TFA & Peace Corps: Sister Experiences

My last post got me some excellent feedback that will keep me exploring my voice in this space, thank you. I am a self-admitted “pooper on things”, particularly institutions that I am a part of and am committed to. It’s my twisted love language when I see something that has the capacity and commitment to good like the Peace Corps or Georgetown.

I did recognize/I do recognize the twisted-ness of it. In fact, my main regret from my last post was that after writing it, I couldn’t think of a single Javanese friend who would have taken the same tact, if that were to have been any consolation at all. My post was a bungled attempt to represent a conflict between locals and expats because it showed how much of Javanese culture my expatriate self has yet to take in. I fashioned an Audre Lorde-ian trap for myself instead of taking up the tools of Javanese culture – of taking care of others’ feelings, of generosity and of calm – in order to contribute to repairing community. The Javanese way of doing things is certainly a higher, classier road and I’m not sure I’d ever graduate from any school of community building by choosing to represent a people in a way they didn’t wish to be represented. On the other hand, the position of a community worker is necessarily one of an outsider and talking as ‘kasar’ (coarse/rough) as I can for me assuages my biggest fear of being misled to a false understanding of my community and place within it because I only listen to what I want to hear or because I won’t recognize that there are things that are being left unsaid, sweetly and gracefully, for my benefit. As an expat, though, I think I too often fall into the trap of equating ‘empowerment’ with volume of voice so I can’t fairly know how unnecessary I was being about the things that go unsaid in contrast with the things that don’t need to be said.

At this moment, I easily chalk it up to age, and to unbalanced emotions, a statement that infuriates me further every time I step back from it and know its truth. Gotta get on point.

Back in June I had the immense pleasure of receiving a dear friend to Indonesia for some well fleshed-out back and forth’s about teaching in poor communities with Teach for America and Peace Corps. I remember her senior year when she was making the decision to teach and reflected seriously about joining TFA. Back then our conversations consisted of broad dismissals of the organization, just as I did with Peace Corps months later as I was going through the selection process. Our qualms included: 1. Both organizations’ PR regarding their impact in communities being vastly overestimated and overlooking the ways that both organizations hurt the teaching/peace building sectors, 2. Alumni of both organizations seem to extract more for their resumes than they inject into communities throughout their 2 years, 3. Brief stints in communities perpetuate the problem of community instability and human resource flight, a problem particularly tough to comprehend when thinking of the lives of children. We reconciled these worries by focusing on the micro; despite a loaded background that we knew we’d need to unpack in order to effectively place ourselves within our communities and our schools, we knew that we would have classrooms for 2 years and what happened there was wholly dependent on us.

Two years later and in a different geographic space altogether, we found a lot of that fight pounded out of us, resigned to the thought: “Complaining isn’t helping, is it?” We now had students, parents of students, fellow teachers and were part of a cohort of TFAers or PCVs with whom we had made real connections and being broad about anything was tougher to achieve. As much hatred as we continued to have for the knowledge that our participation in our respective institutions reinforced unhealthy norms of teacher attrition, of too-short stints of community work, and of rushed training to enter classrooms, the shortcomings of the education systems we were working in were too big and whatever dent could be made, well, we weren’t about to be the ones to say stop trying.

However, one place where we maintained comfortable and endless complaining was on the question of how much harm was being done through volunteers/teachers’ experiments on communities that didn’t result in significantly altered people. She burst at the recollection of TFA professional development sessions where the words “these kids” were uttered over and over again. That’s not even getting started on the little knife slices of new teachers’ true thoughts about their students’ parents, fellow teachers or the very school systems in which they found themselves teaching. How scary was it to hear that horrible vocabulary used to talk about communities, to hear worldviews that looked out onto the world from privilege not being budged month after month teaching in impoverished communities from the very people that kids look up to as exemplary human beings? It makes you give the saying “experience is the best teacher” a closer look.

I recognize that this statement is me asking for too much control of other people’s experiences, and trusting too little. I assure you, it’s out of fear, a fear at truthfully the heart of which lie my own teaching inadequacies. But it’s also out of fright that worldviews can’t be changed, despite the urgent proof for them needing to change being directly accessible by front line soldiers, aka teachers.

