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.
There is great variance in Malagasy views of gender equality. In remote villages, gender roles are clearly defined, while in larger towns, gender roles are less strictly characterized. But wherever they live and work, the behavior of female Volunteers will be more closely scrutinized and more often criticized than that of their male peers. Additionally, Female Volunteers won’t be able to partake in some of the socializing opportunities afforded to male Volunteers by their neighbors and counterparts. Although the Peace Corps emphasizes understanding of and sensitivity to other cultures, it may occasionally be necessary to explain why you believe something or behave a certain way. Female Volunteers should expect frequent questions from host country counterparts and friends regarding their marital status and whether they have children. Most Malagasy women get married and have children quite young, so it will often be difficult for them to understand how a female Volunteer could be unmarried and not have children.
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.
In Madagascar, as in other traditional societies, members of American ethnic minorities may feel less freedom to “be themselves” than they do in the United States. It may be difficult for them to find or establish a support network, and they are likely to encounter prejudicial beliefs or expectations on the part of some Malagasy (e.g., that they will learn the local language and adapt to the climate and culture more easily than other Volunteers, that they are not as technically competent as other Volunteers, or that they are not “real” Americans). Volunteers of all backgrounds, however, have dealt with these issues and have had productive and fulfilling experiences in Madagascar. They have also brought new depth to the Second Goal of the Peace Corps, which is to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the Malagasy people by living and working with them.
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 that the Peace Corps serve 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].
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers need to know that Madagascar has a very strong cultural taboo against homosexuality. However, homosexuality is accepted among foreigners who visit the country. Homosexuality is not illegal per se—it is not even mentioned in Malagasy law—but public displays of behavior associated with homosexuality can affect a Volunteer’s acceptance into the culture by confirming his or her “vazaha-ness.” Nevertheless, many LGBTQ Volunteers have served successfully in Madagascar and have very fond memories of their community and service. Peace Corps staff will work with Volunteers to provide them with locally informed perspectives.
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 Malagasy are enormously tolerant and respectful, and it is inherent in their culture that they be helpful to all. This carries over into their treatment of people with disabilities, even though there is very little infrastructure in the country to accommodate individuals with disabilities.
Possible Issues for Volunteer Couples
Couples often face pressure from host country nationals to change their roles to conform better with traditional relationships in-country. Host country nationals will often not understand American relationship dynamics and may be outwardly critical of relationships that do not adhere to traditional gender roles. It is also helpful to think about how pressures to conform to local culture can be challenging to men and women in very different ways. Considering how your partner is being affected and discussing what, if any, aspects of your relationship should be changed can help reduce stress for you both.
Possible Religious Issues for VolunteersRegardless of whether you practice a particular religion, you will probably be exposed to religious practices that are different from those in the United States. Although Madagascar is predominantly Christian, with some Muslims, the practices of fady, a ritualized system of taboos and cultural mores combined with ancestral veneration, have tremendous significance for Malagasy. (There will, of course, be differences in the degree of these beliefs depending on your location.) Be prepared to tolerate views and practices very different from your own. Many Malagasy people are very devout and towns often boast five or 10 different churches, and if you do not attend church, be prepared to answer questions about why you do not.
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.