Peace Corps Northeast in Living Color at NYC Pride 2015

Greater New York City Returned Peace Corps Volunteers waved their flags high while marching in this year's NYC Pride.

Greater New York City Peace Corps Volunteers — both recently returned & preparing to depart for service — came out in full force to march at NYC Pride 2015.

Peace Corps Northeast took to the streets for this year’s NYC Pride to paint the Big Apple red — along with the rest of the rainbow. Peace Corps Volunteers from the Greater New York City area — both recently returned & preparing to depart for service — gathered to march down Madison Avenue, proudly waving flags from their countries of service. They also raised rainbow flags in solidarity with the LGBTQ community, especially for same sex couples & LGBTQ Volunteers who serve in Peace Corps. At the end of the march, Returned Volunteers spoke to spectators & marchers about their Peace Corps experience during Pride Fest.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers waved their rainbow & service country flags high at NYC Pride this year.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers waved their rainbow & service country flags high at NYC Pride this year.

Peace Corps Volunteers took to the streets for NYC Pride 2015 to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community – especially same sex couples & other LGBTQ Volunteers who serve in Peace Corps.

Peace Corps Volunteers took to the streets for NYC Pride 2015 to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community – especially same sex couples & other LGBTQ Volunteers who serve in Peace Corps.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers spoke to NYC Pride marchers & spectators about their Peace Corps experience at NYC Pride Fest.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers spoke to NYC Pride marchers & spectators about their Peace Corps experience at NYC Pride Fest.

Click here to check out more photos of Peace Corps Northeast at NYC Pride 2015.

Apply by July 1st to Serve Overseas in 2016!

Indonesia

The Peace Corps is a great way to make a difference in your life and the lives of others. You can find rewarding work opportunities in 60 countries around the globe in education, health, agriculture, environment and business. Apply by July 1st to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in early 2016.

Choose from our newest Volunteer openings:

  • You can teach English at secondary schools in Indonesia, improve student learning and teaching techniques, and implement youth development projects.
  • You can work as an entrepreneurship education Volunteer in Nicaragua, teaching entrepreneurs and managers about business planning, marketing, financial management and product design.
  • You can work to improve rural livelihoods in Zambia by fish farming as an aquaculture Volunteer as early as next February.

The world is literally at your fingertips – apply online in less than an hour!

Check out all of our available countries and positions at www.peacecorps.gov/openings.

Providence Resident Begins Peace Corps Service in Panama

Providence native Maria Briones will depart for service in Panama as an Environment Volunteer on June 16th.

Providence native Maria Briones will depart for service in Panama as an Environment Volunteer on June 16th.

Maria Briones, 24, of Providence, Rhode Island, has been accepted into the Peace Corps and will depart for Panama June 16th to begin training as an Environment Volunteer. Briones will live and work in a community to improve its natural resources for hygiene and nutrition and participate in a secondary project to help meet community development needs. While she has visited Latin America in the past, specifically in Guatemala and Ecuador, Briones expects her two years of service in Panama to be an even greater journey.

“Becoming accustomed to a much different way of daily life will probably be difficult at first, but I hope to adjust by appreciating all of the people in my community and their way of approaching life,” she said. “I think it’ll just be important to remember that it does not matter so much where you are that contributes to your happiness, but rather your perspective and appreciation for what you have.”

Briones is the daughter of Lenin and Carolina Briones and a graduate of Cranston High School West in Cranston, Rhode Island. She then attended University of Rhode Island, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and Spanish in 2014. Briones previously worked as an intern at Rhode Island Department of Transportation and Boston-based engineering company CH2M Hill. She also volunteered with Engineers for a Sustainable World at University of Rhode Island, a non-profit organization for which she developed wastewater projects in Guatemala.

Currently, Briones is pursuing her master’s degree in civil engineering with a focus in water resources at University of South Florida as part of Peace Corps’ Master’s International Program, which offers graduate studies for incoming Peace Corps volunteers at more than 90 leading academic institutions nationwide. Briones chose to enroll in such a specialized course of study as a way to supplement her service overseas.

“I chose to enter this program before leaving for Peace Corps because I felt that I could gain more water resources specific knowledge in a field based setting,” she said. “This along with the support of experienced faculty would make my time in Peace Corps much more stimulating and fulfilling from a professional standpoint.”

During the first three months of her service, Briones will live with a host family in Panama to become fully immersed in the country’s language and culture. After acquiring the language and cultural skills necessary to assist her community, Briones will be sworn into service and be assigned to a community in Panama, where she will live and work for two years with the local people. As she prepares to leave for Panama, Briones looks forward to the close relationships she will build with Panamanians while rebuilding the community one day at a time.

