People often ask me what I do for my job.
Here is the truth: this is a very hard question to answer beyond simple trivialities – I work at a national park , and I help them develop their infrastructure to support ecotourism.
Even more incomprehensible; I was not even able to answer in that level of depth until I had worked in my office for seven months! Can you imagine being unable to answer such a simple question after more than half a year on the job?
Here is the thing though: Peace Corps work is supposed to be sustainable. Because of that, volunteers are supposed to take on projects that the community itself is interested in developing, and involve a variety of work partners along the way. We are NOT supposed to come in with our idea of how they should develop, do things on our own, then leave. That model is almost never sustainable. This is why it takes time to figure out how to answer the question, “what do you do for work?”
There are many aspects to sustainability that can be tricky. For volunteers, it is one thing to say that we can be agents helping people’s ideas become reality. It is another thing to actually make it happen.
So what has it been like to work in Mexico? Check out the infographics to learn more, and click on them to see larger resolution.
Let us begin with Mexico itself. What has it been like for the many ex-pat Americans who have tried to get something done here? To quote interviewees from the New York Times:
…the country is still a place of paradox, delays and promises never fulfilled for reasons never explained — a cultural clash that affects business of all kinds. In California, there was one layer of subtext, here there are 40 layers
– New York Times, September 2013
This is a country buried in bureaucracy; one that took four months of work, seven trips to the immigration office, and about a ream of paper to renew my work visa. It is a place of constantly changing sticky politics, and veiled social norms. It is not an easy place to get things done.
Then there is me. I am a complicating factor in the whole “getting things done” idea.
In my year here, I have strived to introduce ideas. If an idea resonates, we explore it. If it does not, I let it go. It is more about process than product. That may sound easy, but it is not. It has been a mix of frustration, crushed egos, inspiration, excitement, and back again.
In my opinion, the first thing a volunteer should do when trying to get something done: realize that the work is not about them.
I mentioned the process. This is a multi-phase part of the two year job.
Phase 1: Develop your job in a second language and within a foreign cultural context
Developing your job description is a little like deciding on your college major: easy for some, near-impossible for others.
When in doubt, eat tacos with your co-workers. In Mexico all roads lead to tacos. They are a coping mechanism when you fail; they reinforce bonds of friendship; they are the great equalizer that allows everyone to share in the experience… of fiery salsa.
Phase 2: Assemble financial backing for the project in a setting with many communication challenges
Phase two involves a lot of ego-checking and self-reminders that the project is first and foremost for the community. It involves seemingly impossible setbacks and sudden recoveries. And it involves lots of tacos.
Phase 3: Assemble tools and supplies for the project with limited resources and limited distribution of said resources
It is not easy to find things in Mexico. You cannot just look something up online or make an easy phone call to check that an item is in-stock. Things are still done face-to-face, and shelf-stocking is not very common.
Solution: become certain that your co-workers are invested in the project by having them join in on the scavenger hunt…and they will buy you tacos to celebrate the new purchases.
Phase 4: Start your project!
Phase 5: Close your project and leave having worked yourself out of a job, ie; leaving behind the skills, tools, and empowered feeling of being able to take charge of their own development
These last two phases of my job are slated to start in January 2014 and end in November 2014. I will be sure to write a follow-up post to document the inevitable surprises in this funny process of development work.
As you can see, it takes a long time to get your footing, to find your place, to set your goals, and to move forward. Much longer than we ever think. Peace Corps can be a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, partially for that. We can feel down on ourselves for not “accomplishing” products because we might not see what incredible strides and advances we have made in the process.
Two posts ago, I wrote about what Environment Volunteers have accomplished in Mexico during the past year. It may have sounded impressive to you then, but I would bet that is sounds even more impressive now that you can see what it is like to work in such a setting.
At our mid-service conference, the Peace Corps staff helped us check our grandiose self-expectations. We talked about how we define sustainability and discussed how we have already positively impacted our friends and co-workers.
Once we readjusted our lens of success, it was easy to see that we have made great strides in the process. We acknowledged that we started with a steep learning curve and are now armed to jump into the next year with a focus on implementation. And we know first-hand that sustainability takes time, love, and patience.
We were also told that we cannot compare our work to our previous experience: we cannot understand everything that happens, linguistically or culturally. We are working with people that need time to trust you; with people that often feel disempowered behind all of the red tape and political corruption. That we ask them to do things that they have never done before, outside of their normal work and/or family responsibilities. And we are telling them to think in the long-term when the overall culture celebrates the present.
They say that Peace Corps is the toughest job you will ever love. It is just that it is not tough in the way that we imagined.
With that in mind, I will alter my traditional “Making me smile” segment to “I celebrate” as a reminder of all of the less-obvious successes that I have been a part of.
- After a year of encouragement and invitations to teach, one of my co-workers now feels that she can introduce herself as an Environmental Education Specialist rather than a Campsite Assistant.
- After many heart-to-hearts, hugs, and cups of tea, my former neighbor feels that her desire to go to college is a good thing, even though it means leaving her family for a few years
- After collaboratively developing my project with my co-workers, they now believe that they have a rare opportunity to make the national park a better place
- That I was placed in an office that values improving the lives of the nearby impoverished communities because they understand that their livelihoods are intrinsically tied to the health of the forest
- That during the tough times, my coworkers have stood up for me, supported me and the project, and guided me through tricky cultural situations