I recently came across the book, “Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid” by Jessica Alexander. This book serves as the memoirs of a then-young woman who held positions as a humanitarian aid worker in various parts of Africa, and later was instrumental in international relief efforts for other disasters, such as the tsunami crisis in Japan. She holds a number of masters degrees, and is currently pursuing her PhD.
Upon reading her book, she starts talking about her job in marketing and advertising, and how after a devastating loss in her life, she realized she didn’t want to waste her time taste-testing various pizza products and conducting focus groups. I was immediately reminded of a CRS rep who I met last year at Cabrini, who shared with us how he advertised for toilet paper, if I remember correctly. I then resonated with both of these stories, and thought to myself – hey, that sort of thing happened to me as well. While selling coupons is quite the sexy job, working from 6am-7pm sorting through various artwork versions for fuzzy slippers and differentiating those from moccasins and high-top fur boots, was not.
My co-workers were great at what they did. And I think I started out pretty strong too…but, the passion for CPG companies, and inputting OCR codes into the system wasn’t there.
For Alexander, the devastating loss in her life was the wake-up call. For the CRS rep, it was the need for something different – something deeper. For me, it was my annual summer trips to the Philippines working with the most vulnerable children impoverished communities, that moved my heart in a different direction, and as a result, my professional life moved in a drastically different geographic location to a whole different path. Not what I had in mind, but a rewarding one nonetheless.
As I start to navigate through various MA opportunities for my future, I am continually drawn to the life of service and aid efforts. Of course, while I feel that I have developed some good field cred for my time spent internationally, I feel the pull to be back in the classroom, even if “virtually,” to learn more about the underlying causes of poverty, and start thinking critically about the economic systems and sometimes poor, sometimes well-thought out decisions of policymakers.
If I want to work for social justice, if I want to see change in the world, yes, I can go off of my own personal experiences when I saw these things first hand, I can time-travel back to the communities I would sit with and learn more about, but still, I need to learn more about development and gain the knowledge in order to hopefully better understand causes and roots of these conditions I witnesed.
For now, being back in the US is a good move. Certainly a challenging one at times, but one that I feel has come at a good time, and was/is much needed. Still, I get to share this passion that I have with my community around me, as well as with my students who are curious about the world, and I have the opportunity to start challenging them to think critically about why things are the way they are in the world, and do they have to remain that way? In some ways this is even more challenging than when I was overseas.
The memoirs of Alexander are true, and while at some moments I cringe at her comments – reading about the communities sometimes not being so welcoming, the living conditions not being favorable, learning to wait…sometimes for longgggg periods of time for any change to happen, or for water to come on…at the same time, I grow nostalgic. Tuesdays and Thursdays, sometimes the mornings of Saturday – no water….eventually my body caught on to the pattern. When reading about her first dinner party with the other aid workers that she met by chance, I was reminded of my first encounters with the PCV’s I met in the PI. I didn’t have friends for a good chunk of time while I started off in the PI…but sure enough, they came. And sure enough, we found community with one another.
I suppose what still baffles me and surprises me at times, is the human spirit, and the desire and ability of the human spirit to want to do aid work. Is it for the money? Hardly. I feel that one difficulty is that sometimes an aid worker can not simply just serve one individual, but rather, work for the communities. Or is that always the case? For someone who’s never worked directly with aid relief, I suppose that statement is quite an understatement. But I read some of Alexander’s reflections and think, “Wow. What a challenge.” But she keeps going.
I think about my dear friend, Chandreyee and how she would go for days without sleeping because of her work on the frontlines of the tsunami relief efforts in Southeast Asia with CRS. I remember just listening to her stories, her advice, and wisdom while she was on sabbatical, after I would steal her away from campus, and I felt like a young sponge wanting to record everything she shared with me. While these people are not saints or miracle workers, I believe the drive and fire that is inherent in all people, is especially strong in theirs. And so, as I begin to discover who I could be in the realm of global development and aid efforts, I am continually reminded that there is indeed a beauty in solidarity, a beauty in the challenges faced by the human spirit, and there is lots of joy too.
In my current “job” as an educator, there is strong responsibility there too, and I feel blessed to have wonderful mentors, role models, resources, and inspirations in my life, that in turn, help to inform me and my students, of our potential and role as changemakers in the world.
Great things to come! I’m looking forward to it. Stay tuned.