Before you read my response, I encourage you to read the original article here on Huffington Post. Read it, analyze it, and draw your own conclusions before you read what I have to say about it. I have shared it on my Twitter feed, but in case you missed it, please see the link above.
Why do people join the Peace Corps?
“I tell people I joined the Peace Corps to understand what it means to be poor, but that´s just part of the story. I joined the Peace Corps to figure out how to escape the guilt of having so much while other people have so little.” –From the Huffington Post article
I ask myself and others why they want to join such an organization. The responses vary quite a bit: Some because they want to serve their country (civil service), others because they want to help promote positive change around the world, and others because they weren’t quite sure what to do with their lives and were seeking a transformative experience. Not one person I have spoken to said that guilt motivated them to come out here. At least, they never admitted to such a thing.
I’m not sure why people feel guilty for having things. We don’t get to choose where and into what circumstances we are born: We are simply born into them. Wherever we are, we seek to make the best of our situation. There was a metaphor about watching others drown that the article used that I found particularly interesting.
“And I don’t really believe the people who say that helping others is not morally obligatory, just a praiseworthy act. Because in that case, allowing that person to drown in the lake would be the norm. And I don’t think that is the world we live in.” -From the Huffington Post article
The assumption I infer from the article is that we, the privileged, are endowed with this power to help the poor, who are helpless. In the metaphor, the helplessness is symbolized by drowning. I think working with this kind of assumption before going abroad with the Peace Corps is a huge disservice to the community you are going to serve. These people are not helpless; they are working hard to improve their lives and feed their families. Volunteers are sent out in order to help them in their quest for a comfortable, sustainable existence. We are partners working together to reach that goal. We learn from one another in the process.
I take issue with the idea that we have this amazing power to pull people out of poverty as well. There are millions in poverty in America. We have a slue of social and economic issues all of our own to deal with. Our nation is not perfect, and we do not have all the answers. I think what Peace Corps does is admirable: We try to foster a mutual understanding so that collaboration on a local level makes larger impacts on the nation as a whole. We start working with the people in the grassroots tradition. Everyone involved in projects, be they host country nationals or volunteers, has a desire to help.
When I came to Mongolia, my expectations were tempered by realism and experience: I was coming to this country to teach English and assist teachers in improving their language skills and pedagogical practices. I did not have the idea in my mind that I was coming out here to save the world, save Mongolia, or save my community from their supposed poverty. I have lived and worked abroad before: I knew what was going to happen, but many coming into the Peace Corps don’t. They are fresh out of college, or they haven’t had an experience yet of what it means to live and work in a developing part of the world. They have no point of reference from which to base their expectations. They are quite idealistic, and this is fine. Idealism is good: It produces fresh ideas and motivates people to do some truly wonderful things. When your experience challenges those idealistic tendencies, that’s when people start to lose faith. That’s when this “Peace Corps guilt” starts to dawn on people.
I say this to Ms. Katcoff and others who are feeling this guilt: Don’t. You have no reason to. You are not a superhuman out to save the impoverished and destitute. You are normal people with the desire to help others around the world. Your community members are not helpless souls drowning: they are strong, resourceful people who are finding ways to make a living. Many want to improve their communities, which is why they requested your assistance. They did not request your divine intervention; only your assistance. You are there to work with them. Sometimes, your work is successful. Many times, it will not be successful. That is the reality that you face, but you are not a person drowning in the lake, either. You are strong and resourceful; use your skills and the skills of those around you to try to make any sort of positive change you can. Size does not matter, because every little bit helps. Every little bit.
I close with a quote from the poet Rumi, whose words have echoed throughout time and resonate still today.
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.