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Monday February 26, 2024

Black History Month: Interview with RPCV Carla Brown-Ndiaye

Fueled by a curiosity of people, cultures, and international travel, RPCV Carla Brown-Ndiaye shifted from a budding career in human resources to serving as a teacher in the Comoro Islands — along the way deepening her respect for cultural perspective.

Interview conducted by Tiffany James


In celebration of Black History Month, we honor the crucial role that Black Peace Corps Volunteers, staff, and communities have played globally throughout Peace Corps’ more than 60-year success story. We proudly spotlight a Black RPCV whose journey of service and self-discovery transcended borders. After working in human resources for a few years after graduating college, NPCA Board Director Carla Brown-Ndiaye (Comoro Islands 1992–94) joined the Peace Corps and dedicated herself to teaching English as a second language to high school students, aviation professionals, and U.S. Embassy staff. Part of her decision to join the Peace Corps was influenced by her fatigue from dealing with frequent racist and prejudice comments that forced her to oftentimes course correct individuals at work. This experience left her in a space where she was open to exploring what the rest of the world had to offer from a cultural perspective.

I began to meet people who’d had Peace Corps experience, and they talked a lot about what it was like to live outside the country and be with different cultures — and how you had to stretch yourself. It all just resonated with me.

In her interview with NPCA Associate Director of Strategic Communications Tiffany James, Brown-Ndiaye speaks about her Peace Corps experience, the importance of respecting her values, embracing a different culture, and finding the commonalities in between. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Tiffany James:
When was the first time you learned about the Peace Corps?

Carla Brown-Ndiaye: Actually, when I was in college — that was probably around 1987. I went to a job fair, but I was turned off because the first thing they said was ‘No electricity, no running water’. And then, a good friend of my brother, about three years later, an African American woman who was a former Peace Corps volunteer, said: “Look, if it’s something you’re interested in, apply. You have time to make a decision later. You can say no later. But if there’s any level of interest, just go ahead and start the application process…then you have the time to learn, see what it’s about, and see whether that fits in with who you are and what you want to do.” And that’s what I did. Over that time, it seemed like I began to meet people who’d had Peace Corps experience, and they talked a lot about what it was like to live outside the country and be with different cultures. And how you had to stretch yourself. It all just resonated with me.

James: Before you joined Peace Corps, you’d already been in the working world for a few years?

Brown-Ndiaye: I was doing human resources. I worked at a bank on Wall Street doing human resources, and then I worked at an insurance company doing human resources. I had a transformational moment when I was at the insurance company. It was at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, when there were no medications. So essentially, it was a death sentence if people got sick. And I met a young Kenyan woman there. She’d gone home, probably in her 20s, for vacation and found that her father was sick. She wanted to just go back and bring him medication because, at that time, it wasn’t available. Her boss said, ‘If you leave, you’re fired because you’ve already taken your vacation time.’ So I was in human resources, and I felt it was very dehumanizing to tell somebody that. But, when you work for an organization, you are obliged in human resources to follow their policies. For me, it was very transformational because I couldn’t be in a place where human beings and the reality of people and their experience were not really taken into consideration. Peace Corps just seemed like a door where, by its virtues, was very much about people and service. And that pulled me into moving forward with applying and seeing what it was all about.

James: How long was the application process?

Brown-Ndiaye: For me, it was about 18 months — it took a long time. Funny enough, at that time, we weren’t allowed to choose where we were going. But I said I wanted to be on the continent, and the response was, ‘Well, we don’t like to be specific.’ And I was like, ‘There are 50 countries, I just want to be on the continent. So it worked out.

James: And why was that important to you?

Brown-Ndiaye: Because I just had a lot of negative racial experiences when I was in college, and having to always course correct people at work because I ‘spoke good English’, and people wouldn’t know that I was African American. So, I just wanted to be with people that I felt were going to be like me — and not always othered.

James: Tell me about the projects that you did while you were a Peace Corps volunteer. And is there one that you’re most proud of?

Brown-Ndiaye: First of all, my experience probably was a little bit different from other people because the day we were sworn in, the schools went on strike for two or three months. So we didn’t really get to do our assignments for quite a while. I started working with the airport staff because they had to speak some English, that’s sort of a worldwide standard. Also, I started teaching lower level staff at the embassy, so doing kind of adult learning. To answer your question, the project that touched me the most was teaching English to the high school students because you could do things in a fun way. So I used like Bob Marley, everybody’s worldwide artists, and we would do some of the songs and talk about what he really meant. And then me being African American was a novelty. They’d only seen white Americans. So that was a novelty. And there was curiosity. I took that curiosity in a positive way. So I never minded questions about what it’s like to be African American, [American] society, and culturally related questions that may have seem odd. That I accept. But I did create my own boundaries. Like people wanted to touch you, and I kind of made that like a no go zone — that’s my physical space. I just felt like I’m here, I must give respect to different cultures. But I also have to figure out where my space is and explain that to people so that they wouldn’t cross that line, and I wouldn’t be uncomfortable. The kids understood, so that was nice.

James: Did your Peace Corps experience help shape your trajectory into public health?

Brown-Ndiaye: It did. Yeah and internationally. I knew coming back that my goal, when I left Peace Corps, was getting back out of the country. Everything was geared toward that. I left Peace Corps, traveled for six months around the world, came back, hung out for maybe two months, then immediately started graduate school.

“I think a lot of it had to do with just being outside the U.S. for me — I could be myself. There were just constructs of U.S. culture that I didn’t have to deal with, and I could just be myself.”

