Solidarity

I don’t like the idea that anyone should have to live in poverty- without clean water, healthy food, good health care, education, and opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way to society. But what exactly is poverty and what can we really do as a society to create a world without poverty?

I joined Peace Corps to get a clearer understanding of the answers to these questions. I wanted to have a better sense of what it is like to live in poverty, and I had heard that the Peace Corps places volunteers in a site affected by poverty and then pays about an average of what the people who live there earn. There, living in solidarity with the people around you, with few resources at your disposal, peace corps volunteers try to make a positive difference in their communities, and we get a better idea of this thing called poverty.

Now, I wasn’t so naïve to believe that as a Peace Corps volunteer, (PCV) I would really experience what it is like to live in poverty; after-all, I knew that it wouldn’t exactly be living in solidarity with the people around me because I actually could leave at any moment and return back to my family, network of friends, and in my case, even a career and a little bit of savings, in a very comfortable middle-class life in another world.

Regardless, living for two years and forming close relationships with people in a very different economic situation than I am used to, and trying to work within the economic constraints placed upon me, I knew I would gain a valuable perspective.

And I have. (Much more than I can explain in one blog post, so I will do a series of posts on the topic.)

For me the transition was easy at first. My site is a fairly developed and progressive site that some would call “PoshCorps”. I live in a provincial capital so I have access to most modern conveniences. I have running water (most of the time), electricity, and the real “Poshcorps” qualifier…a nice room with its own flush-toilet bathroom.

There were also inconveniences that I wasn’t used to, but I was able to adapt fairly easily to most of them… like having to boil water before drinking it, having to store water in bottles and buckets for when the water went out… and then take a bucket baths during those times, often not having good phone signal (i.e., having important conversations with the call dropping every 2 minutes), rarely having good internet, and my clothes often not drying completely during the 6 months of rainy season.

 

Like most places in the world, there are a range of incomes and wealth in my town. There are people who live really lavishly here, even more comfortably than how I grew up. And there are people who sometimes barely have enough to eat each day. The majority of people that I spend time with (my friends and family) make more than I do, though many work on short-term contracts or in agriculture, so there is no guarantee they will have work or a decent income the next year.

I live with a family that lives comfortably in terms of meeting their  so-called “basic necessities”, but they work 7 days a week and still live paycheck to paycheck, which makes for a lot of psychological stress.

In a few ways I do live in solidarity because we drink the same water, have the same quality of services like water and phone signal, and we share the same community, with all its benefits and challenges.

However, I have often felt like I don’t really live in solidarity  because of certain privileges that I had before moving here and certain luxuries of being a peace corps volunteer (you probably didn’t even think that was a legitimate phrase -“luxuries of being a peace corps volunteer”.)

One of the biggest luxuries is actually that allowance that I get – as small as it is, I know that every month Peace Corps will deposit a certain amount into my account that will cover my basic necessities. And on top of that, I have the best medical care I have ever had in my life; I can call my PC doctors any time and I am confident they will find a way to get me the care I need. (I know not all Peace Corps posts have that luxury, but I am lucky to have amazing doctors here in Peace Corps Peru).

Another luxury I find that I have is the ability, habit, and culture to save money, take vacation, and travel. One of the first uncomfortable differences I realized in site was that my family doesn’t take vacation and doesn’t travel. I felt a little guilty when they joked that I know more of Peru than they do.

For many people, vacations are important to our mental health and traveling for pleasure opens our minds and can expose us to new ideas that ultimately improve our lives. For me, seeing other places opens my mind, inspires me, fuels my creativity, and gives me a better understanding of myself.

However, I have found that vacations nor travel are  very common with a lot of the rural populations I’ve interacted with here.

In large part, it is simply due to lack of funds, and a history of growing up in that situation. It can lead to a culture of “scarcity mentality” where it feels like there is just not enough time or money, and all time and money must go to working or investing in the business. Even saving money isn’t common because that money should be immediately invested in something so it doesn’t disappear.

This is often combined with the “bootstraps” mentality, which says if you are poor, it is your own fault for not working hard enough because everyone can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just work hard enough”. So if you aren’t working, you run the risk of being poor, and if you’re poor, you should have worked harder.

You can imagine that I felt pretty guilty for taking vacations and traveling, as I realized what a privilege it was to be able to do that – because I have a stable income (even if I make less than some), but also because I have learned to value it and learned how to do it. Additionally, as a PCV I also have the luxury of having a network of other volunteers throughout the country that can help me navigate traveling so I can do it cheaply and safely; something that many people don’t have. (And as a modern PCV, with smart phones, data, and social networks, visiting new places throughout the country or even the region is made even safer and easier.)

