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.


The Womb Police: Abortion Bans, Black Bodies and Contemporary Genocide

I speak only from my own reality. I know a lot of people won’t agree or like what I have to say. Thats perfectly fine. However, I look at everything differently. FYI before you continue reading.

I have a lot to say about these new abortion laws. Many mixed feelings. A lot of my views are coming from a Black lens. Black women have been used as breeding machines and force sterilized. Two totally different evils. Which one is the reality just depends what’s going on in the world at that moment. In the 40’s-70’s black folks didn’t support abortions (60% weren’t down with it). I mean, why would they be. Black people were being injected with syphillis experimentally for 4 decades, forced sterilized for 7 decades(and even now. Y’all just don’t know about it…I know stories) and labeled as beast by their own and other groups socially. There is a fear and lack of trust for the government and medical personnel amongst the Black community. Doctors don’t treat us very well. I know women in their 80’s who were sterilized against their will 50 years ago and they fear speaking out about it. This is a recent issue! I have to say that in case anyone tries me with that, “Oh my God! That was so long ago” mess. There is a history of population control within the Black community through Eugenics beliefs. The founder of Planned Parenthood, Margret Sanger, was a eugenicist. She believed in controlling the amount of children poor women had as a means to “better the race”. She didn’t focus on race or color. I will say that. On the other hand, Planned Parenthood offices are often placed in Black and Latinx communities….but I’ll let y’all think about that.

Black people make up 12.1% of America. However, Black women make up 40% of abortions carried out in the USA. At this rate Black Americans will be endangered in the near future. Our bodies have been policed for so long. This ban is not shocking or scary for me. Trump becoming president wasn’t scary for me either. Just another thing to deal with.

Honestly, I feel my Black identity more than my gender and sex. In the same breath I don’t think any man (or male) should tell any female what to do with her(their/insert fitting pronouns) body. I also think that if a man doesn’t want a child and suggest an abortion and the female refuses, he shouldn’t be financially obligated. And vice versa (because males can have children. I am using all terms from my heterosexual identity FYI). The whole act of child bearing is a two person thing to me. Females carry the child. Males help produce it. If one side can choose not to want in, I think the other side should be able to do the same.

It’s not ok for rape victims to bare the seed of violence if they don’t want to.  It’s not ok to have children that are results of inbreeding. Some people don’t need to have children. There are plenty of situations were abortion needs to be legal. Taking it’s legality away will most likely result in back alley abortions or people going to Mexico to get drugs that induce miscarriages (the latter is already happening in large amounts).

I’m pro everyone doing whatever the hell works for them as long as they are safe and the term of the pregnancy is regulated. This “heart beat” topic is non sense. Have you seen what a fetus looks like at six weeks? It doesn’t look like a child at all. It is not developed. Fetus don’t start looking like actually human like figures until week 14. Additionally, fetus have no organ growth other than the heart for the first eight weeks. Nothing can live with just a heart. So why are we pinpointing a developed heartbeat? Seems fishy to me.

Deeper research is a must. You can have an opinion but learn other opinions. Accept that you need to know more. I need to know more and my opinion is always evolving. It may completely change in the next few days. With that, I don’t think this is a decision men or women need to be exclusively making. Collaboration is cool. But then again, I’d be damned if a man told me what to do with my body. It just doesn’t make sense. I’d also be damned if a woman told me what to do with my body. Sooo yea, I’m just a girl from Chicago that won’t accept what the media wants me to. Let people do what they want. If you don’t they will do it anyway. Look at drug. They’re  illegal and people still use and abuse them. I’m pro choice. I’m also pro life, if that is best for you.

Martin. Like Luther King Jr.

Last weekend I was headed to Soufriere to go to the sulfur pools. On the way there we made various stops. These stops blessed me with diverse angles of the island. Also, may I add, seeing St. Lucia from these contorted angles was absolutely breathe taking. I am still in awe! Anyways, while stopping at one of the many locations I proceeded to whip out my trusty Nikon D5200. With my camera in hands I adjusted my aperture, increased my shutter speed and, captured some of the beauty that lie in front of me.

