By Jalen McNeal
In honor of Women’s History Month, Little Black Village recognizes Sabrina T. Cherry, who is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), teacher, writer, and speaker. I had the opportunity to interview Sabrina about her Peace Corps experience and how seeing the world, through the lens of service, has influenced her endeavors as a teacher, writer, and speaker. Sabrina graduated from THE historic Morris Brown College, where she received an undergraduate degree in Law and Legal Studies. Following the completion of her undergraduate degree, Sabrina went on to serve with the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa from 2001-2003. During the interview, Sabrina recounted how she was introduced to the Peace Corps while completing her degree:
I was a Law and Legal Studies major in undergrad and had plans of going to law school. I did an internship with the District Attorney for Fulton County and did not like it at all. If I had a mentor, they would have said to me: well, not all lawyers are in this sort of setting– there are many different options; why don’t you try interning or volunteering somewhere else? – but I just thought law school is out for me. At the same time, I was babysitting for one of my professors. His wife told me she heard a bit about Peace Corps and that she worked with a lot of people who had been in the Peace Corps. She encouraged me to look into it, so I did. I had never traveled outside the U.S., I wanted to visit the continent of Africa, and I didn’t have money to explore that as an option on my own– especially not for two years. I started looking into the Peace Corps and I met a Peace Corps recruiter who was amazing. He, an African American male, talked me through his experience and I was like ok, this is it. Prior to our conversation, I didn’t know anything about the Peace Corps, never heard of it, until my junior year of undergrad. Because of my professor’s wife and my recruiter, I got really excited about it and felt it was an option for me.
During her service in The Gambia, Sabrina worked as a Health Extension Volunteer and completed various projects to provide assistance to the community she was serving. Her initial assignment was at a local community clinic, and she eventually migrated to a Peer Health Educator Advisor role in the secondary senior school. Sabrina explained that the different capacities she served in during her time with the Peace Corps really influenced her interest in Public Health and teaching. In Sabrina’s words:
There happened to be an opportunity available at the senior secondary school, which is comparable to what we call high school, as a Peer Health Educator Co-Advisor. There was one advisor there and I would serve alongside him. So, I looked into that, and I thought ‘I would love to do this.’ I love health education and I love working with students. We had a chance to compete with Peer Health Educators from neighboring villages and to travel to other villages and train other Peer Health Educators in those communities as well– I loved that part of it. I really enjoyed working hands-on with the students and being at the school every day in this sort of train the trainer role. At the time, Peace Corps also encouraged us to identify secondary projects. My secondary project was revitalizing the school’s library. It was shut down–the only senior secondary and boarding school on the Island and there was no library. For me, an avid reader, I thought there can’t be a school without a library. We were able to solicit book donations and reopen the library. Some students came in to help me clean the library. We shelved the books so others could come in and use the library again. I also did other things, like assisting with training other incoming Peace Corps volunteers and Peace Corps staff members, as well as getting involved in a continent-wide Gender and Development (GAD) initiative. It was a pretty well-rounded experience, which I really enjoyed. While I was in the Peace Corps, I fell in love with Public Health even though I had never heard of Public Health as a discipline. I loved health education. I loved talking with people about taking care of themselves. And I loved working with communities.
Though Sabrina gained valuable experience and a broadened perspective during her time with the Peace Corps, she mentioned some of the hardships she encountered– specifically as a woman serving in a predominantly Muslim country:
We – my new community and me – didn’t always see eye to eye. There were a lot of gender rules at play. The Gambia is a predominantly Muslim country and there were a lot of expectations that went along with that. The harder part was talking about taboo topics that I had no awareness of– in terms of cultural sensitivity. It didn’t occur to me that I would be talking about things like sex and sexual health in a Muslim country as a woman– never occurred to me! It never occurred to me to think about HIV and AIDS education for women in a place where their agency related to negotiating sex varied. That was the hardest part and those weren’t things I realized until many many years later when I came back to the U.S. The job itself wasn’t hard for me, but some of the knowledge that I needed to have– that part was more challenging. I didn’t understand some of the push back… I was 21 years old, living abroad and free– not really thinking about a lot of different things… In terms of being a woman, that was probably the most difficult. Not because I was a Black woman, but because I was a woman in a Muslim country, in West Africa, in a rural village. There were very traditional rules in terms of dating, who initiates contact, what eye contact means, what a smile means, rules around letting someone in your house– I mean just very, very, very traditional roles, and this was of course 20 years ago. These cultural differences and my many missteps along the way has helped to fuel my passion for cultural competency and addressing cultural biases in health, as well as healthcare.