So…surprise! One of the biggest lessons I have learned about poverty is learning to see my own privileges that I have now and have had throughout my life, and specifically, how they shape my view of constraints and opportunities under which I live.

What a privilege to grow up not have to boil water before drinking it; I could just drink straight out of the tap! (And that saves on the cost of gas for boiling water and the time it takes.)

I was able to take out many low-interest loans to attend university (student loans don’t exist here).

My university diploma is respected across the world (most here are not transferrable.)

My parents didn’t have to find time in their busy schedules to attend water committee meetings to make sure the local water system kept working and was chlorinating its water to protect against diarrhea-causing microorganisms.

To know about the latest findings, technologies, and advances to be able to do my work well, I can read the majority of scientific articles because they are written in English, which happens to be my first language. 

I have a stable income that permits me to not only meet my basic needs, but even save a little to travel within the country.

I can get a visa to enter almost any country I want.

And I have a network of friends and trusted acquaintances that can help me navigate traveling cheaply and safely.

This is only a tiny sample of some of the privileges that I have had that have given me the opportunities that I have now and which, in turn have empowered me to seek out more opportunities and live a more enriched life.

Thanks to certain investments that previous generations of Americans made in infrastructure, science, education, and trying to minimize corruption in the government, all my life I have been able to dedicate more time to advancing my education, maintaining my health, traveling, and finding and working in jobs that I love…and I have this opportunity to be living in another country, learning another language, and having this amazing intercultural experience.

This is a stark reminder for me to not take lightly the corruption in government, and political decisions to sacrifice investments in education, science, infrastructure, and health for investments in “physical defense” that will make their shareholders richer but not actually improve the security of the country, according to academic studies.

Recognizing the privileges that I have helps me understand and define poverty a little more. I may currently be living with a few more inconveniences than I was used to, but I do not feel poor. In fact I feel rich to be living in a beautiful and relatively secure place, with the support of wonderful people – family and friends here and back home, with a job that I enjoy, with the support of the organization Peace Corps, and living with the confidence that there are many opportunities in the world for me to continue to grow and contribute – and be paid for my work.

Poverty is both absolute and relative. Absolute poverty is lacking basic resources and opportunities to live a healthy and fulfilled life. Relative poverty is when everyone (or a lot of people) around you enjoy more resources and privileges than you, and so you feel poor. The “basic necessities” that define absolute poverty really end up being defined somewhat by the resources and privileges that others in the world have.

Do I deserve the privileges I have any more than the next person? How do I manage my feelings around some people having more privileges than others? What can I do to help people without these privileges enjoy them too?

My next posts will continue to address some of these questions.

Protecting Water Sources

Where does your water come from? A lake? A river? An aquifer? Do you know? In our busy lives, it is someone else’s job to think about that, to make sure we have clean water that is safe to drink. (Though in recent history the catastrophe in Flint, MI has made a few people think twice about the theme – even to the point of paranoia for some.)

I work with institutions whose responsibility is making sure people have clean water to drink, but they often only focus on building and repairing water systems. Unfortunately, a lot of times they forget that protecting the source of water, is just as important. So, as water systems get built by an outside entity, capturing water from rivers, streams, or springs, the people in the community start developing the land nearby and above these sources, within the watershed, cutting down trees, building houses (and therefore bathrooms), cultivating crops, using agrochemicals, and raising cattle or pigs that contaminate the water, not realizing the impact it will have on the water source.

We have the good fortune to have an NGO in our community (IBC) that has expertise in watershed protection (among other cool topic areas like native communities, stream health and others), and is a member of our group GTIFAS. Thanks to IBC, a very exciting part of our project is to work closely with five communities to identify risks to their water source and recommend ways they can eliminate risks and protect their watershed in the future – while respecting land rights and the need to have income generation from their land.

This involves strategies like reforestation with native plants, creating zones of protection, and creating zones for low-impact activities like raising bees or crops that use minimal agrochemicals.

Another important approach is a type of economic valuation of ecosystem services where, in this case, they the recommendation is to raise the water fee on the water bill to have some extra funds to help pay land owners for the environmental services the forests on their land provide in keeping the water clean – giving incentives to either not cut down forest, or to reforest areas near water sources.

While there are a lot of general recommendations we can give to each community, we wanted to make sure that we knew the situation on the ground and could give very concrete recommendations to each community, like which tree species could they plant and where, and what current activities are a risk to their water system. So, we planned to go visit the source of water for each community and to inspect the surrounding areas for risks.

