Every Peace Corps Volunteer spends the first four months apparently doing not much of anything. Those months are actually spent collecting data for a very deep heavy document. The document also known as CASI (Community and Sector Inventory) at least in Jamaica, is the heart and soul of a volunteer’s service. It is not something you can just throw together, it is also something that can terrify you, once you realize how deep it is. At the four-month mark, it is expected that you have pretty well integrated into your community and have figured out a tentative plan for your next year.
Easy, right? No not in the slightest. First off you have to present this document to your supervisor and counterparts, secondly you have to present it to your colleagues at Early Service Conference (ESC). The CASI is designed to guide you with questions and tools to utilize while looking for information. I have a hard time with the tools. PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) is designed to guide a volunteer in how to get the community to participate. In theory it is a great idea. In reality it breaks down. I tried very hard to get a needs assessment grid done. Sadly my group meetings rarely had the same people attend. This makes an assessment difficult mainly due to the groups having differing ideas on what needs are within the community. I actually gave up the idea of ever getting that done. The community mapping and seasonal or daily calendars were also unrealistic for me to try to use. Fortunately the only two tools left were the two I am best at. Interviews, both casual and structured are ways to gather much-needed information. The information gathered may be contradictory depending upon who gives that information. This just increases your knowledge base.
Peace Corps is about learning about other cultures, but it is also about learning about yourself. During the CASI you cry, you jump for joy when people show up to a meeting, you drink some, you walk away and you come back the next day. The thing is you have no idea how much of your own bias is present until you present it to others. Richard has been reading my CASI piece by piece. I have learned how much this man loves me, he actually asked what am I going to do now that you are done with that document? For someone who was not outwardly interesting in my writing before, he is my biggest fan, even on a document that has no information about me in it. He would send me back comments and ask me to clarify some statements. He also asked if some of what I wrote was real. In all of this he helped me pull my bias out of much of the document. Having my supervisor read it was even more telling. He saw things differently, but since there is no factual data it cannot be confirmed or denied. After I pulled myself out of the document what was left was the community. How the community feels about things and what they see in themselves. So yes, the document is mostly supposition, but it is the supposition of the community and not my own.
The reality is this document is a living breathing document. It changes as time passes. It expands and it grows. It will never be a stagnant document. It will be ever-changing and updating it every so often will be an exercise in grounding myself. My work plan is also not something that will stay the same. Events in the community will change how I approach my work plan. Currently I am looking at a pretty busy year, but at the same time, much of it can change.
The thing you learn about yourself in writing the CASI is that you still have biases. You still see things from an American perspective. I love it here, I really do. In fact I was already considering a third year, but I have a man at home who would probably die inside if I extend. The things that I think I see are often not what I see at all. If I see lack of motivation, what I am likely not seeing is an individual who is tired of being told no. If I see poor health and a terrible diet, what I am likely not seeing is a family who can barely buy more than a bag of rice to last a week. If I see high percentage of school drop-outs, what I am likely not seeing is a child whose parents could not afford school fees or transportation to school. So all the things that I think I see have underlying causes which I cannot see. I make assumptions based on observation. I make assumptions based on what I am told by different people in the community. What I do not see is more telling than what I do see. That is the saddest fact of any foreign aid worker’s reality. It is often hard to pull yourself out of your own bias because you have no idea just how deep your bias is.