Peace Corps and the Native American Community
By Erica Burman on Thursday, July 21st, 2011
One of the many enjoyable aspects of NPCA’s recent participation in the 2011 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market weekend was the opportunity to get to know members of the regional Peace Corps recruiting team that covers New Mexico and Texas.
Shawn Abeita served as a business development volunteer in La Solidad de Santiago, Panama from 2007 to 2009. In Panama, he worked with a women’s artisan cooperative and among the things he accomplished was helping them secure a grant from the Inter-American Foundation to start a income generating project raising chickens. With the grant money, the artisan cooperative constructed the coops, raised the chickens, butchered them in a sanitary fashion and sold them locally to restaurants. A classic Peace Corps success story.
However Shawn isn’t your typical RPCV-turned-Peace-Corps-recruiter. Not only is he a native New Mexican, he’s a Native New Mexican. Shawn grew up on the Isleta Reservation south of Albuquerque. His dad is a farmer who also is active in Native rights and water management issues in the state. Joining the Peace Corps definitely was not a foreseen path for someone in Shawn’s community. But when Shawn attended Highlands University in the northern part of the state, he encountered an economics professor who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon. Intrigued and inspired, Shawn applied to the Peace Corps.
Shawn has now been a recruiter for 8 months, covering the El Paso, Texas area and the entire state of New Mexico. One of his goals: to bring more awareness about Peace Corps to Native American tribes while serving as a community bridge to the Peace Corps.
“Peace Corps faces the same recruiting challenges as other service organizations such as Teach For America,” says Shawn. The barriers, he explains, are economic and sociological. Most Native Americans live in impoverished communities and if a young person is able to finish school and attend college there are questions as to why one would leave to do “that” — meaning serve in an impoverished community overseas when there is plenty of need right at home. In addition, Native communities are typically tightknit — Isleta has “maybe 5,000 people at most,” according to Shawn. When a person leaves the tribe for a period of time, they can lose their position in the tribe’s leadership and cultural hierarchy. Nonetheless, his parents were supportive when their middle child wanted to join the Peace Corps.
In the future? Shawn is very interested in emerging economies and wants to work internationally. Once his time with Peace Corps is finished, he thinks he’d like to pursue a masters degree in public administration at a university in the Northeast.
In the near term though, there’s the recruiting. One of the obstacles that Shawn faces is providing role models of Native Americans who have served in the Peace Corps. Simply put, he has no way to know who in the 50 years of Peace Corps’ history may have a connection to Indian Country. Peace Corps has some data on minorities who have served, but it’s patchy and not broken out very well. That’s where NPCA hopes it can help. Are you a Native American RPCV…or remember serving with someone who was? Let us know, and perhaps we can connect this important piece of the Peace Corps community, of the Peace Corps story.
To see photos of Peace Corps at the 2011 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, visit our Facebook photo album for the Market, or Flickr album.