It’s good to have friends that are experts in watersheds!

Just when I was heading to the office to do some planning for our first site visit, I saw two of my good friends, who work for the non-profit, taking a snack break. Since I have (finally) learned to slow down and take advantage of these breaks to converse with friends and co-workers, I followed them instead of diving right into my computer work. During the conversation, my friend pointed out that we should look at satellite images of the areas to help guide our inspection and give us an idea of what areas might have risks. What a brilliant idea, and I can’t believe I hadn’t talked to her sooner!

She helped me print out satellite images of each area, and showed me how to read them to have an idea of where land had been developed, where rivers might be, and how to show topography. It turned out to be a key tool in our analysis, in conjunction with using google maps on the phone to help track where we were during the inspections.

The next day, we headed out to climb to the water sources for three different water systems. Each time was a steep ascent through the high jungle hills, each taking between 30 minutes to an hour to reach the top. From there, we explored the surrounding areas, looking to identify the possible risks we saw from the satellite images, as well as any other risks we could identify on-the-ground.

Our tree expert from IBC

The day started out with good luck as we saw two wild monkeys – tiny rabbit-sized animals with a long tail – playing in the trees. My first experience ever seeing wild monkeys!

I know you can’t see them, but I swear there are two small monkeys in the tree across the highway.

Later we passed a tree that produces a cotton-like substance – my first time seeing cotton fall from a tree. Finally, it was the first time that plants stung me through my pants – who knew that plants could sting, and even through cloth?! I thought that only happened in Australia.

You can imagine that I was pretty hungry by lunch time, so I blame the low blood sugar for my slip of the tongue when I asked if anyone was “dying from the man” instead of dying of hunger (“alguien esta muriendo de hombre?”)!

Actually, I could write a whole blog entry on all my slips of the tongue in castellano… and maybe one day I will. Stay tuned…

Field Days

My favorite part of my job is definitely when I get to be out in the field (“campo”), inspecting or repairing water systems with the operators or the volunteer water committees… and yet I haven’t written much about that, so today I am taking some time to share some of the work we did last week.

An important part of maintaining a rural water system is cleaning and disinfecting it regularly so that sediments, microorganisms, and mold don’t build up inside. This can be a little complicated because it requires high concentrations of bleach in a confined space, that later have to be disposed of in a safe site (not a river or stream). So, you can see why training water system operators to properly clean the water system is an important job.

You may recall that we had a hands-on workshop with the system operators back in April, where we went to a water system and actually practiced the disinfection process. But since every system is a little different, and it takes a few times to change old habits, we are now doing one-on-one trainings with five different communities. Since we are working with a group of university students studying environmental engineering, we invited them to come learn and help with one of the systems.

It is quite a coordination process working with volunteer water committees because we have work within their schedules. That means we wait for the water committee to schedule their next meeting, we attend the meeting, we find out when they plan to do their next cleaning, and we ask if we can come oversee the process and help out. For me, that means a 30-minute bike ride (each way) through the beautiful green hills of Oxapampa to arrive at the community each time we need to coordinate, attend meetings, or and participate in activities. (Poor me!)

All the coordination paid off this week, and we had a great hands-on training, resulting in an improved process for cleaning and disinfection that will make it quicker for the operator and will protect the nearby river.

Another day during the week, 30 minutes on bicycle in the opposite direction, we did a water system inspection with the group of university students. After hiking up through one of the beautiful verdant hills for more than an hour, we arrived at the spring box where the water system collects water from a spring. We took measurements and discussed what was working well and what could be improved, and then descended, doing the same for each component of the water system.

Later in the week, we returned to the same system to train the university students in monitoring chlorine levels. We explained the key monitoring points in the distribution system, and we then went to each point to take measurements, (me in bicycle and them on their motorcycle.) Their homework was then to monitor the chlorine for a week, create a registry for the results, and to then train the operator to use the registry.

 

That same day, the operator had identified a leak in the system, so we took the opportunity to help him fix the leak, learn his procedure, and point out a few additional best practices for the future. The operators tend to be elected by the community, and often don’t have any water-system-specific training, but because they have often built their houses or worked on similar projects, they have a general idea and incredible ingenuity and can complete the basic functions, even if they aren’t aware of the best practices.

   

 

The field work is really my favorite part of the job, so I’m really happy to be in the field-work phase of our project – that means more time working side-by-side with water committees and operators, so they can be more effective at ensuring their communities have clean water.

