I’m writing this from the third hour of a “short meeting just to check some things” that our colleagues, typically, neglected to inform us was happening, and which we sat down to an hour before Close of Business. It’s the third meeting I’ve had today and the second that has lasted more than three hours. I am starting to realize that every moment in the office leaves me bored or frustrated. There are nuggets of fulfillment in my extracurriculars, but they’re hidden among the great wastes of meaningless office work that define my existence out here.
Because of the way Peace Corps Mexico is set up (through the fault of, let me be clear, none of the sensitive-to-this-kind-of-commentary staff in Mexico), myself and the other volunteers in site are stuck in an office.
In every other Peace Corps country, there exists a bilateral agreement that lets the Corps work with any given organization, institution, school, community, etc. that is interested in collaborating. In Mexico, we lack that agreement.
We have to work through the National Parks Service (Comisión Nacional de las Áreas Naturales Protegidas—CONANP—my agency), the Forest Service (Comisión Nacional Forestal—CONAFOR), and kind of the EPA (Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales—SEMARNAT) as well as some tech development agencies for the Tech Transfer program, another anomaly of the Mexico post.
When I say “stuck in an office,” I mean from 9:00am through 6:00 and often 7:00pm, Monday through Friday. The program put us in this office, which is fair; everybody has to have a home base and in the constant shuffling of personnel, most offices seem to forget they ever asked for volunteers, leaving them a free hand in site.
The new director of our park expects us to earn our spots in his park (and thereby our posts in Mexico) by acting like employees. Peace Corps directives, like getting to know the community, finding our own work through the people, tailoring our approaches to their needs, pursuing secondary projects—in these he has no interest.
Working a 45-hour week in an office is bog standard in the States now, we get that, but it’s not what we’re supposed to be doing here and it’s a waste of the skills we brought down.
As employees, we’ve been participating in the office- and agency-wide planning process that will generate the new Management Plan of the park, the Operative Annual Program (POA) of the park, and the Plans of the various components of the Management Plan (Education, Conservation, Public Security, etc).
The exercise was refreshing in its straightforwardness. We spent weeks in a convoluted, overly New-Age, and apparently German planning workshop that failed to produce a POA in January.
In the new system, each employee sat down with different issues from the Management Plan to map out their chief problems, understand their causes and effects, and design objectives which would ameliorate the problems. My counterpart and I tackled three: Education, Capacitation for Sustainable Development, and Communication, Diffusion, and Interpretation.
My counterpart has had no experience in this kind of planning, and his devotion to youth group rhetoric has eclipsed his ability to communicate like a human in meetings. He’s a sweetheart but he’s stuck in a rut. In the office-wide sessions, our director will ask:
“What is the problem with forest fires?” My counterpart, after waving his hand like he’s about to wet himself:
“The problem is that the people have a lack of education—with education, they wouldn’t start forest fires.”
“No, Salvador, that’s a cause. What is the situation that happens that we want to correct?” Chuckling and shaking his head at the ridiculousness of the contradiction:
“No, no, no—you see, the situation is that the people aren’t educated…” ad infinitum.
The problem with forest fires in the Reserve is that there are forest fires. The beauty of this planning process is its simplicity, something my counterpart and I came around to after hours of wrangling over meaningless syntax and vocab adjustments.
That simplicity was ruined shortly after. Our well defined and trimmed down progression from Objective to Activities to Indicators had to be slotted into the various management plans, documents, and stratagems, each of them based on a format from another office and created in total ignorance of the basic features of Microsoft Word. Chava and I spent another week rewording, expanding, and convoluting our parsimonious plans into a wretched mass of manual numbering, nested tables, inexplicable columns, and proliferating tab stops.
When we arrived at the meeting today to present, I was excited to see if anyone ha found a better way over the hurdles than us. What has instead become clear as this gathering ticks into its fourth hour is that no-one has done the work. Chava and I are the high achievers.
This is starting to get to me, because our office’s favorite way to avoid committing to help us volunteers develop projects—something Janessa has been requesting for months now—is to say ‘estoy muy ocupado,’ ‘I’m very busy.’ I’m sitting and fuming my way through this meeting knowing that Facebook is the office’s most visited website and that Janessa’s done the lion’s share of work on the planning that she shares with her various host country counterparts and I know that we have to get out.
We are volunteers and we’ve got to leave. Walk out, strike, make change, allow the park director to know that he is not the mom of us. Peace Corps is big on training us through the highs and lows that attend our service. We are supposed to be in a long plateau of engagement and satisfaction but instead I’m looking at another eighteen months of rewarding work with kids totally buried by an unnecessary and obligatory office grind that keeps all of us from volunteering the way we’re meant.
If I’m supposed to be all about sustainability, I’ve got to admit that this is unsustainable.