I just finished up a great book about the Peace Corps called “Keeping Kennedy’s Promise” that laid it out well in 1978:

“To begin with, each volunteer has always borne the imprint of his own culture. In varying measure, each has been the product of an ethnocentric, materialistic, and individualistic society. The Peace Corps has failed to awaken volunteers to their own cultural heritage and native biases and to kindle within them the desire to assimilate new values during their experience abroad.” (Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, p.132)

A friend shot a version of this back at me after my last post. She wrote saying that the premise and work of cultural exchange doesn’t guarantee that worldviews will be adequately deconstructed and rebuilt anew because altering worldviews is not even fleshed out as the objective of the exercise. I don’t mean to imply that teachers/volunteers are not undergoing significant personal reconstructions of self – that depends on the teacher/volunteer. And most PCVs and TFAers begin their applications to both organizations armed with a desire to experience something new to open themselves up to new values and to test the ones they’ve already settled on. But she rightly pointed out that to be ready to radically reconstruct your worldview is not as easy as it looks, particularly if it unseats you from relative safety as you commit to expanding others’ opportunities rather than guarding your own.

On my end, I think that Peace Corps is a great model of an organization that prides itself in its belief that when two people meet and, even better, work together closely for an extended period of time, that something of value results. The beginning of the process is exchange, but once it gets down to what we’ll be teaching the students the next day, what comes out is (hopefully) a patchwork of three brown-skinned ladies’ personal teaching cultures. However, Peace Corps denies that this is the goal in its recruitment material and even in the way that it defends itself in front of Congress. The story that’s told has a gap in the middle where Peace Corps work actually happens: on the recruitment end, it’s about “the corners of the world that can’t wait” and on the budget end, it’s the readiness of America to face its future in a globalized context. But what’s really happening isn’t cultural exchange, it’s cultural pragmatism. It’s what most RPCVs attest to having undergone and it’s why most continue to learn from the many lessons that their two years as PCVs taught them, because they were truly reformed, they didn’t just drop in some American values, even if in exchange for a host country’s. They negotiated what they knew with what they were being taught in order to come out with the best version of themselves, with a perspective lit on fire with knowledge of poverty. Anything short of that does not reach the goal of the organization, and rather has volunteers fall short in a land of waste called poverty tourism.

So what can be done to diminish the number of experiments done on communities that don’t result in poverty tourism or a superficial but glamorous political career?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Bolster undergraduate programs with practical work. Too many PCVs and TFAers have too much to learn about community work on the job, and that’s not good for the job. Programs like Peace Corps or TFA do a good job of helping you find your next step, particularly by orienting you to graduate school with great grants and scholarships, but the two programs are popular enough options that the requirements to enter them could be threaded into them at the undergraduate level. The crux of this would be in diversity studies. I think this is a direction that many universities, such as Georgetown with its Jesuit identity, want to push on their students. I recently read Mountains Beyond Mountains about Paul Farmer — his knowledge of the medical field is incredible, but he cites his ideological drive as originating in Black Liberation Theology. From the book, it’s clear that he’s able to fit himself into Haitian communities because of this departure point, because he’s frank about understanding privilege and people trust him for it. He didn’t learn that at Harvard, though.

Another place this can happen is ….. in TRAINING! Obviously, there’s a lot to be done & PC does include Keeping Kennedy’s Promise in its mid-service training. But more, more, more!

2. PC, TFA and like organizations need to make sure that mentor-mentee relationships exist with mentors from the host community. Given how both organizations work, trying to just find adequate assignments for its workers is stressful enough, but this element can’t be taken out of the equation. My friend gave me some good advice about how she changed up her relationship with her TFA manager: she said she sought out the relationship and was rewarded for it. Orgs like TFA or PC feel like they’re mostly there to troubleshoot problems for the teacher/volunteer because of the nature of the terrain. I know I’ve walked into our PC office and just said 2 words to the staff because I haven’t encountered any problems so far and felt like if I wasn’t there to talk about a problem, I’d be wasting their time. I’ve been missing out on a valuable teaching relationship, particularly with the local staff, and I need to take better advantage of it. Of course, TFA managers or PC staff aren’t the ideal mentors. Perhaps they know about your job, but they don’t know about your community (not that you can’t get lucky and get a staff member particularly in tune with your community). The other key piece of advice that she gave me was to open up my teaching to criticism. She mentioned that TFA does a good job of making you feel like anyone can pop into your classroom at any time and you have to be ready for it. This is good! Writers throughout the years, like Lucas and Lowther in Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, have lamented the fact that volunteers don’t do enough to put themselves in a humbler position and invite other teachers into their classrooms. Maybe, with more eyes on us, we’ll make fewer egregious mistakes.

