A graduate of Dartmouth College, Emily Jones holds a deep passion for service and informed community development, which is evident through her actions and career aspirations. She has most recently demonstrated that passion through a two-year mission in the West African country of Togo, where she worked as a girl’s education and empowerment Peace Corps volunteer, specifically working to build a community-accessible library in her community. Speaking with Emily, I found her positive energy and friendly personality infectious, and her passion and drive for social justice was palpable. Though early in her career, Emily’s story will definitely inspire other young women, especially those with a penchant for community development.
1. Describe What You Are Doing Now?
I am about to start a two-year Master in Public Policy program at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government. I hope to work in non-profit management, working in government or non-profit agencies (i.e. Mayors’ offices) and working on poverty elimination policy where you do need these public policy skills. [I’ll be taking] leadership courses, management courses, and economics- skills that I’ll need to do economic analysis into order to understand what will be the best policy for alleviating poverty in a community. What’s nice about the Kennedy School is that it is possible to apply the skills you’ve gained in communities abroad or domestically. I think there is so much that needs to done [in poverty policy development] locally, and while it’s so important to do work in other areas as well, I see myself working in Boston.
2. When you first graduated from college, what were your primary goals?
I knew that I wanted to do the Peace Corps or something similar, and I decided to participate in the AmeriCorps program because I wanted to be closer to home due to a death in the family. AmeriCorps does have similar service-oriented goals to the Peace Corps, and I worked specifically in the City Year program.
After graduation I had the general understanding that I wanted to do something in the community development sector, but I was not sure about specifics. I knew I was interested in these ideas like gender equality, but I didn’t have a specific plan.
3. What challenges did you face in pursuing your goal of participating in the Peace Corps?
It takes a long time to apply and then to get into the Peace Corps, but I think [the process] is worth it. The process of completing an application and then being placed into an actual site can take anywhere between 10 months to a year and a half. They need to clear you legally and medically, as you may not have a lot of access to healthcare in the area you are placed.
Then once you get to your location, there are challenges as well. There are ups and downs through the two years. The relationships you make and the projects you get to do are rewarding and eye opening. You have the chance to learn about yourself and your values and beliefs, and you also learn about another culture and how people around the world live. This understanding helps inform work in social justice because you are living the issues everyday and taking daily actions to create social justice.
4. What are your greatest passions and how do you find ways to incorporate them into your life today?
I am really into environmental issues, and making sure that we are thinking down the road and into the future. I support efforts to try to get off oil and go carbon neutral. It was very easy for me to live an environmentally friendly life [in Togo], where you’re actually eating and living very locally. You eat whatever you can access locally. When you buy something, you go to the market and you know who grew it, and if you have to buy something there is a big chain of goods coming in internationally. You are able to see that globally there is a trend of international consumerism. It was nice to become more aware of that.
It’s been a challenge coming back to the U.S. and keeping up my environmentally sustainable lifestyle. There are things I’ve been adamant about doing: buying locally, and being more aware of my role as a consumer in general. I try to buy less, and be okay with what I already have. It’s not just environmental; it’s also economic. I look at things and compare it to Togolese prices, where it was much different.
My other passions: I love the outdoors. What’s cool about the Peace Corps is that you spend two years living outside, and people’s lifestyles are very family based and generally set in a big, community-focused courtyard. You actually sleep outside during the hot season. That initially forced me to be outdoors, but I found I really enjoyed it.
I also like books- I got to help create a community library in Togo.
I also like public art, and there are a lot of things going on and people are doing performative public art. Every September, there is an event where artists take public spaces such as a parking lot, and for a day, he/she creates a public garden or something cool like that, and people can enjoy it together. In Togo, people spend a lot of time saying ‘Hi’ to each other, but [in the U.S.] people are so busy, and it can be hard to sit down and say ‘Hi’. These [public art events] encourage people to build community and be more involved and engaged- to stay and sit down and talk to a neighbor. It brings together people from all different walks of life to build community.
5. What is your proudest accomplishment thus far?
My work in Togo. We created a conference and, with my co Peace Corps volunteers, we organized an opportunity for Togolese girls to travel to their regional capital and meet professional women from all different sectors, to see them in action, to talk to them and receive mentoring from them. We provided sessions on time management, thinking about future, health, etc., and the whole point was to encourage the girls to stay in school longer and follow their personal and professional dreams. We asked what they were interested and used those responses to inform the professionals we would visit. For example, some girls wanted to be bankers, so we visited those women.