By the time I finished graduate school, I already had a job and I was leaving a month later to go back on the continent for pretty much 15 years. I’d come back annually for vacation, but I was living out of the States after I started Peace Corps. I just came back from graduate school. For me, it completely changed the trajectory. I think a lot of it had to do with just in being outside the U.S. for me — I could be myself. There were just constructs of U.S. culture that I didn’t have to deal with, and I could just be myself.

James: I know that you’re committed to diversity, equity and inclusion. Did your Peace Corps experience impact that in any way?

Brown-Ndiaye: I mean, I don’t know if I was conscious of it. But I think it definitely influenced it. Did we use that term at that time? No. But would I have said Peace Corps made me aware of it? I don’t know. Any black [female] volunteer you talk to will always laugh about the hair issue. I went to Peace Corps, and I cut my hair off. When I got there, people weren’t sure whether I was a male or female because I had my hair short, like shaven, because I wasn’t sure what I was going to be able to do with it. I was not prepped for that. And then I get there, and there are all these Malagasy women who know how to do hair. So my hair was looking good. So there were things that you knew you were going have to navigate. People let you know as a woman that you have to be conservative. But what that really means to you on a daily basis, how you’re going to manage through it and your own emotions around that, you’re not really prepared for. So I think all of those experiences and having lived outside the U.S. for so long makes me very conscious of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. And Peace Corps kind of brought that to my attention as a volunteer. You’re no longer just seeing something from an American perspective. Your values no longer only have that lens. And so it makes me conscious of it and very sensitive to those kinds of issues.

James: How did your Peace Corps experience impact your perspective about race and your identity as a black woman?

Brown-Ndiaye: Before college, I was never really conscious of having an identity as a black woman. Then, I went to college, and I had a very negative experience. So when I went into Peace Corps, I think that’s why I was so adamant that I wanted to go to a place in Africa where I was not going to be the only Black person. And that’s what I got. But I didn’t realize all of the other cultural pieces that go with that. No matter what I was still American. So I think that’s where this question of identity was linked, not only to race but also to my American culture, in a way that I hadn’t experienced it before or been so conscious of it before. My identity as a black woman was being aware of the values of a woman, how women are perceived, and the unique position of an American woman. When I say unique position, every country has its reality on how they see people and their perceptions of people. There are going to be perceptions of you, and I think that’s where my identity came out in Peace Corps. Being a Black woman in the States, I was always managing that whether it was at work or something and trying to figure out code switching because that’s what you had to do. But when I’m outside the States, I could explain it. And it’s brought me to a place now where I can have a conversation, even though it’s a difficult conversation. I’m less likely to just back down from that space because I’ve been outside and because I don’t feel like it advances anything.

James: You said earlier that you were having these conversations about respecting your boundaries and your space while you were serving, how did these conversations go?

Brown-Ndiaye: For me, they went well. Most volunteers are in a space where they always get a local name. That was something I felt it was disrespectful to my mother and my father, who took the time to choose a name for me, to have somebody give me a local name. That wasn’t a way that I was going to integrate. The way I handled it was just to say: “As your mother and your father gave you your name, so did mine. So this is my name, and that’s what I prefer to be called.” And people would say, ‘okay.’ So a lot was just placing it in things that people understood. It’s the same with being of a different religion. I was in a Muslim society, but I was Christian. And just being able to say to people, ‘Just like you were brought up in these beliefs and your parents have passed this down, my ancestors pass this down to me, and I must respect them. Those are contexts that people can understand versus getting into a debate. That doesn’t get you anywhere when you’re in a new society. But if you place it in something that people understand, there’s mutual respect in that space — there’s commonality in that space. They have different values, and you have to find ways that’s respectful to explain and communicate that.

James: Were there any challenges for you when it came to acclimating to the culture?

Brown-Ndiaye: I think being a woman was tough because where I was, women were more in the house, and here I am — a woman who’s traveled, who’s worked. The value space was different. Most of the women my age would have already had kids, they’d already be married. Or you go to somebody’s house, and you’d always be in male company. Even when I was in my home where I stayed for my training, I always had dinner with the men, the women didn’t have dinner. So you’re always the only woman at the table. So that was kind of strange, learning how to manage through that because I was uncomfortable. I wanted to be with the women. But the reality is you also have very little in common with the women — many of them, not all of them — may not be working. Many of them are mostly about taking care of the home, and you’re free to do what you want. So it was different. You’re coming from two different spaces and your commonalities were just less.

James: What advice would you give a Black volunteer going into the Peace Corps?

Brown-Ndiaye: I do think that it is good to have a conversation about the things that aren’t really discussed, the informal conversations. And by that, I mean stuff that the Peace Corps agency isn’t going to necessarily be aware of that, from whatever culture you are coming from, is important. Having that conversation about things like your hair, how you manage hygiene, or what’s acceptable dress is important because those are going to be things. It’s the soft stuff that make or break your experience. How do you manage a relationship? Because you’re probably, during that time, going to date somebody or be attracted to somebody. What’s appropriate and what’s not? And how do you manage that so that it doesn’t negatively affect your experience. If you’re a Black person who’s part of the LGBTQ community, being able to have that conversation with somebody who can talk to you about what it’s like to serve someplace where [same-sex relationships are] still illegal. How do you navigate that part of yourself? So it’s having those conversations with yourself and being grounded as much as you can in your values, so that you can enjoy the experience because your values are just as valuable as wherever you’re going. If you’re going to live somewhere for two years, you’ve got to find a way to respect your values and what you’ve been taught while integrating into and embracing another culture.

Tiffany James is Associate Director of Strategic Communications with National Peace Corps Association.