April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Friday, December 26, 2008

Where is the baseline?

Peace Corps seems to inspire introspection about oneself and work. We seem to have in common a desire to change ourselves and the world. But how do we know if we are really changing anything? What should we be using as a baseline for the comparisons that we make?

Over the past year I have had several people remark to me “you have really grown / changed in the past year” or “Peace Corps has changed you”. I found myself a little baffled by this as I feel like the same person. It finally clicked for me when a PC staffer made a similar comment and then asked me how Peace Corps has impacted me…the way the question was phrased implied that the changes/growth are a result of Peace Corps. That is when I realized: I wish he had come to my living room and met me 6 months before I came to Panama. He would have met pretty much the woman that he knows now: confident, caring, strong, goal oriented (sometimes to a fault) with a strong sense of self knowledge.

The only baseline that staffer (and all those who know me here in Panama) have to compare me to is the “me” that was in training or soon after. Then I was a woman that had been stripped of all control of personal space, diet, personal and work schedule, normal methods of relaxation, and access to her normal support networks. In short, she was more stressed and with less tools to deal with the stress than at any other point in her life. Is that the baseline that we should use for comparison to who I am now?

For my part, I feel that it is only fair to compare me to the baseline or “normal” of who I was before coming to Peace Corps. Any change from that baseline could be reasonably linked to the Peace Corps experience. But if the baseline we start from doesn’t include the whole picture, neither will our understanding of the information.

There are also examples in my work: where you start looking from has an impact on what you see. In my neighborhood there is a clear uptick in the number of kitchen gardens planted by my neighbors. The uptick started clearly just after my demonstration garden was planted. So clearly, I am responsible for starting them on kitchen gardens, right?

No, not so fast. Further conversations with community members reveal that kitchen gardens are not a new idea, we are just responsible for the current uptick in interest. However, those conversations do show that the idea of planting tomatoes under your house eves (out of the rain) is a new idea…they saw it of the first time in our garden. Because it had never been seen before in our site, the baseline starts with our garden. In other words, efforts linked to the innovation od planting under the eves can be linked to our demonstration of a new idea.

As I mover ever closer to close of service (known as COS - it is approaching at an alarming rate these days), I find myself soul searching on the impacts of these two years…on myself and my community. Yes, I have changed personally – but which baseline are you seeing me from? I think that looking at our work here in Panama with an accurate baseline, and being honest about all of the variables involved, is one of the most challenging parts of Peace Corps, and yet one of the most important.

1 comment:

Tabassum Majid said...

The same beautiful April who I knew and loved before Peace Corps only amazed me more after visiting this week. Have a wonderful new year, I miss you already.