“A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer once told me that to feel like a successful Volunteer, you should not expect that you will change the world or your whole host country,” she said. “The true impact Volunteers should strive to have come on an individual basis. If I could have a truly positive and lasting impact on one person, I would feel as though my purpose was served.”

Briones joins the 28 Rhode Island residents currently serving in the Peace Corps and more than 1,012 Rhode Island residents who have served in the Peace Corps since 1961.

Click here to learn more about Peace Corps Panama.

Peace Corps Northeast Celebrates LGBTQ Pride Month

Zoe Armstrong worked as an NGO Development Specialsist in Armenia during her Peace Corps service. She currently recruits for the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office in Vermont.

Zoe Armstrong worked as an NGO Development Specialist in Armenia during her Peace Corps service. She currently recruits for the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office in Vermont.

In celebration of LGBTQ Pride Month, Peace Corps Northeast Recruiter Zoe Armstrong discusses how her experience living and working as an LGBTQ Volunteer in the post-Soviet Caucasus region helped to fortify her sexual identity. Zoe served as an NGO Development Specialist for a women’s advocacy center in Southern Armenia and currently recruits for the Peace Corps in Vermont. Her story – titled “International Outing: How serving in the Peace Corps led to a personal awakening” – was first featured in the October 2014 issue of Curve Magazine.     

When I received my invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia, all I knew of the country was Armenian music from my belly dancing experience and the history of the 1915 genocide – of which the band System of a Down raised awareness through their music. I went in armed with my New England work ethic and stubbornness – and enough Equal Exchange chocolate to last two years. Little did I know the lasting impact that this tiny, post-Soviet, primarily agrarian nation would have on my life, and how it would alter my perceptions and my queer identity. Living in mid-coast Maine, I had relative political freedom as a queer person, but a level of expression of my queer identity was missing at that point in my life, and I knew going into the Peace Corps that I would need to internalize my queer identity even more. For safety and acceptance, on a case-by-case basis, I would need to make some hard choices about how honest I’d be.

For two years my post was Goris (pop. 15,000), in Syunik Marz, four hours north of Iran, in a beautiful valley in the Caucasus Mountains. I was assigned to the Goris Women’s Resource Center, initially funded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). My closest counterparts, the board of directors, consisted of nine dedicated Armenian women aged 30 to 60. I was 32.

Armenian society has strictly defined gender roles. Women who seek freedom, travel, expression, and education outside their established roles are often seen as trouble, undesirable, a threat to tradition and a destabilizing force in their families. This resource center – a space run by and in the service of women – in rural Armenia was in itself a revolutionary act. Through sheer grit, we connected women to educational and economic opportunities in Armenia and abroad, built a micro-finance artisan project, created a small research library and computer lab, held health workshops, hosted domestic violence awareness and outreach services, and participated in civic engagement initiatives, including election monitoring and anti-corruption programs.

***

I didn’t come out in my community, though I tried to once, to one of my closest counterparts. We were working late on a grant proposal, and I received an e-mail from an old college friend who had recently transitioned. My friend shared his new name with me and I cried a bit. I explained my tears to my colleague and how my friend had transitioned from F to M. It was a lot for her. She’d heard of it, but only as a faraway idea – not as a reality in a friend’s life. I wanted to come out to her then. We had been friends for over a year.

I felt like a fraud. I hit a heteronormative wall as I weighed the possible consequences. I had heard of a Peace Corps Volunteer in neighboring Azerbaijan who had decided to come out to her service community. I was impressed, but I had invested so much and been through so many defeats and victories, both personally and with our programming goals, that I wasn’t ready to take on an unknown wave of reactions from a very large group of women in my small town. They are modern women, and they can learn, adapt, and change like any of us. Sometimes I feel I was cowardly; other times, I feel it was a simple, logical choice in a seemingly impossible situation.

I was out to Peace Corps staff, my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, and the local urban queers. But in my post, Goris, I was closeted, which is often the case for Peace Corps Volunteers serving in regions where sexual and gender minorities are not supported or socially understood. On the books, homosexuality became legal in Armenia around 2007. But there were still hate crimes, including those targeting local LGBTQ citizens in the capital. In Armenia, there is a repeated soul-and flesh-bruising trajectory of progress toward equal rights for LGBTQ people; Armenians who choose this fight knowingly put themselves at great risk in a society that many say is “not ready” for them. In the face of such daunting odds, they are making progress.

