(Three months ago, in the notification I sent with my last blog post over email and Facebook, I explained that I was heading back to the States the next day. My grandfather had recently passed away, and I had decided to take the opportunity to come back for some R&R. I mentioned that I was planning to stay in the States for a while to develop a stable base for future projects that I’d like to do in Liberia.
I promised to write a detailed post on my future plans soon after, but upon arrival to the States I quickly became swamped with traveling, visiting friends and family, and getting myself situated to live and work here for the foreseeable future. Now that I have more of a routine and rhythm, I’ve finally found the time to write this post. Sorry for such a delay!)
As I look back on my experience in Liberia for the past three years, I can see that it’s been quite a wild ride. I first arrived in June 2013 with the Peace Corps as a math teacher until I was evacuated fourteen months later in August 2014 due to the Ebola outbreak. I returned to help fight the outbreak with Samaritan’s Purse in October 2014 as a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer and worked through April 2015, by which time the outbreak was largely under control.
Then most recently, I returned to Liberia on my own in October 2015 without a supporting organization with the idea of “living immersed in a community like a Peace Corps Volunteer, but with added the challenge of supporting myself”. As I wrote in a previous post:
I have found that being too self-sufficient or getting too much outside support can be a hindrance in relating to people. Relationships in Liberia are built on co-dependence, common struggle, and mutual benefit — so I think that having to “hustle” along with everyone else will allow me to gain a deeper trust, equality, and status in the community that has the potential to create some interesting opportunities. I’m excited to see what will happen in this new context!
As I had hoped, when I returned to Liberia I quickly found that my unique position allowed me to become a part of Liberian life in a much more intimate way than I had ever experienced before. I found the deeper trust, equality, and status in the community that I was looking for. But with that I also came to personally experience some of the challenges and struggles of poverty in ways that surprised me.
In the Peace Corps and Samaritan’s Purse, I had a buffer between my own life and the challenges of the environment around me. Sure, I had to deal with instability on a daily basis — but it was always insulated from my personal livelihood. When a generator broke down, for example, it was just a frustration… it didn’t mean that we wouldn’t be able to work and make enough money to eat a full meal that day.
And so I found that trying to accomplish things in poverty is like swimming with weights tied all over your body. Any dreams or aspirations of getting somewhere are quickly put on hold in favor of trying to just keep your head above water. As I wrote in this post:
When you’re living hand to mouth, energy is a luxury. From the outside, we can identify all kinds of ways that people living in poverty could possibly improve their situation. But we need to understand that these people are hurting. When you’re struggling just to see the next day, any future beyond that fades.
Before my personal taste of this reality, I honestly believed that upward socioeconomic mobility was something that could be individually achieved with the right education and hard work — the narrative of the classic “American Dream”. I believed that with the right ideas and “grit”, you could pull yourself up in the world.
I’m seeing now that the real world is much more complicated. Yes, education and hard work are necessary, but not sufficient. Money, power, and social circle play a much larger role in life than I realized. Upward economic mobility seems to be as much or more a function of your environment and connections as it is of your personal input. And as it turns out, this notion is well-supported by academic research.
The same holds true when it comes to starting business. As this article points out:
The most common shared trait among entrepreneurs is access to financial capital —family money, an inheritance, or a pedigree and connections that allow for access to financial stability. While it seems that entrepreneurs tend to have an admirable penchant for risk, it’s usually that access to money which allows them to take risks.
And this is a key advantage: When basic needs are met, it’s easier to be creative; when you know you have a safety net, you are more willing to take risks…
“Following your dreams is dangerous,” a 31-year-old woman who runs in social entrepreneurship circles in New York, and asked not to be named, told Quartz. “This whole bulk of the population is being seduced into thinking that they can just go out and pursue their dream anytime, but it’s not true.”
I suppose this should have been obvious to me from the beginning, but in my experiment to forgo outside support and return to Liberia as an individual, I was leaving behind a lot of privilege that I took for granted. While leaving this behind allowed me to connect with local people on a deeper personal and social level, it also meant that I shared more in the limitations of their environment. And it quickly became apparent that it’s hard for ideas and “grit” to go anywhere without access to privilege.
Before having this experience, I saw my privilege — my education, socioeconomic background, gender, race, etc. — in a negative light because of the distance and inequality I felt like it created in my relationships. But trying to minimize these parts of myself doesn’t change the major role these things play in our broken world. Rather than running from these advantages I have inherited in the random lottery in life, I’m realizing I can just be who I am and use whatever I have to help others.
This means looking critically at the direction my life is headed. When I graduated college five years ago, I felt burned out on the idea of pursuing a career. It just felt so unfair to me that I could make money by having fun programming on a computer all day while others couldn’t find a job that would pay a living wage. I turned down engineering jobs that would have been great career opportunities in favor of volunteering and exploring the world. I wasn’t interested in money as long as I had food to eat and a place to stay — in my mind, money just got in the way of connecting with people. But now I see how access to money creates stability and opportunity to help others.
With this in mind, I’m changing my focus now that I’m back in the States. Before I try something in Liberia again, I need to build myself a stable financial base. I’m still interested in using business as a self-sustaining way to fund my work instead of trying to raise support or save money from an unrelated full-time job. If I can make a business successful here, where I have a stable environment and more resources available, I can use it as the base for returning to Liberia in the future.
To that end, I’m dusting off my programming skills and teaming up with my sister, Katie Stevenson. For the past five years, Katie has been a private tutor for students in middle and high school struggling with writing and study skills. In her work she has has developed specialized techniques and curricula that break down complex tasks like essay writing into bite-sized skills that can be isolated and practiced. With my technical skills, I’m hoping to help Katie find ways to scale up her approach so that she can reach more kids in a way that is even more affordable to parents.
In this project, I get to both work towards a potential financial base and develop all kinds of skills, technical infrastructure, and experience that I’ll be able to apply in the future work that I want to do in Liberia. Katie’s program has huge potential to be adapted for the Liberian context in ways that could fill some of the major gaps in education that I’ve observed in my experience working with students there.
So rather than running from my privilege, I can try to leverage it in a way that will allow me to create stable programs that can help people in the long term: I can live in the Bay Area with access to all kinds of talented people and resources geared towards building a successful startup, I can tutor math and science part-time to generate enough income to live on, and I can stay with my parents to avoid high living costs. And if this venture doesn’t seem to be going anywhere after a year or so, I can look for a job in the tech industry — by then my programming skills will be back up to date. Privilege doesn’t guarantee success by any means, but it can sure help tip the odds more in your favor and act as a safety net to reduce the cost of failure.
My experience in Liberia these last three years has had a profound impact in my perspective and direction in life. The people I came to love there will always be on my mind and in my heart. It wasn’t easy to say goodbye. The day I left Liberia, Master Isaac and his family presented me with this African shirt:
My coworkers at TED-Liberia presented me with a certificate of their appreciation (and an African shirt, not pictured):
And when I got to the airport, I was surprised to find that Mark, the Peace Corps Volunteer that replaced me at Marshall, had brought a bunch of my close friends and coworkers from Marshall to see me off:
I was so touched to feel the depth of these relationships that have grown while I’ve called Liberia my home.
It’s hard to leave Liberia and enter this next chapter in my life, but I know I will find my way back there one way or another. I’ll add a link here once Katie and I have created a website for our project, but other than that, this is my last update on this blog. Thank you to everyone who supported me on Patreon — I closed the account when I returned in May.
Thank you all for your support, prayers, and encouragement these last three years!