Author: RPCV Teni-Ola Ogunjobi
I didn’t realize how much I needed positive psychology until I connected with this study of human functioning and flourishing at my first National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) Peace Corps Connect conference this year. Going into the conference, my goal was to absorb the program content, the exhibitors, and the events. I wanted to understand the purpose of the conference and discover the resources that would be beneficial to my local Returned Peace Corps Volunteer organization. I knew I would meet a lot of new people within the Peace Corps community. I didn’t realize that there was a lot of potential to reconnect with one’s self and connect with the practical and applicable conference content.
During the conference, I was able to reconnect with one of my former stage-mates from my service in Mali after seven years and get to know some interesting new people. This was expected or at least a possibility. However, I was surprised at how relevant to my life the conference workshops were and I was surprised by the level of understanding I achieved about the state of Peace Corps and the relationship of Peace Corps the agency and NPCA.
This year’s theme, Positive Psychology for the Peace Corps Community, and the inspired content from the conference helped me reflect on my life values and the factors that contribute to my ultimately living my best life. The workshops I attended allowed me to address the nature of burnout and consider ways to prevent or reverse its impact on my life. I learned a different way to approach the evaluation of my strengths and how to use an asset-based perspective to be more self-aware, impactful, and well. I was also introduced to an alternative health method of tapping, an emotional freedom technique, to reduce pain or stress.
The conference panel discussions and meetings were not as interactive as I would have liked them to be, but the information was necessary to understand the roles, services, and differences of the Peace Corps agency and NPCA. I learned about the Peace Corps today: the source and use of resources, the areas of growth and improvement, the services and support available to Peace Corps Volunteers and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, the need and process for advocating for Peace Corps in the current political climate, and the Peace Corps influence through the lens of the agency and NPCA. At first, I considered this content to be overwhelming, but once I was able to digest the information, I found it to be very revealing and potent. The guest speakers and honorees were inspiring, especially the addresses by the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, Mandy Manning, and the Harris Wofford Global Citizen awardee Kul Chandra Gautam of Nepal. The speakers and honorees’ Peace Corps inspired journeys were touching and reminded me of why I loved my Peace Corps experience and my journey after my service.
One major element I found to be missing from the conference was the presence of multiple voices and perspective of people from different ethnic groups within American and the Peace Corps community. This observation can be easily overlooked or simply not addressed because of the very limited number of minorities in the Peace Corps community. But as a Nigerian-American in the community, it’s easy to point out the obvious: Peace Corps is dominated by White-American voices and perspectives. This imbalance is heightened by another obvious fact that Peace Corps generally serves people of color. Having spent time with Peace Corps Volunteers and returnees over the last seven years, I’ve learned that White-American Peace Corps community members are very essential to the ongoing movement in the U.S. and the world to make the lives and causes of other people matter and gain equality for all. I admire the effort of the White-American Peace Corps Volunteers and returnees who bring awareness to the inequalities and disadvantages of people of color internationally and domestically. I also appreciate the intentionality in their actions to be aware of and utilize their White privilege and platforms to positively impact the lives of others and influence members of the dominant group to be more inclusive, supportive, and empathic of non-dominate group members.
However, I believe that the Peace Corps community has a major responsibility to be a better example for America when promoting and practicing world peace and friendship across cultures. A culturally conscious organization and producer of intercultural competence ambassadors like the Peace Corps, must not forget about the cultures within America that impact ALL its volunteers and returnees and not just the cultures volunteers are serving. With that said, the annual Peace Corps conference: the speakers, the workshop facilitators, the presenters/exhibitors, and leaders, collectively lacked ethnic AND age diversity. When the voices and perspectives of others are not in the room, we risk missing the opportunity to make those of us in the minority category to be represented and heard on issues that affect us from our unique perspective.
During the conference, there was a question posed about the lack of age diversity and ways to bridge the gap. I wanted to pose a question about ethnic diversity, but I felt discouraged frankly because the conference AND Peace Corps as a whole is just so White. I find it hard to believe that an organization that inspired me to center my life around culture and sharing cultural experiences, doesn’t do the same within the Peace Corps community. My point being, that the Peace Corps should be as intentional about allowing diverse cultures within America to inform their community as they are about allowing the cultures that Peace Corps services to inform its community.
Overall, the venue in the Poconos Mountains was beautiful and the conference content was educational and useful. I was impressed by the work and honored to meet so many key members of the Peace Corps family. I charge Peace Corps to increase its ethnic diversity and create a more welcoming community for non-White Americans to feel represented and engaged. I’m hopeful for this change because Peace Corps is legendary for challenging its members to be change agents, to seek and embrace difference, and shake up the world.
About the Author: Teni-Ola Ogunjobi (Mali and Senegal 11-13) is the President of the Atlanta Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (AARPCV) organization, an NPCA Affiliate Group. She has been influential in areas of community engagement, volunteer management, intercultural education, grassroots development, business management and communications/journalism. Teni-Ola earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism/English from Howard University and a Master of Arts degree in Intercultural Relations from the University of the Pacific. As a part of her master's program, she lived and worked as a Community Economic Development Agent in West Africa (Mali & Senegal) with the Peace Corps. She also taught at bilingual and international schools for an additional two years in Senegal. Most recently, she has served the refugee and immigrant community as an AmeriCorps Member and volunteer coordinator at a refugee resettlement agency and she currently heads all aspects of community engagement at a school for refugee girls.