San Francisco area RPCVs and Peace Corps staff gather in Dolores park for a Pride Month picnic on Sunday, June 12, 2016.
When Peace Corps proposed a little Pride picnic in San Francisco it seemed like a casual thing. We’d gather in a park, share some stories, and go on with our lives.
But when the day came the meaning changed. It was the morning after the Orlando shooting, and as we scrolled through the terrifying news, there we were. Gathered in a park. Sharing stories. Going on with our lives.
The freedom to gather as LGBTQ+ and allies was the product of generations of work. It’s a freedom denied in so many places, including many of the countries where we serve. And it’s a freedom I’d forgotten to appreciate.
There are no life lessons to be found in the slaughter of young people. People of Color did not die so that a group of mostly White RPCVs could appreciate Dolores Park.
But I did find hope in the people I was surrounded with at our silly little picnic. I do think our community — at the intersection of LGBTQ+ and Peace Corps Volunteers — is on the leading edge of what our world will become. And that gives me hope.
I see Peace Corps — a government agency! — hosting webinars for trans* volunteers. I see the agency director at the front of the Peace Corps contingent in DC Pride(picture below) – even sending a message to the global staff regarding Orlando. I even see the staff’s email footers where they indicate which gendered pronouns they prefer.
I also see a community that is treating its lack of ethnic diversity as a crisis, and going all-hands-on-deck for cultural change. As a gay RPCV I feel like I’m a part of what a progressive, inclusive, loving community can look like.
So let’s appreciate our gatherings — every little one of them. Be bold and courageous — be yourselves. Keep up your good work around the world, and let’s please all stay connected!
Sarah Blazucki (left), President of Spectrum (Peace Corps’ LGBTQ employee resource group), and Carrie Hessler-Redelet, Director of Peace Corps, lead the Peace Corps delegation in Washington, DC’s Pride parade on June 11, 2016. Full album here: http://1.usa.gov/1S5hIcD
Hale Sargent served in Armenia from 1998 – 2000. He currently serves on the Steering Committee for the LGBT RPCV Association and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sankofa, Peace Corps’ Black/African-American employee affinity group, felt the need to compose a panel based on the conversations many members have had with other people of color and wanting to address how these events affect employees, directly and indirectly, on a regular basis, including the work environment. Spectrum, Peace Corp’s LGBTQ employee affinity group, added value by enlisting Kevin Jones who was an excellent part of the panel and helped create a stronger intersection of diversity and inclusion by speaking on his identity as a gay Black man, how his current job utilizes data to properly allocate and focus resources to DC neighborhoods in need, and his strong body of advocacy for LGBT rights and respect. Roughly 50 staff was in attendance.
PURPOSE OF EVENT
Recent events across the nation (the murder of Freddy Gray in Baltimore, events in Texas, Ohio, and elsewhere) have brought forth the issue of racial inequality through different lenses – law, education, entertainment, socioeconomics, among others. As the Peace Corps strives to create a diverse and inclusive environment for both staff and Volunteers that encourages an active and effective exchange of views, it’s important that Peace Corps employees have space to discuss and address these issues that are now in the national and international spotlight.
Kevin Jones – For the past 20 years, he has worked with community groups and nonprofit organizations to use data to inform public health and educational strategies embedded in liberation and social justice. A highlight of his work includes traveling to Gaborone, Botswana to train professors and graduate students in using qualitative research methods for developing HIV prevention programs for young people. Prior to moving to Washington, DC in 2012, he established the Black LGBT Archivists Society of Philadelphia to collect, preserve and exhibit history. He currently serves as the Chief of Data and Evaluation for the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, overseeing performance measurement activities for its antipoverty strategies for students and families. Jones is originally from Detroit, Michigan. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, and received Masters’ degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of Pennsylvania.
Sozit Mohamed – Sozit Mohamed is a graduate of San Francisco State University (SFSU), where she received her B.S. in Political Science in 2009. The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants who instilled the value of education at an early age, Sozit became the first in her family to attend college. Through an academic scholarship and a part-time job, Sozit was able to finance her education all while maintaining the high G.P.A required of her academic scholarship. In addition to working and studying, Sozit became an active leader with various student groups at SFSU – including the Black Student Union and the Muslim Student Organization.
Mohamed is currently an intern with Peace Corps’ Office of Civil Rights and Diversity and a Juris Doctorate candidate at the Howard University School of Law. She is a member of various student groups at Howard including the International Law Society and the Immigration Law Society, African Law Student Association and served as the Vice President of the Muslim Law Student Association during the 2014-2015 academic year.
