This year alone, 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers landed in 76 foreign countries and embarked on ambitious projects that aim to change the world — one village at a time.
Largely working alone, Peace Corps volunteers take root in unfamiliar territory and champion massive change initiatives, ranging from the installation of new irrigation systems to the implementation of AIDS education classes in public schools. They labor alongside strangers who speak unfamiliar languages and who hold unfamiliar beliefs. In short, they are agents for change working in some of the harshest and most frustrating environments imaginable.
Peace Corps volunteers undergo an intensive training program before embarking on their first assignment. Technical-training specialist Shari Howe and cross-cultural specialist Raquel Aronhime work with hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers each year, preparing them for culture shock and related challenges associated with working in an unfamiliar environment. Fast Company spoke with Howe and Aronhime about the organization’s advice and guidance for new recruits before, during, and after they embark on global change initiatives. The following are six change-agent edicts from that conversation.
Scrutinize Your Values
Volunteers lug piles of baggage accumulated over the years in playgrounds, classrooms, offices, and social settings. No matter how open-minded or tolerant, every person who steps through the Peace Corps doors holds preconceived notions about right and wrong, good and bad. The same holds true in the business world.
The first step to becoming an effective change agent is acknowledging these personal, ingrained beliefs and values. Aronhime says this self-inspection is terribly necessary, yet extraordinarily challenging, for many first-time volunteers. “How do you get a fish to describe the water it’s swimming in?” she asks. “You often don’t realize what you take for granted until you are placed in a strange culture. Your assumptions about work, time, and power are ingrained from childhood, and are not often challenged until you enter an uncomfortable environment. Common sense here is rarely common sense elsewhere.”
The Peace Corps encourages its volunteers to ask themselves how they value time, how they prioritize various tasks, and if they work well in group settings.
“You must have an understanding of these issues before you can enter a new community and work with new people in an effective way,” Aronhime says. “For example, a lot of volunteers work in countries with completely different concepts of time. In the United States, we believe time is money. Elsewhere, time does not rule people’s lives. Oftentimes, our volunteers will call a meeting, and none of the villagers will show up on time. A volunteer who doesn’t understand the cultural differences at work might assume that the people don’t care and that they don’t want to improve their lives, when that’s actually the farthest thing from the truth. A change agent can assume nothing.”
When new volunteers arrive at their destination, they are brimming with energy and with enthusiasm. Often, the last thing they want to do is sit back and take notes. But Aronhime says volunteers must fight the impulse to hit the ground running — a slow crawl ultimately works much better than a full sprint.
“During your first two weeks on site, don’t start calling meetings and making pronouncements,” Aronhime advises volunteers. “Spend time observing your village and listening to people talk about their lives. Slowly, you will identify some natural places where you can intervene and share some ideas. In order to earn trust, you must demonstrate a presence and show that you’re genuinely interested in learning as well as teaching.”
“Peace Corps volunteers concentrate on building human capacity rather than building things — monuments to their work that are gone or are useless in a few years,” Aronhime says. The Peace Corps aims to leave behind not houses and hospitals, but carpenters and doctors. It upholds the tenet that a truly effective change agent will train other change agents to do greater things than one person could ever achieve alone.
“We would all like the Peace Corps to be around for a long time, but in an ideal world, we would work ourselves out of a job,” Aronhime says. “The Peace Corps is working to eliminate itself by helping people around the world develop tools to achieve their goals.”
Ask for Help
Aronhime and Howe have seen many well-intentioned volunteers go off the rails by arriving at the scene of a change initiative and promptly doling out orders or objectives to the people on hand. They say a change project must involve all affected parties.
“The job of the change agent is to bring together communities in order to examine their own needs, desires, and initiatives,” Howe says. The Peace Corps calls this process the Participatory Appraisal of Communities. The organization encourages volunteers to help the local citizens decide their own goals and priorities, rather than force upon them an already drafted plan.
“There is a huge difference between being told what’s good for you and figuring it out for yourself,” Aronhime says. “If those affected by a change initiative don’t have a stake and a say in the project, it will not succeed. People will not sustain an undertaking that they do not truly believe in.”
Value Every Step Forward
Feelings of frustration and chaos often overpower Peace Corps volunteers during their first few months in the field, Howe says. Successful change agents persist despite setbacks and allow their small successes to snowball into larger accomplishments.
“It may not seem this way at the time, but a small success is worth a million dollars because it empowers the volunteer and the community members to try another new project,” Howe says. “After a one small victory, a volunteer may be able to make more suggestions because the locals will no longer think that outsider is quite so crazy.”
Redefine Success Daily
Most Peace Corps volunteers establish metrics for judging success before they embark on their journey. Aronhime and Howe encourage volunteers to set goals for themselves, but they also encourage them to remain flexible and to redefine success over and over again as situations and expectations change. Often, this is a difficult task for people who need to quantify their actions and their time in a tangible way.
“Some volunteers finish their stint with Peace Corps thinking they didn’t accomplish much because they didn’t achieve some quantified, measurable thing,” Aronhime says. “We think it’s very important for volunteers to recognize the good they did, so we hold conferences with all returned volunteers to help them identify their successes. Often, they don’t see that they achieved a great deal by successfully negotiating a cross-cultural meeting, by teaching one child to read, by helping one woman start her own business, or by changing one person’s view of Americans.”
Ideally, every volunteers would recognize their achievements in the field and would use the confidence and excitement generated by those successes to fuel more positive work. Aronhime encourages change agents in every field to follow the example of the Peace Corps and to define success in a personal and productive way.
“The impact of the Peace Corps is often not quantifiable,” she says. “The way we define our success internally does not necessarily line up with the numbers we report to Congress.”