Sunday, October 9, 2011

How To Be A Peace Corps Volunteer (Part 1)

I've been thinking about this blog post for a while. I think it is kind of funny because most of the post is about how I came into this business standing on a soapbox and well, this is a soapbox post. Eh. What can you do?

Anyway, this is gonna be a multiple parter - so hang with me as I try to hit all the major pieces.

So, let us start with the obvious stuff. As an American, I got the American-colored glasses on. No matter what country I am in, I unconsciously (and consciously) compare it to America. I can't help it. Nobody can 100% separate themselves from [enter age here] years of socialization. I grew up in America. I am American. I know we got problems like everybody else, but when push comes to shove, I really like my home country.

When I first stepped foot in Azerbaijan I had my opinions. No matter how hard I tried to bury those opinions or pretend that I was completely open to a new culture, some things just rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn't help it. No matter how much I tried, there were times when I just couldn't help but put my foot in my mouth when talking with a Host Country National. This happens to everybody. I still do it. Three years later and I still do it.

Anyway, my first few months as a PCV were rocky. It's hard when you come in as a PCV with the goal of helping and teaching and developing. The assumption there is that the community you have been placed in has deficiencies and you want to be their savior. Anyone who signs up for Peace Corps has that hope in mind - to help. Of course, if the tables were turned, I would be damn skeptical of some random Azerbaijani showing up in my home town telling me they could teach me anything besides the Azerbaijani language.

As a first year PCV, I wanted people to see me as more than just an English teacher. I got skillz beyond my native English speaking abilities. I talked about civic engagement, I explained how I could teach people to market their businesses, I hosted Earth Day events...I spent a year pointing out the holes in Zaqatala and how I (along with local minions) could fill those holes.

I never stopped to really ask people about their own civic engagement, marketing, and environmental awareness. I just assumed they didn't have these things.

Yeah. Again, if the tables were turned, I would be pissed. Assumptions make an @#$ out of...well, just me.

Late in my second year (and through the miracle of Skype), I learned about asset-based development.

Nobody wants some big-headed foreigner to show up and point out what they see as problems. Defenses get raised, excuses are made...people stop listening. If my goal as a community development specialist is to get people talking and listening, this isn't the way to do it. It definitely is not the way to be a catalyst - it's being a pessimist.

In my third year, I really struggled with asset-based development. The whole idea is to build on what the community has, to acknowledge them as catalysts and leaders in their own right. I have worked hard to not make those inadvertent judgement statements or ask the leading questions (Isn't Star Trek the best sci-fi t.v. show out there???). It is almost impossible to not to look at things with a critical American eye and get up on my soapbox.

Yeah, it is hard. I still have my opinions. I occasionally slip up, but I know that my role in Zaqatala is to build upon the successes of this community - to continue their own development enterprises, not lead them down the path I want them to go. I see the easy path of, "use this American model to create this project and BAM! everything is solved". Of course, there is little sustainability in such a Löki-initiated and led projects and the community is less likely to back me up with their support.

Getting to the point where the community trusts you and uses you as a resource takes an exorbitant amount of time (about 1 & 1/2 years). My community does not need me to "solve" anything. They have the power within themselves to direct their own future - a future that meets their needs and fits within their cultural context. I am just here to support them and offer assistance where I can.

Anyway, I still have the American colored lenses on. I have accepted this, but that is a whole other post...get ready for Part 2!

For more on asset-based development and how community development specialists can actually do more harm than good, check out:
Asset Building and Community Development [link]
When Helping Hurts [link]