Category Archives: Interviews

Proudly Serving: the LGBTQ+ Volunteer Experience

Even as we move into November, I would like to return to October. Many may know it as a month of horror movies, candy, and spooky decorations, but it also happens to be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History month.

I originally intended to highlight stories about LGBT+ volunteers serving in the Peace Corps—the only issue is that donors do not usually disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity when offering  their materials to the PCCA. However, we do have some items related to heterosexual couples and marriage during Peace Corps service. You can view the corresponding blogs here and here.

Since the PCCA is home to  personal collections for over 200 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RCPVs), I have reason to believe that at least a few identify within the LGBT+ community. Yet, even if I were to find traces of homosexuality or transgender experiences, it feels unethical to disclose personal information without the donor’s permission.

That said,  I poked around online and found quite a few Peace Corps groups that offered guidance and support to LGBT+ volunteers, as well as blog posts written by LGBT RPCVs.

Julie Andrews as Queen Clarisse Renaldi in Princess Diaries 2 says

The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, 2004.

In this belated LGBT+ history month post, I want to formally request Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Asexual RPCVs (From 1961 to present-day) to consider donating their materials to the PCCA so that we can represent a vast array of PCV experiences.

I would also like to emphasize the incredible work of Jim Kelly and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Association, while touching on the milestones of LGBT+ Peace Corps history.

A Brief LGBT+ History of the Peace Corps

In many countries around the world, identifying openly (or “coming out of the closet”) as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is illegal. In others—including the United States— LGBT+ continue to face discrimination, violence, and even death. Those who appear to fit into the heterosexual societal expectations of gender and sexuality incur the trauma of loneliness and shame from the lack of recognition and acceptance for who they are. LGBT+ Peace Corps Volunteers often have to choose between the call to “promote world peace and friendship” and their own mental or physical health.

When Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, the organization’s stance on homosexuality corresponded with that of the United States federal government. During the 1950s and ‘60s, the United States collectively feared Communist spies. Government agencies rooted out potential security breaches, focusing largely on anyone suspected of being a homosexual.

In this cultural environment, RCPV Jim Kelly applied for the Peace Corps. Kelly recounts the application process and facing the survey question: “Are you a homosexual?”

For a young gay man in the 1960s, his only option was to commit perjury—and convince all of his friends to lie as well. While he enjoyed his service in El Salvador, Kelly mentioned feeling anxious of discovery and lonely for a community supportive of his true self.

Listen to Kelly’s 2017 interview at OUTSpoken in Chicago:

Fast forward to 1992, Kelly completed a master’s thesis called “Hidden dimensions of diversity: gays and lesbians in the Peace Corps,” where he interviewed 80 RPCVs and recommended widespread institutional changes to the Peace Corps. Kelly’s study was foundational to initiating worldwide conversations around sexual orientation and gender identity within the organization.

The National Peace Corps Association currently encourages LGBT+ applicants and same-sex couples to serve abroad. Considerably more resources and support systems are available to volunteers during their time overseas, however individual experiences vary depending on the person and social climate of the country. Presently, the Peace Corps reports 18 countries with medical clearances to support HIV+ volunteers and allows applicants to choose specific countries of service.  

Do you identify as a LGBTQ+ Peace Corps Volunteer? The PCCA is interested in preserving your materials and understanding how your identities shaped your service. We accept both digital and physical blogs, journals, correspondence, videos, photographs, training materials, and more! Reach out to us at archives@american.edu.

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Reconnecting with Heritage: The Peace Corps and Cultural Identities

When President Kennedy signed the Executive Order to establish the Peace Corps in 1961, he sought to “encourage mutual understanding between Americans and people of other nations and cultures.” Kennedy’s words echoed in the ears of those who lived during a decade of social tension and Cold War anxieties. Since the 1960s, the Peace Corps has trained and placed more than 235,000 volunteers, all joining for their own personal reasons: for peace, to improve the lives of others, and to learn new cultures. Several volunteers: Carolyn Gullat, Clinton Etheridge, Yancy Garrido, Shawnette Brandt, and Amina Johari, shared their desire to benefit the countries of their ancestors and reconnect with their heritage.

Carolyn Gullat is a Black Peace Corps Volunteer from Washington, D.C. She served as a teacher in South India from 1966-1968. Gullatt describes her choice to join the Peace Corps in an interview from Jonathon Zimmerman’s “Beyond Double Consciousness: Black Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, 1961-1971,” featured in the December 1995 issue of the Journal of American History:

“For most of her own college career, Gullatt recalled, she had dismissed the Peace Corps as ‘for whites only.’ Then she met a Black recruiter, who ‘didn’t run down the usual jive propaganda about how nice it is to help people.’ Instead, ‘he talked about how I, as a Black person, could get ‘home’ and join with the Brothers and Sisters’ abroad, where ‘people have grown into Black pride naturally, where Black power is the status quo, and Black action is a working reality.’

