Diversity and Inclusion
The Peace Corps seeks to reflect the rich diversity of the U.S. and bring diverse perspectives and solutions to development issues in the countries we serve. For the Peace Corps, diversity is a collection of individual attributes that together help the agency pursue organizational objectives efficiently and effectively. These include national origin, language, race, color, disability, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and family structures. Diversity also encompasses where people are from, where they have lived, and their differences of thought and life experiences.
We also seek to create inclusion—a culture that connects each staff and Volunteers to the organization; encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness; and leverages diversity throughout the organization so that all individuals are able to participate and contribute to their full potential—throughout the Volunteer and staff lifecycle.
Diversity and Inclusion at Your Site
Once Volunteers arrive at their sites, diversity and inclusion principles remain the same but take on a different shape, in which your host community may share a common culture and you—the Volunteer—are the outsider. You may be in the minority, if not the sole American like you, at your site. You will begin to notice diversity in perspectives, ethnicity, age, depth of conversation, and degree of support you may receive—and may need to make adjustments. During pre-service training, a session will be held to discuss diversity and inclusion and how you can transcend differences, find common ground, and serve as an ally for your peers.
The Peace Corps emphasizes professional behavior and cross-cultural sensitivity among Volunteers and within their communities to help integration and achieve successful service. As a Volunteer and representative of the United States, you are responsible both for sharing the diversity of U.S. culture (yours and other Americans’) with your host country national counterparts, and also for learning from your host country’s diversity.
To ease the transition to life in your host country, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental, compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual, and will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these limitations. During pre-service training, staff will provide training on how to adapt personal choices and behavior to be respectful of the host country culture, and will be available for ongoing support.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Gender RolesIt will be important to absorb and to attempt to understand the cultural nuances of gender roles in your host country. During pre-service training, you will receive an introduction to gender awareness in-country, and will take time to examine your own thinking about gender roles and how they have impacted you. You’ll then learn to analyze development projects using a gender lens to better understand gender roles in your host country and how these gender roles can benefit or limit what females and males may or may not do—both from a personal standpoint and in relation to work and relationships in-country.
As in all Latin American countries, Costa Rican society can be considered machista and Volunteers, especially women, are often bothered by the machismo aspect of Costa Rican culture. Some men hiss or make amorous and sexually suggestive comments to any woman (foreigner or local) who walks by, which can be frustrating. Many female Volunteers deal with this issue by completely ignoring the comments; others continue to be bothered by them for their entire two years of service. In the workplace, it can be difficult to know when a comment is culturally acceptable and when it constitutes harassment. It is safe to say that most women never accept the catcalls and sexual harassment; rather, they develop a degree of tolerance with which they can function effectively. Female Volunteers may also experience discomfort with seeing females assume primary responsibility for household chores (i.e., child care, cleaning, and cooking). In addition, many female Volunteers find it difficult to maintain friendships with Costa Rican males because of the assumption that there is always a sexual element to any male-female relationship. Many Ticos’ (Costa Rican natives) impressions of American females come from American media and TV series that portray promiscuity. A female Volunteer may feel it appropriate and platonic to invite a male Tico friend into her home, but most Ticos will interpret this as an invitation for intimacy. Depending on the norms at one’s site, female Volunteers may not be able to exercise the freedoms to which U.S. women are accustomed. While some Costa Rican women occupy top government positions, traditional roles for women prevail outside of the capital city and its surroundings. This is a source of frustration for some female Volunteers. Male Volunteers also must deal with the machismo of the society. Men may be expected to show their machismo by making sexual comments and by not fulfilling household activities (such as washing the dishes and doing the laundry). Many Costa Rican mothers consider an American male to be a great catch for their daughters. Some male Volunteers may be bothered by these perceptions, as they may interfere with relationships and work in the community.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Because of limited exposure, some foreign nationals will expect all U.S. citizens to be white, and are unaware of diversity in the U.S. For Volunteers, the range of responses to their skin color may vary greatly: from being mistaken for a host country national to being questioned about their U.S. citizenship, to facing behavior and language skill expectations or ridicule, to being able to get better prices for goods and services. These instances can be turned into teachable moments for the Volunteer and the host country national. All Volunteers, including white Volunteers and those of color, should be mindful of the issues of race/ethnicity that are embedded in U.S. culture and within your country of service, and should be mindful of being an ally to your fellow Volunteers.
