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A Peace Corps Volunteer Reflects On The Power of Relationships
Lisa Einstein has dedicated the current chapter of her life to defending girls’ rights to learn. She is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea, West Africa, where she co-directs the Let Girls Learn Program with a Guinean counterpart. She teaches upwards of 600 7th-10th graders physics. Einstein recently took the time to share her perspective on the importance and power of relationships.
Even to an onlooker, Einstein and the girls she teaches would seem to come from two disparate worlds. Einstein grew up in an urban setting and attended Princeton University. Many of her classmates were affluent and all were well educated. Her students in Guinea reside in impoverished remote rural villages and face widespread gender inequality. A mere 16% of Guinean girls begin high school. While it's purportedly illegal for girls to marry before the age of 18, 52% of Guinean women aged 20-24 were first married before the age of 18.
Having come from two seemingly incongruous worlds, how has Einstein managed to forge strong relationships with her students? For Einstein, the arts have served as a powerful mediating bridge.
“My most powerful and deepest relationships have been cultivated through the arts, across cultural divides. Dance allows me to connect with women who only speak the local language, Pular, which I'm learning but am not good enough at to have a deep relationship."
Having studied dance (along with physics) at Princeton and danced professionally with the award-winning Camille A. Brown & Dancers (a group whose content tackles historical and contemporary social-justice issues via social dance, storytelling, and dialogue), Einstein has grown to appreciate the enormous potential of the arts in cultivating deep relationships. “Theatre has been incredibly useful to me, especially in terms of understanding the issues that girls in my community face. We will explore a theme such as forced marriage, and they won't be that comfortable talking about it…, but then we do a skit and they show me all the feelings and thoughts they have about the subject that they didn't reveal in conversation.”
Living and working in Guinea has afforded Einstein a new perspective on relationships. Einstein emphasizes that a strong relationship is most likely to transpire when there’s a sense that others’ will be there during trying times, not just when they are easy. Relationships are strongest with those “people who are there for you when the shit hits the fan.”
Einstein teaches an entire Guinean community--a community that struggles to find and pay its teachers for no remuneration. The role has enabled her to gain the trust and support of her community. "All the families just know me and know I'm working for free. And suddenly I have a whole community looking out for me and treating me like family." The deepest and most powerful relationships manifest when there is no expectation of anything in return.
Building strong relationships with her community over the past two years has paid off. When a 13-year-old student, Sadjo, shared her father’s plan for her to marry and leave school, Einstein was able to work with the principal to convince the family to let the 7th grader continue her studies.
“That Sadjo felt comfortable confiding in me, rare in a culture that rewards reticence in girls, was my reward for a year of consistent engagement and mentorship. Building respect and friendship with my local counterparts enabled me to gain the principal’s support. And that her parents responded to our support of their daughter and allowed her to continue her studies shows the value of investing in relationships with families in addition to students.”
Being physically removed from family and childhood friends has also informed Einstein’s perspective on relationships. "I think there's definitely some ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. I think about relationships all the time.” Einstein continuously cultivates relationships with the people that matter most to her. She makes it a practice to send at least one note of gratitude each day to a person in her network.
“I have a sort of spreadsheet and I reach out to at least one person a day from my diverse past to say ‘hi’, and give them an update or tell them something about them I appreciate or am inspired by. The spreadsheet is my way of being intentional about the thing I value most in my life--my relationships. It’s a long-term strategy to build a life that’s filled with love and meaning. I was incredibly close with my father, who passed away suddenly when I was 17. The abrupt loss of my best friend was devastating and contributes to how serious I am about cherishing and uplifting the people in my life while I can. It's one of my favorite parts of my day. It makes me happier than them, I think”.
While at Princeton, Einstein worked for the Princeton Career Services, conducting video interviews with leaders in diverse fields. One of her most memorable conversations was with Admiral Michael Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of his reflections left a lasting impression on Einstein.
“He said he believes he's been successful in his work because every place he's gone he's built relationships. He emphasized how important it is that we reach out and build those relationships before a crisis, because during a crisis is a really hard time to build one. His perspective is one of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps, which operates on the front lines, building relationships across the globe that have proven critical during crises. For example, during the Ebola crisis in Guinea, myths that foreigners were spreading the illness caused many Guineans to distrust international organizations. Some aid workers were even stoned to death. Because Peace Corps had cultivated trusting relationships for decades, it was able to mobilize its network of local partners and educate thousands on containment of the disease.”
This lesson of cultivating genuine relationships is one Einstein has taken to heart.