While shooting I was interrupted by a gentle baritone voice. The voice exclaimed, “Take my picture!” I looked back to the sight a man. The gentleman was about 5’7. His hair was short with a dash of salt and pepper. His complexion was reminiscent of freshly mixed chocolate cake batter. Smooth and flawless. Excited by the demand he made… I took his picture. I snapped about three rough shots then proceeded to converse with the warm St. Lucian man. Here’s a rough transcript:

Me: “What’s your name sir?”

Martin: “Martin”

Me: “Mark?” I said with little confidence in what I thought I heard.

Martin: He shook his head. “Martin. Like Luther King Jr.”

Me: “Oh, MLK. What a powerful name! You are blessed.”

Martin: “I live up to my name sake. What is your name?”

Me: “I’m Shae”

Martin: “What name your parents gave you?”

Me: I responded giggling, “Shaela. My name is Shaela.”

Martin: “Umm. Are you English Shaela?”

At this point I was internally dying of laughter. I have a pretty thick Midwestern Chicago accent. Though I have the ability to, I often I forget to turn it off. I definitely hadn’t turned it off during this conversation. After regaining my composure, the conversation continued something like this:

Me: “Not at all. I’m from the States. North American-” I paused in concern of his expression.

Martin: With a worried look on his face screech “Why do White People hate you all”

Me:  Caught off guard by the conversation switch, I replied, “What exactly are you referencing?”

Martin: “Every time I watch the news I see someone in America being killed by a White police officer. Or, I see Blacks speaking about how White American are racist toward them. Or I hear about American ghettos and Black Lives Matter. Why?”

Me: Reflectively, I replied, “Well Martin. The history in American runs deep. And, to an extent, it similar to St. Lucia. Colonialism, colonization, slavery and murder were all methods Europeans used to gather and control Africans and Indigenous Americans. It is the unfortunate and dark past of the US. The real issues is that history, if not handled, made right, and dealt with accordingly, repeats itself. This is where these microaggressions and acts of discrimination come into play. Racism has never stopped in the state: racism has just surfaced in other ways.”

Martin: “Shaela, where are you from?”

Me: Confused by yet another shift in tone, “The US.”

Martin: “No, where are you from?”

Me: “Oh sorry, I’m from Chicago.”

Martin: “Ummm” kisses teeth “Why do you all hate yourself? All that killing in Chicago. Why?”

Me: I take a long pause “Umm. Martin, I would’ve loved to have you sitting in on some of the conversations I had with my friends back home. Seriously.” Letting out a light chuckle I continue, “But honestly, to answer your question, again, I think it’s the microaggressions and systematic racism. After a while either you start believing what you see, hear, feel, or you fight against it. Personally, I think everything you’re seeing on the news is a reflection of both people fighting against it and people believing it. Me, myself, I’m proving all the racist I’ve been hit by that they are little. They’re wrong. They hold no weight in comparison to my power. That’s that!”

Martin: “Shaela, where are you from?”

Me: Laughing hysterically, I reply, “My father is Haitian, Martin.”

Martin “Welcome home!” We both laugh.

I’ve been thinking about this conversation all week. Social justice is alive and thriving throughout the diaspora. It warms my heart. It also awakens my desire and pursuit of peace. Media representation is worldwide. It is my job to fight for the rights of marginalized groups throughout the diaspora. It is my job to document this fight. It is my job to serve. It is my job to humble myself. It is my job to use my voice.

I am a woman. I am an American. I am first generation American. I am Black. I am from Chicago. I am a product of poverty. I am a product of wealth. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am privileged enough to serve. I am humbled. I. AM. CHANGE. And it’s time to get to work!

**P.S. I want my students to embrace risk taking. So, with that said, I’m starting to take more risk in my own writing. I hope you enjoyed this passage. However, if you didn’t, I hope you felt uncomfortable. Discomfort aids in growth.

***P.P.S I might blur out Martin’s face and add the pictures to this post.