The Fish in the Bowl Play Nicer

On Tuesday night some weeks ago I got a phone call from Guinea. It was my host-mother, 5:00AM her time, they hadn’t slept a wink.

“On regarde les elections,” she told me. We’re watching the elections.In the middle of a village in a 98% Muslim country that just became a democracy in 2011 and ranks in the bottom 10 on the Global Human Development Index. I’d been a Peace Corps volunteer there from 2011–2014, just before Ebola took stage, front and center. My time in community had stolen a significant piece of my heart, and I still kept in regular touch with my host family and friends.

“Tu as le courant?” I asked. We rarely had electricity while I was there, and I wondered if they’d gone the lengths to power the generator.

“Oui,” she said, “presque 24/24 maintenant.” This was news to me. They had electricity all the time, now, a far cry from when I lived there just two years ago. I momentarily recalled the frantic middle-of-the-night dash in my tin-roofed mud home when electricity would come on without warning, rushing to plug in my electronics, turn off the lights and head back to sleep.

But why are you watching the elections, Nene? — I ask — it’s late.

“Parce que c’est les Etats Unis,” she said.

Because it’s the United States.

The United States. This country, founded on the supposed basis of liberty and justice for all, nearly 400 years ago. A "democracy" that’s withstood the test of time and yet here we find ourselves, staring at our hands and wondering, what could this moment mean? And why does the rest of the world care? My neighbor definitely doesn't stay up late at night watching Guinea's elections.

“Il est l’heure de prier,” Nene told me, it’s time to pray.

I bid her adieu, telling her I missed her every day, and she told me that whatever God willed would be, and that it would be for a reason. I blessed her in Arabic and hung up, staring at the moon and stepping back into my shoes, feeling the solid earth beneath my feet.

I’d just come from night class, now back in school and exploring the concepts of identity, culture, and decoloniality of the mind, systems and structures of governance. Earlier that evening, we’d been visited by Shannon Rivers, a Native American who’s advocated from the highest levels of government to the most grassroots activist movements on behalf of Indigenous rights. A member of the Lakota tribe, Rivers shared stories of his ancestors who peppered this land before any of us immigrants did. 

At the end of his talk, we turned on the election and I heard my peers gasp in disbelief. Rivers, long braid down his back, tight wrinkles lining his eyes, looked out at us with light-hearted humor. Folks, we’ve been here, fighting this fight, for 500 years. And the moon still rises, the wind still blows and the birds still fly. We ain’t going anywhere. But what are we going to do about it?

I was raised in the heart of the Midwest, in the middle of the red states and sandwiched between the Protestant mission headquarters, the auto industry, and the bubble that white, middle-class America crafts around “normalcy”. Padded with casseroles, hard work, and tough skin to weather the brutal winter months, this was a place where your neighbor’s opinion mattered more than your own. Though in hindsight I must admit there was idyllic truth to being raised in a community where I was free to roam and walk to school with no threat of crime, my eyes were opened wide with curiosity as I sat in my senior economics and government classes, totally disillusioned and confused at how the world operated, wondering how we could ever be in debt trillions of dollars, and if the “seemingly knowledgeable” adults “in power” really knew what they were doing, too.

I am also one of those quintessential “millennials” who grew up in the 90s when things were “good”. Despite my father losing his job after the stock market crash post-9/11, my parents worked hard to build a life that otherwise felt like it coasted alongside others in a predominantly white midwestern community.

But whether or not I was aware of it at the time, the desire to question and to know the unknown took root in me at a young age. The years that followed seemed to sketch along a radical arc in pursuit of understanding a world that delicately hovered amidst ambiguity. 

By the time I graduated, jadedness had lain her claim with an itch to leave this country faster than hot coals could burn the soles of my feet. This country, where deep, systemic inequality exists not only within its self-proclaimed walls, but also with the rest of the world, where blood-stained hands seem to hide behind white gloves, and where power and privilege are claimed as birthrights when birth is a mere lottery system and “rights” differ wildly depending on the joker’s deal.

At the time, the Peace Corps revealed herself as the best vehicle, with her tireless efforts to place the utmost importance in communities of service, cultural humility, integration and relationship-building, the instrument that’s been doing the real work of foreign affairs and human-centered design since before the terms were coined.

What I’ve become aware of is that we live amidst great paradox, where pendulum swings are imminent. And yet the basic underlying truths remain the same, for as long as they have. So what’s next?

Six weeks post-election and having just spent 40 fascinating minutes on, I find myself straddling multiple feelings and caught with one truth: this election is not our own. It’s much bigger than the President-elect, the United States, calling into question and ripping back the curtains to shed light on the way we relate, the way we listen, the way we consider what we “own” and call our own.

I ask myself, what’s next? What do these deeply divisive communities mean for this country, the world, as we, too, are caught in the cranky mud of adolescence and work toward a more perfect version of democracy? Is the current system truly adequate for today’s national landscape? Does 1776 still apply to 2016? What would it take to redesign democracy? What would it look like to give ourselves the permission?

And what does our role entail?

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Where we’re headed is uncertain, and what we don’t know is much, but like a hot iron pressed deep on the soul of the world, we must dedicate ourselves in service to it, wherever it leads.

What will you dare to do? 


Hilary Braseth is COO of Dare to Innovate and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Guinea (2011-2014), where she worked in ecotourism, waste management and entrepreneurship. She presently resides in San Francisco, working for an innovation consultancy and pursuing her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology with a Specialization in Community Psychology, Liberation Psychology and Ecopsychology. She believes in the transformative power of listening, authenticity and water.