Ever since I was in high school, I became fascinated with the world around me. It was mysterious, unique, and so I thought, “calling me” to explore it. At 15 or 16 years old, service learning trips were “trendy” and seen to be the next step on the path to success that was guiding our naive souls. Here I was, 15 years old, trying to make a change in the world. I was applauded by those around me, for helping build a house in a rural community of the Dominican Republic, where frankly I remember seeing just one local carpenter. Here’s the problem. I was fed just one narrative of the whole international development world, the one that praises Americans for going abroad and helping those who we’ve deemed need it. A narrative that was, and still is sugar-coated with privilege. And yes, I am blame-worthy.
I made the decision a little over two years ago to join the Peace Corps and serve in a rural community of Morocco, working on a Youth Development project deemed of importance by the King and the government of Morocco. My eyes gleamed imagining the experiences it would give me, how much I would absorb, and how this new job, as Peace Corps’ motto says, would “make the most of my world.” I was a freight train speeding forward, carrying my prestigious education and past cross-cultural experiences, ready to load on more.
One thing everyone knows about Peace Corps is that it’s hard. That difficulty is expressed in a variety of ways, heroically and destructively. Whether the RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) in your office makes it clear that she had to carry her water for miles in order to shower or maybe the news reminds you that Americans aren’t necessarily welcomed in certain parts of the world. Don’t forget that distant aunt who reminds you that their culture is far too unpolished and different than ours, so you should just stay here.
I’m a PCV almost finished with 27 months of service and add me to the list, Peace Corps service is very hard, in more ways that I can express. To be honest, the physical inconveniences are the easiest to shag off at the end of the day. It’s the thoughts I feel complicit in that stay tucked away in my mind, occupying my head when a project goes wrong or I have a sour interaction with someone.
Two years ago, my reaction to this video shied away from criticism and accountability, but rather praised our desire to be of help and to see world peace. I failed to notice the harmful language that directly reinforces the white savior complex, as us Americans are believed to be the saviors who hold the solution to the world’s problems and strategies for development. I want to see Peace Corps become more innovative. Innovative to a 21st century world where we’re discussing these issues and holding ourselves accountable to destructive rhetoric and behavior.
I do want to say that I do not regret my Peace Corps service, as someone who has seen first-hand its positive involvement in capacity building and the power of relationship building for positive change. I know the more radical mindsets out there would disagree with me and tell me I’m complicit in a white savior, imperialistic institution. I truly feel that myself and my Moroccan counterparts have worked hard to build a relationship that has benefitted us both in a variety of ways. Last month, I worked with my host brother on 2-month application, to then see him shine in a prestigious youth social entrepreneurship Camp in Rabat where he gained skills in entrepreneurship, finance, and marketing to address a problem in his community. All he needed to get there was a little help: a PC with internet, someone to run ideas off of, and a good old motivational speech. The Camp was hosted and run by Moroccans, which I noticed made way more of an impact on him than anything I told him in those four weeks of online prep-classes. Impact is usually stronger and feels more reachable to youth when its message is coming from someone in their own community or country.
MYSEC Conference, Rabat, 2019 @mysecprogram
As for the Peace Corps trainings I have attended on community development and project design/management, we are now required to bring host country nationals from our sites with us. They’ve sat in sessions (in Arabic) with over 50 Moroccans from around the country to receive training by Moroccan staff on how to conduct community needs assessments, search for project funding, create a project plan, and evaluate the effectiveness of a project.
Mid-Service Training. Volunteers & Moroccan Counterparts from Essaouira region & Marrakech region, March 2018.
Project Design & Management Training. PCVs & Counterparts from Essaouira & Tata Province, July 2018
After meeting Moroccans and Americans working on a variety of projects during the PDM (Project Design & Management) Training in Agadir, Loubna came up to me and said she wanted to make a Q&A video sharing her story and the opportunity the Peace Corps training gave her to network and advance her personal development. Loubna is a young woman who has worked hard in her studies, despite coming from a conservative village where she meets criticism for it. Loubna inspires me as a young woman and after watching this video, I’m sure she’ll touch some of you too!
These particular moments stay with me and remind me that although there are many flaws in international development work, what’s important is that we find a balance and do things for the right reasons. As volunteers especially, we must hold ourselves accountable, make ourselves feel uncomfortable at points, and talk truthfully about the impact our work has on the communities we’re working with. As we begin to wrap up our service and head home, each of us holds the power to frame our service. The words we chose, the light or darkness we shine on our work, and the reputation we give others of Morocco. Choose responsibly.