Christina M. Parrish – Christina Parrish joined Girls Inc DC as the Program Director. After graduating from Georgetown University in 2008 as a Culture and Politics major, with a focus on youth and education, Christina remained in the District and worked as an Education Director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington where her passion for youth development was enlivened. As the Education Director for the FBR Branch Boys & Girls Club in Southeast Washington D.C., she developed and implemented programming fit to the needs of area youth ages 5-18. At the Boys & Girls Clubs, her primary areas of programmatic focus included exposing participants to international cultures, college access and career exploration.
After working for the Boys & Girls Clubs, Parrish went on to pursue an M.P.P. in Social Policy and International Development with a focus on Education Policy at the Maryland School of Public Policy. Parrish most recently worked for Georgetown University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions where she was responsible for multicultural recruitment efforts and working on issues of college access for students from underserved communities, many of them first generation college-bound students. Christina is excited to continue to advocate for youth, specifically girls, with Girls Inc DC- an organization that creates a space for girls to be strong, smart & bold, so they become women who are healthy, educated and independent.
What do you do (career path/employment and why do you do it)?
How do the concepts of social justice and inequality vary across generations within a similar group?
What risks and rewards are associated with adopting explicit social justice stances (ex: calling out oppression and discrimination when you encounter it)?
If the struggle for social justice takes a toll on oneself, how do you manage to continue to advocate? And what can one learn from it?
What have been some of your successes and challenges for you in your field?
How do you incorporate social justice practices in your daily life (workplace, school, personal, etc.)?
Byron L. Williams, from Las Vegas, NV, is a Diversity Outreach Specialist for the U.S. Peace Corps. Along with his team in the Office of Recruitment & Diversity he is responsible for crafting the outreach and awareness strategies for the recruitment of historically under-represented peoples and communities. Byron served twice with Peace Corps, the first time as a Youth Development Volunteer in Lesotho 2003-2005 and then with this wife, Denise Williams, as education volunteers in Ukraine 2011-2013. He can be reached at email@example.com
It is my absolute pleasure and pride to report with you the activities, energies, and progress that the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (LGBT RPCV) have made this past year. In fact, one of the largest shifts we experienced was my personal transition from the Steering Committee as the New Volunteer Coordinator to leading the group as National Coordinator.
Since our inception, LGBT RPCV has been privileged to have the steadfast leadership of Mike Learned (Malawi, 1963-1965) in a variety of different capacities. Under his leadership LGBT RPCV has been working to promote Peace Corps ideals and the legal, political and social rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world. In June, Peace Corps Director, Carolyn Hessler-Radelet, presented Mike a certificate of appreciation for his “invaluable contributions and exceptional dedication to the Peace Corps” (see full report below).
2015 was a historic year for LGBT rights, equality, and struggle. With a strong social media presence, participation at a national conference, and supporting local Pride parades and activities across the country LGBT RPCV has been working very hard to be on the forefront of such important work. I want to thank each of our members, friends, and supporters for their positive contributions in making our organization a success and I look forward to continue our collective well into the future.
As the coordinator of the Sexuality Training Awareness and Response (STAR) Peace Corps Volunteer committee in Nicaragua, I train staff and volunteers on LGBTQ issues.
STAR formed in 2014 because Peace Corps Nicaragua was one of three countries that agreed to host a same sex couple. In light of this agreement, LGBTQ volunteers in country wished for their identities to be acknowledged and supported.
In 2015, STAR led four LGBTQ safe zone trainings. Our first training was nerve wracking, yet rewarding. During these trainings, we realized what a great need there was for staff to learn about the differences between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ before moving on to more complex topics like ‘gender expression’ and ‘sexual orientation’. We trained Nicaraguan and American office staff, as well as our hotel and hostel staff. Last but not least, we trained several of the taxi cab drivers that make sure we travel through Managua safely.
Here are reasons why the Peace Corps needs LGBTQ Safe Zone Trainings. I will use the term “queer” and “LGBTQ” interchangeably. In this context, the term “queer” is a reclaimed term to refer to anyone who does not identify as heterosexual.
Some countries criminalize homosexuality.
I’m lucky I can even say the words “I am a lesbian” out loud in Nicaragua. Other Peace Corps host countries around the world still criminalize homosexual behavior. This reinforces the misconception that homosexuality is an act, not an identity. Homosexual acts in Nicaragua aren’t criminalized, though. During our trainings, we share how being queer forms our identities and affects our service. We didn’t “choose” to be queer. We were born this way, and it’s a harsh reality that some queer people don’t apply to the Peace Corps for safety reasons.
We think critically about gender. “In a relationship, you normally have a man and a woman. Who is the man- the dominant one-in a lesbian relationship?” A curious taxi driver asked during a trainings. I realized that we had to analyze gender roles in heterosexual relationships. I explained that in a lesbian relationship, just like in a straight relationship, it depends. More women are working to support their families. Women are waiting longer to have children. “Now, it’s more common to see a father walking down the street, holding his son’s hand. You didn’t see that nearly as much 20 years ago, right?” The cab driver nodded. Just as gender roles aren’t fixed for straight couples, they aren’t fixed for queer couples. We use the genderbread person toolhelp us.
