Thursday, March 01, 2007

Peace Corps Purpose

Please note that this entry (and all entries) is my individual viewpoint and does not express the views of the Peace Corps organization as a whole.

A very dear friend recently wrote me: "I don't know much about Peace Corps, but I feel like the desire to change the world by 'sharing superior American knowledge' may be the most common reason for people to apply. This motivation would make severe frustration inevitable. It is a pretty simplistic way to describe it, but is this accurate? I would guess the Peace Corps works to avoid the colonial dynamic of how exterior help to a community automatically implies the posture of 'inferior group depends on help from superior group'...building relationships and learning from cultures is very important. The part about change, however, seems like the goal is still colonial-style rearranging of values, but using community lubrication...I feel that social change is strongest when it comes from within the affected group, empowering instead of receiving the charity."

He was very correct when he mentioned empowerment. Fortunately, I am in just the right position to empower because I am so under qualified to make anything change by myself. Had I been placed in a role where I did have 'superior knowledge' my answer to his position would probably be different, but if you've followed any of my entries you realize that much of what is asked of me in my primary assignment is completely foreign to anything I've done in the past. I often feel less than prepared for what I wish I could accomplish. When I turn away from my own skills, however, and really pay attention to those in my community that I see ways they can accomplish things I could never do on my own.

I guess a good example of this is the recent community questionnaire we created to gauge interest/investment in a possible grant opportunity. In college we worked on evaluation and survey methods so I was prepared to write the questions, but not as equipped to figure out distribution and data collection. By seeking the help of engaged students in our Youth Action Club I was able to 'empower' 12 students to go out themselves and gather the information we will need to write a project proposal. I guess the question is: would these kids have prepared the project, written the survey and gathered the information on their own? Maybe they would have, but I'm here, and as a volunteer I'm willing to invest the time and a different perspective into the projects that we begin.

I look at my role in the classroom and I think about how I was when I was in school. Any opportunity we had to listen to a guest speaker or an assembly presentation was a treat. For me, people from different backgrounds who have taken the time to talk to me about their experiences and knowledge have always been inspiring and more entertaining than the everyday norm. Isn't this what makes talk shows entertaining? It's not necessarily the host that people tune in for (unless it's Ellen), but the guests that they interview. This is how I see the role I’m in as a teacher in a foreign country. It’s not my role to tell people to change (my Armenian counterpart does the instructing), but instead to offer experience and evidence that points to a new idea that they might not otherwise be introduced to.

Yerevan is an active city. This Friday I hope to attend a conference sponsored by the Coalition for Tobacco Free Armenia, initiated by the Armenian Public Health Alliance and supported by the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation. The work was prepared by Armenians but there’s a gap in distribution. Many people in the villages could benefit from resources and information available to people in the city, but they aren’t aware of what’s happening. As a volunteer here I have the time and finances to make the trip to the conference and bring back information that the Armenians are preparing themselves. I’m simply a liaison.

The ‘rearranging of values’ comment directly applies to my work. Armenians do value health, almost as much as they value religion…at least that’s what they say. Go to any party, wedding or relative’s house and if there are Armenian’s toasting it is “to the most important thing: Health”. Unfortunately, the Soviet mindset of treatment over prevention remains prevalent in the lives of the adults in society. We know, however, that many of the health problems Armenians are suffering from (the same as Americans) are relatively preventable. It’s not changing the values of the public; it’s about helping the public recognize how they can live to realize their values.

Change isn’t easy anywhere and it doesn’t happen overnight. We are all very well aware of the negative effects of smoking, but when the research first came out did cigarette sales cease? We needed someone to tell us, “look, you value your health, what you’re doing is causing health problems”. The same goes for preventing diseases in America. If no one ever told me that there is information available about ways I can take care of my skin I would probably continue to sit in the sun for hours on end and not wear sunscreen (the old lifestyle is fun, the old lifestyle is easy). Someone gave me the information, a ‘charity’ I suppose, but ultimately it is my decision of whether or not I want to accept what’s given and change my lifestyle or continue living the way I did before I had the information/resources.

Lastly, my mom knows about what is good and what is bad for my health. Likewise, there’s a good chance that the Armenians are aware of the health information I am bringing from the states. But when my mom told me to wear sunscreen and not to sit out in the sun all day did I listen? No. It took a friend, an outsider, someone who was completely objective to say: “You know your nose gets really pink every time you’re out in the sun. It’s not attractive and there’s ways you can prevent that.” before I made the behavior change. Maybe I can be that outsider. With respect, care and shared values maybe I can reach the people I work with.

No comments: