Peace Corps inception. They wholly contain the very essence of a volunteer’s service and manage to embody – for me, at least – the reason why our government (and we taxpayers) see fit to continue funding this seemingly idealistic enterprise through administrations of both persuasions and times of dearth as well as plenty. There is a method to this madness. Let me explain.

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

Yes, I highlighted that word for a reason. If a country or a people are ever going to progress beyond the perilous escarpment of hand-to-mouth survival, they must be able to realize the benefits of critical thinking.

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”*

Surprise, surprise: critical thinking is not a universal entitlement conferred on all people at the moment of their birth. Rather, it is a hard won skill, usually gained through many years of exposure to a broad range of circumstances and/or – for a lucky and infinitesimally small percentage of the world’s population – through enlightened public education. Despite what for many appears to be a dismal state of the public school system in the USA, we still do promote the value of critical thinking. One learns that by experiencing the stark contrast with educational institutions elsewhere (a nod to you Patty.) As expensive as it is increasingly becoming, an American university education is still a world-class vehicle for learning to think critically if one applies oneself firmly to that goal. And it is precisely that kind of training that poverty stricken, marginalized, under-served populations throughout the world desperately need.

I subscribe to ten or twelve Peace Corps Volunteer blogs; I drop in on at least that many from time to time. One universal theme that runs in common through them all is a general surprise/disbelief/incomprehension/frustration/sadness about the “superstitions” that dictate so much of their host communities’ decisions, choices, and development. Couple those with a pervasive lack of comprehensive schooling, the afflictions of diasporas, warfare, governmental instability, and disease and you have a set of circumstances that Americans have not had to deal with since the aftermath of the Civil War.

I am not denying that desperate people exist in the USA. But I will proffer the argument that they have easier, more immediate access to meaningful, long-term assistance: there are a multitude of investigators, journalists, educators, attorneys, laboratories, foundations, government agencies, research institutions, think tanks and charities that have the resources to at least posit resolutions for problems within our borders. That is not the case in many other countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve because those aforementioned resolutions are most often the expression of critical thought, a skill which many of them sorely lack and determinedly seek.

The first goal speaks to our commitment to partner with interested countries (they have to ask for our assistance – we don’t invade or force ourselves upon them) in creating those resources which can help them help themselves. This is the quality that my commenter assumes that all peoples possess but which, in fact, they don’t. However impoverished various American communities, neighborhoods, or individuals might be, they have the distinctive, enviable quality of being American – a benefit whose worth we don’t usually recognize until it’s put into stark contrast with alternative nationalities. I left America in a state of perturbed disgust; I am beginning now to acknowledge and appreciate many aspects of its intrinsic value which I patently assumed to be a universal entitlement.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

This is a loaded one. Really. Because many of us PCVs here in Moldova appreciate, having recently taken up residence in a former Soviet state, the implications of providing an alternative viewpoint to the one which was sanctioned and forced down Moldovans throats for many a decade. It is – literally – a battle between east and west to win the hearts and minds of a psychologically distressed population which has been traded back and forth like a pawn in a global chess game for centuries.

Have you ever really pondered the image of America that is most constantly, loudly, persistently, pervasively portrayed overseas? For starters, most everyone in Moldova thinks Americans are fat, gluttonous, greedy, obnoxious, loud, rich, lazy, surgically-enhanced pigs. Because that is what our media messages convey through all their various platforms: movies, television, magazines, advertisements, YouTube, games, Facebook, news and entertainment sites. We are not blanketing the world with love. Rather than creating bonds of similitude and friendship, we typically seed notions of competition and self-consciousness, which usually serve to distance people both from each other and themselves. We are not the caped-crusaders we like to picture ourselves to be. Actually, unfortunately, we have a distinctly evil grimace from most angles.

On top of that, we currently represent approximately 4.6% of the world’s population while consuming almost 25% of its energy. AND we export the inculcation of insatiability – we have it all and so the rest of the world should have it too. Never mind that there is not enough stuff (energy) to satisfy 6 billion individual desires for more meat and plastic and timber and gas and electricity and coal and steel and gold and caviar and diamonds and platinum and ……we could – and do, mind you – go on and on. We have fostered the concept that the world’s resources are infinite, rather than finite. We have role modeled wastefulness and ingratitude and greed. We have not paused even once to consider the larger implications of the “American dream.”

We may be heroic at home but increasingly, and unfortunately, we have squandered that reputation abroad. Considered as a portion of the nation’s economy, or of its federal expenditures, the U.S. is actually among the smallest donors of international aid among the world’s developed countries. Yet we boast the largest military expenditures by far, we have a president who has ordered the assassination of American citizens living abroad and we have yet to officially acknowledge the ravages of global warming, which are having far more detrimental effects on third world countries than on us.

Do you see why we might need friendly, altruistic ambassadors doing good deeds in foreign lands?