Possible Issues for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning/Queer, Ally (LGBTQA) Volunteers
The Peace Corps actively supports Volunteers and staff of all genders and sexual orientations, and encourages Volunteers to serve as allies to their fellow Volunteers in all aspects. Many countries where the Peace Corps serves have more restrictive cultures with regard to sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identities, though some are more permissive. In every country, Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers to provide them with locally informed perspectives. Some LGBTQ Volunteers have chosen to come out to community members, with a result of positive and negative reactions, while some have come out only to select Peace Corps staff and Volunteers. Many have chosen to be discreet about their orientation and/or gender identity within their host community. LGBTQA support groups may be available in-country, providing a network to support the needs of the Peace Corps LGBTQA community. More information about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer is available at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Peace Corps Alumni website at lgbrpcv.org. Additionally, the Peace Corps’ Office of Recruitment and Diversity can be reached at [email protected].
Costa Rica’s constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and the government effectively enforces these prohibitions. Although discrimination is illegal, in many parts of the country there is still a great deal of prejudice toward the LGBT community. Some gay, lesbian, or bisexual Volunteers choose to be open about their sexual orientation during service. But just as many Volunteers do not share every aspect of their personality with their communities, some Volunteers wait until they are well integrated before choosing to disclose their sexual orientation to prevent risking work and personal relationships. There are local gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender-focused organizations based in the capital of San Jose that offer a “safe space” for Volunteers to network and seek support.
Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities
Peace Corps staff will work with disabled Volunteers to support them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively. For additional support, the Peace Corps’ Office of Recruitment and Diversity can be reached at [email protected].
The infrastructure in Costa Rica does not make many accommodations for people with physical disabilities. Volunteers’ primary mode of transportation is on foot and public transportation. Public buses in Costa Rica are not equipped to accommodate people with physical disabilities; getting on and off the bus requires being able to step up or down one or two feet. Most communities do not have sidewalks, and very few have ramps. Rural communities generally have uneven, unpaved roads that are susceptible to flooding, potholes, and muddy conditions that may inhibit mobility, particularly during the rainy season. In addition, Costa Ricans sometimes give nicknames to people based on their physical characteristics, including disabilities, and you may experience prejudice or jokes about your disability. Depending on your disability, there may be few local resources to turn to for support.
Possible Issues for Volunteer Couples
Couples are faced with unique challenges and experiences. Serving in such a family-oriented country, you may be asked certain questions, such as, Do you have children? Why don’t you have any children? When do you plan on having children? Why haven’t you had any children yet? Another challenge you may face as a couple is following the roles husbands and wives have in Costa Rica. In some households, husbands work away from the home and provide for their families, while wives stay home to cook, clean, and care for the children. Although this situation is changing with women working out of the house, a woman is still expected to care for her husband. As part of a couple, female Volunteers may be asked about food, laundry, and other household decisions. It is not uncommon that women may be expected to serve their partners food. Men may be subject to some light teasing from community members if they are seen cooking or cleaning.
Possible Religious Issues for VolunteersCosta Rica is a largely Roman Catholic country and the church plays an important role in the political debate of the country and in the society’s moral beliefs. There is no separation of church and state as it exists in the United States. Some Costa Ricans you meet may not know much, or may have misconceptions, about other religions. However, there are congregations of other religions in Costa Rica (e.g., Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, Lutheran, Anglican, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.).
Possible Issues for 50+ Volunteers
Older Volunteers may find their age an asset in-country and will often have access to individuals and insights that are not available to younger Volunteers. But, pre-service training can be particularly stressful for older trainees, whose lifelong learning styles and habits may or may not lend themselves to the techniques used. A 50+ individual may be the only older person in a group of Volunteers and initially may not feel part of the group. Some 50+ Volunteers may find it difficult to adapt to a lack of structure and clarity in their role after having worked for many years in a very structured and demanding job. More than younger Volunteers, older Volunteers may have challenges in maintaining lifelong friendships and may want to consider assigning power of attorney to someone in the States to deal with financial matters.
Some older trainees find the intensity of training quite tiring. Others experience a lack of attention to their particular language learning needs and may need to be assertive in developing an effective individual approach.