Rees: We both came to Morocco through the Peace Corps in 2014. What motivated you to join?
Eastman: I was finishing my undergrad in 2012, and at that time the American economy wasn’t too great. I saw people getting out of their BA and not even getting planning jobs. I started doing classes with Coverdell fellows in the MA program, and I started talking with them. I was laying in my bed late one night. I couldn’t sleep. And that’s when I decided to go all in on the Peace Corps. At the time, U Cincinnati was one of the only programs that offered a Master’s of Planning and Master’s International.
Rees: What would you say was your defining Peace Corps experience?
Eastman: Ooh. On a personal level? On a professional level?
There were two major experiences. One time I went home for Christmas. And something happened that I didn’t think too much about. And when I got back, everyone was just looking at me weirdly. Like something was wrong. I got a call from one of my students. And one of my students came over and said, Can I come over? Apparently were saying that I was offering a free ride to America if they converted to Christianity. Three kids had gone to a teacher at the local high school and cooked up a story about that, and then that teacher went to the gendarmes and told them this story, too. And all this happened while I was in the US.
One day I went to the store one day and I bought trash cans with my own money. And while I was on the bus, I ran into one of the high school English teachers, and he told me more details about the incident and how he stood up for me to the other English teacher and the Director of the high school saying, “You’re going to take the word of three kids, when you don’t even know the volunteer?” He went on to suggest that I leave town for my own safety.
I looked at the trash cans between my legs and said, “No, I’m not going anywhere, I’m more invested in this community than those kids will ever be.” He nodded and smiled at me and said, “well okay then.”
Rees: And the second one?
Eastman: I got a $5,000 PPP grant, and everything was ready to go. And I had to pass off the receipts to my site mate. After I COSd, my site mate unexpectedly left the country – ending their Peace Corps service a year early – so I had nobody to implement the project. So the PC office had no choice but to take away the grant money. But my counterpart, Abdo, he took over. The playground pieces were all ready.
And then just as we were ready to break ground, some old man came around and told us that we couldn’t dig there because it was his land. We knew that it wasn’t because we’d already cleared it with the local government, but rather than going through the dispute process we looked for another piece of land to install the playground. We made an agreement with a local association who owned a small strip of land in the center of town behind the kindergarten.
The association wanted to charge kids to use the playground like 2 dirhams to cover the maintenance costs, but we didn’t come to an official agreement before building the playground. A year after the playground was built, it was taken down for “safety and liability” reasons. I was told by the ex-president of the association that the playground pieces are still in a garage somewhere, they never showed me where. I have a suspicion that they scrapped the metal and sold it. They asked me to help them re-install the playground, but this time, help fund a fence around the playground for safety purposes. I gathered estimates on the fence and it would have cost $3,500. Sometimes it’s best to know when to recognize that all of the paths have been tried and to let it be. It’s best to reserve your energy for other projects.
That really gave me some perspective on what it’s like to get projects done in Morocco. You have to find your way around whatever obstacles you encounter, because there will be many. Some people like to play games and like to “zig-zag” on you. Or simply make things difficult for whatever reason. It was a roller-coaster of a project and to see it fail that way was heartbreaking but a bitter taste of reality here in terms of development projects.
On a lighter note, it did set in motion the inspiration of smaller areas to be “beautified” with plants by other associations. We've implemented that idea in several cities now, and it's a great way of ensuring local ownership of small projects as a way to something bigger.
...Just make sure the local government doesn't install new pavers around the town, removing the plants and leaving only a couple of trees.
Rees: So what is it like to get projects done in Morocco?
Eastman: During my Peace Corps service, it was mostly teaching English and the occasional workshop or camp. A lot of it was testing the people involved with you and figuring out their true intentions. There’s a game that needs to be played sometimes. People and their interests fizzle out once they realize the amount of work that needs to be done past the ideation phase (or the ‘blahblahblah’ phase). Lots of people just want to be seen. And I needed to figure out my position as a white, American male, and how I can use that to others’ advantage and also how people might be trying to use me for their advantage.
The way I’ve found to make it work, it’s a little obvious – you have to have strong Moroccan counterparts. You have to bridge that cultural gap. There’s a ceiling to what you can do as a foreigner in Morocco and some obstacles (usually bureaucratic) can only be properly navigated the right way by a Moroccan.
Rees: Do you feel jaded? How do you push through?
Eastman: Yes, at times. But I try to think about some other way around that obstacle in front of me. Because my experience here has taught me that there’s always some way around the issue. Some people say that’s stubbornness, others say it’s resilience.
Rees: So did Resilient Communities come out of a desire to be stubborn?
Eastman: That’s a funny connection, I’ve never really thought of it like that. I guess, in a way. I wanted to make more pathways to succeed for myself and others. It just creates more avenues to tackle a problem by building up a network. Project resilience and community resilience. Just being super-duper resourceful, it’s its own kind of intelligence.
Rees: What kinds of work have you done with RC?
Eastman: A lot of it has been leveraging students and the resources that academia has to offer. We’ve done waste management work, and our internship program is very much win-win. On the Moroccan side of things, we’ve hosted student exchange programs for a kind of domestic exchange program. We’ve become really focused on education because education’s power. The more resources one has, the more pathways to success there are.
Rees: Where do you see RC going in the future?
Eastman: I see in the future the actual implementation of projects we’d had in the works for a long time. Our training and development program has gathered up so much momentum, and it still has even more potential. Right now we’ve been focusing more on building off of our project foundations and more into small-scale prototyping for our larger projects. The three main engineering projects we have are all interconnected. We have a kiln project, which led to a methane-gas capturing project, and on the other hand we have a landfill project. Through the engineering school at the University of Cincinnati, we’ve created large-scale research and design prototyping reports. Now it’s all down to prototyping. Every little piece snowballs into the larger image, and we want to use it as an experience that gives individuals ownership over parts of the project where everyone can build off each other.
Rees: What advice would you give to someone looking to start an NGO?
Eastman: Do it for the right reasons. If your vision is to get a pat on the back, please reconsider. You can’t do it alone. Find your team, connect those dots in your head. Find emails of people who might be interested, set up meetings, and reach out to anyone you’d like to collaborate with. One way or another, people will hear about you, but you first have to get out there.
Rees: And what about the people who collaborate with you – interns and partners. What would you want them to know?
Eastman: That a lot of hard work has been put in to get where we are. We chose to take this route, we chose to challenge ourselves. There will no doubt be obstacles along the way, but as long as you are resourceful, keep on developing different ideas and executing them, and you truly believe in what you’re doing, the universe will throw you something to keep you going along the journey. It’s happened so many times, it’s amazing. That’s why resourcefulness is one of our core values.
Rees: Just one last question: what does resilience mean to you?
Eastman: Resilience for me is being able to bounce back from what comes your way, and also how quickly you can bounce back. I want to say – well, living a long and happy life is a bit cliché – but it’s key to creating your own success in life. And while everyone has a different definition of success, we all have to work for it.