A Winning Team: GTIFAS

The months of March and April had some incredible moments that have made me so proud, inspired me, and made me feel like I am doing what I came here to do.

This post is kind-of a follow-up on “People Make the Difference” about my proudest accomplishment – the formation of our working group “GTIFAS”, as it is the work of the members of this group that has made me feel so proud and fulfilled these past months.

First, it is important to recognize that the members of our working group “GTIFAS” each have their full-time work, and they are by no means obligated to work with and participate in the group. While our work supports their work goals, it is not a requirement for them. They take time out of their already-busy work days to attend meetings and contribute.

Because of this, I am grateful and honored every time we have a meeting and everyone shows up – it really means a lot to me! (Before every meeting I wonder if anyone will show up; it has happened a handful of times that no one showed up or only one person did, because emergencies often come up at work.)

Also, their participation is a real demonstration of trust – trust in my leadership and in that of the other members, and faith that together we can make a positive difference. I value this immensely, for its face value, but also because I did not have that trust when I first came here – it is something I had to build over time, something I had to earn – and it makes a real difference in our ability to work together.

As a group, we applied for a grant to be able to do more focused outreach this year, and thanks to the great contributions of everyone in the group, we received the funding this year! The funding gives us resources to do more in-depth, hands-on training in five rural communities so that they can become sustainable managers of their water systems and ensure clean water is supplied to their community on a continuous basis.

In April, we completed the first phase of training with the financing we received, and the process of planning for, and implementing, the trainings was a challenging but fulfilling journey that I will share here.

For our first planning meeting, I was a little worried, because we were going to try something completely different and innovative for us, and I didn’t know how it would go. Traditionally, the trainings we had done were based on the same powerpoint slides, modified a little bit each year – a time-efficient way to plan trainings, but not very interactive, interesting, or effective.

This time, we were going to try out a new methodology for designing interactive trainings – one recommended by both Peace Corps and the Peruvian government’s program in water and sanitation. Everyone was on board, but we were going to have to put in more time and effort, and really branch out from what we were used to.

I spent days planning for the first two meetings with the group – putting together materials and a guide for the new methodology with worksheets to help us through it, and I compiled everything in a folder for each of the members. (I don’t think I’ve been more prepared for a meeting in my life, while nervous at the same time.)

I didn’t know if everyone would trust the process enough to put in the extra time and energy. I also worried they could receive my guidance as an insult or think I was treating them like students.

When I first began explaining the methodology and my proposal for how to work towards developing the trainings, I was met with crickets. It was clear that they either didn’t want to do it, or didn’t quite follow what I was saying.

Then one of the group members stepped in and started explaining the methodology much better than I had explained it (Spanish is hard sometimes – even after a year and a half). After a minute, you could see the light bulbs go off, as they caught on. Phew! It had just been my clunky Spanish.

Once the idea was clear for everyone, we broke into groups to apply the new methodology in developing plans for the trainings. It is not easy to learn a new theory and apply it all at once, but our group latched on quickly and the creative ideas that came out of the working groups were impressive! It was another reminder of how grateful I am to be working with such great, intelligent, thoughtful people!

To complete the planning for all the trainings we were going to do, we had to meet a total of 5 times throughout the month, and I came out of every single meeting feeling like I was achieving the goals of my service – helping my counterparts achieve their own goals and the goals of the national government, and learning alongside them. I saw every one of us catching on to the new methodology more and more every time, we were working great as a group, and everyone wanted to contribute and was looking for ways that their respective institution could contribute… and all while being able to joke and enjoy each other’s company in the long, somewhat tedious meetings.

Then, all the hard work paid off, and we held three days of training in rural WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) themes, each day for a different group. The first day of training was for the people who work in the rural health posts, and we also invited environmental engineering students from the local university.

We had many more students attend than we thought would come (70 attended!), which was wonderful, even if challenging. Since it was our first time trying out such an interactive training, it didn’t exactly go smoothly at first (especially with more students than we expected). We worked out the kinks as we went along, and we ended with a session in which the students’ collaboration with the health workers blew me away in the final skits they had to present. We received positive feedback, including one student who said she had never been to a training so interesting.

The second day of training was for the members of the 30 rural water boards in Oxapampa and focused on the basics of administration. This training day also went well, and the interactive activities were really helpful, (though we learned the hard way of the importance of sticking to the schedule and not letting presenters hog too much time).

The final day was for the operators of the local water systems, and we held the training in one of the rural communities that has a well-maintained system so we could do hands-on activities and point out real examples of best practices. It went well overall, despite slight disorganization during the hands-on sessions (one of the challenges of a doing a 3-full-day training with limited personnel.)