3. With that, do more to highlight the work that comes out of PC/TFA. These days, proving that TFA works means putting test scores in the spotlight. PC is evaluated based on the personal narratives of its volunteers. Both these strategies miss out on a crucial effect of both organizations: in giving new energy to long-time community workers who are helping these often young and naive (that’d be me) people along their way and in giving a platform for extraordinary students who rarely have the positive reinforcement that many (not all, obviously) PCVs and TFAers grew up with. My experience this past year hasn’t so much been that my school lacks good teachers, but that it lacks adequate ways to bring out the best in them, whether it’s a salary that is too small or the absence of praise. PCVs and TFAers naturally have to cling on to examples of strong leadership that they find in their communities and all-too-often, those people have been doing their work for years without tire, without thanks. And our students are sometimes in a tough position; I want to push my students to reach for new opportunities, particularly educational, but there are a lot of barriers that even come with scholarships to state universities, let alone universities/work opportunities outside the country that might set them on a drastically different path. One example of this was highlighted at my friend Joe’s school where students couldn’t sit for scholarship tests because they couldn’t pay the fee. This isn’t a “if you work hard enough, you’ll reach your dreams” kind of world. But TFAers and PCVs can turn the firing machines on their community members and students in a public forum, and let the bouquets of roses, graduate school scholarships and fireworks of praise fire them at full blast.

4. Change the face of PC, TFA and other comparable orgs to emphasize the transformation expected in the volunteers/teachers. It’s not just a question of firming up leadership skills of America’s next wave of politicians or the cultural toolkits of future foreign service officers, but of admitting what these orgs try to do, and that’s to give people of privilege a premise for extracting valuable life-altering lessons from marginalized communities of the kind world people in power are reinforcing daily and what it is doing to the people on the bottom, to hate that kind of world and to get fired up to no longer be an ignorant participant in it any longer. *To be fair, my friend disagreed with this point with regards to TFA because she felt that the transformation shouldn’t be about the teachers but always remain focused on the students and that actually, prizing the teachers’ transformation into leading citizens is what contributes most to turning a blind eye to teacher attrition, which hurts kids most.


One thought on “TFA & Peace Corps: Sister Experiences

  1. D. says:

    I enjoyed reading your post. When I taught in Chicago through ICTC, students assumed I was going to be there for 2 years. They were completely aware of the way that ICTC teachers had been cycled through. It was about my 4th year there that students changed their tune and felt like I was not only NOT going to leave, but that I would be there forever. I think time spent can be one way of breaking the sense of people or communities being treated as a curiosity or a commodity used for personal gain, at least it felt that way for me. I still keep in touch with the people at my school and the kids I taught. I think remaining connected with the communities in an earnest way, giving beyond what is asked, or otherwise transcending the “face” of whatever program people are a part of is the best way to make a genuine (rather than self-serving) impact. I also read Mountains Beyond Mountains and was struck by the total commitment Paul Farmer had to the people of Haiti; his patients were treated as family. It was evident when he decided he would spend an exorbitant amount of money to fly a single patient to the States for treatment because that is what he would do for someone he saw as an equal, not a number. Every pragmatic approach would have said not to do that, but the unforeseen result was a tremendous increase in trust that the people had in Farmer. If he would do THAT, then what else would he do? I also loved the reference to Lucas and Lowther’s notion that more humility is needed to improve the impact that people have in the communities they serve. I may be hypocritical to speak about this since I have long since pulled away from the service I once did and instead focus on my wife and two children, but the most important notion of all is humility. Farmer has it in his focus. I think communities, like people, appreciate when people have a genuine interest in them and are willing to listen to their needs and help them as they want to be helped, but no one wants to be treated less than equal. Privilege, and the oblivious arrogance that can come with it push out humility too often. Farmer is the genuine article. He brings the greatest level of skill to the people he serves with a Christlike notion that no one is lesser than he.

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