Sitting in Kigali, Rwanda reading news article after news article about the political turmoil back home across the entire United States, I am struck repeatedly with this question – “What am I doing here?”
What am I doing in Rwanda, when in my own country, our own women, our black population, our poor, and every other kind of minority population is in dire need of justice?
Of course, justice has always been needed in the United States for these populations. The history of injustice in America runs deep and wide. I didn’t begin work in East Africa with a disillusion that somehow foreign places need programs and efforts more than we do in the US. Yet, this is where I am now, struck hard by the immediacy and enormity of need back at home. To understand for myself why I am here and not at home, I have reflected on the road that brought me to this porch in Kigali right now – January of 2017.
First, I studied abroad in Tanzania my junior year of college. A full semester’s worth of tuition money was allocated towards this international experience, which greatly shaped who I am today and ignited the interest I already had in international work. Then, I served in the United States Peace Corps for two years, living in rural Rwanda. Again, a massive amount of money was spent so that I could be living and learning (and ideally in some ways being of use) in a foreign country and culture. Even just the name of it-- United States Peace Corps—it’s incredible to think about the mission behind this decades long service agency. It’s incredible to think that our government instituted this opportunity 50 years ago, with the following 3 goals:
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. (Read: Capacity building, upon invitation)
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. (Read: Give others a good/realistic impression of America)
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. (Read: Give Americans a good/realistic impression of other peoples)
It’s arguably one of our best forms of foreign diplomacy, and one that truly encourages Americans to also learn about and learn from others, not just to push a political agenda. As Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and current California Representative, John Garamendi explains,
The ongoing story of the Peace Corps is a story of human capital. It is a story of our nation investing in our citizens who wish to serve others and do great things. It is also a story of individuals around the world taking advantage of the Peace Corps’ investment to achieve great things that they might not have believed imaginable. Through the Peace Corps, we are orienting hearts and minds toward the best of American values… The Peace Corps remains effective because of the American investment in human capital and the timeless ideals upon which it was founded: friendship, mutual understanding, collaboration and hard work.
But what about extending those same values on our own soil?
After serving in the Peace Corps, I joined AmeriCorps for a year of service in the US. Some describe AmeriCorps as “Peace Corps light” because you have the familiarity of working in your own language, culture, can still eat your favorite foods etc., but I would not describe the experience I had as “light” anything.
The girls I worked with at Florence Crittenton High School in Denver, CO represent many of the minority populations that most need justice and services in the US today. My students were majority Hispanic or Latina (documented and undocumented) or black, young girls aged 14-21, pregnant/parenting moms who largely survived on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps), Medicaid and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). These young women were faced with the daily struggles of trying to provide for their babies, often without the help of the boy or man who impregnated them to begin with, and often without family support. They were trying to get a high school diploma, feed, clothe and provide health care for themselves and their children, and stand up against a society that discredited them for becoming teen moms. They suffered from depression, anxiety, and anger. Some were suicidal. Some were homeless. Some were abused. All of their lives were hard.
Florence Crittenton (“Flo Crit”) is one of their only realistic options for finishing school while they go through pregnancy and early motherhood. Flo Crit provides a holistic set of services including on-site day care, an Early Childhood Learning center, an on-site healthcare facility, high school courses for diploma, and mental health services including a social worker, psychologist, and counselors. Without these services, partially funded by the city of Denver tax payer dollars and partially by non-profit fundraising, continuing their education was next to impossible.
My AmeriCorps service highlighted to an even greater extent what I already knew—The United States of America needs “aid services” just as much as those in developing nations. Americans, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers living peacefully on US soil need all the same opportunities, freedom and access that we so often seek to provide to people beyond our borders.
Following my year with AmeriCorps, I made a (ridiculously) hard decision to return to East Africa, developing and growing The Women’s Bakery with my dear friend Markey Culver. In large part, the decision was hard because I absolutely loved and believed in the work I was doing at Flo Crit. I had deeply experienced the needs that exist right at home, and was reluctant to disrupt those ties, the relationships I had built with students and families, only to uproot again and begin anew half way across the world.
One of the things that did compel me though (aside from the obvious chance to co-found a social enterprise and ideally build a business that will positively impact thousands or hey, millions) was that the goal was the same. I was still going to be working to provide people, women especially, with opportunities for education, access, and freedom. Basic human rights. And this is where I see the huge need for all of us, across the globe, to remember that we are all essentially the same. Whether I am working with Americans or Rwandans, at home or abroad, I am truly just working on behalf of humans. Sometimes our ties to nationality, race, religion, etc. drag us down because they cause us to be less inclusive, less accepting, and less tolerant of what is outside of those defined categories.
As I sit here thousands of miles away from a heightened need in the US, I remind myself that even though I am not there fighting the current battle on the ground, it does not diminish the overall battle I, and so many others, are fighting for social justice across the entire world.
What it comes down to is this: no one should be denied the opportunity to pursue a safe and healthy life, the opportunity to be educated, the opportunity to pursue their dreams, the freedom to voice their opinions, or the chance to seek safety based on their skin color, religion, sexual orientation, economic status, place of birth, or nationality.
We are all humans, and we should all be treated and treat each other as such.
If we cannot at least agree on that, then we are not human ourselves.