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Interestingly, one does not relinquish the title, or responsibilities, of being a Peace Corps Volunteer once service overseas concludes. I will be known as an “RPCV” or a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer for the remainder of my life. And I will be expected to continue my service – to a greater or lesser degree, the choice is mine – by mindfully promoting a better understanding of the country of Moldova and its people through talking about my experiences to other Americans (watch out world – you might find me somewhat tedious at social gatherings after this!)
Joking aside, it is truly unfortunate that most Americans have little experience of cultures outside of our own. It is why terrorists are so successful in inducing fear and our own government is able to slowly chip away at our privacy and civil rights in response. It is why the preponderance of people (myself included) who learned I was going to Moldova had to Google it to find out where it was. The numbers tell the story: Of the 308 million-plus citizens in the United States, only 30% have passports. And most of those passports are not being used to gain access to third world communities for extended periods, I’m pretty darn sure.

Every single blog I’ve read from current and past volunteers who have served in such “scary” countries as Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Columbia, Iran, Libya, Nicaragua, Turkmenistan, and Uganda have all sung hallelujahs to the hospitality, generosity, warmth, and caring of the communities that hosted them. Our current interim Country Director, along with all serving PCVs, was just pulled out of Tunisia for safety and security reasons. Despite this, he said that his partners and agency staff were “regular people just like us” who abhorred the violence being perpetrated in their towns and neighborhoods. Just like every single American isn’t a gangster, not every single person born to the Muslim faith or a tyrannical government is a terrorist. We have to get beyond our incestuous self-righteousness and really see and feel in our bones that most people have the same wants, needs, desires, and emotions as us if we are all going to make it into the next century.

So there is one long-winded, but definitely pondered response to the question of why I have chosen to serve in the Peace Corps overseas at this point in my life.

And, as a sidebar, I do wish to point out that for 20 years – until I was forced out – I worked in the non-profit sector making substantially less (as my husband and father would tirelessly remind me) than I could have working in the corporate arena. I have done my part for some of the underserved people in my own community. Have you?

*A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “And the question is: why there, not here?

  1. Yvette, this is a powerful piece. All of us, not just your commenter, benefit by the broad coverage of each of these three goals. As a Peace Corps applicant awaiting assignment, I have benefitted greatly by a review of these three points. And you certainly go full out on each one. You almost had me in tears! Brilliant! Thank you!

    Like

  2. Hyvettee. One point you did not make is that whilst in the PC, no matter the gazillions of new things you have to figure out, you do not have to figure out how to pay for your rent, utilities, gas, & groceries the way you would still have to had you volunteered at home. At home where there was no work, or not enough to keep paying the overhead. To me, this is a salient fact.

    Another point that occurs to me regarding ‘the “superstitions” that dictate so much of their host communities’ decisions, choices, and development. Couple those with a pervasive lack of comprehensive schooling’ is that superstition arises *because of* the lack of education. Just a thought.

    BTW your link to my blog is defunct because i changed the name to Blithe Edges. blitheedges.wordpress.com

    Thanks to you. I always read your posts even when I don’t comment but I will try to comment from now on because, well, you said it so well. I find I would even like it if all someone wrote was “I was here” which I expect you may see here soon.

    xok

    Like

      1. How about this? Superstitions arise in the void education would otherwise fill. (Yikes, my obsession is showing.)

        Like

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with that point. The fact that we are taken care of in those areas (as many religious missionaries are by their congregations and ministries back home) makes it easier to get down to the business of actually helping. (Well, there is also the matter of having to learn a whole other language in order to conduct all the business of life – buying food, using public transportation, locating resources, etc. But that’s a matter for another day.) i do want to highlight the “homegrown” Peace Corps program, Americorps, does provide almost the exact same amenities for its volunteers at home that we have here. It is also a program available to volunteers of all ages, and many PCVs i am serving with here were previously in Americorps.

      Like

  3. Yvette, as always, an extraordinarily thoughtful response to a question that we had ourselves often before coming to Moldova. As “good-will ambassadors” we can help fulfill the goals of PC–even if we never “do” anything here– just by getting to know people and letting them see that, for example, Americans don’t need to use the indoor toilet instead of the outhouse when the temps reach 50 degrees at night! (Just happened to me. And yes, that is another example of the constant discussions among PCVs regarding toilet habits.) The smiles, discussions in broken English/Romanian, and our oft expressed interest in the people and their country goes a long way in helping them see a different side of Americans. And your blog is a premier example of how we can help Americans learn about other countries. I just love your insights!

    Like

  4. Yvette, as your daughter said, I appreciate the thought you put into your response. It really provided me with insight as to your decision (as well as others in the PC). It is a thought that has crossed my mind many times since your decision to volunteer. I did not understand the philosophy behind the PC, I truly am greatful you did take the time provide the information.

    Like

  5. Love your description of how a knee-jerk reaction was carefully transformed into a thoughtful response! Nice!
    I also think the question of “Why there and not here” is a great one. And your thoughts capture some wonderful reasons of why travel and peaceful cooperation across borders, across cultural lines and across faith traditions are important, in fact vital. Often when we talk about “other countries” we tend to point a finger like we know stuff. And so often he/she, who points the finger misses the point!

    Like

  6. Yvette, It is soo good to hear from you, you are often in my thoughts. We miss you at IUCC, I will look forward to further posts from you…………You are providing a great service to us all…………..

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s