As Michelle and I look toward the next year (our last year) as Peace Corps volunteers, we can’t help but wonder: what should we be doing? In some ways, two years is a long time and in other ways, very short- especially when you consider trying to create a sustainable community development project. What do I mean? Michelle and I ask each other the following question:
“Will what we create here and now be something that can be sustained once we leave?”
We ask this question for a couple of reasons:
1. Isn’t this what Peace Corps is all about?
Sometimes we as PC volunteers can get caught up in all the focus on creation of projects and the “doing” aspect of our job. No hard feelings or misunderstanding between me and PC here because I know that we have to have tangible projects and goals that shows the investment of tax-payer dollars are actually going towards beneficial projects. Thankfully, Peace Corps has three goals, and they are not solely project-focused. Here are the PC Goals:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
It’s challenging because I do think volunteers are seen as project leaders and fundraising gurus. I myself have easily fallen into the trap of taking over projects or accepting tasks for the sake of the success of a project. By doing so, I’m not letting my co-workers learn new skills or experience new things. I become depended on more than I should be and my colleagues don’t challenge themselves to grow. We forget that the main focus is capacity building. It’s cliche but incredibly important and true. Give people fish and they become dependent on you. Teach people how to fish and they can take care of themselves. At least, that’s what we should aim for.
2. When helping hurts
Before we commit ourselves to any project, Michelle and I take some intentional time to really reflect whether or not what we do will be helpful or hurtful in the long run. We don’t want to do things just for the sake of saying we did something. We can’t just do something, even with good intentions, without thinking of the long-term consequences. We’ve noticed that many development and foreign aid projects fall victim to this. Though rooted with good intentions, many development projects are ineffective and even hurtful to the overall goals of uplifting people from their situations. Check out Michelle’s posts about her thoughts regarding “When Helping Hurts”. Another great example of this comes from an episode of “No Reservations”, where host Anthony Bourdain and his crew travel to Haiti, post-earthquake. In a specific part of this episode, Tony, as he typically does, goes to a local eatery to showcase their food. Start watching from the 6:07 mark to around the 11:12 mark to get what I am talking about (the whole episode is really good too):
It really hits home for us because what we do in Jamaica has to be more than a good-feeling. What we think is helping can actually play into a 1st-world-savior and self-serving scenario. If we truly believe in change and long-term solutions, it has to be sustainable. There are negative consequences otherwise and both sadly and ironically, it’s the people we are trying to help that are most affected.
3. What happens when you leave?
Though some volunteers extend their service after their initial commitment, it’s still rare. There are some that fall in love with with their host country and even move permanently to that country. Also rare. The point is that most of us will leave after two years, and what happens then? Many volunteers think about this before they leave and many think about their projects having returned back to the states. “Did all the effort I put in to create something die when I left?”
This has been plaguing me since I first started working at the community center but has become even more frustrating as we get closer to the end of our service commitment. Our community stakeholders want more programs and services. I want time to make what we already have better and more importantly to make sure that current staff are adequately trained. I want to see that programs that I initiated, like our youth summer camps and basic computer classes, will continue after I leave. That is why I have had to learn how to politely say, “No.” No, I cannot take on another project. I cannot handle more responsibility at this time. No, this is not what PC is actually all about. No.
This is not as easy for me as it is for Michelle who has great discipline and is not a people-pleasing accommodator. I want to do more but I can’t. Michelle has inspired me this way to make some good changes in my life. We can’t do everything for everyone. We can’t be all things to all people. This is draining and not healthy for ourselves. Again, it goes back to “When helping hurts” and you ironically continue to hold people down instead of lifting them up like you intended.
Gandalf in Lord of the Rings said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time given to you.”
I say, “Decide what you CAN do with the time that is given to you first, then think about what you MIGHT be able to do after.”
These thoughts have come after reflecting on my first summer camp for this year. Last year I learned a lot from playing a supportive role to these camps. This year I have taken on a more active role to provide structure and organization to lessen the chaos that occurred last year (mind you, it was still very chaotic in some ways). This first camp I took lead and for our second, upcoming summer camp, I hope to train someone to take my place when we leave. Sustainability, always on my mind.
(some highlights from my first summer camp)