Those were some of my proudest moments, especially because the program has been sustained since my term in the Peace Corps. Now, over 50 girls have gone, and other Peace Corps volunteers continue to inspire girls to stay in school and continue their education.
You could see the girls pointing out the women they looked up to, and the positions they aspired to see their motivation; it was indicative of them getting the spirit.
6. What has been the most challenging time, event, situation, etc. for you thus far? How did you handle that challenge?
Peace Corps can be a very challenging experience, even just physically. You may be in a hot environment, there are tons of bugs, you can get sick a lot, you may not be used to the food. It can be really demanding, and the work might be draining. 24/7 you are expected to be working, and you are always expected to maintain a certain professional level. So, that can be challenging in itself.
But specifically, I worked on the Community Library project in Togo. I had this idea that we could build it in 5 months- this very American mindset. What I found, and this was a challenge for me, is that you need to be really patient and let other people go through the process. What you are trying to do is inspire people to empower themselves, and that is going to make it sustainable and durable for the future. You take the time and have other people make the decisions instead of deciding them yourself. I had to step back and make a committee and have them come to this larger consensus so we could move forward in the project. It was a really good experience because I discovered that [a community project] is more successful and will have more buy-in, when it’s their project- it’s not my project anymore.
You have to be patient and things take longer than you think they will. I learned patience, which is important in community development.
Finally, the Peace Corps program is only two years, and in community development, two years is just a drop in the bucket. Also, there are actually three goals that you are signing on for when you volunteer for the Peace Corps, and two of them are cultural exchange. First, is American-to-Togolese cultural exchange, the second is Togolese-to-American exchange, and the third is technical expertise sharing. Thus, two-thirds of our goals were culture understanding, where you can qualitatively – but not necessarily quantitatively – measure the difference you have made. This can be challenging, but is rewarding as well.
7. What did you take away from that cultural exchange?
When I initially started my service, I had this separation. I had my American life, and I had my circle of Peace Corps volunteers, and I had the Togolese community that was a separate group. But, I was surprised to have so much in common with my Togolese colleagues. I think I was closer with my Togolese colleagues and friends by the end of the two years, because you spend so much time with these people, and you have a lot of shared humanity.
Realizing we have such a shared humanity with someone half-a-world away makes it possible for us to bridge a cultural difference, which will facilitate improvements in international policy development. The hope is to increase peace in the world, bridge cultural divides, and decrease misunderstandings. Though that all sounds loose, it’s actually profound that you really can share so much with people in a community far away and create long-lasting friendships.
8. What, for you, has the most fun and exciting aspect or event of your young professional years?
The Peace Corps can be a lot of fun. Some of the best moments I had there were when I was experiencing the Togolese culture. There was a lot of traditional dancing during harvest time, where we cooked lots of food and everybody dances together. In the culture, when a harvest comes in, that is very important for people.
In general, just ganging out with my Togolese counterparts was also fun. I enjoyed spending the day with friends and colleagues, cooking food, going for motorcycle rides, and just getting to chill with everybody.
9. What advice would you give other young professionals who are getting started?
I have recently been looking back at things I have journaled and written in the recent past, and it has been really informative. I think it’s important to find a way to continually think about what you are passionate about and find ways to move toward that.
In Togo, I would talk to the girls and ask people what they were passionate about. I have also found that it is excellent to ask as many questions as you can with people in your chosen field and ask about what they do and how they got to be where they are. It’s a win-win situation. Talk to people, and write down what you’re interested in.
I think everyone is sort of making it up as they go along. Our generation is different; earlier generations would chose a job and be in the same sector for life. Now there is the option – it’s even encouraged – to change jobs, move into different sectors, and chose what you want to do. Remember that it is okay to be okay with your path. You are on a journey, and you don’t have to do everything at once. If you want to be the President, and right now you are doing something else, that’s okay. It takes time, but if you keep following the things you’re interested in and passionate about, you’ll move toward that goal. Sometimes you have jobs that you don’t like and then you know this is not what you want to do. Maybe it wasn’t fun, but it was helpful. Even bad experiences, and things that you think are negative, are opportunities to learn about yourself.