Chandra DeNap Whetstine
Director of Strategic Projects, One America Movement
Q: You and your husband lived in China for two years as Peace Corps Volunteers. How did you decide to do that?
A: When people ask how I joined the Peace Corps, I always say Don Cheadle changed my life. In 2005 my boyfriend and I were working as professional actors in Indianapolis, and while it was fun, it was somewhat frivolous.
One Tuesday morning we had a date to see Hotel Rwanda, the movie starring Don Cheadle as a hotel manager who saved hundreds from the Rwandan genocide. As “starving artists” we didn’t have a lot of money for dates, so we went out on weekday mornings to a theater showing films for a dollar a ticket. At the end of the show the few others in the audience walked out while my boyfriend and I sat weeping in our seats. After the movie, we went to lunch and sat in stunned silence, both of us thinking that we weren’t doing enough with our lives. We started talking about it, and one of us – we can’t remember who – said, “well, we could join the Peace Corps.” And the other one said, “that’s exactly what I was thinking.” About a year later we were married and headed to China as Peace Corps Volunteers, a decision that changed our lives forever.
We spent two years in a small town in Guizhou Province teaching English to university students at one of the smallest colleges in the country. We had the opportunity to visit students in their home villages, participate in cultural exchange discussions, and even perform Chinese songs and dances in a Christmas performance for the university community. It was in China that I learned that while our cultures and perspectives may be different, the motivation to be of service, to save for the future, and to raise a family in peace and prosperity is universal.
Thanks, Don Cheadle!
Q: You left your work in international development to become the Director of Strategic Projects for One America Movement. Why?
A: I have lived and/or worked in a dozen countries on three continents and traveled to very remote communities. Even though I was the “expert,” even though I was the American with the money, I found that I always learned something on my visits. I learned the value of community, the value of taking care of each other. Whether I was meeting with farmers in Tanzania or mothers of children with disabilities in El Salvador the constant answer to my question of “Why? Why are you working together on this project?” was “because we belong to each other.” That is something we have lost here in the United States.
We don’t have this sense of belonging, this sense of community that necessitates cooperation and understanding. We sit alone in our online echo chambers, building a fortress of opinions and crafting the perfect comeback to a faceless arguer. Seldom are we compelled to step across the aisle, look someone in the eye, and witness their humanity.
I’ve seen people in dire situations come together to address the intractable problems of poverty and injustice. Surely we can learn from that. Surely we can build bridges across the political, racial, geographic, and religious divides that separate us here in the US. That is why I left international development, because I have learned from the people I went to serve and now I want to put those lessons into action with the One America Movement.
Q: How does being a mother play into your work?
A: I have a 20 month old, a 6 year old, and an 8 year old. Like any mom, I struggle with the feeling that I am missing something, that by going to work I am somehow not fulfilling my role as mother. But I also realize that as a mom my job isn’t just to raise my kids so that when they go out into the world they are the best they can be, my job is also to shape the world so that when I send my kids out into it, it is the best it can be for them. This is the work that I do, whether with One America or around the world.
I am acutely aware of the fact that I am raising three white, Christian boys in a relatively affluent suburb of one of the most powerful cities in the world. It is important for our young people, especially our young, white sons, to see us building community, trying to understand each other, and leaning into the conversations that make us feel uncomfortable and afraid. I’m trying to teach my sons that their experience of privilege isn’t the experience of others and that it is incumbent upon them to seek understanding and to listen to other people’s experiences and perspectives. I look at my sons and I see a great capacity for change, but I also see a great danger of perpetuating harmful systems. It is my job to teach my sons a better way, and what can be a more effective teacher than role modeling bridge building at an organization like One America?