At age 9, I was interviewed by a local paper. They asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said I wanted to move away from my hometown because I wanted to go somewhere with “culture.” At that age, I had not yet learned to appreciate the full meaning of culture and how each place and person has a culture of its own. Nonetheless, I had a deep sense of curiosity about what I could do, who I could meet, what I could see and what I could learn by going to a new place. Immediately after college, I joined the Peace Corps against the wishes of some of my family and friends – later many of the same people became my most ardent supporters.
During my time volunteering in Mozambique, I trained young adults to be teachers. There I witnessed the challenges that Mozambicans face, especially girls – early marriage, extreme poverty, disease, war, violence. The years volunteering kickstarted my career in international development and humanitarian efforts. I’m fortunate to continue to have my eyes opened through the people I’ve met in my line of work. There is a young man in Fiji who started a farm cooperative to establish economic opportunities for the youth; Lao and Lao-Americans who advocated for people with disabilities in rural communities that still suffer from the effects of explosive ordinances leftover from the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War; educators in post-Ebola affected Sierra Leone who mobilize their communities to protect girls from sexual harassment and abuse in schools; and women of faith in my own Jersey City neighborhood who started the York Street Project where women receive the education needed to defeat cycles of abuse and poverty. I would have never met any of them had I not left home as a volunteer a decade ago.
My sister life is one of oblivion. Who would that Katie be? The one who never left her sheltered and comfortable suburban life in Indiana? How long would I have lived in a bubble? Would I have ever been open to other places and people in the way I am now? I am not sure if or when I would have recognized my whiteness or my privilege, and how these things played into my choices and the continued opportunities I’m afforded. I don’t know that I would have fully recognized the challenges others faced and their agency to find their own solutions. I don’t know that I would’ve realized that many of the epithets I used were unintentionally racist or classist. This ongoing self-examination comes with the responsibility to continue working domestically and internationally on the human rights issues of our time so that we may all have the opportunity to have a sister life of our own choosing.