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This returned Peace Corps Volunteer-turned-staff member is fungally fabulous

PCV with kids

I’m a mycophile and it feels amazing, empowering, and weird all at once.

I love the fungal kingdom, which includes the visible mushroom that sprouts from this mostly underground-dwelling organism. The more I learn about fungi, the more I redefine my relationship and role within the natural world and reconsider how my identities coexist – concepts I revisited during my Peace Corps service in Costa Rica.

My experiences growing up as biracial in a traditional southern North Carolina setting taught me that I’m not white enough for white folks and sometimes not Black enough for Black folks. I embody both with a dark-skinned Black mother from traditional southern North Carolina roots and a blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer father from California. Although there are tons of light-skinned people like me from mixed-raced families, I still felt that my life experience didn’t align with the community around while growing up. I felt a lack of connection.

My first time traveling abroad was during a month-long “voluntourism” trip to the Dominican Republic after my freshman year of college. I learned that the one-drop rule around Blackness does not necessarily apply outside of the U.S. I was often referred to as “una chica blanca” as darker skinned men poetically professed their love for me to which I emphatically responded, “Soy negra, no soy blanca!” It’s always been easier to cling to my Black roots and culture as my brother, sister, and I spent much of our days after school in my mom’s hair salon engulfed in Black, feminine beauty. My experiences with my whiteness were much different.

Sierra looks for mushrooms with her dog
Sierra Plato looks for mushrooms in a Chicago forest preserve with her dog, Winston.

By the time I arrived at my Peace Corps service in Costa Rica as an English teacher-trainer in 2016, I had already developed a hefty appetite for social justice and equity. I was placed in the epicenter of Blackness in mi querida (my dear) Costa Rica. I learned how similar the experiences are of Black people in the southern U.S. and the Afro-Caribbean population in Costa Rica.

Days after arriving to my new site, Limón Centro, I was introduced to the executive board of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). UNIA is full of dedicated Limoneses who love their community and are fighting to address the many inequities they encounter. I was especially inspired by the women who I worked alongside. They reminded me of my own aunts in North Carolina who carried so many of society’s burdens, but still know how to show up with joy and continue to fight.

As a new member of the community, I was tasked with explaining who I am and what it’s like where I come from. With time, I became increasingly confident as I rattled on in Spanish about the diversity of landscapes and experiencing four seasons in my home state. I quickly developed an appetite for sopa mondongo (tripe soup) as I bragged about how my family also makes dishes using different animal parts. “Have you tried pork neckbones slow cooked and served over white rice?” I always asked my audience.

By the close of service, I was an evolved woman and confident about my professional skillset, but still not sure how I fit within this world. Upon returning to the States, I took advantage of noncompetitive eligibility status as a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and became a regional recruiter for North Carolina. I approached my work as I did Peace Corps service: I learned about the demographics, the community’s stories, and got to know the territory.

Three years later, I took a temporary detail with the State Department as part of the Afghan resettlement initiative. We built and fostered community among the female Afghan population at the refugee resettlement camp in the middle of the New Mexican desert. It was my first time being among thousands of Muslims. We held space for conversations, tears, vulnerability, advocacy, education, and self-care within this makeshift women’s center where absolutely no men were allowed entry. I learned more deeply about the layers of compassion and belonging that happen when it’s just women together and they can be vulnerable.

Sierra looks for mushrooms with friends
Sierra, right, looks for mushrooms with two fellows from Michigan Technological University and a Peace Corps regional recruiter.

Shortly after returning from the detail, I accepted a new role managing the agency’s university partnerships throughout much of the Midwest. During an annual pizza dinner at Michigan Technological University for Peace Corps Prep students, returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Coverdell Fellows students, and others interested in the programs, I shared my love of mushrooming and quickly connected with others in the room who have a similar interest in fungi. We all soon made plans for an impromptu hike in the nearby woods. Once again, I found myself connecting with folks in unexpected ways as I immersed myself in the beauty of the woods listening to the plant knowledge of the two fellows who invited the local recruiter and me on the hike.

Today, I am thriving. Thriving is a state of being that allows space for creativity, dreaming, and daily joy. Through my Peace Corps work, I could finally prioritize my mental and physical health as an adult with affordable medical insurance. I also utilized free coaching sessions that are available to federal employees. What a game changer for my mind, body, and soul.

My quest to connect with people is now innate. Two months before moving to Illinois, I found a mycology group (“mushroom enthusiasts”) called the Illinois Mycological Association. After five months of gathering with this amazing group of passionate folks eager to spread more fungal knowledge, I was elected to the executive board of the association.

For me, becoming the first Black board member of the Illinois Mycological Association means that I embody the connection that I seek in this world.

I am connected as the mycelial fibers connect whole ecosystems within forests. I am the woman who has perpetually sought out community and connection. I do seek human connection, deep relationships with others that challenge me. I do seek integration with the natural world as I reflect and learn from it.

I am fungally fabulous.