Intercultural Competence, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility
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.
A female Volunteer in Sri Lanka may face a variety of challenges during her two years of service. Host families and communities will likely be very protective, which may feel like a loss of freedom in comparison to what the average American woman is used to. Women in rural communities (and sometimes in urban settings) are expected to be home by dusk, dress conservatively, do not socialize with males (unless they are family), do not drink alcohol in public, and travel in groups. A similar problem may be present at the office, leaving the Volunteer feeling like she is being treated like a child. It’s important to note, however, that these protective measures are measures taken by all families to protect their female family members, to mitigate safety risks. Another issue that female Volunteers should expect is harassment. Most of the harassment may not be overly confrontational and could be in the form of catcalls, whistling or making propositions.
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 or ethnicity 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, 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.
Asian American Volunteers serving in Sri Lanka may find themselves being called “Chinese,” as the only ethnic group they have been exposed to from Asia. African American Volunteers may experience a lot of attention, some based in curiosity and some more negative and based on colorism. Hispanic, Latino and South Asian Americans may find themselves being confused for Sri Lankans, and questioned on if they are really American. All Volunteers, however, may experience annoying curiosity or hostility stemming from ignorance, resentment, or jealousy.
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.
Sri Lanka has strong traditional values and religious customs, but that does not mean there are no gay, lesbian, or bisexual Sri Lankans. Homosexuality is still illegal in Sri Lanka. Even though the country is changing and there is discussion about changing this law, societal views are much slower to change. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers who are used to being open about their sexual orientation will not be able to do so in Sri Lanka, especially in their rural community where homosexuality may be perceived in a negative light.
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 Volunteers
While Sri Lanka is a multi-religious country, under the Sri Lankan constitution, the state must protect the Buddhist religion while also granting religious rights to all religions. What this means is that you will see a greater degree of interaction between government officials and Buddhist monks and prelates than you are used to in the U.S. About 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 13% are Hindu, 10% are Muslim and 7% are Christian. Sri Lankans are very willing to share about their religion, culture and traditions with Volunteers. In pre-service training, Staff will provide Volunteers with sessions and activities that will help Volunteers achieve a basic understanding of the main religions in Sri Lanka and their traditions. While most rural communities will have a Buddhist and / or Hindu temple. Some will have a mosque and Catholic church while others may have Protestant churches. Volunteers will find that Sri Lankans would support practicing your own faith. If you are an atheist, some Sri Lankans may find this difficult to understand, while others will be accepting of it.
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 Sri Lanka, elders are highly respected, and their opinions valued, which may make it easier for 50+ Volunteers in their work. However, many Sri Lankans will also feel the need to be protective of a 50+ Volunteer which may feel like a loss of independence and freedom.