5 Diversity and Inclusion Lessons Learned in the Peace Corps

Throughout my Peace Corps experience, I have been extremely lucky to have participated in and co-facilitated a bunch of intercultural competency, diversity and inclusion trainings. One of the things I love most about Peace Corps Peru is that it truly understands the need to talk about these issues with volunteers and staff members. Most importantly, it isn’t an issue of simply checking the diversity training off the list, wiping our hands clean, and saying, “Okay, we did that. Next.” Peace Corps Peru is actively trying to build a culture of allies and open environment where talking about D&I challenges is encouraged.

I’ve really found a passion for facilitating these trainings so a couple weeks back I decided to read a book by diversity consultant and Ted Talker Vernā Myers and I found that, naturally, so much was applicable to the Peace Corps experience. So I’ve picked 5 quotes from her book What If I Say the Wrong Thing?: 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People that truly capture some of the D&I lessons I’ve learned while serving in the Peace Corps.

1.  “Unearned advantage (privilege) is the same as being on the return leg of a flight from San Francisco on its way to Boston. When you leave the East Coast, the pilot announces that it will take 6.5 hours, but when you’re coming back you are told it will take 4.5 hours. It’s the same distance and route. What accounts for the difference? Headwinds and tailwinds! Unearned advantage is the tailwind, and invisible forced that assists the movement of the one-up group (privileged group). Those in the one up group may be working hard but their hard work is made easier and faster by the tailwind advantage.”

I loved this because it’s all about recognizing your own privilege. Being apart of an underrepresented group in America, it has been really easy for me to point out the privileges that other people have and to think about all the ones that I don’t have as African Americans have been historically been socially, politically, and economically disadvantaged. And before arriving in Peru, I never thought too much about my own personal privilege. Living and working in a developing nation has really helped to point out some of my own unearned advantages.

The most obvious unearned advantage that I have was being born in America. Simply being born an American citizen has afforded me so many things that I didn’t work for. One thing that strikes me the most is access to education. Although I know the American public school and higher education system has its own unique “access” issues, the education gap between “one-up” groups and “one-down” groups here is beyond startling. For example, only a staggering 1 out of 100 Afro Peruvians attend a university – that’s .01% of the population. Where as in the States about 15% of students aged 18-24 in a four year institution are Black. So had I been born Black in Peru it is highly likely that neither I or anyone in my personal network would have a college degree.

2. “Exploring your own cultural influences is important for moving diversity forward, operating more inclusively, and working against biases and behaviors that follow from them.”

It is so important for Peace Corps Volunteers to be aware of their own cultural background during their two years of service. This is important not only because we need to be working inclusively with community members but we also need to work inclusively with other volunteers. PCVs come from different geographical, cultural, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds and it’s very easy to be a PCV from an underrepresented group and feel excluded. There have been countless times where I have been in a group of volunteers and people have said, “Well, we’re all white here,” excluding the small group of us that don’t identify that way and diminishing our presence. Although not malicious in intent, a person who is not actively thinking about being inclusive can easily offend or exclude certain people from an activity or conversation. Whenever we have a D&I training, I am sure to talk about how important it is to be inclusive in the language we use with one another.

3. “If you don’t understand that our natural preference for how to resolve conflict is based on culture, you might mistake another person’s approach as being ineffective, or worse, irresponsible.”

Oh boy, this is a big one! Living with host families and working together with host country counterparts is obviously a large part of the Peace Corps experience. And when you have an American who is new to the host country’s language and cultural norms living and working with people who have never been exposed to American culture, conflict and misunderstanding is almost inevitable. In the case of Peru, the manner of a more culturally accepted form of communication can be extremely indirect. As Americans, who generally appreciate a more direct form of communication, it can be very challenging to resolve a conflict with a host family or work counterpart without being culturally insensitive. It can also be hard when you’re working to solve a problem with a Peruvian and their approach can seem long, indirect, and at times ineffective from an American worldview. But I have found that taking a step back and modifying my usual way of communication or conflict resolution to fit the Peruvian way is more successful in this cultural context. Taking a step back and examining how your background is affecting  your approach and even asking for help from someone who is of the other culture or group can be really helpful in these cases.

4. “You can never predict how any individual will see the world based on identity, experience or culture – multiple identities including personality differences make this impossible.”

Our experiences help shape our biases and preconceived notions about other groups of people. And because I have learned that Peru is generally a very socially conservative society, I often make assumptions about a person’s stance on issues that involve the LGBTQ community, machismo and gender roles, abortion, etc.

As many times as I am confronted with those very socially conservative ideologies from different community members, I am also confronted with stories of Peruvian people who actively work and think in contrast to those ideologies. Men and women who openly work to defy strictly constructed gender roles, citizens who are open to other religions outside of Catholicism, and Afroperuvian activists who believe in including members of the LBGTQ community because of the importance of intersectionality in their fight for equal rights. You simply can never know how a person will process the world based off of one of their identities!

5. “Structural “isms” result because the institution or practice was created by and for the “one-up” group only – other groups, seen as inferior, were excluded and ignored at the inception of policy, practice and organization.”

Once when I was living with my old host family, I sat down and began to flip through my host brother’s history text book and immediately noticed that all the historical figures highlighted in the book were men – I flipped through that book multiple times and did not see a single Peruvian woman discussed. The fact is Peru, like many other countries, is a patriarchal society. Women’s contributions are often diminished and ignored as culturally women have been severely restricted by rigid gender roles. There are so many spaces in Peruvian society that inherently cater to boys and men and make it extremely hard for women to gain a leg up in society. Structural sexism in Peru truly reminds me of structural racism back home in the States and I am forever grateful for this experience of  having my eyes opened to the other types of structural “isms” that hold certain groups of people back.

There are so many D&I lessons a person can learn by living and working in another culture and as America is made up of various peoples and histories, I know that all of what I have learned here in my service can only help me to continue to try and build a more inclusive society back back home.

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