The training ended with pachamanca*, prepared by the local community – a great way to close the session and thank everyone for their time.

 

*If you don’t know yet what pachamanca is, I have been a bad PCV-Peru blog-writer. Pachamanca is a typical food here – it is how we celebrate any special occasion. It is originally from the “sierra” (mountain region), and it is prepared by digging a hole in the ground, heating stones over a fire, then putting the stones in the hole with meat seasoned with a green herb called chincha, yucca, potatoes, sweet potatoes, large bean pods called “habas”, and plantains. The food slow cooks in the ground for hours and comes out delicious!

 

Field Trip!

Last week we held an event that I’ve been wanting to do since I got here, and the best thing about it is that I didn’t even offer the idea, plan it, or organize it…one of my counterparts did. (And she pulled it together in one month, which just amazed and inspired me!)

It was a two-day “pasantía” or knowledge exchange field trip for rural water committees and the municipal representatives that oversee the rural water situation in the 8 different districts in the province of Oxapampa.

First, some background: Every district has one municipal worker called the “ATM” in charge of rural water and sanitation, and that person is in charge of helping organize all the rural water committees in his/her district and helping them build, rehabilitate, improve, and maintain their water systems. There are usually between 20-60 water committees in each district – so it is no easy job, especially not for 1 person.

The government has an incentive program that awards money to municipalities if they achieve certain goals such as surveying and entering detailed data about the situation in every community, formalizing water committees, preparing annual plans, and installing chlorination systems. The incentive program is updated annually, so it defines the ATM’s work for the year.

The ATM of one district explains a chlorination system at a reservoir.

Up until now, each ATM in each district was pretty much working in their own district and didn’t really communicate with the ATMs in the other districts. This event brought all of the ATMs together to share experiences and ideas. Turns out they all have similar experiences and frustrations and it was really helpful for each of them to see that other people are going through the same thing. They shared challenges and best practices, and they now have a rapport between them so they can call each other for support throughout the year.

While it seems pretty straight-forward, meeting the goals of the incentive program turns out to be incredibly difficult for the ATMs, because success relies on the participation of the water committees, which are made up of volunteers, who have limited time and other priorities.

An ATM presents the model water committee from his district.

The essential part of the “pasantía” is that the ATM in each district also brought a member of their best water committee to participate. These were the motivated volunteers who share some of the same challenges motivating the other members of their communities to participate.

The most interesting and inspiring part of the event was the “field trip”, where we went out into the field in the afternoons to visit the water system, and we met the water committees in two different districts. These were the “model” water committees that are the most organized and are functioning the best in each of the two districts where we were. It was really powerful for everyone, especially the members of the other water committees, to see an example of what a water committee could be.

(Granted they still weren’t perfect and they each said they had learned ideas during the pasantía that they were hoping to incorporate to continue improving.) But for both the other water committee members and the other ATMs, and even for me, it was really powerful to see an example of motivated, organized people improving their communities.

The ATM and the operator of a model community present their drip chlorination system.

The use of an example is powerful. It shows us that what we are trying to do can, and has, actually been done.

The president of the model water committee in one community presents the administrative books for the water committee in her community.

Collaboration is miraculous…it helps us think about our challenges in a new way, and it’s inspiring to know that other people share our challenges and our passion and are working on the same issues.

The president of a water committee explains how she resolves certain problems motivating the people in her community to help maintain the water system.

And a field trip, getting out of the meeting room, out of the office, out of our own communities, out of our own routine does wonders to open the mind, let new ideas in, and help us think creatively.

The group hikes to the water reservoir in one of the model communities.

Conveniences

At the table this morning, my mom was making bread – kneading and pounding dough, up to the elbows in flour, while I was eating breakfast – my usual fresh fruit smoothly (though usually it is papaya juice, while today it was banana, peanut butter (that I made myself), and milk fresh from the cow), with bread and cheese.

My mom makes bread in her wood stove almost every week – we alternate between eating fresh, homemade bread (yes, it’s as good as it sounds), and bread from the tienda (which is still usually pretty fresh, just made in someone else’s home, but still never quite as good). We were chatting and the conversation turned to the idea of selling bread, and she wanted to do some quick math to see how much she could sell the bread for and what kind of profit she would get.

We did the math and the profits weren’t too impressive, (just 12 soles ($4) per batch of dough and 4 hours of work. On the other hand, that’s 48 soles a month she saves by making the bread when we eat homemade bread instead of buying it, which was a result she was happy with because I think she also enjoys making bread).

