Maya Sadagopal is a Community Economic Development (CED) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Sucre, Colombia.
My first five months of service failed to deliver the heady fulfillment and impact promised by Peace Corps’s social media presence. It was difficult, lonely, and disappointingly unproductive. After repeatedly failing to make meaningful connections at the school, alcaldia, and library, I began to wonder how many more botched introductions it would take for my university to rescind my Spanish major. There were days when I only left my house in search of vegetables. There were days when I forced myself to change out of pajamas at 5pm and finally leave the house to go on a run so my muscles didn’t atrophy. There were days when I didn’t leave my house at all.
It wasn’t until my counterpart and I started a GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) club in our community that I really felt like I was doing something worthwhile. Each week, a group of 13-16 year old girls showed up to the casa de cultura excited to talk about self-esteem and healthy living. Attendance was sporadic at first, but there were two girls that I could always count on: Maria Camila and Karol. I remember thinking from the outset that they were the dynamic duo, the classic pair of best friends that grew up next door to each other and complemented each other perfectly. Karol was outgoing, and spoke in rapid-fire costeñol about rollerblading, her plans to be a doctor, and the importance of being unapologetically proud of the things that make us all unique, special, and strong women. María Camila was shy at first and didn’t participate much during meetings, but gradually emerged as a leader. Her calm and mature way of discussing difficult and sensitive subjects helped make everyone in the group feel comfortable and confident.
Any time new girls joined the club, María Camila and Karol took on the role of greeting them, explaining the group dynamics and rules, and ensuring they felt welcomed. They were both selected to attend Camp GLOW last June and spent a week building relationships and growing as leaders alongside representatives from 12 other clubs. After camp, they returned to our pueblo and led multiple meetings, replicating activities from camp for the rest of the club members. They embraced their roles as leaders, identifying the strengths of each girl and ensuring everyone contributed to the group’s community project. At the beginning of 2019, as our club embarked on its second year, they took it upon themselves to recruit new members.
Pride in Peace Corps is complicated. You work so hard to build even the smallest sense of achievement but feel the weight of impostor syndrome every time someone thanks you for your service or comments on how hard it must be. You yearn for progress and continuously try to convince yourself you’re adding value while simultaneously retreating in fear of creating an unsustainable project or perpetuating stereotypes of saviorism and imperialism.
When people hear about or meet María Camila, they’re impressed. They tell me how incredible it is that my GLOW club helped her grow, and how proud I should be. My gut response is “my Club GLOW??? That club is all MC.” It would be easy to accredit myself with María Camila’s growth as a young woman, but in reality I lean on her as much as, if not more than, she leans on me. For every “I’m so glad I could be there for her” moment, I have at least five “I’m so glad she was there for me” moments.
There was the time last July when I felt like our club was falling apart. My counterpart Kenia went back to university and could no longer attend meetings, attendance was dropping steadily, and I was at a loss for how to recruit new girls. One afternoon, María Camila asked if she could stop by my house to show me something. She’d compiled a video about our club using photos and video footage from meetings and wanted to share it on social media to encourage more girls to join the group. On numerous occasions, I’ve received WhatsApp messages from her detailing a workshop or activity she has designed and wants to lead with the club. In these moments, the words “I DON’T DESERVE HER” never feel sufficient to describe how impressed and motivated I am by her motivation. I often find myself thinking, “am I empowering her or is she empowering me?!?!”
The tired cliche of Peace Corps (and most things in life), is that you set out with a goal and find out that the universe had other plans for you. You thought you were the teacher, but you came away learning more than you expected. The real impact was the friends you made along the way.
No one joins the Peace Corps with purely altruistic motives. Promoting world peace and friendship is our shared, nebulous, overarching goal, but sometimes what gets us through the tougher days is the selfish desire to know we devoted two years of our lives to something worthwhile. We joke about doing nothing while we desperately seek out evidence and indicators to abate that voice in our heads telling us that our work has no sustainable impact.
This week the new volunteer who will be taking over in my town came to visit and had a chance to meet María Camila and a few other GLOW girls. I asked them to share their experience in the club and María Camila launched into a speech about how before GLOW she struggled with self-esteem and felt like an outsider, but participating in the club and joining a network of empowered women has helped her to recognize her own strengths, expand her horizons, and grow as a leader. I reflect on my parallel story: before GLOW, I was struggling and felt like an outsider in my community, but forming the club and building relationships with these girls helped me to identify the many things I have in common with these young women, find my place in this town, and grow as a volunteer.
I came to Colombia with visions of forming prosperous community savings groups, promoting sustainable change through business advising, and fomenting an entrepreneurial spirit in young people. I ended up finding a single girl in whom I saw myself, and together we have helped each other grow.