By Carmelene Melanie Siani
About 30 years ago I had a friend who had applied to join the Peace Corp and one day at lunch, she told me something about the experience that I’ve never forgotten.
My friend was a human rights activist and devoted feminist and, thinking she would bring about change, she had specifically wanted to work in a country where, as she put it, “women’s rights were being violated.” As it turned out, the country that she was assigned to had a large enclave of families living in our own city and, to prepare herself for her Peace Corp move overseas, my friend became acquainted with them.
What she told me was that she wanted to learn about their culture and their ways directly from them, adding that she also wanted them to learn from her, hoping to “raise their consciousness” about their rights. My friend joined these women at their communal dinners and various gatherings and brought her consciousness raising materials, talk and ideas with her.
“Yes, ma’am.” Yes, ma’am,” the women would say to her, nodding their scarved heads, smiling their quiet smiles, and speaking to each other in whispers. But when she heard them agreeing with her so politely, she wasn’t convinced.
“They don’t seem to want to embrace what I have to offer them,” she said, musing that they actually seemed happy with their lives the way they were.
After several months of interacting with this community, my friend had realized that in fact, the women were happy with their lives. They didn’t want to embrace feminism or the changes it would bring and ultimately, it was my friend who ended up changing. She told me that she finally understood that the women she had been meeting with valued the community, friendships, bonding and extended family/sisterhood that they had, exactly the way it was.
They valued what their culture offered and basically, they didn’t want change.
Ultimately, my friend realized that trying to place her own values and concepts of women’s rights on top of the women’s long-held concepts and values was just another version of disrespect.
“Perhaps you should work here, in the United States,” one of the women had said quietly to my friend. “We think the women here need your help more than we do.”
Since that time, all those years ago, some of the women in the country my friend wanted to visit via the Peace Corp have themselves made changes. Women leaders from within their own community have changed minds and have worked for change within the sisterhood/bonding/and unique power system that they have there.
I’ve lost contact with my friend over the decades but, before that happened, I saw her move away from wanting to improve the lives of others by imposing on them her perspectives and values, to realizing that the only way to bring about real change, was, as she said, allowing herself to be changed first. “I had to change from being aggressive to being passive,” she stated.
“I had to change from having an agenda of my own to respecting the one that they lived by. I had to change from thinking of myself as being the teacher to being the student.”
I’ve never forgotten this episode for the life lesson that it taught me.
How many times have I tried to offer assistance to those others who I thought needed it? “Their lives would be so much better if only they would do things my way.” How many times have I placed what I valued on a higher plane than what the others valued—and then tried to force my values on them? “But you’ll ruin your life if you don’t go to college/get married/get divorced/get a real job.”
How many times had I failed to change from seeing myself as the teacher to allowing myself to be the student?
The last I knew, my friend had withdrawn her Peace Corp application and done exactly what had been suggested to her. She got her degree and worked as a nurse in a women’s clinic.
Along the way, however, my friend had taught me a maxim I have never forgotten and that I now try to live by: “To bring about real change, you must allow yourself to be changed first.”
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Editor: Dana Gornall
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