Village Earth Online Certificate Program: How it helped me prepare for the Peace Corps
By: Sabrina Kohrt, Peace Corps Volunteer – Ukraine 2020
My first week as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, I sat through trainings that introduced my program, what is expected of me, and how I will achieve these expectations. I remember sitting in my chair, surrounded by about 40 other Americans from all over the United States, listening to our director speak about how we will carry out the mission of the Peace Corps. For my program, called Youth in Development, the main method used for sustainable community development was called PACA: Participatory Analysis for Community Action. PACA is closely related to the approach that Village Earth uses, which is addressed in the course, Approaches to Community Development. After hearing Pilar Robledo speak, whom is Peace Corps Ukraine’s Director of Programming and Training and training instructor of the course Approaches to Community Development, I remember thinking how grateful I was to have a head start on the kind of development work that the Peace Corps was doing.
The semester before the Peace Corps, I was volunteering at Village Earth. During this time, I was also taking their online courses, Approaches to Community Development and Community Mobilization. In first course, Approaches to Community Development, we discussed different attitudes and behaviors towards working in sustainable development, discussed Grassroots organizations, and development work as a whole. In Community Mobilization, we analyzed different models and structures within the nonprofit world, how to target empowerment within communities, as well as different methods and strategies for your community to carry out projects.
In both courses, we heavily looked at the structure of development models, which is important to know when working in the field. We reflected on questions such as, “How do these structures support/impede your work?” and “How do these ideas relate to your own view of sustainable development?” as well as looking at the flaws within different structure. This allowed me to see what could be improved whether that be my own ideas, my own development model, or the organization that I work for. I benefited from this because it helped me gain a better understanding of such structures, how important they are in development work, and where I see myself working within it.
One of my biggest takeaways from the online courses was that it helped me frame situations and problems in the community in a different way. Applying real life situations to the models we discussed helped curve my own bias and approach the problem from the perspective of the community. This is more difficult than one can expect and requires some external knowledge to carry out correctly and efficiently.
Since no problem faced in the Peace Corps and in such communities are the same, it is important to understand the Village Earth approach and framework, in that it must be interchangeable and adaptable. This knowledge was valuable to my Peace Corps service when I encountered cultural differences in Ukrainian communities. I was able to approach problems through a lens that not only was more beneficial to the project itself, but to the community, as well as my relationships as a whole. It is often easy for us to see a “solution” to the problem because we come from a society that fesses on the solution. However, “a” solution, doesn’t mean it is the right solution. Sometimes, there doesn’t have to be a “solution” to what we call “problem.” So, it is incredibly important for us to understand how we frame these kinds of situations. The Approaches to Community Mobilization course addresses these kinds of attitude towards these scenarios.
A big takeaway from the online courses too, are that the readings helped me understand how to approach the dynamic character of developing communities. In the Peace Corps, no one can truly prepare you for the community that you will be put in. That is why it is incredibly important to be flexible with your methods, which should all be tailored to the community’s needs. The Community Mobilization course helped me understand how to do that. The framework in which we use to address problems within the community are ones that can disrupt the situation even more, so we must be aware of our methods. Becoming a member of the community, building relationships, and learning how to integrate is crucial to making steps towards sustainable development. After reading and learning about the importance of integration and gaining trust within the community from these online courses, it helped me better understand and identify when those opportunities arose in real life. For example, at my site, it was very crucial for me to make connections with all of the NGO networks in the area, as well attend each library event, regardless if it applied to what I was doing. Simply being present, understanding what the community’s life is like, and introducing yourself to all networks of people are ways to gain trust. I found that this to be crucial to my work.
Village Earth courses outline a very realistic trajectory of the problems that you might run into and ways to problem solve in the perspective of the community. The readings are profound and are great examples of the kinds of principles that you will need when working with nonprofit, NGO, GSO, or some governmental organizations. Overall, the courses suggest that sustainable development comes within the community. Not from people that are “Do Gooders” but to use members within the community as the driving force. They are the change agents. Building these change agents are not an easy process. It is work that takes time, knowledge, trust, and gratitude. However, the more we are trained on how to build these principles and skills, the better off we are in creating sustainable community development. I am grateful for the trainings with Village Earth that have allowed me to prepare for the Peace Corps and understand the framework of sustainable development. It is knowledge that I can use and teach that will have an even greater return.