“For me, volunteering abroad is an act of selfishness.”

This is an excerpt from an open letter I wrote to my friends and family in August 2013, while we were in the process of applying for the Peace Corps. Before we knew we were going to Morocco. Before we knew anything. These thoughts I had are a vital part of my personal journey.

Let’s get something straight here—I’m joining the Peace Corps for selfish reasons.

When people tell me that this decision is so “selfless” and “noble” of me, I feel very uncomfortable. The main problem is that this line of thinking reeks of privilege. It’s a complicated issue, and I’m afraid of oversimplifying it, but I’ll do my best here… Teaching English abroad is at best a Band-Aid-over-gaping-wound solution (temporary, superficial, inconsequential in the long run) and at worst an act of colonialism. International lenses are pivotal to social justice movements, but it is disingenuous to treat international volunteers as idealized “do-gooders.” Voluntarism is problematic. Good intentions are not enough. (See: TOMS shoes).

No rose-colored glasses here, but also… not as much cynicism as you might think. Criticizing something does not mean I think that thing completely sucks! It simply means that it is worth being cognizant about. I’m critical about a lot of things I like. (See: Game of Thrones, T.S. Eliot, Starbucks). The difference with the Peace Corps is that I am in a position to do more than passively criticize it—I can actively work to bring awareness to certain issues. By that, I do not mean colossal human rights issues like educational equity or human trafficking or racial justice. Productive and profound work still needs to be done in these arenas, but I’m referring to something just as systemic but much more difficult to pin down. I’m trying to discuss the kind of privilege that drives people to join the Peace Corps—not something to feel guilty about, but something to be aware of. It’s a difficult thing to maintain awareness of one’s own privilege. Anyways, these thoughts aren’t full or complete. I’m still working it out. These are not my last or definitive thoughts on the matter.

As the old saying goes—what is right is not always what is easy. We have to follow some basic “rules” (i.e. Do not usurp the voice of another community. Do not start unsustainable projects that will be abandoned in two years, etc.) and I have to be completely honest. I’m not joining the Peace Corps because I’m “altruistic”—I’m joining because it’s a job that happens to encompass all of my passions and because it’s a stepping stone towards what I want to do with the rest of my life.

I am NOT thinking: “I can save all those poor starving third-world children.”
I am thinking: “I will build the skills and experience I need for the field I want to work in.”

I am NOT thinking: “It is super gallant of me to give up American luxuries to serve the greater good.”
I am thinking: “I can travel. I can learn a new language. I can work with community programs. I can teach English. I will have more time to read and write. These are my favorite things!”

I am NOT thinking: “The global scale of my altruism makes it even more significant.”
I am thinking: “I can do the type of work I care about while making a positive impact on a community. Plus, this will be a good chance to learn more about the complexities of human rights and global development.”

I am NOT thinking: “I can change the world.”
I am thinking: “I can make my life richer and more resonant, and hopefully be a positive force in the lives of people around me.”

Now, two and a half years later, I’m still working it out. I still don’t have any definitive answers. And I think that’s okay! These thoughts are a process. A journey I’ll have for the rest of my life. 

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

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