June 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Sierra Leone: Agriculture: Policy & Practice of Public Human Services: Sierra Leone RPCV Janet Alien says "Credibility Fosters Mutual Respect and Cooperation"

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Sierra Leone: Peace Corps Sierra Leone : The Peace Corps in Sierra Leone: June 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Sierra Leone: Agriculture: Policy & Practice of Public Human Services: Sierra Leone RPCV Janet Alien says "Credibility Fosters Mutual Respect and Cooperation"

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Sierra Leone RPCV Janet Alien says "Credibility Fosters Mutual Respect and Cooperation"

Sierra Leone RPCV Janet Alien says Credibility Fosters Mutual Respect and Cooperation

"From 1981 to 1983, I served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa, with that country's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry as an Agriculture Extension Agent. The Small Farmers Project, to which I was assigned, aimed to teach farmers how to grow rice in swamps to increase production. My experience provided a great lesson in how action contributes to credibility, and how credibility is critical to effecting change in service to others. This lesson continues to support my work today at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS)."

Sierra Leone RPCV Janet Alien says "Credibility Fosters Mutual Respect and Cooperation"

Credibility Fosters Mutual Respect and Cooperation

Jun 1, 2005 - Policy & Practice of Public Human Services

From 1981 to 1983,1 served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa, with that country's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry as an Agriculture Extension Agent. The Small Farmers Project, to which I was assigned, aimed to teach farmers how to grow rice in swamps to increase production. My experience provided a great lesson in how action contributes to credibility, and how credibility is critical to effecting change in service to others. This lesson continues to support my work today at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).

Villager harvests rice.

When I arrived in my village, I was 23 years old. My experience with rice cultivation consisted of a 2-month, in-country training course. In a culture where respect comes with age, gender (male), and experience, I did not arrive with much credibility. In those first days, after polite greetings I was alternatively ignored and stared at-word was America must have a shortage of men and I had come to find a husband.

The first three months were rough, slow going. Then something started to shift at the work party. The farmer had called in favors and traded work to assemble a crew to plow the swamp for a dry season planting. This was a significant community event, with drummers called to play and villagers stopping by to watch. I spent the day working side by side with men from our and nearby villages, and when we finished, we shared huge platters of rice and soup. That day, when I picked up a hoe, I showed the community that I was really there to help them. I worked heartily and enthusiastically along with the rest of the people, and began to gain their trust.

I began to realize that the more I actively participated in village life and worked with farmers, the more I gained credibility. This credibility goes well beyond keeping one's word; through my acts, I demonstrated my commitment to the village. They understood this through my actions, not by what I said. To maintain and increase that credibility, I continued to contribute. As I gained their trust, I was more accepted and more able to serve them.

The farmers had years of experience growing rice on hillsides. I was teaching a new technology-how to grow rice in swamps, yet I was respectful of how much more they knew about rice and farming. I also recognized that they had other commitments and interests. At FNS, we work with state administrators, local operators, advocates, and other stakeholders, each with different expertise, experience, and perspectives. Members of local communities know much more about their local issues and concerns than we do. As we respect their expertise and work together, we learn from one another and are better able to effectively address the community needs.
We become credible to a community or individual as we demonstrate our understanding of and commitment to that community or individual's goals and success.

In Sierra Leone and now, to be able to contribute, I have to gain the trust of those with whom I am working. As I helped farmers plow or plant and suggested workable solutions, I demonstrated my positive intentions, which gave me more credibility. I continually expanded my knowledge and experience. The more I learned, the better I was able to suggest solutions and alternatives, and the more my credibility grew. Today, as I work with state and local agencies and communities, my focus is on how I can help a community or individual by providing positive ideas, alternatives, and solutions to move them toward their goals.

Back in my village, after the farmer's work day, another farmer, "Pa Sharif," asked me to help him develop his swamp. Pa Sharif was the eldest son of the town chief, a respected farmer, and a well- established member of the community. In June that year, Pa Sharif harvested half an acre of swamp rice. Proud of the accomplishment, I asked him how he felt. He responded, "One man plants, a hundred men eat." He had harvested just as the "hungry season" arrived, a time from mid-June to mid-August, when most families run out of rice- their staple diet-and have to forage for food until they harvest the first crops of the growing season.

In his communal, extended family culture, Pa Sharif was obligated to feed his relations and neighbors. Fearing his discouragement, I asked what he intended to do the next year. He said, "Next year, everyone plants."

Villagers clearing swamp for planting.

Woman carrying harvested rice.

Indeed, Pa Sharif was true to his word. The next June, I took a survey of the village and found that the percentage of families that harvested rice in June went from about 20 percent the previous year to more than 80 percent in the next: the village had eliminated its "hungry season." I had worked with only a handful of farmers, most extensively with Pa Sharif. Pa Sharif in turn had taught other farmers. Now, in work with local communities, I have found that we are most effective when we work with and through local champions. Pa Sharif had more credibility in the village than I would ever have; local champions have local credibility.

At the federal and state levels, when we establish credibility with a local champion, we can work with and through that individual to affect the entire community.

In the FNS Western Region, we use this strategy in our efforts to expand summer meal programs. In an unserved or underserved community, we first approach local community champions to find those interested in ensuring that community children are fed (for example, schools, food banks, and local hunger advocates). We work with and support these leaders to galvanize the community to act. This supports and empowers local leadership and local ownership of the issue. As the funding and oversight agency, we contribute to the effort by clarifying policy and helping to identify and remove barriers. It is critical to our credibility that we are viewed as a partner in making the program work for the community.
When we are clear and straightforward about the rules and actively involved in finding solutions to make the program work, we enhance our credibility. Our Food Stamp Program staff similarly encourages local faith and community organizations-trusted, credible community members-to help with program outreach.

When we, as federal, state, or local social service workers, approach a particular community, population, or individual, we will likely meet preconceptions, both positive and negative, about our intentions and usefulness. When we contribute positively, we increase our credibility, which increases our ability to more fully participate with and serve the community. How we show up and contribute has a direct link to how credible we are and how effective we will be. Do I pick up a hoe and step into the swamp; or do I stand on the sideline or stay away? Do I offer suggestions, solutions, and alternatives or do I reinforce the barriers?

It has been more than 20 years since I completed my Peace Corps service, yet I often remember that swamp work party and the many lessons I learned. I have also realized that while success feeds credibility, both are fleeting. Each moment presents new opportunities to serve and contribute-or not. When I am at my best, I seek to understand and support shared goals, continue to learn, respect experience and expertise, participate positively, look for solutions, and identify and support champions. My credibility supports my effectiveness, and I know my credibility is based much more on what I do than on what I say.


Janet Alien serves with the USDA Food and Nutrition Service as the Western regional director for Special Nutrition Programs and lives in Berkeley, Calif.

Copyright American Public Human Services Association Jun 2005





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Story Source: Policy & Practice of Public Human Services

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Sierra Leone; Agriculture

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