Being queer affects our service.
STAR is made up of queer and allied volunteers because volunteers want to support each other. I didn’t come out to any Nicaraguans in my small training town, but I came out to my colleagues. I kept it to myself because I was in a new country for the first time, and I didn’t want to feel unsafe for my first three months. I didn’t enjoy telling my host family that I did not have a boyfriend, and not being comfortable enough to explain Ionly dated women. I lied to protect myself. It’s a difficult balance to strike as a queer volunteer. You want to be completely honest about who you are, but you don’t want to compromise how locals view you and your work.
Peace Corps staff can surprise you. While homophobia exists everywhere, STAR is making an unprecedented effort to have open, honest conversations with the people who support PCVs. We are helping them understand what language to use in order to welcome people who aren’t straight. Two months into my service, my Spanish facilitator asked me “Are you texting your boyfriend?”. I wanted to say, no, I’m a lesbian, but I didn’t know how she would react. If she had used the word “partner” instead of boyfriend, then I would’ve opened up to her. Six months later, I came out to her during our first safe zone training. She ended up coming back to our third training because she had enjoyed the first one so much. If I’d known how open she was, I would’ve come out to her earlier.
Staff walk in LGBTQ volunteers’ shoes.
During each training, staff break up into small groups and perform role plays on topics such as:
• Practicing volunteer confidentiality
• Using LGBTQ-inclusive language
Watch the role play between Pablo, our safety and security officer, and Jorge, our taxi cab driver (and a great actor!). Pablo played a PCV. He talks to Jorge, who plays a housekeeper at the Peace Corps Office.
Jorge (Housekeeper): Listen to this! My fag of a neighbor robbed me!
Pablo (volunteer): Oh yeah?
Pablo: Listen, I understand that you’re upset because he robbed you, but I don’t appreciate you using that word. I have a lot of gay friends, and they are good people.They’re my friends, and I don’t like you using that word, especially here at the Peace Corps office.
Jorge: Listen brother, I didn’t mean to offend you. I respect sexual orientations of all kids. It was just an expression. I’m just mad at my neighbor.
These role plays are fun because staff members jump right in and practice what they’ve learned. It’s neat to see a group of grown men and women perform situations and use words like “gay” and “lesbian” in positive ways, as opposed to using the word “cochón” (fag), which people use without knowing how offensive it can be to someone who is actually gay.
The trainings apply to our lives. Our trainings are different from your typical “This is what to do if you get diarrhea” trainings. Our trainings push people to think of gender and sexual orientation in new ways. All of us know someone or are related to someone who is queer. During the breaks, I’ve had staff come up to me and ask me “I have a family member who came out to me. What do I do?”. I reassure them that just by making their family member feel comfortable enough to come out to them, they are in the right direction. “You may not have the best advice for them, but just listen to them. We cannot solve our loved one’s problems, but being understanding is important”, I assure them.
The trainings are sustainable.
After our safe zone trainings, we gave our taxi drivers rainbow colored “safe zone” stickers that they stuck to their windshields. These stickers benefited the drivers’ business because queer Managuans were more likely to hop inside the cabs, knowing their identies would be respected during their cab ride home. They are also a great conversation starter for anyone hopping in. I’ve had great conversations with the drivers. The stickers give the drivers a chance to share what they learned about LGBTQ identity with others.
I hope that more LGBTQ or allied Peace Corps volunteers are aware of the small steps they can take within the Peace Corps sphere to create more accepting work environments. Here is a list of resources you can use if you are interested in STAR trainings.
This is how safe zone trainings apply across the four Peace Corps Nicaragua sectors:
TEFL, Business, and Environment: These trainings can be given during teacher trainings for specific efforts, such as anti-gay bullying awareness. More broadly, the trainings can just start a conversation between teachers about lgbtq identity or gender roles.
Health: Confidentiality is not enforced in pharmacies or health centers. These trainings can share the importance of creating safe zones for people how may not feel safe coming out. Sometimes, gay male host country nationals will donate blood through the Red Cross to test for HIV because getting an HIV test at a health center is not confidential.
This training also went well during Camp GLOW for Nicaraguan teenage girls. Here’s how.
How would LGBTQ safe zone trainings apply to your work?
Peace Corp Response Volunteers serve communities around the world engaging in specialty projects. Watch how these dedicated Volunteers work with Jamaicans on HIV/AIDS awareness and LGBT awareness.
“The work and the input that Peace Corps Response Volunteers has brought to Jamaica cannot be quantified realistically in dollars and cents but the impact that they’ve had on various NGOs is remarkable.” – Dane Lewis, J-FLAG (The Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays) Executive Director