My One Year Anniversary: Service as a Black Woman

When everyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I always said a humanitarian. I wanted to document the state of people from the developed to the undeveloped world. I wanted to show people what they were missing. I wanted to learn about my blind spots and weaknesses. I wanted to grow and help others do the same. I wanted to just—coexist! I’ve always seen beauty in the grit and commonalities between the privileged and underserved. Nothing will ever fulfill me if I am not helping and serving. With that I’d like to briefly talk about my service in Peace Corps and how it has molded my views of helping, serving, aiding, healing, teaching and learning.

About a year ago I was medically separated from the Peace Corps. I cannot say I was surprised but I can say I was discouraged. I joined this organization to provide service to people I believed wanted and needed it. The service that my group in particular demonstrated was teaching literacy. I must admit that I feel it’s a silly concept. I, and many other volunteers in my group, had zero knowledge and background in teaching. I studied the African and Black Diaspora. The history of the Black identity is my thing. Therefore, seeing a group of mostly White people teach Black children (and adults—there counterparts) did not sit well with me. I am a product of the inner city. I was often told I wasn’t intelligent by people that looked like my fellow volunteers. Those that didn’t directly say it showed it by their vast knowledge of things that they actually had ZERO knowledge of. I will be the first to admit that I was in no place to teach youth literacy. I do not agree with code switching, I believe that creole (and even Ebonics) should be used in the classroom and I think that the first years of a child’s life should be cultural relevant. I’ve never had faith in the system of education—in particular the American system—because I haven’t seen it work for anyone. Everyone I know that has succeeded academically did so with code switching and finessing the system. If you do not understand the group you are teaching you cannot teach them. This idea is bigger than race. You cannot teach children of you are not use to and understand children. Additionally, there is an assumption that these perfectly capable people (host country nationals) needed help from those of us that weren’t in any predicament to help them. PC volunteers are a group of mostly fresh out of college youth that have prior metal health issues and addictions to travel and liquor. This isn’t a brash opinion. This is observed time and time again in anonymous surveys. It is alarming to think that this group is capable of teaching underserved youth.

Pretty quickly I lost faith in the concept of co-teaching. Why would a group of Americans who have plenty of Black and Brown undereducated youth come to an “exotic” place to teach when their system is failing? Why isn’t that addressed? Why aren’t mental health screenings a big part of the PC application process (like dental and other medical concerns are)? Why is reporting on the status of these schools a large focus but reporting on American schools in American ghettos isn’t? Why isn’t extensive cultural training (starting with how White America contributed to the status of the Caribbean) the very first training session? Our system is failing children that look a lot like those we were placed to help. Why isn’t that addressed?

Beyond the issues with co-teaching and the literacy program, I often saw disparities and mistreatments toward the POC within the Peace Corps. I am of Caribbean descent and have grow up with both Black American and Caribbean culture. I understand the culture and how my foreign Blackness will fit into it. It is a huge disservice to put Black people into communities and not address many of the issue that they as Black people will experience. It is a complete disregard for the complex Black experience. Black women are often mistreated by men—this includes Black men. Quick story, I was approached by an American tourist while in St. Vincent and the Grenadines for sex. I started talking and he was scared away immediately by my American accent. Black bodies aren’t seen as something that deserves protection. The Black women’s body is at the front of this disrespect. Colorism is heavy all throughout the diaspora. It is worsened when you bring in non Black people (even other POC). If you haven’t unpacked these things prior to beginning your service in an all Black country, you will struggle with your identity. It will hit you hard! Healing is a must! I wouldn’t expect White people to understand this but this is why the need of diversity (amongst the American staff in particular) is important! Having locals on the staff does not shed light on the Black American experience. We are unrepresented and unthought of. Our concerns can be overlooked and disregarded. Coercing a tiny group of young Black people into serving in a place and not letting them know that they will experience colorism, homophobia (worse than non Black PCVs), mistreatment from fellow volunteers, being the minority in their organization, sexual assault (sometimes even from host families) dismissal and disrespect (heightened in the presence of fellow White counterparts) and all around lack of protection is a huge over sight. As a group, we experience so much racism on our home base. So, going to a country where you are in the majority, to service your fellow Black people, only to get ripped apart and be treated the same way you are treated back home can be taxing and defeating!

I was sexually assaulted during my service. I had been harassed a few times and mentioned needing to learn methods of prevention (so it didn’t escalate). I never learned those methods and it did escalate. The particular instance was unrelated but, it could have been avoided if I felt more confident in my organization. I reluctantly told my local staff about the issue and they suggested I let headquarters know. I did this in May (right before the holiday). It wasn’t for another week or so that someone finally reached out to me. I let them know that my sister was coming to visit. Talking to her got me through that time. Let me say this—the actual sexual assault team that Peace Corps has is amazing. They called me a few times. However, contrary to popular belief, they are only there to listen and to route you to the proper people for next steps. The next steps are really important for your safety and mental health.The medical officers at headquarters were my next step. Those are the individuals that left me alone for days after the incident. I didn’t go to work anymore. I started to feel depressed. My birthday was coming up. All in all—I just wanted to have a piece of home. I am so thankful my sister came. I’d grown to love the island but didn’t like how I was serving it. I actually didn’t feel like I could really serve it at all. Teaching wasn’t doing anything. I didn’t see any “improvements” in my community. Actually, I don’t think my community was in dire need of academic improvement. The biggest issue that I observed in the schools was sex and sexual abuse—go figure! I just felt bad. I wasn’t serving out my true purpose. Finally, my sister came. I realized that the best bet was for me to come home and get some counseling. By the end of my counseling I had heightened anxiety about returning. I was on edge. I wanted to come back but, under my terms. There is a mandatory form you must fill out when returning. In my returning form I stated that I needed all the things I previously talked about to be changed. I needed to be safe. If I’m being frank, the questions were quite condescending for someone who was just sexually assaulted and had developed PTSD. I was honest and direct with my answers. My nurse was really insensitive about the whole thing. A lot of these insensitivities stemmed from cultural differences and understandings—I believe. Needless to say I was released immediately.

I’ve had a year to reflect on this whole process. I fell in love with the Eastern Caribbean. I built some great relationships along the way. I learned some valuable lessons. I gained more passion then I had before. Service is only beneficial when organized and warranted. You cannot send a group of regular people to be nurses and doctors. So, why can you send anyone to teach? Telling people they are qualified to do something they are definitely not, created a superiority complex—even when you tell them not to have a “white savior approach”. Not all volunteers are white but they are coming from a place of privilege. So, we don’t all have the “white savior complex”. But, that’s a whole other topic. Aid is altruistic and done with the motive to improve. Majority of us volunteers knew we could not improve the system of teaching. How could we? Having little faith in your organization results in little faith of the good it can do.

In the future I hope that Peace Corps uses the skill sets that it’s volunteers have and actively seek what each community needs. I also hope that diversity and cultural competence of volunteers of color is at the forefront of the mission. Assuming that a basic panel, talking about sexual assault, won’t arm you with tactics to beat it. We have this same issue in the states. Saying women are catcalled and children are molested does nothing for ending the harm. Talking about each individuals identity and doing privilege walks won’t educate volunteers on why colorism is a thing or why saying “these people don’t care about education” isn’t an accurate picture. Service is about being uncomfortable and doing the work necessary (hand and hand with the people) to help the people. You can’t talk about the present without diving deep into the past. Teach someone to fish but, in the same breath, learn how to farm from them. Balance!

Thanks for reading this rant.

Shae.

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