Trump's Peace Corps

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Trump's Peace Corps

Every year since I finished my Peace Corps service in South Africa, I’ve traveled to a different Peace Corps country and produced a short film about the unique aspects of service there. I was planning to do the same this year, but the election of Donald Trump has caused me to re-evaluate that plan.

Trump’s victory was as shocking to me as everyone else, but it wasn’t until I received an email from the President of the National Peace Corps Association that I truly felt the weight of the situation. In the letter, NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst encourages Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to contact Trump’s transition team about the importance of Peace Corps service.

It may seem innocuous, after all, NPCA has been advocating for Peace Corps for decades, but President-Elect Trump is fundamentally different than any of his predecessors. Trump has called for a Muslim registry, for the immediate deportation of millions of immigrants, and a withdrawal from international treaties. Some of his cabinet selections are reputed white-supremacists.

Trump’s agenda is anathema to everything Peace Corps represents, and one of the horrifying truths of this election, is the end of Peace Corps as we know it. Even if Trump keeps the Peace Corps, it won’t be the same program that I joined. Proportionally, Peace Corps has highest number of political appointees of any agency in the federal government. This means that more than any other agency, Peace Corps will be a representation of the Trump doctrine.

As Trump’s likely pick for the Environmental Protection Agency is an outspoken climate change denier, I can easily imagine a neocolonialist agenda at Trump’s Peace Corps.
 
If we ever hope for our own country to actually embody the values of Peace Corps service, then we must focus on reaching out to our fellow Americans.
 
 
I still owe a lot to Peace Corps as it was. Peace Corps gave me the skills to listen and understand people with very different ideologies. I hope all of you will remember what you learned in service, and will do whatever you can to support your friends and neighbors of color, and to protect the immigrants and Muslims in your communities.

-Alan Toth

(Adapted photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Send me your climate change stories.

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Send me your climate change stories.

The village of Sinqobile in South Africa has four seasons – the rainy season, the misty season, the windy season and summer. I lived in this village in the Drakensberg Mountains – so high up that it literally touched the clouds – for three years.

“You used to be able to predict the weather,” said my host sister NoThando, “but now with Global Warming, we don’t know what to expect.”

And it was true. The problem in Sinqobile was that the four seasons were in flux. One year, the rains were so heavy that they washed away a neighboring village and killed all the corn. The next year, the winds blew the roofs off of the houses.

Americans have the privilege of ignoring climate change, or even denying its existence, but Peace Corps Volunteers know that most of the world does not have that luxury. Volunteers witness the drought in Southern Africa, flooding in the Caribbean, and the increasing destruction caused by cyclones in Pacific Ocean.

If Peace Corps still exists in twenty years, volunteers will likely be assigned to help address the problems of climate change in their communities.

I’m currently studying at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Next year, I’ll be working on short films for UC Berkeley about climate change around the world. I hope you’ll help me find the little discussed and unacknowledged climate stories that are affecting Peace Corps countries. If you witnessed the effects of climate change in your village, please contact me and tell me about them.

I want to help future volunteers understand the problems they’ll be facing in the coming years, so that they can be prepared to better serve their communities around the world. I hope you’ll help me by sending your personal accounts, or even the rumors you’ve heard regarding climate in your community.

Alan Toth

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If You Won the Lottery

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If You Won the Lottery

At 1:00 PM on Wednesdays and Sundays in Panama, you'll find the majority of the country glued to their radios and televisions, lottery numbers in hand or memorized. They wait as the many white balls tumble around in the round metal cage, and pray for luck. The special guest of the day plucks a ball from the mix, and then an attendant opens it to reveal the first number, holding it up dramatically for all to see. After the number is posted on the board, there's a commercial break. Then a second number. Commercial break. This continues until four numbers have been chosen for first prize, four for second, and four for third. 

Many Panamanians purchase tickets from the official Loteria Nacional de Beneficiencia, which translates to "National Lottery for Charity.” The money made by the National Lottery goes toward social programs such as free school lunches and academic scholarships. Alternatively, many Panamanians instead play chance (chahn-seh), an unofficial and technically illegal business in which individuals run their own small drawings using the National Lottery numbers. A chance vendor sells a certain quantity of each lottery number, jotting down buyers’ names in a small notebook, and must pay out prizes to anyone who wins. To be successful, on balance they must make more in sales than they pay out in winnings. Many Panamanians make a living selling lottery tickets – in rural areas vendors walk house to house, while in larger towns most gather on corners with their characteristic wooden stands and sell to passers-by. 

Lottery vendor Euclides takes a break from his trek while Digi peruses the numbers.

