By Jaala Shaw
Relationships build peace.
It is very easy to disagree with someone you do not know; to disrespect a culture you’ve never experienced.
It is the mission of the United States Peace Corps to build relationships with host country nationals, to learn about their culture, to teach them about the culture of the United States, then to bring that newly acquired knowledge of the foreign culture home to the USA and share it all with Americans.
We know that when you share commonalities with others, or you have some connections with people beyond hearsay, you are more likely to care about them.
Working as a Peace Corps Volunteer for 3 years, first in The People’s Republic of China, then in the Federated States of Micronesia, taught me that peace is a matter of perspective, and that it is built by making friends.
But those lessons were hard-won.
Before I arrived at my Peace Corps posts, I thought that diplomats and militaries make peace and that peace was an absence of conflict. I didn’t think that one person was enough to make a difference, so I had to be important enough to be noticed.
My plan was to spend most of my time talking to high-ranking people and doing important things at the government level. I’d affect policy, change laws, and influence officials to do things more effectively and compassionately. I would change things from the top; no need to get to know individuals. I was 23 years old at the time, and thought that this is how the Peace Corps worked.
I was wrong, of course.
I ended up being placed in a very remote village on Yap Island in Micronesia. I would be teaching elementary school English, PE, and agriculture. Five months into my posting I wasn’t teaching at the school yet. I was coaching volleyball and helping my family farm taro and sweet potatoes (honestly, I was eating most of them). I was ready to quit.
“I’VE DONE NOTHING TO MAKE PEACE,” I told my 83 year old host grandmother, frustrated.
I started crying. I told her, “I’m no diplomat. I’m a 24 year old girl who likes to swim in the ocean.”
My host grandmother looked at me and said, “Yes, you are.”
Then she said some the things that changed my perspective:
“You are a 24 year old American girl who likes to swim in the ocean, eat all of my sweet potatoes, keep everything spotlessly clean, speak Chinese, Yapese, Spanish, and is curious about World War II history. You are a 24 year old girl who left America to learn about other places in the world because you care about those places. You are a 24 year old girl who inspires the other kids and women in the village of Gilman to run and not be fat.”
My host grandmother and I spoke about the generations of Peace Corps Volunteers she had seen since the 1960’s. She described how she, and they, had changed over the years.
At first, she was uneducated. Volunteers opened up island schools for girls and taught them things they had never been able to learn before, like better ways to farm taro. Eventually, volunteers helped local Yapese write down their language so that they could teach kids how to read in their native tongue. Before volunteers served there, Yapese was only an oral language. Yapese Islanders stopped believing that Americans just wanted to test nuclear weapons there and steal their land.
Eventually, the change in the American volunteers was evident too. She said people shifted from thinking that peace was only determined by what governments did, to understanding that peace is something that is created between the people.
She told me that all the things I was doing were contributing to peace on a daily basis. She said to me, “Peace is personal, it is what you make it.”
From this point forward, my perspective genuinely shifted.
When I went into the Peace Corps, my definition of peace was “an absence of war and conflict.” When I left the Peace Corps, I understood that peace begins with people becoming friends and is built by what exists between them. A world at peace is not one absent of war, but one in which people are working toward what will bring them peace. That is a different answer for everyone, but sometimes we must be in conflict in order to make things more peaceful.
These days, I’m not a high-level diplomat changing policies and meeting with important government leaders. These days, I’m a citizen diplomat. I make friends and learn things. I write and speak about what I learn. I try to bring the knowledge I have of the margins to others, so that they may know what other people and places are like.
This is what PEACE looks like to me. It comes from building relationships, knowledge, and sharing connections and stories with others.
I continue to work for peace, everyday.
Director, Tribe Kids
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, China and Federated States of Micronesia 2002-2004
Peace Corps Virtual Service Project, South Africa 2022