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Sunday, November 25, 2012

I Refuse to Feel "Peace Corps Guilt"

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," 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."


  1. I can understand the guilt. Especially, from the perspective of while living here (not in PC yet obviously) having more than just what I need. Here I feel guilty sometimes because I can live off of a small savings for a time much better than people can while working all 14 hour days. But I guess I feel more upset at the system of the world. I am not sure I feel as if I can successfully combat it or not. But, I can live my life as authentically as possible. I know part of my life has turned to not using as much or having as much as part of my way of living that way. I dont have a ton of "stuff." I also do not work and live a life that is not authentic. I choose to live my life to be happy because I know it would be wasting my opportunity and prosperity, that I worked very hard for, being miserable or being someone who I am not.

    Guilt is an emotion that is only helpful if you look at something and change something because of it. If you would not change something you have control over because of the guilt, it is not guilt, it is shame. Shame is a completely useless emotion you choose to feel. I know you can choose to not feel it, it was a hindrance to me for a long time.

    I think if you feel guilty for how you have lived and thing you can change something by going into the peace corp to stop feeling that guilt, you have used the emotion and pain correctly.

    Poor people dont want you to feel bad because they are poor, they want to not be poor and if you can help, help. There are some poor people who feel as it people with money owe them something. I have met many of them. They TRY to make you feel ashamed because they want your money. They dont feel ashamed once they have the money they did not work for. Most of the time these people do not work, they sit around with a llama in an ally with their kids who should be in school in costumes and say things to make you feel shame because you have money and they do not when not only are they not helping their situation, they are ensuring their kids have no other opportunities either, all so you can give them a sole or two.

    I like Buddha's take on suffering. People suffer, much of the time it is because of their own choice, not because of their circumstances. You can choose not to suffer. You can realize your own success doe not deter another person's. You can realize another persons success doe not deter your own. Your suffering from shame does not really help anyone, the poor person or yourself.

    You can feel bad for someone and their situation. I feel bad for many people here and at home. If I can help people in my life, I do. I know I do not cause it. i know my over consumption does not cause it. I know my overspending does not insult people who have nothing but work hard for their money, because I do not overspend. Those things, for me, and important. I also started an English group in the park. Do I feel guilty I am helping people who are not hte poorest people in town? I am helping someone, why should i feel guilty? NO.

  2. Revé (Packlightly at Wordpress)November 26, 2012 at 9:51 AM

    LOVE this post, thank you! Exactly, most [generally White] people don't feel any guilt about those suffering in the states. A couple years ago when I was talking about trying to get to Spain and someone asked is the Peace Corps in Spain, I said, "Western Europe does not need Americans to come save them" and the aforementioned article sums up the sentiment behind my statement.

    Clearly you are far different, but you see that many people do the Peace Corps to "give back" because their lives are so privileged here, as if they couldn't do Americorps for a similar reason, and also probably because it's a good resume booster and they don't know what they want to do after college anyway.

    1. as if they couldn't do Americorps for a similar reason


    2. Well, I'm white and not guilty about it, I did do Americorp, and I will begin the Peace Corp in 6 weeks. I'm pausing my career to do it. I've received a lot of benefit in terms of education and therefore I've got skills to share and more to learn myself. It's easier to judge the good intentions of others, however imperfect their origin, than it is to formulate your own plan of action.

    3. It's easier to judge the good intentions of others, however imperfect their origin, than it is to formulate your own plan of action.

      I was with you until I read this statement.

    4. It's easier to judge the good intentions of others, however imperfect their origin, than it is to formulate your own plan of action.

      It's also easier to anonymously reply to a comment from a long-term reader on someone's blog about an observation that clearly doesn't apply to you...than to realize that what I said applies to a great amount of people. Even when linked to an article that basically talks about this exact issue in HuffPo.

      (Plus a click glance at my LinkedIn would make you feel incredibly embarrassed at that statement; you're "pausing your career," this is my career.)

  3. Revé (Packlightly at Wordpress)November 26, 2012 at 10:35 AM

    That being said, how have you been doing? lol How was your holiday?

    I've been keeping up with your blog since it gets emailed to me, but my life is **crazy** and I haven't had the time/energy to respond.

    1. The holiday went very well, I helped out a little bit at the shelter where my sister works...just for a short time. She and I cooked and entire vegan meal, though. It was awesome!

      How are you, too?! How's life?! :D

    2. Well 2012 has definitely been a very memorable year for me, that's for sure lol. I'm slowly working on a series of memoirs, as I've been encouraged to do for years.

      However, at the moment I'm focusing more on career prep/grad school prep/job addition to being an unpaid psychologist/social worker/emergency response worker/savoir/Black Jesus/Ted Kennedy of Facebook/Urban Confucius. This will all be covered in one of my books, I'll let you know when to expect the first book of the "If I were you, I wouldn't believe me either" series on Amazon, in English and Spanish ;-)

      Some good things have also happened and I have a feeling that 2012 will end on a much more positive note. I need to update you when I get a chance, since certain plans of mine are in the works and being adjusted here and there and I don't want to put them on my Wordpress just yet.

    3. Oooh, one last thing. I'm contemplating taking the exam for this program in a few years: Young Professionals Programme with the UN in their Social Affairs department. This program may be something you want to look into on the off chance the proctors at the Oral Assessment don't see your brilliance and you have to do this again, you may want to apply to both programs. Just in case.

      The United Nations is looking for highly qualified candidates who are ready to launch a professional career as an international civil servant. The young professionals programme (YPP) is a recruitment initiative that brings new talent to the United Nations through an annual entrance examination. For young, high-calibre professionals across the globe, the examination is a platform for launching a career at the United Nations. This programme builds upon the national competitive recruitment examination (NCRE) which was held for the last time in 2010...

      The examination tests your substantive knowledge, analytical thinking, drafting abilities, as well as your awareness of international affairs.

      [Regarding Social Affairs specifically]
      The Young Professionals Programme examination in Social Affairs covers a wide range of topics in the areas of aging, child labour, community development, crime, drug abuse, education, family, gender equality, health, HIV/AIDS, housing, hunger and malnutrition, human resources development, indigenous people, migration, persons with disabilities, population/demography, poverty reduction, refugees, research methods, role of NGOs, rural development, social development, social integration, social protection, statistics, unemployment, urbanization, women, youth and other related areas covered by the social affairs arms of the United Nations.

      Were I to do this, it'd be during the years when I'm 30 - 32, as the deadline is the year one turns 32 and if I do decide to this do and the Social Affairs exam isn't offered every year, hopefully it'll be an option for at least one of those three years.

  4. I feel you on this post. You feel this way because you "get it." You effectively see both sides of the coin, and thus have no reason to want to enter the Peace Corps than to do the best thing for yourself and others. In my opinion, that is the reason we should do everything we do- not just out of guilt or obligation because that surely takes away from living a fulfilling life that will in turn make the best impact on all those we encounter. Thank you for your "guilt free" desire and service.

    1. ...not just out of guilt or obligation because that surely takes away from living a fulfilling life that will in turn make the best impact on all those we encounter.

      Agreed! :D

  5. A very thoughtful post. Thanks for writing it. [smile]

    currently a PC applicant
    former ESL teacher Mongolia

    1. Thank you, Jim! I wish you well in your PC journey! Also, a teacher in Mongolia? I am supremely curious about your experiences! It's a very interesting region!