I am in South Africa by the invitation of the South African government, and under the representation of an organization that is a part of the government of the United States of American. And while that comes with an immense amount of privilege, it too comes with a variety of additional constraints.
Some of these are in place for my safety and security. As with any organization, there are certain things that the company you work for will not let you participate in or partake in because of the impact it could have on the representation of that company. Today, these things usually fall under the “morality clause” section of an organizations HR book. And you would be hard pressed to find an active employee speaking out against its company on social media or other platforms less they may not be an active employee for much longer.
My employer is the United States Government for all intensive purposes. I am a member of the United States Peace Corps, and as such am discouraged from displaying any political persuasion that could be construed as an opinion of the larger organizations that I represent rather than an opinion held of my own individual belief. And I do not disagree with this role.
The work that you do as a PCV is of a delicate nature. Currently, I am working hard to integrate into my new community, and to get a group of people to learn to trust a complete stranger and foreigner into some of the most intimate parts of their lives. I am asking for people to trust me with their health status, sexual behavior, sexual history, and other intimate details of their day to day lives and stories which is not easy to share even with people you are closest with. So naturally, I believe that this type of work demands a delicate nature.
So to continue to do the work that I so desperately want to continue to do here, I must remain apolitical. It is incumbent upon myself and other volunteers to sidestep political conversations and to continue to be representatives of America, and to promote cross cultural understanding of Americans on the part of South Africans, and of South Africans on the part of Americans.
Where this notion comes into conflict with my rational is what “Americanisms” I choose to impart on the people I work with. There are so many things that I love so much about America, but they seem to be things constantly challenged by the administration that I left behind in charge of the country I love so much.
So today, I wanted to put into words a few things about the America that I want to represent, the America that I believe in, and the America that I know, no matter what challenges or shortfalls may be faced in the coming days, weeks and months will forever endure to be, because that is another thing I find American.
My America is a place that I love with all my heart. It is a pillar of hope and opportunity for the rest of the world, where a person can change their status and their lives, and make a better world for themselves than the one they were brought into. My America’s front door is always open, and reads “give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Thou warden of the western gate, above Manhattan Bay, The fogs of doubt that hid thy face are driven clean away: Thine eyes at last look far and clear, thou lightest high thy hand To spread the light of liberty world-wide for every land.”
The America I wish to share is a place that has a dark history full of mistakes, but a history full of people wishing to make things better. My America knows hard work, knows compassion, knows loss and knows love. My America defends the rights of its citizens, and defends those who can not defend themselves. My America believes in the power of both collectivism and individualism. My America believes in balance of powers and of power in the hands of the people. My America will promote education, critical thinking and new ideas. My America will not shy away from the challenges of the future, but will stride forward and adapt to make the world a better place. My America is a place that has both privilege and poverty, but that strives to make each life livable.
Before I climb back down off the soap box I find myself on, I want to share that it is growing up in my America that has given me the freedom to be able to form this opinion for myself. It was by coming to age in my America that I was encouraged to ask questions, seek understanding and to always feel empowered to question the status quo and that my ideas matter. That every persons ideas and options matter, and that they are entitled to those thoughts and opinions.
Some of my friends and family, when I told them I was planning on doing Peace Corps, questioned why I would choose to leave America to help abroad when we have so many challenges in the United States that need our help. One of the volunteers I am serving with sent a photo to our group that a relative of hers took when in New York, and it was an old advertisement for the Peace Corps, with a large picture of the Statue of Liberty pointing outward, and the catch line reads “Make America A Better Place. Leave the Country.”
The text below then reads that “Of all the ways America can grow, one way is by learning from others.” It proceeded to give a few examples of projects that can be done and some of the work, and concludes with “There are those who think you can’t change the world in Peace Corps. On the other hand, maybe it’s not just what you do in the Peace Corps that counts, but what you do when you get back.”
I think this ad manages to capture one of the goals that I wish to achieve in my time here. I am an American, and I will always strive to help my country and to do my part to make it a better place. But I am also a citizen of the world. I am a member of the human race. I am an inhabitant of the planet Earth. And as an American, a member of the world, a human and a resident of Earth, it is imperative that I seek to make better, to protect and to serve each piece of my identity.
And so, with no particular rhyme or reason to this post, I am going to conclude by saying that it is tough to be here, so far away from America when so much seems to be changing. I am taking some time to identify the different pieces of myself and of what I represent that I believe is worth fighting for and worth voicing. What are the things in your life that you hold dear? What, to you, is worth the words?