Building Community: From Our Block to the Peace Corps

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This past week my wife and I said goodbye to our son as he left for the Peace Corps. After cultural and language training, he will spend two years teaching in Namibia, a country in southwest Africa. As parents, we will miss him dearly, but recognize that as a recent college graduate, he needs to determine his own pathway in life and the best ways in which he can make a contribution to the world.

As a global society we are afflicted by a host of seemingly insurmountable challenges: extremism, social and economic injustice, and natural disasters (often worsened by climate change), to mention a few. If you want to get somewhat depressed, just start your own list. The overwhelming nature of the problems we face can easily cause people to become apathetic and come to believe that the world is just what it is, and there is little we can do about it. We might then be resigned to do little, care little, and become more and more removed from those around us.

I am not suggesting that everyone needs to fully commit to working to solve all the problems that need our attention. It is overwhelming, and we need to temper our engagement at a level we can physically and emotionally bear. Finding a middle ground that allows us to improve the human condition as best we can, yet prevents us from becoming jaded is crucial.

As a Peace Corps volunteer our son will be assigned to working in a village-based school in a rural part of the country. He thinks he will be somewhere near where Namibia, Botswana, and Angola meet based on the language he is learning. We are sure his education will not stop with language training, but will include all sorts of cultural, social, and political awareness. More over, his physical, emotional, and mental resiliency levels will be tested. Hardship is an expectation of Peace Corps work.

He will be spending intimate time with people quite different than the friends he grew up with and our family. Though my wife and I have strived to raise our children in a multicultural world and he has always had a deep wanderlust, no amount of preparation can completely equip him for what he is about to experience.

His living and working with others, particularly young people, are critical to the important “people to people” engagement that is the basis of building community, establishing trust, and ultimately making the world a better place. In the maelstrom that is presented by the daily news and talk shows, it is easy to forget that it is the efforts that we engage in with our neighbors, friends, and even strangers that are the foundation of a better tomorrow.

As Americans we are more polarized than ever. Locked in our homes and behind our gated communities, we associate with others through social media and learn about the world through our screens, rather than sit on our front porches (I’m always amazed at the number of homes that have them, but are unused). A few weeks back, we held a National Night Out party on our street and welcomed new neighbors to our community. I was glad that a Bangladeshi family that had just moved in joined us. Learning about our world including the struggles and hopes of others is always best done in person.

Making a difference day to day by simple acts of generosity, thoughtfulness, and caring are what make us human. More over, our modeling is critical to showing young people that hope is not lost and we can make the world a better place.

Those of us living in comfortable settings owe a debt of gratitude to those who have committed themselves in far off places to the service of others, including in the Peace Corps. They are our emissaries, and demonstrate the goodwill that is a core value of Americans. Their efforts should stir us to work to build community and promote a better world. This can take place anywhere, on our block or in faraway Namibia.

David J. Smith is an educational consultant focusing on peacebuilding. He is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He lives in Rockville, Maryland.

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