An organization is nothing without the passion and dedication of the team of individuals behind it. Tostan is comprised of talented, committed people ranging from village elders to directors, Community Empowerment Program facilitators and participants to volunteers and interns. Each individual contributes his or her unique personality and skills to further the work of Tostan, thus creating a dynamic environment in which positive change can take place.

We highlight the diversity of interests, talents, and backgrounds within the Tostan team here on the blog in a series entitled Voices of Tostan. Specifically, we will explore what brought each unique voice to Tostan and why Tostan’s efforts to bring about positive social change are significant and meaningful to each individual.

Ask any Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and chances are they will tell you the hardest part of the Peace Corps service is coming home. Adjusting to life back home is often much harder than adjusting to life overseas. When I returned from my service in Benin, West Africa, I was thrown for a loop. What should I do next? How would I reconcile my privileged life in the US with my intensely poor and difficult life overseas? I yearned for a way to process my Peace Corps experience and stay connected to the West African community I had become so entrenched in.

My mother’s friend stepped in to help. She had served in the Peace Corps in Benin back in the eighties and immediately knew what I was going through. She sent me a copy of Half the Sky with a note saying she hoped it would inspire me. It worked.

Overwhelmed and lost, I began reading Half the Sky. I was immediately impressed at how honestly the book exposed the complexities of the international development field. “Making a difference” and “creating sustainable change” are not easy things to do. One of the first Peace Corps lessons I learned was that projects rarely succeed on the first try.

Emily with community members in Benin

Peace Corps Volunteers are trained to be facilitators. Our role is to mobilize communities to utilize resources they already have, not to provide new ones. To succeed in the Peace Corps, one must be patient and immerse oneself in the community. This means learning the local language, embracing local customs and respecting local leadership. Furthermore, in order for a Peace Corps Volunteer’s service to be sustainable, the community must take ownership.

Tostan’s work stood out because it was founded on many of these same beliefs. Tostan’s commitment to respectful community-led development, local language, and local facilitators immediately set it apart from many of the other international development organizations I had read about. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I respected Molly Melching. I understood the extent of dedication and patience required to be accepted by a community. Tostan’s success was testament to her understanding of the communities and her respect for their traditions. I was in awe of Molly and intrigued. I started researching Tostan’s work and grew more enthralled.

I sent in my application to the Tostan’s DC office and waited. At the time, I was working in Saint Maarten as an Environmental Education Specialist for an environmental advocacy nonprofit. I loved working on the island but my wanderlust was starting to fade and I was ready to return home. As much as I loved the hands-on work I was doing overseas, I knew that if I truly wanted to pursue a career in international development, I needed to learn about the behind-the-scenes work that supported overseas programs. When I returned home in December, I interviewed with the DC office and was thrilled to get my acceptance.

Emily with community members in Benin

When I first arrived at the DC office, my first reaction was, “I’m home.” The office was decorated in West African tapestries and colored fabrics. Smiling faces of Tostan community members shone up from every computer screen. I had forgotten how much I missed Benin. Seeing the packets of Nescafe instant coffee, the children’s books written in Mandinka, and all the African fabric on the walls immediately brought me back.

More than all that, I loved that even on our first day in the office the DC staff wanted our input about the programs being run in Africa. I finally could put some of my Peace Corps knowledge and experience to tangible use. Moreover, here were people who weren’t going to just stare blankly at me when I talked about my house flooding or traveling three hours to get a glass of milk. It was such a relief.

During my time interning with Tostan, the initial excitement of shared understanding and experiences has worn off, morphing into something more: respect. Before coming to Tostan’s DC office, I was completely naïve to how much support and planning were required to run overseas programming. Working in DC has shown me that the field of international development is diverse and consists of an array of jobs, encompassing a variety of skills and expertise. I can now envision a future, in which it is possible to balance a life in the US and abroad with a career in international development.

Story by Emily Ice, Tostan Operations Assistant in Washington, DC

To read more entries from the Voices of Tostan series, click here.

Note: The opinions expressed in the Voices of Tostan blog series are those of the individual author.