It led me to thinking about my privilege. I personally never really had to think about whether to make or buy my staples to save money. If I decided to make bread, or pizza crust, or undergo some cooking or baking project, it was usually more for entertainment or to learn something rather than to save money.

This reminded me of a book I read (Poor Economics), that pointed out that this very thing is one of the differences between the rich and the poor – those with plenty of money don’t have to spend so much time and energy thinking about whether the small things will save them a few dollars here or make them a few dollars there, and instead can invest their time and energy in things that bring in bigger profits. So naturally, every day, someone that starts with more resources will have more opportunities to make themselves richer by much greater margins than someone who starts with fewer resources.

People with clean water delivered to their house consistently every day, don’t have to boil their water every day before drinking it or cooking with it – which takes time, (mental) energy, and money to pay for gas or wood for a fire.

I have seen that when someone has a medical problem here, they usually have to travel a day and a half to a bigger city to see a specialist (sometimes after waiting weeks or months to get an appointment.) I never realized before how lucky I was to always live in a city with a decent hospital that had a variety of specialists. Simply having a well-staffed, larger hospital means that people who get sick or have medical problems (and have insurance or can afford it…a whole other topic) lose fewer days of work, can get treated more quickly, and bear a little less stress associated with managing the medical problem.

These are just two of many examples I have experienced here that contrast with some of the conveniences I enjoyed in my life, without even realizing or appreciating their value and importance…and therefore highlight privileges I have had throughout my life that I didn’t even realize I had.

These privileges that I enjoyed are not simply due to the US being a wealthier country, as many people assume. They are actually mainly due to the fact that I have always lived in an urban area and not a far out rural area, that I have always had medical insurance, and due to government policies that subsidized and promoted certain infrastructure development in farther out rural areas.

There are and always will be people that have fewer advantages, fewer opportunities and privileges than me, and you – in our own countries, in our own communities, and in other countries. And we can choose to only focus on advancing our own wealth every day, or we can remember that we are part of a larger community, a larger country, and a larger world, and try to advance the collective wealth (health, opportunities, sense of safety and security and justice).

The Art of Sitting

One thing I love about Peace Corps is the emphasis not only on achieving our program goals (for example bringing clean water to people), but they equally emphasize “Goal 2” and “Goal 3”, which basically are to have a cultural exchange in order to promote understanding between Peruvians and Americans and vice versa.

Hence, while my job involves working with governments and water committees, it is fair to say that 2/3 of my job is to build good relationships and promote understanding with my family, friends, and the people I work with here in Peru, and also to share my experiences with people back home. To that end, Peace Corps puts a great emphasis helping us navigate cultural differences and encouraging us to take time to build good relationships in our communities.

This is one of the reasons I love the Peace Corps model because for me, that is not only what development should look like, that is what life should look like – we should always be working to deepen our relationships, exchange ideas, and talk through (and often celebrate) differences, and take time to learn from each other. But with all the pressures of work and responsibilities, it can sometimes be hard to do.

In fact, I think one of the biggest challenges of being an adult – a challenge that I don’t think ever ends – is finding that work-life balance* that is right for us. At least in my adult life, it has been a moving target, and while I have found good rhythms at times, life is always changing and I am always changing, and there is always more work and more life that wants to be had, and never enough time for it all. So, I always had a stressful internal struggle and guilt about the amount of time I put into relationships vs. work.

Living in a new place, speaking and understanding a new language, making new friends, building a new life, while working in a new job, is even harder than I thought it would be, and I have found that having and investing in good relationships is possibly even more important than ever before. Luckily, I feel that the Peace Corps Peru program understands these dynamics, and it really helps me manage my stress just to know that the time I put into building relationships with my family and friends doesn’t take away from my work here, it is foundational to my work here – one of the key expectations of my job.

Granted, they also say that our job is a 24-7 job. After working in the field or with counterparts, we are still on the job when we come home to eat dinner with the family or spend time with friends or family on the weekends. But as with any job, when you love what you do it doesn’t feel like work…to some extent. As with any job, when you work a lot even what you love can be tiring. And with learning and living in a new language, a new culture, a new place, sometimes just conversing with friends or family is exhausting!

But time and again I have found that the investments I put into taking time to slow down and chat with people, (ignoring the sense of urgency and stress from work I have in the back of my mind), have been crucial in my work and my life here – just as they told us during training.

