I told myself I wasn't going to write about this Hufffington Post article, but it's left me a little perturbed, disappointed and has challenged my ideas about Peace Corps and the people who join the organization.
Written by current Peace Corps Volunteer Esther Katcoff, the article describes a "perpetual" and "boiling hot" guilt the author has felt while serving in Paraguay, caused by things like her ability to eat everyday, spend her free time as she may, and attend music concerts (she alludes to a Lady Gaga show in Asuncion.) Katcoff explains how this guilt plays a large role in how she interacts with others in her neighborhood/city, details a particularly unsettling relationship she has with a young Paraguayan girl who often goes hungry, and ends on how the guilt she feels is as much "ours" as it is hers.
The article has received many comments, some challenging her perspective, some from supportive Peace Corps Volunteers, but what has given me the most pause is the words of those Volunteers who say they either joined Peace Corps because of their own guilt or live a life in their Peace Corps site that is accompanied by guilt. One comment that encapsulates this reality comes from a Volunteer in Eastern Africa who simply writes, "Tears. Thank you."
This disappoints me.
People's emotions are their own, they may express themselves as they please, and are free to try to make sense of their lives in the context of poverty...but when a Volunteer says she joined Peace Corps because of "guilt", I think it's a real shame. I think it's a wasteful sentiment, it's paternalistic. While certainly well-meaning, the Volunteer that feels this type of guilt seems self-absorbed and patronizing. As one commenter to the article stated,"...it insults them when I treat my good fortune as a burden."
When Volunteers say they joined Peace Corps because of guilt, it rubs me the wrong way. It seems as if these Volunteers are either completely oblivious to, or willfully ignorant of extreme poverty as it exists in the United States. It seems as if poverty isn't guilt-inducing unless it's "over there."
I pose the same question here that I asked Katcoff: "Do the Volunteers who feel so guilty while living in their Peace Corps sites, with all their food, and technology, and access to music concerts feel the same way while living their daily lives in America?"
Many would state it's not the same, but isn't it? There are people in the United States without access to potable water, who live in shacks, who live in cardboard boxes right next to the coffee houses that many of those "Peace Corps Guilt" Volunteers frequent. Almost 2 million Americans (the size of many impoverished cities around the world) live on less than $2 a day. That's less than $2 a day with the same cost of living found within the United States. That number halves when SNAP and other benefits are applied, but subsidies aside, American concentrated poverty is an unsettling, unavoidable fact.
Do these Volunteers feel this same urgency to help their fellow man & woman while they sit in college classrooms, or work their jobs, or eat their daily meals in the United States? While they attend that Lady Gaga concert in Detroit? Or when they get that new gadget? Where is this guilt? Why is volunteering half-way across the world the catalyst to feeling a sense of guilt about the same situations of poverty that are present in the United States?
It is very difficult for me to understand this sense of "guilt" that only develops beyond the borders of the United States.
A Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia, Adam Garnica, responded superbly to the article on his own blog. I appreciate Adam's desire to connect Katcoff's words to his own experience, while offering thoughtful critique. As I was reading through the comments, however, I saw one from Chris, who stated he joined Peace Corps specifically because of guilt. He explained that he'd spent time in his adult life living in a ski village and mentoring the wealthy on how to "creatively avoid some or all of their obligation to pay their fair share of taxes." Joining Peace Corps was a way to make amends for that, I guess, and while he has every right to join Peace Corps and volunteer, I hope people like him are far and few between.
Yes, that seems a very judgmental thing to say; perhaps I'll change my mind, or perhaps Chris will be changed forever by his Peace Corps experience and will realize that joining Peace Corps might not be the appropriate way to appease a guilt he feels because he was born a "have" and has perpetuated a system of inequality. Maybe it will work in reverse: by joining Peace Corps, Chris might realize that he now has the tools to confront poverty and inequality within the United States.
I suppose I shall end where Adam Garnica's response began, with the question: "Why does one join Peace Corps?"
Esther Ratcoff joined Peace Corps“to understand what it means to be poor, but that´s just part of the story. I joined the Peace Corps to figure out how to escape the guilt of having so much while other people have so little.”
I joined Peace Corps because I know what it's like to have so very little. I understand what it's like to live in the most dangerous neighborhood in one of the poorest cities in the United States, and to have people see you as a statistic. I understand how very lucky I am to have a mother who worked her hardest to get me and my siblings to school, to get us to college, to tell us that getting pregnant is most certainly the fast-track to poverty and isolation. To keep us fed, even if it meant going to the shelter.
I don't mean this to be a foray into some sad sort of "poverty Olympics." I just want to impress that, no, the guilt Ratcoff feels is simply hers, not "ours", not mine. I don't have guilt. What I do have, is the overwhelming desire to spread my knowledge and luck to those who may not have not been so fortunate. To be to others what my mother was to me.
And this overwhelming desire did not just spring upon me as I filled out my Peace Corps application. It has always been there, because my eyes were opened at a very young age to the reality that poverty, disparity and economic inequality are everywhere, not just in those countries "over there."