Inside the conference room of a four-star Philadelphia hotel for Staging, a daylong training that attempts to introduce us to the valleys of twists and turns awaiting us in Ethiopia while enveloping our to-be specificities inside the similarities of serving in Peace Corps anywhere, staff tried to calm our nerves.
A staff member sitting in the back, near our ready-to-issue passports, said, “I’m so jealous. Peace Corps taught me how to fail. I wish I could go with all of you.”
Hold up. Wait a minute. Back up. You’re jealous because Peace Corps taught you to fail?
Her statement rested in the back of my mind, waiting to be revisited until I could piece together the statement’s sentiment.
Fifteen months in Ethiopia, and 12 at site, I revisited my CNA (community needs assessment) to take a look at successes and failures in the quantitative way we like to bring authority to abstractions.
Not so easy to do after everything you thought you’ve known gets tossed on its head.
The CNA includes a potential projects section. With fresh insight eyeing decades-long problems plaguing a 70-year-old town, all sorts of so-called links and solutions dotted notebook sheets. The saying you can kill two birds with one stone? Yeah, forget that, we could bludgeon five with one alone!
These were some of my brilliant ideas, all under the umbrella of “Increased Awareness about Healthy Lifestyles to Improve Health Status through Practices that Reduce the Spread of Disease”:
- Safe Sex Education
- HIV Awareness Campaign
- Nutritious Meal Preparation
- WaSH (Hand washing construction sites and latrine construction)
- People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) Association Overhaul
- Prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMCT) Association Creation
If we address failure based on whether those projects have come to fruition in any regard halfway through service, then I’ve failed. Magnificently.
I’ll spare you the details of why four of the six project ideas listed above crumbled. (You read that right, a sparkling 66 percent fail rate. In any other organization, I would have been fired.)
We’ll look instead at the one similarity of those failed project ideas.
Those ideas were mine and mine alone.
When I created their outlines, I kept the community in mind, I remembered what people had said during shay-bunna breaks, but I didn’t include them. I didn’t ask, “Hey, would encouraging a drama club to create a safe-sex skit work?” Talk about being forward. Anyone with a brain would’ve told me that idea would go up in flames. Anyone could have suggested another way to approach the topic.
Define that as failure if you will. I’ll call it a hidden opportunity.
The ideas that thrive come along, and they come along because they’re someone else’s ideas.
The ideas come from the eighth-grade boys who want to do condom demonstrations for their peers during the summer months. (Hello, HIV prevention strategies in a site-friendly way.)
They come from a man who wants to empower mothers to improve household nutrition so students don’t struggle and slide behind in classroom performance.
They come from a community tired of fighting preventable diseases like typhoid.
Failure means an inability to perform, a lack of success.
Life at site has shown me that success comes as a community from the community. Life at site has revealed that one person doesn’t have all the answers, all the solutions, and that’s fine. No one’s expected to know it all. Life’s boring when it’s all one person, when there aren’t shared ideas, conversations or discussions.
Peace Corps hasn’t taught me how to fail. Peace Corps has taught me how to make failure succeed.