For example, one encouraged activity they told us about in training is to practice the “art of sitting”. Basically, it just means taking time to sit around with people, even if there isn’t a conversation going or anything happening really – to just sit with people. Coming from the fast-paced life of DC it this was really awkward and hard for me. But the art of sitting really works. It has definitely deepened my relationships with people, especially with my host family, and I’ve noticed at least three really cool things that have come from it: 1) I have developed a connection and more trust with the people I have sat with, 2) I am able to share things and make small talk more easily than I could before, and 3) It has led to some great conversations.

One of the best time to do this (though the hardest for me at first) is after lunch or dinner, while still at the table with the family. Instead of rushing to clear the table and wash dishes or watch tv, a lot of times we just hang out at the table for a while. Sure, sometimes (or a lot of times) there’s awkward silence (but it sometimes gives me a chance to try to think through what has happened during the day or something interesting to share…and then to think about how to explain it in Castellano).

Often, like today, the silence will give birth to a really interesting conversation. I don’t even remember how it happened, but today my mom started telling us a part of her life story – her mom’s life and how she and her dad lived in the highlands and then walked to Oxapampa to settle here. It was pretty fascinating for a casual conversation that sprouted from the art of sitting.

Other times, I will share things that happened at work or challenges I am having, and hearing other perspectives will give me good insights into how people I’m working with might perceive what I am doing. And the best conversations (rare, but worth the wait), are when my host dad cracks one of his deadpan jokes that starts a whole string of jokes with everyone laughing (and sometimes I even understand and can laugh too.)

If you don’t already do this, try out the art of sitting…embrace the awkward silence, and wait to see what blossoms.

 

*Geeky caveat: The term work-life balance can be tricky because it means something different to everyone. Work that you enjoy doing is arguably not work, especially if it is with people you enjoy working with, so how does one even define “work” as being different from “life”? (Spoken like a true workaholic). For the sake of argument and clarity, I’ll say that work is what we do to make a living and it usually takes away time from being with other people you enjoy being with who aren’t doing the same work.

People Make the Difference

Now this is going to sound super ivory-tower, bureaucratic, but the thing I am have been most proud of after my first year in site, is that I helped form a working group. Not just any working group, but one that actually works – that meets and does stuff. I know this probably sounds pretty lame to some, but anyone working in government or trying to get different organizations to work together might be able to appreciate why I am so happy about this. And some of you will also appreciate that our group has an acronym: GTIFAS. (Say: heteefas because the G sounds like an H in Spanish.) (And in case you wanted to know, it stands for: Grupo Técnico Interés de Fortalecimiento en Agua y Saneamiento).

I know this doesn’t have the flair of “I built a water system that will bring water to 100 people”, but here’s the thing: The municipality has built many water systems to bring water to hundreds of people in rural communities here, but that water is not potable water, the majority of the systems are not maintained, and some of them not functioning properly. So, as I learned in my work with Engineers Without Borders, infrastructure is really only half (if even half) of development – it’s the social aspect – the people part – that is equally important, crucial for sustainability, and often overlooked. (1)

An unused reservoir due to various factors, including a poorly designed filter and poorly organized water committee.

So, when I arrived, what I found was a really great foundation for having clean water: Constructed water systems. Many different institutions whose purpose is to make sure people have potable water – specifically, the municipality and three different health institutions. Even an NGO that does similar work (watershed protection). And, smart, motivated people working in the institutions.

And all these people and organizations have all been working at this for a while – even decades for some, but usually working separately within their own institutional goals and bureaucratic reporting requirements (even though they all have a common goal of making sure people have clean water to drink (among many other goals that they manage)).

So… I formed a working group. With 7 different organizations, if you count Peace Corps (me). That is, 7 motivated, smart people.

And, while previously these organizations had rarely, if ever, met in the same room to talk about the problem of potable water, in this past year we have met at least every other month, and are giving monthly trainings in rural towns – which is something that has never before happened.

Interactive training in rural community. (The training was led by 4 different members of GTIFAS.)

We are now analyzing the results from the trainings last year to see if we are any closer to having functioning water committees and systems that provide potable water. And together we have dreamed up a plan for expanding our work for 2018, (hopefully with the help of a funding from outside sources), to have a greater presence and give better support in these rural communities, using (and trying out) the latest strategies in development related to health promoters and behavior change.

While I will give myself credit for helping make this group happen, I definitely do not take all the credit…the real credit goes to the individuals who come to those meetings and participate in the group – they are motivated, passionate, and don’t just work for the paycheck – they really do want to see these rural communities have access to potable drinking water. And they are taking a chance on this group – coming to meetings even though they are super busy and tired from a long week, putting in the extra effort, and hoping that our combined efforts will lead to a real change.

