We met Christina (Tina) Thomas through Lux Art Institute and were inspired by her story. Tina volunteered for the Peace Corps in the country of Georgia and now works at Lux. We would like to thank Tina for letting us interview her and sharing her amazing stories and advice.
Tina, right, with a friend Natia Kharibegashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia raising money for Women's Wellness Care HERA.
how did you get involved with the peace corps?
I was on the board of an organization when I first moved to Washington DC called Hope Through Health. We raised money to combat HIV and AIDs in Togo, Africa. That organization was founded by a returned Peace Corps volunteer and everyone on the board were former Peace Corps volunteers, except for myself. I had always wanted to go into Peace Corp but I always felt like I had to be a star ivy league college student or something, so I never thought about it. After about 10 years of living in Washington, a friend of mine who was a returned Peace Corps and served in Kazakhstan put the idea in my head. He told me that he thought I would really like it and he told me there was a short-term high-impact program called Peace Corps Response. In order to get into this program, you have to have served in Peace Corps before or have to have a least 10 years of experience in the position you’re applying for. So I went online and looked to see what openings were available and I saw that there was a fundraising and advocacy specialist position open for a women's health care clinic. Well, I had been involved in health care, fundraising, and doing advocacy for over 10 years so I figured, ‘well I might as well try to apply!’ And wouldn’t you know it, I can’t believe I got through, I was so excited. I think the medical exam was the hardest part. And I think they test your patience because they would keep making you come back for tests but I’m just so happy I did it. It was life changing and I met some of the most incredible people. I’m talking about lifelong change agents who really want to change the world.
So basically, what I did was I worked to raise money to combat breast cancer and to make sure women get treatment. I also did three strategic planning sessions for three different non profit organizations and I worked with them to establish their mission statement and three strategic objectives. I did one for a non profit that wanted to invest in women in tech. Getting young women your age or a little bit older to start learning about these kind of job skills. I worked for another organization that lead all of the volunteer coordination and leadership throughout the county, especially among young people, called Helping Hand. Another one was to provide services for displaced and homeless women in children from Russian-occupied territories, which is still going on. I’ll never forget, I was talking to the leaders of this project and I said, “we need to get more men involved,” and she said, “why do we need men Tina?!” I said, “ you know if we really want transform people's understanding we need to get the men involved and we need to have men on our side.” And she didn’t like that. It was just an example of how the genders are so separate in their identities instead of collaborating.
what did you learn in the peace corps?
I have travelled a lot, throughout the world since I was 16 and I think most people want to help, they just need to be asked. I think people need to be reminded that the world and people are innately good. I also learned that being yourself is very important. Before I went to Peace Corps I had some self-esteem issues and what I realized was that being myself and offering those innate talents that I had was the best. I learned that if there was another person who was really great at something and maybe I really wanted to be really great at that, I can’t. So why not focus on my own strengths, right? And I think people see that and respect that level of genuineness. I also learned how important it was to not forget to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Also, the people who are the most judgemental, are those who have the least experience or the least knowledge. They haven’t travelled, they only hang out with people that are in their group. I think you have to seek out situations where you might only be the white person in the room, or you might be the only girl in the room, and to know what it feels like. To empathize. And to read books on that. I don’t mean to get on a preach, but I do believe that there is white privilege out there. I would also say, and this is a hard one for me, but being willing to change your mind and admit you’re wrong.
The biggest lesson I learned was to never make assumptions about other people and other countries especially when they are negative. I found that those who judge the most know the least and and have experienced the least. I do believe that the people who talk negatively about other people are really just talking about themselves and not that other person.
how has the peace corps affected your daily life?
Family has become much more important to me. I lived with two families in Georgia and I love them as much as my family here, if not more so. I had a host-brother and a host-mother and I miss them. I befriended a young girl next door, and I taught her english and she taught me Georgian, she was about 11 years old. She had a big American birthday cake and I got to sit next to her at the head of the table and we still talk on Facebook! Her family can’t afford school supplies so I sent her an American Flag backpack, and apparently she went from being a shy girl to the most popular girl in school just because she had an American flag. That kind of stuff gives me goosebumps. You can make a big difference from some of the smallest decisions. Sometimes you do just have to start small.
what are some ways we can get involved?