***

In Yerevan, I was fortunate to meet a network of academics, artists, and activists connected to Women’s Resource Center Armenia. I met local LGBTQ advocates, who collaborated with me to teach tolerance initiatives at the growing Goris Women’s Resource Center. A few advocates worked for Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK), a nonprofit dedicated to equal human rights for LGBTQ citizens in Armenia and the Caucasus region (including Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Russia). These advocates, and my daily Peace Corps life, opened my eyes to reality for LGBTQ Armenians.

Reflecting on their experiences led me to new caverns of thought. It twisted my own queer identity. My priorities shifted. The reality of desperation and the silencing of souls en masse shook my core. I gained a firsthand understanding that what I was seeing in Armenia is happening in so many nations: Gender outlaws, queer academics, and activist bloggers are trying to push their nations forward while the weight of tradition and social norms embedded in our globe’s elder cultures are holding firm.

Returning to my American queer “family” has not been a smooth transition. My voice in the community does not feel the same, or come through as easily. If I say I see a sense of privilege in the queer politics in the U.S., it is perceived as criticism. But what I am able to see now are the very real opportunities embedded within that privilege. If we don’t take these privileges and do all we can with them, when so many others do not have that access, then we are taking something very precious for granted.

Zoe Armstrong, far left, worked for a women's advocacy center in Southern Armenia while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Zoe Armstrong, far left, worked for a women’s advocacy center in Southern Armenia while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

How has your service as a Peace Corps Volunteer shaped your work as a Peace Corps Recruiter? After completing my service, I knew I wanted to work for Peace Corps. The two-year experience provides a rare opportunity to really know another culture. The more citizens of the United States who go through this experience, the more will know that every tiny fold of the world is precious to someone and should be respected and honored. The more Americans who come home with an ability to work cross-culturally, the stronger our nation will be. My favorite part of this job so far, looking back at my three years as a Recruiter, has been inspiring people of all ages to listen to that call inside of them and go forth into the world and bring us back great stories of our fellow humans.

As you explain in Curve, you had to stay closeted as an LGBTQ Volunteer for two years to not risk cultural resistance from your host community. How did you make that transition from being open with your sexual identity to projecting an identity that was more expected from your host community? People stared at my Merrill hiking boots, a lot. Women in Armenia wear heels, high heels. My community was very confused by my footwear. It made me think of that old Robin Williams joke, “You cannot call them lesbians anymore; It is just ‘women wearing comfortable shoes.’” I stopped wearing them, I had my mother send me some Danskos I had left from a past restaurant job. Also, I grew my hair out, which the women I worked with loved, and they would do my hair sometimes or play with it. I was a Goth back in high school, so it was not too much of a stretch for me to start wearing make-up again – although I had not for many years. (Plus, the gothic essence of my make-up skills worked well in a very Russian-fashion influenced environment.)

So with lipstick, eye-charcoal, and “girl shoes,” I fit in fine and became very close with my colleagues in Armenia. Internally at times, I felt like an actor or a clown, but as time passed, the role I was acting became normal life. Since returning to the United States, I have kept the eyeliner, but am very happy to have my comfortable shoes back!

What challenges or insights did you encounter when omitting that part of your identity from service? Now, looking back on your service, do you wish you weren’t closeted as a Volunteer? Sometimes I think about how different my service would have been if I had come out of the closet. If I had to do it all over again, I think I would have reached out to that Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan or other Volunteers who had come out while serving in the post-Soviet Union to learn about their experience and see if I could do it. There is a risk to any LGBT villagers if a Peace Corps Volunteer comes out because we can never foresee how our realities will intertwine and end up revealing a person unintentionally.

I could have come out near the end of my service, and I discussed this with my closest Peace Corps Volunteer friend in Armenia. He had decided at the end of his service to tell people – including the women at my center – that his sister is queer. I think he even showed pictures of her with her female spouse. He said it generated disappointment, confusion and curiosity equally.

I know some of them would have been supportive; some would then have dismissed me as an undesirable human, and would not have spoken with me again; others may have been confused that I had not told them. None of them would have been surprised as they all wondered why I did not have a husband and children so “late in life.” So, in that milieu, I made the choice I made and have no overt regrets.

What would you tell other LGBTQ people who are looking to join Peace Corps about serving overseas? It will be hard, but hard in a way that is so crucial to the evolution of our LGBTQ family here in the United States that you will never regret it. A lot will be asked of you personally that is a unique burden, but you will have a cohort of LGBTQ Peace Corps Volunteers, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and allies with whom to process these lessons. Serving in Peace Corps helped me realize that any burden I ever feel from being queer may pale to the pain of most queers on planet Earth. Holding compassion for their struggle in my heart helps keep my own challenges in perspective.

Click here for more about Zoe’s service in Armenia and current role as a Peace Corps Recruiter. To learn about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer or as part of a same-sex couple, visit our website at www.peacecorps.gov.