Lottery vendor Euclides takes a break from his trek while Digi peruses the numbers.

A woman selling tickets in Chitré, a provincial capital.

A woman selling tickets in Chitré, a provincial capital.

In the area where I lived, the vast majority of people play the lottery -- even those who don’t really have adequate expendable income for it. In a place where $15 a day (i.e. about $1.90 an hour) is considered a good wage, people often spend upwards of $20 a week on lottery tickets. One of my very responsible, levelheaded friends, Leandro, who is in his fifties and whose only income-generating job is selling chance, was one of those people. During a session on personal finances at a leadership workshop we attended together, he was shocked to add up his lottery spending and find it totaled more than $1000 per year.  I also noticed that people seemed to believe that they profited on balance, or at least broke even, when the reality of course is that nearly everyone comes out at a loss over time. 

To an outsider, this can be positively baffling. Whenever someone told me, “No hay plata,” i.e. “I’m broke,” I joked that they should spend less money on the lottery. But I had to remind myself that entertainment has value -- and the Panamanians I knew certainly derived a lot of enjoyment from guessing which numbers would be drawn, discussing the lottery with friends, and waiting to see which locals would win on Wednesday and Sunday. It might be the most exciting thing that happened all week. And I eventually remembered that many people in the U.S. spend an even greater proportion of their income on entertainment.

Plus, for Panamanians, the lottery is absolutely not a random process -- there are subtle supernatural forces at play, and there are ways to predict which numbers will win. If someone you know appears in a dream, you should purchase the numbers that correspond to their birth-date. When someone asked me, “¿Cual es su fecha?” – literally “What is your date?” – I knew I'd made an appearance in a dream of theirs, and they wanted to buy my birth-date in the lottery. 

My friend Yasmin considers #32 - my birth-date, March 2nd!

My friend Yasmin considers #32 - my birth-date, March 2nd!

Early on in my time in Panama, a new lottery game came out. It was called Buko Millionario and ran every Saturday. For a dollar you could buy a card with 16 numbers arranged in a grid, and in order to win you had to match a certain quantity of your numbers with those drawn.   

Two example Buko cards.

Two example Buko cards.

At first I thought, “Oh NO, not another lottery for people to waste their money on!” (I still think so, particularly because Buko Millionario was run by corrupt ex-President Ricardo Martinelli and no one ever seemed to win.) But I had a conversation one day that helped me see things a little differently.

I was walking a long way home from a birthday party with my fourteen-year-old friend Edilma, her mother, Zulai, and another young girl named Maria. It was a Friday and Zulai had purchased one Buko ticket for the next day. It started to rain, and I was the only one with an umbrella. They rushed to put the Buko ticket in my bag to keep it dry.

Esto nos va a sacar de la pobreza,” said Zulai with a wry smile, “This is going to get us out of poverty.”

This gave me great pause. I was raised with the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative in the U.S., where the lottery is considered by many to be neither necessary nor particularly respectable because you can supposedly better your socioeconomic status through hard work. Not that I’ve had to do so, having grown up upper-middle class, but I was raised on my parents’ stories: after childhoods of instability and food stamps, they put themselves through college and went on to earn substantial and stable salaries for many years, eventually allowing them the nice suburban house and yearly family vacations with which I grew up. Thus the myth of the American Dream is reinforced, for those with the unacknowledged privilege that allows them to access it.

In Panama, the door of socioeconomic advancement has just begun to open, thanks in part to low-cost universities, abundant scholarships at all school levels, and family planning. Leandro and his four siblings couldn't continue school past sixth grade, but his two children made it all the way through college and have decently-paying jobs in the provincial capital, where they live. However, this is still a fairly recent development and not accessible to everyone. Many continue to scrape by, raising a family on the $8-15 per day standard for manual agricultural labor (up to $50/day if you’re applying toxic agrochemicals). Twenty years ago, $5/day was an excellent wage.

Zulai and family, dressed in their best for a school event.

Zulai and family, dressed in their best for a school event.

Zulai, now in her late thirties, had her first child at age 18. Her husband works nearly every day of the week, even the Sundays that most hold sacrosanct, usually running a chainsaw. At his pay rate and with four children in school, there’s no money left over for savings. Until her kids are working (the three oldest are in high school, two on track to college), the only hope she sees for economic advancement is the lottery.

I also wonder about the effects of living through the Torrijos and Noriega dictatorships, times in which opportunities were hardly merit-based – the money and opportunities went to the dictators’ family, friends, and political cronies. And in eras of authoritarian rule, benefits and consequences do not necessarily follow logically or proportionally from action. Maybe better to keep one’s head down than try to advance. One can perhaps understand the appeal of the lottery in such a situation.