Right now we are just a working group that has given some good trainings, shared some good ideas, and applied for a grant for t2018. But still there is no potable water, so I’m not patting myself on the back saying the work here is done. But we are working on human issues that take time to change – behavior change, changing how people thing about water, and training people with low education levels on how to manage a water system in its technical and administrative aspects.

These things take time, perseverance, creativity, and constant effort. The ideas, collaboration, and energy that are coming out of the working group give me hope that this is an important first step towards real changes.

Now to the real work…to stay motivated and keep each other motivated in the long process ahead.

Three of the seven GTIFAS representatives at a training to prepare a grant proposal.

1. So, if you’re into footnotes and soap boxes, here’s one. While building something is really sexy and sounds awesome, the reality is that maintaining that something is where the real work and benefit lies…the long-term, arduous, un-sexy work that is super necessary and usually unappreciated and certainly underfunded. We often think infrastructure and technology are what make our lives better, but without people keeping those things working well, we would not have them. So thank you to all the people out there doing the best they can, working on maintaining the infrastructure and institutions humans have created throughout the centuries.

Processing the 2016 Presidential Election (Part 2: Peace Corps Intercultural Training)

In my last post, I attempted to process what happened last week with the election, why I (and 50 million other Americas) are so ridiculously upset, and what we could possibly to do now. I also promised to share some things from Peace Corps training that I think are really applicable in this situation. It’s interesting that, up to now I am having to apply this training more in the inter-cultural context of the US than in my experiences living in Peru.

Confianza

Only when there is a foundation of love and respect can real conversations happen and can real change take place. This is one of the core concepts Peace Corps trains us in – confianza, or trust/confidence and respect, are foundational for any of the work we do. Without this, we are just an outsider coming in trying to change things because we think we know better than the people living their lives everyday…without respect and building trust, we will try to do projects that don’t make sense, and people will nod their heads to please us, but when we leave, our work will not last. The first thing we have to do is really listen, with an attitude of respect. (The Ted Talk below explains this nicely.)

Integration

Peace Corps aims to prepare us to assimilate and build strong, real, lasting relationships, to step outside of our comfort zone and try new things, and to expose ourselves to new ideas…all without endangering ourselves, losing sight of our own values, or doing something that goes against our core values. It is not easy, and it is not a science, but it is something that we have to learn to do when we work with, live with, interact with people very different from us. In our diverse America and in this rapidly globalizing world, this is becoming more important than ever.

Intercultural Competency

One of my favorite things that Peace Corps shared with us was the “Intercultural Development Continuum”, which describes the following phases of intercultural competency:

Denial Being comfortable with the familiar. Not anxious to complicate life with “cultural differences”. Not noticing much cultural difference around you. Maintaining separation from others who are different.
Polarization/Defense Strong commitment to your own thoughts and feelings about culture and cultural difference. Incomplete understanding and fairly strong negative feelings or stereotypes about people different from you, often leading to distrust of, and tendency to be judgmental about cultural behavior or ideas that differ from your own.
Minimization Recognizing other cultures with differences in behavior and ideas and recognizing that people are pretty much like you, but such that you assume that you understand the situation the same as a person from another culture, without recognizing the full extent of their experience and situation.
Acceptance Recognizing your own culture and different cultures as various ways of experiencing the world, and understanding that people from other cultures are as complex as yourself – their ideas, feelings, and behavior may seem unusual, but you realize that their experience is just as rich as your own.
Adaptation  Recognizing the value of having more than one cultural perspective available to you, and having the ability to take on the perspective of another culture so that you can understand or evaluate situations with either your own perspective or that of another. Able to intentionally change your behavior to act in culturally appropriate ways outside your own culture.

 

I had never really thought of adaptation to other cultures being a clear and different step that comes after minimization and even after acceptance. I think a lot of us were stuck in denial before this election, and a lot of us in polarization/defense as well. I hope that from here we can pull ourselves past minimization (where we assume we understand others’ perspectives and minimize the value of their voice, especially their complaints or call for change), and into acceptance and adaptation.

Adaptation

One common occurrence of those in the “adaptation” phase is intolerance of those in other stages on the continuum. I think this is where a lot of us are now, and this is our challenge – to understand and accept that people are in a different place, a different stage on the continuum, for a variety of reasons, and we will need patience, love, and respect, while at the same time working to break down barriers and promote understanding and tolerance.

different-levels-consciousness

So that’s the theory, but how do we put this into practice? Here’s one example, just in time for thanksgiving. And another. Please share more in the comments section!

Recommended Reading: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High