First of all, I think what the two of you are doing is amazing, and it may sound cliche, but you know, leading by example, and I think that’s what you’re doing. I think if you don’t give up and you continue to persist and make an example, I think that is one of the things that you can do until you are of voting age. Some other suggestions I had for young adults are connecting with those people who are making a difference or want to. So reaching out to League of Women Voters, sending them an email saying, ‘this is an organization we have, do you have any ideas?” and keeping at it so by the time you do vote you know what the background is and you’ve created a following. And don’t be afraid to lead. I think nowadays especially woman, they’re afraid to lead. I mean, look at the number of women in the senate, it’s not good. So I think that confidence is a big part of it. I found for myself, just growing up, you know I was thinking about how I was in high school and I was voted ‘future lobbyist’ of my high school class cause I always had a big mouth. So I think part of it is not being afraid to discuss controversial subjects such as racism, gender violence, immigration, those kind of things. But don’t be judgmental about it, because I feel like people feel like their opinion is right and they only talk to people who agree with them and that just shuts down a level of communication. I think Just kind of opening up rather than saying ‘this is what it is, why do you disagree?’ it’s ‘what is your understanding of this and why do you feel that way?’
Tina also told as about a program called Girls Leading Our World, which many of her friends from the Peace Corps worked. We asked her about her experience working with GLOW and other organizations.
what is the glow program?
GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World and it was started in 2005 in Romania. Basically, they were looking to start a program that fostered women's’ empowerment that went beyond gender stereotypes, that allowed women to get an education versus looking at just making babies and that kind of thing. They work with young girls who are teenagers and some college aged girls and help them build confidence and build healthy minds and bodies. They’ll learn tools they will need for employment. One of the big things I was doing when I was over in Georgia was coding. In a lot of these countries, you only see women in restaurants or you only see them doing janitorial work. Even in the home I had a host-brother who said that he didn’t do dishes, that it’s not a man’s job. And I said, “Well I have three brothers back home and they all do their own dishes, so you can do them to!” Anyways, the organization has been active for 20 years but unfortunately with the current funding (we lost a lot of Peace Corps funding with the new Trump administration) we haven’t been able to replicate that program as much as possible.
how were you involved with glow?
I personally was not involved in GLOW, but my friends and other Peace Corps volunteers who I worked with were. But I was involved in a program called Let Girls Learn. This program was started by Michelle Obama. If you Google it there’s a great video of her talking about it, and it has a similar concept to GLOW. It was lead by Michelle Obama from Executive Branch and they wanted it to be started out by Michelle Obama instead of a volunteer group in Romania. I proposed a project to get young women involved in breast health and breast cancer, because Georgia had one of the the highest mortality rates world wide for breast cancer. The stigma there is so bad that once, I was trying to get an honoree for a breast cancer event and she said that she hadn’t told her family, that they didn’t know, that she had made up a story. By the time women were getting diagnosed, it was too late. The rumors in the villages were that, “if I go in and get tested, that means I’m going to get it.” There were a lot of falsehoods and what I wanted to do was work with young women, especially of college age, to learn about breast cancer, to educate their moms and grandmothers as much as possible. They were more open to campaign and canvassing and that kind of thing. So based on that I was invited to the first conferences in Georgia, because Georgia was chosen as one of the countries that Michelle Obama wanted to concentrate on to discuss what projects we could start to implement. Unfortunately, because of the government transition, a lot of those programs, including this one, did not get funding. In fact, a worker from the Peace Corps who lead our gender initiative was laid off and they could no longer fund her position. But you all can help bring this back!
“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” George Bernard Shaw
“It seems impossible until it’s done.” - Nelson Mandela.
“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” - Will Rogers
Camille Zimmer and Mila Roemer