Tales from KZ

Kazakhstan. Perry. A New Community.

Dear President Obama

Dear President Obama,
After graduating from University of Michigan in 2007, I joined the United States Peace Corps. Like all other newly serving Peace Corps Volunteers, I had no idea what to expect.  As a UM alum, Peace Corps has a special significance to me.  As you referenced in your commencement address to the UM Class of 2010, President John F. Kennedy laid the foundation for the Peace Corps 50 years ago at the steps of the Michigan Union at a 2AM campaign stop.  He challenged those assembled to “contribute part of [their] life to this country”, to not just be a witness to the world around them but to be a part of the world around them.
President Kennedy inspired a generation to put the best face of America forward.  Thousands of Americans embraced that challenge and have lived in the poverty that hundreds of millions around the world call daily life, have worked side-by-side with citizens who spend years trying to earn as much as some Americans earn in an hour, have seen the injustice that inequality, corruption, poor development practices, and apathy breed.  These same Americans have also seen the hope that simple acts inspire.
We have seen the smile on  young students’ faces as they recite their first English phrase and the outpouring of emotion when a young woman gains the confidence to stand-up against an abusive boyfriend.  We have been a part of teaching new farming techniques to increase growth efficiency and have learned about traditional planting and medical techniques that are effective.  The traditional boundaries of developed, developing, and underdeveloped are no longer truly appropriate.
Rural villages in Armenia have streaming video on laptops, even without constant running water. A young girl living in a yurt in the middle of the Kazakh steppe can talk on Skype to her cousin in America after working outside all day to support her family.  But, the technological innovations are not replacements for basic education and for basic infrastructure.  The Internet can break down barriers to communication, can open the door to new ideas, and can share traditions instantly.  But, without education, without running water, without quality health care, without regular heat, the Internet connection is not enough.
As Americans, we need to start by asking ourselves how we are connecting with the world around us.  But, we do not have to travel to across borders to visit an underdeveloped or developing nation. Sadly, these places exist in our backyard.  I grew-up in a Detroit suburb.  My family traveled to Detroit regularly, but it was still a destination, where we went to see great musical theater, to go to the hockey game, the ball game, or grab an exciting meal.  While my family has had a connection to the city for generations, the city itself was always a destination, never a place I considered home.
I grew-up with stories of how my grandfather dedicated his life to serving the Detroit-area community as a public service attorney.  His was the example we followed when we would go into the city for one-time events, when we donated money to support organizations doing vital work, when we participated in discussions about how to make the city better.  Yet, rather than moving to Detroit after graduating, I went overseas.
When I returned to Michigan after two years and three months in Kazakhstan and then another four months of travel around Central Asia and the Caucuses, I felt lost.  I did not yet know how to talk to people about my experience – how can someone who has never lived in another world relate?  I did not know what I wanted to do.  I had the feeling that I needed to top my experience in Peace Corps.  I listened to Peace Corps alumni share how their two years in PC was the epitome of their life, how they will never forget those times and the people they worked with.  I do not want my time in Kazakhstan to be the focal point of what I contribute to help the world, I do not want to look back at an amazing two years simply full of fondness.
The challenge is not doing better or doing more, the challenge is continuing to do something meaningful and finding a path to contribute.  It is very scary to return to what most Americans consider “real life”.  Living in one place too long, the tendency is to view everything outside that picture as only peripherally relevant.  In the States, we are particularly good at this game.  Other perspectives are noted but quickly discarded.  Other areas around the country are mentioned, but we latch onto our hometown and our state ever tighter.  Other countries are deemed strategically important and resources are poured into them, but people and the media are distracted as soon as one pop star dies.
We need to do a better job staying focused.  The problems confronting the world are big but they require focusing on the individual as much as broad strategy.  Peace Corps, Americorps, and Teach for America are three excellent examples of how America can impact individuals at home and abroad and have larger strategies for engagement, development, and growth.  These, however, are not enough.
Many American urban and rural areas are in the same position as developing and underdeveloped countries – they need support to create and enact ideas that they do not know or have the ability to develop on their own.  Programs bringing outsiders to work with locals are really important.  The mix of ideas, backgrounds, and experiences creates innovation.  Often, those outsiders adopt the community as their new home and people from the community have their first chance to move outside their bubble and be a part of a broader society.
As I found in Peace Corps, creating actual sustainability is the key to any development strategy. Individuals need to learn that there is always more to learn and need to have in mind the concept of fading into the background without being noticed.  Success should often be measured by how easy it is to leave without the impact of your departure changing the situation.  Emotionally, we tend to have problems with this technique.  We want to be liked, we want the credit.  Other people taking credit for our ideas and truly believing that they are their own, sometimes this is even more valuable.
Thank you for your commitment to expanding public service programs.  Like most programs focused on improving society, more can be done.  Peace Corps should refine its mission and dedicate more resources to inspiring volunteers to think innovatively,  to look at how to make a difference for that one child who may one day be a leader of their country as well as taking advantage of their unique position to make a society-wide difference.  All Americans should be encouraged to give back to their communities, to challenge their norms, and learn about their neighbors close by and far away.
I have been searching for inspiration since returning from my travels: how do I continue what I started in Peace Corps?  Commencement ceremonies tend to be a good place to make that find.  Your speech at the University of Michigan Commencement has provided me with the energy I have been searching for.  Your speech reminded me what it means to be an American, the responsibility we have to each other, and our ability to make our community and the world a better place.
Perry Teicher

May 17, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment