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.
South Africa has a patriarchal culture. This may not seem to be the case when one considers the number of women in high-level government and private-sector positions. However, men and women are expected to fulfill distinct roles and responsibilities. In rural areas female Volunteers may find extremely conservative attitudes regarding gender equality. Likewise, the behavior of female Volunteers is more often scrutinized or criticized than that of their male peers. Although the Peace Corps emphasizes understanding of and sensitivity toward other cultures, it will occasionally be necessary to explain or defend why you believe something or behave a certain way. Female Volunteers may find that they are constantly asked about their marital status and whether they have children because women are expected to be married.
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.
South Africa is still divided along color lines as a result of the legacy of apartheid. All Volunteers, regardless of their color, will receive certain privileges or face discrimination because of the color of their skin. Volunteers will find themselves placed in one of four categories: white, Coloured, black, or Asian. This labeling has been a major source of frustration for Volunteers, and developing strategies for handling this frustration is a task in and of itself. Peace Corps/South Africa Volunteers have developed a diversity committee to explore the diversity of both South Africa and the United States and have established forums for discussions and exchanges.
At one time or another, all Volunteers serving in South Africa may find that services are denied or offered based on skin color; that white skin brings privileges that may not be wanted or deserved; that they constantly have to explain that they are an American and not a South African white, Coloured, Asian, or black; that skin color determines the level of trust or confidence people have in their ability; that they are accepted more readily into the culture than other Volunteers because of skin color; that they are engaged in conversations with South Africans who hold adamant views against another group; that services are offered to them but denied to another Volunteer or counterpart who is accompanying them; that they are the subject of disparaging remarks based on current or historical roles of certain ethnic groups (e.g., assuming Asians are merchants); and that people hold stereotyped views based on behavior observed in American films and sitcoms (e.g., most African Americans are “gang-bangers”).
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.
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers must know that South Africa is a very conservative society. Many South Africans, especially in rural areas, are in denial that same-sex relationships exist in their culture. Thus any display of your sexual orientation will likely be severely frowned upon in your community. Some previous Volunteers have decided to serve their time in South Africa under the cloak of silence to prevent adverse effects on their relations with their community and co-workers.
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.
There is little infrastructure in the country to accommodate individuals with physical disabilities. No schools or other facilities in rural areas teach disabled children or accommodate people 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 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.