Peace Corps Meets Pacifica: Stories from Guinea An Interview with Paul D. Coverdell Fellow and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Hilary Braseth
A guest post by Bonnie Bright, Ph.D.
Only about one third of individuals who apply to the Peace Corps are invited to serve. For Hilary Braseth, applying to the Peace Corps in spite of the odds was a necessary step in her journey. Born and raised in a “bubble town” as she describes it, an area that was primarily white and middle class, she feels she was always aware on some level she was not being exposed to certain facets of society. She has always maintained a certain curiosity about why she was born into her particular body, which affords her certain opportunities, as opposed to others who have different ones.
In college, she studied economics and political science, a rather unexpected choice for her, she reveals, but they presented conundrums that really puzzled her. Topics like “How could the U.S. be three trillion dollars in debt?” or “How does the world work?” were questions that drove her. She was also interested in psychology, especially for how it informs the way we build societies.
In college, she had the benefit of some tactical experiences that helped “rip the blindfold” off her conditioned ways of seeing the world. In her freshman year of college, she began going to New Orleans with other students in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in a grassroots movement to rebuild houses. She went down each year of her college career, serving mostly in the lower 9th ward, which received a lot of media attention due to the disaster. She grew to know many of the residents quite intimately, and no one could understand why the city was taking so long to rebuild, she reveals. This led her to conduct research about why the effort to rebuild was so slow relative to other areas, and her findings left her somewhat jaded, as did the semester she spent in Washington D.C. interning for a congresswoman after witnessing how United States government systems worked.
In the face of such disillusionment, she felt she had no choice but to leave the U.S., and the best option seemed to be the Peace Corps. After completing the application process, which takes about a year, she learned she had been accepted to serve in Guinea where she would learn to speak French.
Having absolutely no prior knowledge of Guinea, and with several countries in the world containing the word “Guinea” in their name, she quickly discovered that the country of Guinea is located in west Africa, and is in the bottom 10 countries on the global Human Development Index. At the time (2011), it was also ranked world’s worst economy for the fourth year in a row by Forbes.
After training and staging with 32 other cohort members in Philadelphia, Braseth remembers the excitement and uncertainty she experienced on landing on a humid and very dark night in Guinea, realizing she was actually in Africa. Many things she initially experienced there were far outside her existing worldview. Outside the airport, children gathered in the parking lot under the street lights, where they came to read and study since they had no electricity at home. Further, about 98% of the country is Muslim, and while the events of America’s 9/11 had had a profound effect on her young life, part of the cynicism she felt toward the U.S. at the time was due to her perception of hegemony, and also the tendency to “othering”—which we are also seeing now in the political scene, she notes. However, once in Guinea, she quickly came to appreciate the beauty of the Muslim faith for their capacity for “laying it all down and bowing to a force that’s greater than yourself.”
In the beginning, Braseth lived with a host family and studied French intensively for eight hours a day. The family included about 30 extended members and they all shared a latrine, which was essentially a hole in the ground. She pulled her own water from the well and washed her own clothes in a bucket with a washboard. She can still clearly remember what it feels like to be rendered speechless due to some of the new things she encountered and the experiences she was having, and also what it felt like to feel like an outsider and not be able to fully express herself—all feelings which she believes are essential to feel knowing that there are probably a lot of people in her home country of the U.S. who are also experiencing the same feelings on a daily basis. Her first six months in Guinea especially helped her learn what it is to build community when one is an outsider.
Braseth is clearly a very bright individual, and she openly admits that one of her (egoic) concerns at the beginning was that she had worried about whether the experience in Guinea would be challenging enough intellectually, especially since she had already traveled a lot and had done some volunteer work in Latin America which she found very complex and layered. However, she quickly learned Guinea also has many layers and a multitude of forces at play. Looking at it now, she realizes how intrigued she was around invisible forces which make up such a large part of our psyche. Guinea is quite unpredictable and volatile, she says, and often things happen that aren’t rational and can’t be explained; things to do with spiritual forces. Because of this, every day there was what felt like a spiritual experience. Ultimately, Braseth ended up extending for a third year there beyond the two she had initially committed to, and thought she might stay much longer. However, those invisible forces were at work in her life too, and eventually she ended up returning to the U.S., due in part to the Ebola virus, which actually started with Patient Zero in Guinea on December 4, 2013.
Upon returning to the U.S., Braseth moved to San Francisco, which, in retrospect she admits, may not have been the best choice for her at the time. Returning from Guinea where even electricity was a luxury, she landed in the tech capital of the world with nearby Silicon Valley. When she left for Guinea in 2011, for example, she didn’t even own a smart phone, and when she returned, she discovered she couldn’t survive in society without “apps” which had become the norm for so many businesses and services. It was a very steep learning curve for her, and for nearly 2 ½ years, she found that she virtually had to sever her Peace Corps experience in Guinea. She didn’t believe she could find a place in U.S. society that would allow her the space or the breathing room to integrate the “very real changes that occurred in the Peace Corps” with her life in the U.S. More, she suspects that this is the case for many returned volunteers who find themselves searching for meaning and for “what’s next.” After having just spent so much time serving in a foreign country and making deep, lasting friendships with people so different from themselves, how does one assimilate back to the “grind” of daily U.S. living, she wonders.