“’Each year the Peace Corps sends hundreds of white ‘do-gooders’ to ‘help’ Black and Brown people throughout the world,’ Gullatt complained. ‘Black Americans owe it to themselves and to the Brothers and Sisters in developing countries to get up and get involved.’ – Page 1000, interview with Carolyn Gullatt by Donald M. Feeney, c.1971.

Clinton Etheridge joined the Peace Corps in 1970 and became the first African-American PCV to serve in Gambia, West Africa. Read more about Etheridge’s experience in an interview with Peace Corps Worldwide.

“I was a secondary school math teacher in Peace Corps Gambia from 1970-1972. I grew up in Harlem, came of age during the Civil Rights Movement, and was a black student leader at Swarthmore College in the late 1960s. Like many young blacks of that generation, I wore an afro and dashiki and was ‘black and proud’ and fascinated with Africa. I joined Peace Corps Gambia seeking my own answer to the question ‘What is Africa to me?’ posed by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen in his 1925 Heritage.

“I started out asking the question, ‘What is Africa to me?’…Then I asked the question, ‘What am I to Africa?’ when that Latrikunda schoolboy told me he didn’t have the math book to do the homework with because his father was ‘a poor Gambian farmer.’ Then, as a Stanford SEED business coach, I came to the conclusion that, moving forward; an important question will be ‘What is Africa to the world?’”  “What is Africa to Me?” National Peace Corps Association, June 4, 2018.

Yancy Garrido was born to Cuban parents who immigrated to the United States during the Cuban Revolution. Between January 1987 and August 1990, Garrido served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras within a community mental health program. In his interview with the Oral History Project at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Garrido explains his personal desire to serve in Latin America.

“I’m the son of Cuban refugees. My parents left Cuba because of the Cuban Revolution. Actually, would probably have never met if it had not been for the United States because my mother was the daughter of Batista’s diplomatic photographer—no one of high importance in the government, but still in the government—and my father cut sugar cane on a farm…But they met in New Jersey. And so, always in my mind was just being thankful for living in the United States. For having opportunities that I never would have had. So it was always in my mind, “How could I give back?”—not necessarily Peace Corps at the time, but to Latin America and represent my country…

“When the Peace Corps Volunteer came, the way they spoke about the experience was exactly what I wanted…The way it was pitched, I never thought Peace Corps was going to appeal to me…Once I spoke with the volunteer—they went “No, no, no—don’t get stuck with the messaging. You’re really going and working another country and you are trying to see if you can add value. And, if all goes well when you leave you’ll have helped establish something and people will continue that project without you.” The idea was to help get things started, not to actually take the place of someone. Because the last thing I wanted to do is take someone’s job.”

“So I applied, and of course my professors did not want me to go. They were grooming me to go get my doctorate and go be a professor of Spanish literature. My parents did not want me to go because they said “We left Latin America for you. Why are you going back?” But I went, and it’s the best decision I ever made in my life.”

Shawnette Brandt served in St. Lucia, Eastern Caribbean from 2013-2015. She speaks about her experience in the Peace Corps Stories blog on February 9, 2015:

“I was born in the United States and I am Guyanese. Although I had never been to Guyana, which was quite embarrassing to say especially around fellow Guyanese, I have always had a strong desire to visit the land of my parents… Even though I was cognizant of my dual American and West Indian heritage and the impact it could have on my work, I didn’t immediately understand the dichotomy of my culture was an asset and, in some cases, became quite a challenge.

“For the first time in my life, I lived in a country where the vast majority of the people looked like me, shared similar foods, music and a West Indian identity. It never occurred to me that I would face xenophobia. I tried to use this as an opportunity to gently challenge their prejudices either by comments and or deeds. I may not have changed minds but perhaps planted seeds for their further growth…Hearing the voices, the English Creole widely spoken all around me, felt more like coming home. And in a sense it was. I now have two countries that are my home.”

Amina Johari’s mother met her father while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya during the 1990s. Johari is currently teaching secondary school in Tanzania. In her 2019 article on the Peace Corps’ Stories blog, she reflects on her desire to understand more of her father’s culture:

“Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in East Africa was an opportunity to spend an extended period of time and have a positive impact in a part of the world I consider to be my second home. While I was born in Kenya and spent the first few years of my life there, a part of me always felt that in order to really understand my father’s roots and where I come from, I had to spend more time there than the short trips to Kenya my father took my sister and I on every other year…

While I do think about mom a lot, I think the person I feel like I am really getting closer to is my father. Growing up I sometimes felt confused by my father’s habits, prioritization, and world view. But all that seems to be changing. Every hour I spend working with the kids in the classroom, every tea break I spend in the staff room with my fellow teachers, and every conversation I have with my neighbors in my father’s native tongue, I can feel myself getting a better sense of the boy he was, the man he became, and the person he wanted to be.  – Amina Johari, “Why the Peace Corps? Reconnecting with my East African Heritage,” PeaceCorps.gov Stories, July 17, 2019.