Even now, Panama’s “democratic” government is still quite corrupt, giving preference to the wealthy and doling out opportunities to family and friends of politicians. If you’re signed up with a political party that doesn't win the election, you have to wait another five years for a chance at a government job. So much still feels out of people’s hands.  

As I walked with Zulai, Edilma, and Maria in a stretch of silence, I decided to pose the classic question: If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?

I answered first, to break the ice. “Si yo ganara Buko Millionario, I would travel all around South America. Then I’d use some of the money to rent an apartment wherever I end up living in the States. I’d give presents to my parents. And before all that, I’d take our youth group on trips all over Panama.”

I expected Zulai to say that if she won, she’d move to one of the bigger towns in the region, buy a nice, large house and a car, and maybe even take a trip to the U.S. I was wrong.

“I’m not moving out of my house until they take me to the cemetery to bury me,” she said, “I’d fix it up: finish the walls, give each of my kids their own room, put in glass windows and ceramic tiles … there’s so much I want to do with the house. I’d put in a dishwasher. I’d pay for my oldest daughter to stay in the dorms at her high school. I don’t want a car. I don’t need one. I’d use it all on the house.” 

I walked for a minute in silence, mulling over her response. Then I turned to thirteen-year-old Maria, sure she’d have something a little wilder in her lottery dreams. “I’d buy everything we need for the house,” she said, and proceeded to list off items like a stove, refrigerator, and dishwasher – she lived with her single father and two younger sisters, and for several years now had been doing all of the cooking and cleaning for the family. I'd seen the way men looked at her already-maturing body, and I worried she’d get pregnant before she could finish school. Even I found myself forgetting she was so young, thinking instead that she was sixteen or so and feeling startled every time I saw her in the 6th grade classroom.

Maria paused at the end of her list of household goods and glanced at me with a shy smile. “And I’d go visit California with you, Lauren.”

Maria.

Maria.


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Story and photos by Lauren Schwartzman. Lauren is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. She produced and directed the short documentary The Urban Forest. She is also a producer for the Posh Corps Podcast.


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Thanks for Everything

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Thanks for Everything

Three years ago, I started working on the Posh Corps project. The idea was simple: to discuss the modern Peace Corps experience honestly. I wanted to cut through the mythology and the marketing, and capture the experience of volunteering in a rapidly changing world.

I spent three months in South Africa shooting the film. I returned to the United States and spent six months editing the film. In 2014, I started selling the film and screening it around the country. By the end of 2015, Posh Corps sales had almost recovered the production costs, and I started thinking about making a change.

Today, if you visit poshcorps.com, you'll find that all the feature films on the site are free. In fact, almost everything on poshcorps.com is now free, with the exception of licenses. I still ask people to pay for public screenings and educational licenses, as this helps cover the costs of running the website. We won't be selling advertising. We don't sell user data. The site is a service to the Peace Corps community.

I'd like to thank everyone who purchased Posh Corps, everyone who attended a screening, and everyone who went out on a limb and shared the project on social media. These actions helped prove that a Third Goal project could be successful. I owe special thanks to RPCV/LA, West Cascade Peace Corps Association, Katie Sell Garcia at USAID, and Socorra Camposanto.

Breaking-even financially on Posh Corps is great, but I do have one last aspiration. I hope the project will inspire more people to seriously consider doing a Third Goal project. I can't deny that it's a challenging prospect. Though Section 2517 of the Peace Corps Act directs the agency to support Third Goal projects, they never actually do it. Most returned volunteer associations and networks are woefully disorganized and very cautious with their support.

Despite the challenges, there has never been a better time to shake things up. Write a memoir, produce a film, start a podcast and push Peace Corps to support you. If you aren't impressed with your local Peace Corps community, start a new one. I can't promise that your experience will be financially rewarding, but it will be personally rewarding. You'll push the Peace Corps establishment to do more and be better. You'll also inspire the next generation of Peace Corps volunteers, hopefully with a more authentic vision of the Peace Corps experience.

- Alan Toth

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Our Tour of Morocco

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Our Tour of Morocco

I just returned from a two week trip to Morocco. Socorra Camposanto returned to Morocco to play concerts in seven cities around the country, and I tagged along to document the tour. We traversed the length and breadth of the country, from Marrakesh to the Algerian border. The photos above are from Casablanca.

The photos above were taken in Tangier. The photos below were taken in Fes.

I'll be posting a podcast and a video about the trip in the coming weeks, but I wanted to share a few of the photos I captured along the way.

-Alan Toth

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