Then, something magical happened. Braseth never thought she would go to grad school, as her experience suggested many who did were mostly motivated by “getting the letters after their name,” or perhaps building their networks by getting an MBA. Because of her background with so much hands-on experience in the real world, she felt she could learn the same thing she would get through a graduate program through experience, by immersing herself. But last year, when she decided to train as a yoga teacher, she met someone (who is now her cohort mate at Pacifica) who had earned an M.A. at CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies) in East-West psychology. For the first time, Braseth realized there are institutions in the U.S. that are focused on exploring the “depths of human experience.” When she began researching like institutions, Pacifica was one of three she found. Synchronistically, when she visited Pacifica’s web site, the home page advertised Pacifica was “newly accepting Peace Corps volunteers” through the Paul D. Coverdell fellowship for returned Peace Corps volunteers.
Because the Coverdell fellowship at the time was specifically for the Community Psychology, Liberation Psychology, and Ecopsychology specialization of the M.A./Ph.D Depth Psychology Program (C.L.E.), she still initially resisted. She found the C.L.E. track very interesting, but because she was training in yoga, she thought she might be more interested in Pacifica’s Somatic Studies Specialization of the M.A./Ph.D. Depth Psychology Program. Too, she admits, she was still a bit stuck on the idea that, because of the experience she had in the Peace Corps, she had “already done the C.L.E. program.”
However, with one conversation with C.L.E. specialization chair, Mary Watkins, Braseth was moved to tears and found confirmation. Now, she can’t imagine any other outcome. In a “really in a bold, ambitiously unconventional way,” she asserts, the C.L.E. program is combining “so many different disciplines and areas of examination to dig into the heart of identity and in how we build our communities, and how we thrive in contemporary society.”
Partway through her first year in the program, Braseth acknowledges she already feeling “such relief in her heart” to be able to “open back up the questions” that she had closed the door on for her Peace Corps experience which has never had the space to process. She’s also grateful to be among a high caliber of students and professors who are really challenging her.
In a way, Braseth has come full circle. The sense of disillusionment with U.S. structures and systems that led her to join the Peace Corps in the first place can now be addressed as new learnings and frameworks enable her to re-member her experiences and integrate them. This can’t happen in our culture unless we make space; there simply is no naturally occurring space for integrating “big” experiences unless we create them.
For the future, Braseth is thrilled to continue to vision her life through the C.L.E. specialization. She is also still involved in the entrepreneurship program she co-founded and worked on while in Guinea, called Dare to Innovate, and this summer she will be heading back to West Africa where programs are happening in several countries. The program was conceived for leading youth in a “design-informed open space dialogue mind-mapping ideation process” to find a social business idea that they then build businesses around.
Braseth is currently putting attention to understanding how that program fits alongside her budding curiosity around systems related to “what’s happening in the U.S.” and whether or not there’s space to rethink how some of those are structured. While it may sound idealistic, she confesses, she believes transformation can occur. Complexity theory shows us that sometimes just one little thing can create a significant shift, transforming entire systems. Even a process of inquiry like the one she is going through might be enough to create that shift, I point out.
Very true, she agrees: Just look at Dare to Innovate. The initiative is to “ignite young people to grow their countries from the inside out, and to see what can emerge in the face of crisis or challenge.” Now, it could just be me, but that sounds to me like a very depth psychological perspective, and something we all could use in our lives.
Listen to the full audio interview with Hilary Braseth here (approx. 32 mins)
Learn more about the history of the Peace Corps on their official site at www.peacecorps.gov
The Paul D. Coverdell Fellowship is a graduate fellowship program that offers financial assistance to returned Peace Corps Volunteers
Learn more about Dare to Innovate at www.daretoinnovate.com or on Instagram/Twitter/Facebook: @daretoinnovate
Read some of Hilary’s writing on her page, “Je suis ici” at medium.com/@jesuisici
Hilary Braseth, is a writer, collaborator, builder and maker who believes in the transformative power of listening, authenticity and water. She is Co-Founder and COO of Dare to Innovate, a growing social enterprise that catalyzes youth in the fight against unemployment across West Africa. She presently resides in San Francisco, working for an innovation consultancy and pursuing her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology with a Specialization in Community Psychology, Liberation Psychology and Ecopsychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She is a Coverdell Fellow and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Guinea (2011-2014). Hilary is captivated by the exploration of the roots of identity, caste and conflict, how culture binds or breaks our systems, and finding ways and spaces to peel open the imagination toward better approaches for decision-making.
Bonnie Bright, Ph.D., is a graduate of Pacifica’s Depth Psychology program, and the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, a free online community for everyone interested in depth psychologies. She also founded DepthList.com, a free-to-search database of Jungian and depth psychology-oriented practitioners, and she is the creator and executive editor of Depth Insights, a semi-annual scholarly journal. Bonnie regularly produces audio and video interviews on depth psychological topics. She has completed 2-year certifications in Archetypal Pattern Analysis via the Assisi Institute and in Technologies of the Sacred with West African elder Malidoma Somé, and she has trained extensively in Holotropic Breathwork™ and the Enneagram.