I was accepted into the Peace Corps in October of 2015. When I shared this news with others, there were many times I was told that I was brave or that this was a brave decision. I remember responding that it would undoubtedly test me in ways unbeknownst to me at the time. I also reveled in the idea of becoming a part of an exclusive network of volunteers throughout the world. I arrived in the host country, Ghana, on June 1st of last year.
During the first ten weeks of training we were coddled with foods that were more familiar to our largely Western palates and were confined to chairs for countless hours of mundane training sessions. We also had the comfort of being with our cohort members (some of us were more than ready to leave the nest). In the beginning of July 2016, roughly halfway into our training, the Peace Corps director sent out a mass email to all current volunteers regarding the shooting of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. That was also the moment my cohort members and I each traveled to the community we were individually assigned to. This meant that I was sitting with this message about police brutality without anyone to process it with.
I was glued to the internet, following updates about community movements. Friends and activists mobilized, fueled by the outrage and long overdue urgency of addressing the deep-seated racism in our country. Folks were community organizing – building relationships, cultivating leadership and empowerment, mourning black lives lost, and strategizing for equity and liberation. All of this beautiful struggle against centuries of oppression was happening within a richly informed historical and sociopolitical context. Voices and on-the-ground efforts were coming from a place of strength and courage gained through lived experiences and ancestral wisdom.
There are many leaders and community members who uplift their own communities every day without being recognized for it. There is no application process or a sense of “putting life on hold for an epic abroad adventure.” There are no templates for filling out grants. There is no institutional protection. There is no free healthcare or vacation days. There are no resume boosters or academic incentives. There is no going-away party or welcome home celebrations. This is the livelihood of everyday members of communities who live and work and build together.
I acknowledge that traveling abroad, away from conveniences and comforts of a familiar space can feel scary and exciting. I value the inter-cultural exchange, opportunities for cultivating self-awareness and a deeper understanding of humanity that comes with experiences curated by international programs, such as Peace Corps. Yet it is not to be canonized. These opportunities come with privileges: access to higher education (you must have a bachelor’s degree in order to apply for Peace Corps), access to citizenship (you must be a US citizen), access to the time and services that are required to fill out the massive paperwork and necessary medical appointments. For many volunteers these privileges have been unknowingly gained at the expense of historical oppression and socio-politics that are exploitative.
Similarly, the timeline of a 27-month service, while grueling at times and endlessly challenging for various reasons, makes a mockery of local community members who are simply living their lives. Volunteers enter the space wanting to save them from a life of hardship and inferiority, perceived through the lens of Western development that profited off of colonialism. This timeline makes a mockery of US community members who dedicate their lives to standing up for what they believe in, not just because they feel moved to serve or help others, but because it is a fundamental violation of their humanity. The “service” is not contained within a time-frame, it is a life-long dedication.
Who do we uplift in this society? What are their credentials and how did they earn them? Who are the ones we fail to recognize and why does this happen? In what ways are injustices and oppression veiled so that it appears to be helpful when it is in fact harmful?
These are some of the questions that came up for me while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana. The emerging answers led me to terminate from the program early. I have met some incredible Ghanaians and community activists from the United States who exemplify what is means to truly be brave. I am humbled by their courageous efforts and am inspired to be more connected with my community and to stand with them in the existing efforts for justice and love.
I invite us all to pause and reflect on what we mean by “brave” and who demonstrates genuine bravery. Let’s celebrate their efforts, share their stories and tell them “You’re so brave.”
“Resist the reductive seduction of other people’s problems and, instead, fall in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing systemic complexity head on.” – Courtney Martin, author and founder of Solutions Journalism and Fresh Speakers