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?
It 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.
Female Volunteers who are single are often considered an oddity because most women, particularly in rural areas, are married, many with children, by the time they are in their 20s. Single women may also face what in the United States would be considered inappropriate advances from male colleagues, supervisors, and acquaintances. Gender roles have changed drastically over the years in the United States; it can be a challenge to adapt to a culture with more traditional roles and to know how to effectively set boundaries. Unwanted attention, and even harassment, can be one of the greatest frustrations as a female Volunteer. Strategies for minimizing such unwanted attention will be addressed thoroughly in pre-service training.
Above and beyond traditional gender roles and possible harassment, is the possibility of sexual violence. Sexual violence against women is a reality in Sierra Leone. Rape was used as a weapon of war and the government has launched campaigns to address this problem with the hope of reducing its occurrence. Domestic violence is also a possibility in this post-conflict country. According to police, most acts of sexual violence occur between people who know each other. Female Volunteers must exercise caution with their consumption of alcohol and going out in the evening unaccompanied. Volunteers will learn what is and is not acceptable in the Sierra Leonean culture, such as when it is and is not advisable to invite men into their homes. Often, Volunteers must take an even more conservative approach than their Sierra Leonean friends and colleagues. Strategies to deal with these issues are discussed during training, and the Peace Corps staff can offer help in resolving any problems. Volunteers should report any concerns or incidents to the Peace Corps medical officer (PCMO) or Country Director (CD) immediately.
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.
Volunteers who belong to minority ethnic groups will generally not experience overt biases. However, Sierra Leoneans may make some stereotypic assumptions based on someone’s background. For example, many Asian-American Volunteers are considered experts in Chinese or kung fu and African-American Volunteers may be mistaken for a Liberian or Sierra Leonean.
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.
Most cultures in Sierra Leone consider same-sex relationships taboo. LGBT individuals certainly exist in Sierra Leone, but there is no openly LGBT community. Volunteers may not be able to freely discuss their sexual orientation with new friends and family; this can obviously be very difficult. Peace Corps staff is aware of this challenge and will offer support as you navigate through your new culture. Within the Peace Corps “family,” sexual diversity is supported and an informal LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) support group exists.
Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities
Peace Corps staff will work with disabled Volunteers to support them in training, housing, job sites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.
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 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.
In Sierra Leonean culture, people believe age brings wisdom and experience. Volunteers in their 20s sometimes find they have to make an extra effort to be accepted as professional colleagues. Older Volunteers, in contrast, are automatically accorded respect. In turn, older Volunteers might find that almost too much is expected of them because of their age; or conversely, older Volunteers who are accustomed to living independent lives may at first feel frustrated by the fact that younger Sierra Leoneans want to do things for them. For all trainees, living with a host family with some of the restrictions and protectiveness imposed by a traditional culture will be an early and significant introduction to some of the constraints Volunteers will face during their service.