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Profile: Tina Singleton

Benin

When I was in my 20s, sixty-hour workweeks were my norm. With a degree in clothing and textiles from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, I lived in San Francisco and worked as a fashion merchandiser for ten years. During this time, I was also taking sign language classes and volunteering with the hearing impaired program at Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Deciding to do something more people oriented, at the age of 29, I applied to and was accepted to the Peace Corps. My mother didn’t quite understand why I would quit a great job and sell my furniture, but she ended up being one of my biggest supporters.

My first Peace Corps assignment was in the Central African Republic (CAR) as a Child Survival Health volunteer. One afternoon, I was strolling through an open air market in Bangui, the capital, when I noticed a 40-something man communicating in sign language. I approached him, he understood American sign language, and we became fast friends. Before I knew it, I was attending church services for the deaf and learning Sango sign language. It was my first introduction to learning about people with disabilities in developing countries.

After one year, I was reassigned to the West African country of Benin. When I arrived, I told the Peace Corps country director of my interest in working with people with disabilities and soon became Peace Corps Benin’s first disability specialist within the Rural Community Development program. I worked with a Special Olympics team, the Beninese Association of the Deaf, and many other programs and organizations of people with physical, sensory and mental disabilities. What was supposed to be a two-year assignment turned into four years!

Living in CAR and Benin really challenged how I felt about myself as a black woman, an American woman. Having grown up as an Air Force brat and living in predominantly white neighborhoods and attending predominantly white schools, living in Africa was the first time I lived anywhere where everyone looked like me. It was amazing. Still, because of colonialism’s continuing legacy, my personal and professional relationships with people in both countries were complex. I was often told, for instance, that I wasn’t American because I wasn’t white. Dynamics changed when white friends and colleagues were present. Despite this, I often had many honest, open conversations with local people about the effects of racism.

After the Peace Corps, I studied in London, and earned a master’s degree in Community Disability Studies for Developing Countries. Currently, I am the International Development & Disability Program Manager at Mobility International USA, an Oregon-based nonprofit organization that promotes the empowerment, equal opportunities, and human rights of people with disabilities around the globe.

My Peace Corps service had an incredible impact on my career decisions, my goals and my values. It gave me the practical experience and cross-cultural and interpersonal skills that are vital to my current work. I also discovered that having field experience added a richness to my graduate work. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is an opportunity of a lifetime.

Tina Singleton (Benin)

Singleton, who is African American, was interviewed for "Diversity in the Peace Corps" in 1999. She is from San Francisco, CA

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