Representing America When America Just Made a Huge Mistake

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The role of a Peace Corps volunteer has become a lot more complicated this week. We are representatives of the American federal government. Part of our job description is sharing American values. I’m not so clear on what those are anymore.

America elected a person who directly threatens my queerness. This choice validates the actions of predatory men that I, and every woman I know, have encountered. It brings the suffering of my Jewish ancestry into focus like never before. It devalues and endangers most of the people I love. And here I am in Zambia, a Peace Corps volunteer.

Some volunteers wish they could be home right now and some are scared to ever return. We’re overwhelmed by Facebook. We see many in deep mourning and anger and fear as well as plenty of white people posting about shiny happy superficial things as if nothing happened.

What does it mean to do international development work in the midst of this nightmare?

How do we make sense of working abroad when our own country is failing? Is that selfish?

What can I say to my colleagues when they remark in astonishment, “How are some Americans so horrible that they would elect someone so horrible, someone who doesn’t like us blacks”?

Do I crush my students’ dreams of going to America one day and tell them they are safer in Zambia?

I certainly hope that the perception of international development work as well-meaning altruistic twenty-somethings off to save those poor African [or insert any developing nation here] souls is forever disrupted. Where my attention lies now is soaking up what I can learn from my host country. I need to continue working alongside capable individuals who are different and accepting them, tolerating them, but most of all newly appreciating how much they accept and tolerate me. What can they teach me about peace? How do they view democracy? What are the ways that they support and protect each other? How can I take these lessons home to America?

I’ve learned that my Zambian village can have five churches with a vast array of beliefs coexisting in a small, close knit space. I’ve witnessed that government schools in this Christian nation can teach their children about Muslims and Hinduism with no judgment. I’ve had conversations in which Zambians were shocked at our level of gun violence when somehow they’ve been able to run a politically stable country with hardly any gun ownership, let alone violence.

This is not an “everything is going to be okay” moment. Everything is already not okay. And it won’t be for a long while. But this is a time to reevaluate why we do the work that we do and why it matters.

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