By Casey Morrison
Ms. Morrison is a Public Health major at Elon University with minors in Poverty Studies and Anthropology. She is passionate about international issues, education, and linguistics, and will be teaching English in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps following her graduation in May 2016.
The best-kept secret of intercultural communication is that you don’t have to leave the country to practice it. That was a lesson I learned very quickly during my SHECP internship with the Boys, Girls, Adults Community Development Center in Marvell, Arkansas—a low-income, primarily Black town in the rural Deep South. Although I have spent ¼ of my university years outside the US, it is my arrival in Arkansas that remains my most dramatic experience with culture shock.
“It is the privilege of being able to come in the middle of an ongoing process that others have put their lives and souls into with the freedom of getting up and leaving whenever you please,” writes Morrison (Elon 2016).
I had never had to stand out before. I was a middle class white girl who grew up in a white neighborhood near my own socioeconomic level. But SHECP threw me into a world where I was an outsider in nearly every way. I didn’t look like my neighbors, didn’t dress like them, didn’t talk like them, and didn’t devotedly attend church like they did.
I had never had strangers stare at me the way they did in Marvell, and in Helena, the nearby town where I was living. When the other white SHECP interns and I walked through the neighborhood, we had children stop in the middle of their games to silently watch us go by. All the adults we talked to assumed we were with Teach for America, because why else would people like us end up in a place like this?
I was the only Northerner and only white person at my job. In fact, I might have been the only one not born and raised in Phillips County. I did not understand all, or sometimes most, of what was said to me through my students’ and coworkers’ accents—a point most friends and family assume to be exaggeration until I give examples. My days were full of the awkwardness of miscommunication, excessive attention, confusion about others’ actions, and uncertainty about my own.
I spent a lot of my time in Arkansas being uncomfortable. Some of it was simply the literal and cultural miscommunications of my everyday life, but some of it went deeper. I was struggling with how to respectfully take up space in a community that was not my own and that I could not, as an outsider, truly understand. Staying in my house felt like an explicit perpetuation of segregation, but recreationally walking through the neighborhood felt invasive. As a middle-class white person, I knew I had privileges in this place that I was not necessarily entitled to. I could walk into this community and people would treat me with acceptance and inclusion regardless of how they felt about my presence there. I knew the same would not be true in reverse. If most of the people in this community came to my hometown, they would be treated with mistrust at best, if not open fear and disdain. In a region rife with racial bitterness—and rightfully so—I felt unwilling to spend time in their community knowing that my presence might not be as welcomed as external appearances might lead me to believe.
What I did not realize at the time was the vital importance of being able to willingly and gracefully accept discomfort. In fact, if I had to recommend a single personal skill to anyone planning to work in disadvantaged communities, it would without a doubt be learning to be okay with being uncomfortable. It is a multi-purpose skill. First, although cross-cultural interactions are in themselves valuable, they cannot be fully open and authentic unless you are willing to make mistakes and stay engaged through awkwardness and uncertainty. Second, on the level of navigating one’s actions through a net of social inequality and unspoken power dynamics, I thoroughly believe accepting the accompanying discomfort is vital to accepting one’s own privilege.
The second matter deals with being in role of an educated outsider. It is a position in which a person wants to contribute to positive change, but knows nearly nothing about the community and need not feel any personal investment in it. It is the privilege of being able to come in the middle of an ongoing process that others have put their lives and souls into with the freedom of getting up and leaving whenever you please. It is the privilege of not personally feeling the pain of the community’s hardships and failures and taking their joys and successes for granted. This is the inevitable role of an outsider in the service field. It should not be comfortable.
Although I learned an incredible amount during my SHECP internship, this will always be what I remember most. Seeking and accepting discomfort has led me down the path that brought me to discover the passions that have come to define my life. It has led me through my work tutoring refugee children and teaching English to Latino immigrants. It is what guided me through innumerable confusing interactions during my semester in Vietnam and what encouraged me to apply for the Peace Corps, with which I will be serving in Ethiopia for the next few years.
All of these experiences have presented or will present challenges both personal and ideological as I build relationships with members of the community and untangle the meaning of my own role in their lives. SHECP gave me the opportunity to wrestle with these personal, social, and philosophical matters in a safe space. It challenged me to function independently in a place that was further from my culture than I ever expected, but a place filled with supportive and welcoming people both at my job and in the community where I lived. I will always remember my time in Arkansas as one of the most rewarding and enriching experiences of my college career, and will take the lessons I learned there wherever I end up in the world.