With consideration to the paradigm shift around gender roles, Sabrina elaborated on the discernment and conviction that is sometimes necessary when placing oneself in a new culture and environment– convictions concerning respect for one’s self and another’s culture. She discussed:
There were some things I felt like I needed to do out of respect. For example, in the village it wasn’t acceptable for women of my age to wear shorts– things like having your knees shown was considered more sexual than having your breast shown; women would easily walk to the water pump topless and that wasn’t an issue. But let’s say you walked out with really short shorts on– that was an issue. I really wanted to be respectful of the culture in that way. But when it came to communicating with men and some of the expectations around that, I felt like that was where I wasn’t willing to compromise. When it came to having my male counterparts visit my home, there were some negative implications of this. I felt like if you’re my counterpart, yeah, I want you to be able to visit me at my home. That wasn’t really an acceptable thing to do– to be in my home as a single woman with another man, even if we were just sitting in the common area talking. After a while, I felt like I had to try and be respectful, but I also had to think about my mental health, values, and norms– I had to decide where I was going to compromise and where I wasn’t going to compromise.
Following her return from The Gambia, Sabrina entered into grad school as a result of her newfound love for Public Health. After completing grad school, she worked in many Public Health capacities before pursing her doctorate and becoming a professor. She recounted her journey following her service with the Peace Corps:
Because I wanted to be in the field of Public Health, and I didn’t have much formal education or experience aside from Peace Corps, I knew I needed to go to grad school. I went to grad school, earned my degree– that was great– and moved to Las Vegas to work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I enjoyed it, but the last job I had was as a volunteer in the Peace Corps and it was amazing! While there were some exciting and meaningful aspects of my work, overall my job in Las Vegas was meh in comparison. I moved back to Atlanta and started working at a small HIV and AIDS nonprofit. That was more of my speed– it was really good heart work, where I felt like I was using my skills and my heart. I cared about what I was doing, and I knew my work was important. It was also hard work– it was heart work, but it was hard work. I was working with and serving alongside people who were already diagnosed with HIV and that was hard. People who were just trying to navigate a really challenging systems, trying to maintain their health, trying to address stigma in health care settings, and deal with stigma in their families… I met so many people who hadn’t disclosed to their family members that they were positive even if they lived in the same house– that was hard. I cried often– it was heavy for me for a number of reasons, including so many of the people I met looked like me. They were young, Black men and women who were in some seriously challenging situations. I left that job in 2008 and from 2008-2012 I worked in a few others arenas within healthcare. I worked for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the Greater Atlanta Affiliate and then transitioned to Northside Hospital. Around 2012, life happened, and I started thinking what am I doing? I had to really evaluate how I was spending my days and what I was doing with my life so I went back to school, which is how I ended up in seminary– mainly because of my own questions about faith and about God and about the things that I had been taught and how it didn’t make sense to me considering what was happening in my life. When I went to seminary, I knew I wanted to earn my degree and then head right into a doctorate program– so that’s what I did. That was really based on all my previously mentioned experiences. I knew heart work was something I was really invested in. I knew I needed to be working with people– I love mentoring, coaching, and helping people be their best selves. For me, that led to academia. I get a chance to teach, I get a chance to write, I get a chance to work with students, and I get a chance to work in the community. I couldn’t think of a better job. When I went to earn my doctorate, it was to explicitly get a full-time job in academia.
Through her strength, perseverance, warm heart, and intelligence, Sabrina continues to serve her respective communities as a teacher, writer, and speaker– sharing her wisdom with those around her to activate the gifts within themselves. As a parting remark for the youth, Black youth, and people in general, Sabrina shared:
For the youth, I would say enjoy your life! What I see now is that there is so much pressure to do, and to be, and to own, and to get to the next step, but I don’t see a lot of people having fun. Just have fun. Go out with your friends– well after COVID-19! Go to a dance party, host people in your home, make a good meal, go to a barbeque… I feel like I am able to do things that I do at this age because I enjoyed being 20– I really enjoyed just being young, without a lot of responsibility, and free. For all young people, enjoy and find joy– and find that with people, not on social media, but with people up close and personal. In terms of young Black youth, I would say… I am a first-generation college student, all the odds were against me, lost my dad at twelve– so I was in a single parent home for the latter part of middle school through high school, no money for college, never had been out of the country before Peace Corps… I don’t like the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality, so I’m not saying that, but what I am saying is that it is possible. It takes a lot of work, sacrifice, persistence, and perseverance, but it is possible– if we are just willing to put in a little bit more work and leverage the resources that are available. I had so many great mentors through the years–people who just poured into me–stood in the gap for my mom and sometimes stood in the gap for my absent dad, people who gave me a little word of advice or encouragement, people who gave me a second chance when I was being rude or obnoxious. It may seem really hard and really far-fetched, but it is so possible. That’s for my young Black youth. For people in general, all people– young, old, Black, whatever– travel! I don’t care if you’re going to the other side of town, just get out– see people, eat something new, listen to a different song. That’s how we get to, number one, broaden our horizons, and number two, be in community. I think a lot of the issues we see right now happening across our country are because people are in a bubble. Some think that just because you do something a certain way then everybody else does it the same way. Or because you were able to achieve this, everyone achieves it this way. No. There’s so much more to see. I tell our students in my Global Health class the U.S. is about 4% of the world’s population– 4%! Yes, we are a superpower when it comes to our military and some other advancements, but in terms of people, we’re just 4-5%. That means there is another 95-96% who aren’t here in the U.S. that we need to learn about. So, travel and see the world– learn about other people and cultures; that’s how we get a chance to really be in community.