By: Jalen McNeal
In recognition of Black History Month, I interviewed the founder of Little Black Village, Leslie Jean-Pierre. I have had the privilege of learning about Leslie’s volunteer and travel experiences through the Little Black Village website and initiatives, and I felt he would be the perfect interviewee to answer some questions I had as a prospective Peace Corps Volunteer. The interview captured the overall spirit of what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer while examining the meanings of diversity, cultural awareness, and service in the context of the Peace Corps.
During the senior year of my undergraduate career, I learned about Peace Corps through a friend I met in Film and Darkroom– PHOT 3010 to be exact. He had explained to me the premise of the Peace Corps and how his time serving in the South Pacific archipelago of Fiji was both immersive and transformative. The exchange I had with my peer planted the Peace Corps seed in my mind, but I intended to complete my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies before pursuing service in the Peace Corps. After completing my degree program and starting a position as an Office Manager at a community center in Atlanta, Peace Corps was introduced to me again after crossing paths with Leslie. I was fascinated by my peer’s experiences in Fiji, which led to my inquiry about Leslie’s experiences with the Peace Corps– specifically as a black American serving in the Peace Corps. I plan to apply to the Peace Corps once COVID-19 is more under control, and in the meantime, I intend to equip myself with any available knowledge and wisdom that will aid in my success as a volunteer. When Leslie mentioned the possibility of interviewing Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), I was intrigued and ready to get answers to questions I had about the Peace Corps and beyond.
As an African American male born and raised in the deep south region of the Southern United States, I have somewhat of a narrow understanding of how I would be received abroad, both socially and institutionally, in contrast to the way I am received and placed in the United States as a cis male, African-American, member of generation z (colloquially know as “Zoomer”), gay, and the many other identities I align with. In light of these different identities and Leslie’s experience as an RPCV and Diversity Recruiter for the Peace Corps, I asked questions aimed at clarifying what diversity meant for him in relation to his experiences as a Peace Corps Diversity Recruiter and why diversity is important to the Peace Corps. Leslie explained:
“Diversity in the context of serving with the Peace Corps just means the proper representation of Americans who are serving through the Peace Corps. So, a proper representation means that a good percentage of the communities that are serving are from different parts of the USA… that means African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, LGBTQ, elderlies, veterans… you know the spectrum is wide, but from my personal experience, diversity is reflected throughout marginalized communities that often, don’t get exposed to the Peace Corps… the obvious is that if you’re sending Americans overseas to represent America, then it should truly be a representation–to the fullest– of America’s diverse cultures. We want to show the people we’re serving overseas who we are, by not only representing people of color, but the other diverse communities and how we coexist– and not that we necessarily live in perfect harmony, but that we are still able to thrive as Americans within a diverse nation, while still being willing to help people overseas and showcase our diversity.”
This working understanding of diversity prompted the next question that was centered around gaining an understanding of how one, with various identities, serves in a country with differences in convictions, cultural values, and operating norms. For example, as an African American, I have been exposed to prejudice and bias on various levels– both implicit and explicit– locally and globally. With this in mind, there is the possibility that I may face prejudice during my time serving, which could ultimately inhibit some projects or initiatives I would initiate as a volunteer. Leslie responded to my inquiry about working with peoples of different backgrounds, stating:
“Well, the great thing about Peace Corps is that it is an individual task– we are Americans backed by the United States government, however when you’re there with the community [the respective community a volunteer is serving in], you’re not there to change the community, you’re there to actually help them in what their needs are. So, you are going to be who you are and you’re going to work with that community; just in the fact that you are, as an individual, going there let’s say as a woman serving a Muslim community, you’re able to own your identity as an American woman with your own set of values and norms without changing their culture– that sets up a cultural exchange right there. Same thing as an African American going to a community of individuals who have probably never met an African American… The sure fact that you’re working with them and holding the space for cultural exchange is as important as the task you’re doing through your respective sector, like teaching, agricultural work, IT, whatever that task is. So, it’s equally as important to show who you are in all your identities/diversity. “
In light of Leslie’s response, I was reminded of the importance of going into new experiences with an open mind. While there is the possibility that I may not be treated fairly in certain situations, there is also the possibility to practice patience, empathy, and integrity as I am serving as a volunteer overseas. I can embrace all of who I am in contrast to experiencing any form of prejudice while being tactful and focused on the overarching goal. After the interview with Leslie Jean-Pierre, I was left with a broadened perspective on how to serve others from different cultural, ethnic, and geographical backgrounds. Maintaining a standard of cultural awareness and having the capacity to think outside one’s own paradigm is paramount for a successful Peace Corps volunteer. Leslie clarified that it is not a volunteers’ job to change the practices, norms, or institutions of the communities that have accepted Peace Corps volunteers. Rather, it is their job to assess the needs of the community and implement initiatives based on what the community has voiced a need for. Practicing cultural awareness and checking one’s biases and preconceived notions, when interacting with communities abroad, is truly a practice. This practice requires humility, grace, patience, and an open mind. For the readers that are considering joining the Peace Corps or embarking on international travels, I trust the words of wisdom shared in the interview will resonate throughout your endeavors as a volunteer and global community member.