Sometimes serving in the Peace Corps offers you the opportunity to follow the legacy of your parents, expand your understanding of ancestral culture, or give back to the country you’ve heard about so many times. No matter the reason, every Peace Corps Volunteer brings countless identities with them during their service. So, how does your identity impact your decision to go abroad and your relationships with those you meet along the way?

Find out more by visiting the National Peace Corps Association website, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library’s RCPV Oral History Project, and us—the Peace Corps Community Archive.

Guatemala Group 11 Oral History Interviews

Country of Service: Guatemala
Dates in Service: 1968-1970
Keywords: Oral History, Interviews, Training, Community Development, Language

Accession Date: September 27, 2016
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 0.25 linear feet

Document Types

  • Digital Audio of Oral History Interviews with:
    • Milt Berg
    • Louis Weinstock
    • Kendall Collins
    • Jack Miller
    • Paul Kugler
    • Peter Shack
    • David Milholland
    • Douglas Noble
    • Bud Ourom
    • Nicolee (Miller) McMahon
    • Bill Brock
    • Don Livingston

Interview with Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Karen (Thode) DeAntoni

Last week, the Peace Corps Community Archive featured an interview with Robert Meade, a RPCV who served in Paraguay. This week we asked RPCV Karen (Thode) DeAntoni about her expereinces in Turkey. While serving in Turkey Karen met her future husband, Ed DeAntoni. Last year, we featured a post about their engagement and marriage in Turkey. Both Karen and Ed DeAntoni’s Peace Corps materials are located in the Peace Corps Community Archive.

Karen DeAntoni's Turkey IV biographical sketches booklet photograph. PCCA

Karen (Thode) DeAntoni’s Turkey IV biographical sketches booklet photograph. PCCA.

Q: What inspired you to enter the Peace Corps?

A: I had been considering joining the PC. I was just beginning my third year of teaching 9th grade English and French…and feeling restless. Then President Kennedy was assassinated, and that did it. I was so eager to do something more “worthwhile” than just teaching in a suburban school. I ordered forms immediately and by spring of 1964, I had been accepted. I requested Turkey and got my first choice.

Q: What surprised you most about your first few weeks outside the United States?

A: We had already had a month of training in Putney, VT, with the last 2 months to be in Istanbul. So I had had the culture and language training, pretty much 24/7 and “de-selection” had occurred. I knew what to expect. I think the food was the hardest part in those early weeks. I was shocked to go to breakfast at Robert College and have tea, plain yogurt, black olives, and bread waiting to start the day. I don’t think I had ever eaten lamb or eggplant or a lot of (olive) oil in my food. I had real trouble eating the early meals. (I was born/raised in South Dakota and hadn’t ventured into foreign foods.)

Karen (Thode) DeAntoni and Helen Evans in Istanbul, 1964, PCCA.

Karen (Thode) DeAntoni and Helen Evans in Istanbul, 1964, PCCA.

Q: What projects did you work on during your Peace Corps service and what challenges did you face during their completion?

A: I was assigned to teach English at Middle East Technical University, then an English-language university outside of Ankara. I was initially very disappointed because I had expected a “hardship site.” Because I had taught school before joining the PC, somehow they thought I was better equipped to teach these young (mostly) men than my peers who were fresh out of college. These METU students were not proficient in English. Most of my work was getting their grammar and written essays up to par, so they could perform better in their engineering classes. My students came from all over the Middle East–Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and of course, Turkey.

In the end, it was a great assignment. I loved teaching those kids and working with fellow Turkish teachers (all women) who were fluent in English, had spent time in the US or Britain, and accepted me as one of them. They also admired me because I lived “on the economy” and countered the “ugly American” stereotype. My roommate had a similar assignment at a medical school. Our apartment became a haven for volunteers in the field who needed some time in a city, an American toilet, a real shower, and some home-cooked food (Helen and I had mastered the market/shopping/ cooking routine by then). This was a good news/bad news experience. Turkish culture at that time believed if a single man and woman were in an apartment without a chaperone, they must be romantically involved. Helen and I promised our landlord that nothing of the sort ever went on (it didn’t), but I’m not sure he believed us. Our neighbors for sure did not.

There were two major challenges at work: First, the anti-American mood hit Turkey in the summer of 1965. I was traveling in Greece with friends (including my Volunteer husband-to-be) and helping with another PC training program in Istanbul during the 3 months. When I returned to METU, I was shocked at the militancy of my former students. The main issue was, of course, Vietnam, and I had really no explanation for why the US continued its deep involvement. It was not easy to defend. When back in the States, I would become heavily involved in the anti-war movement. It was easy to see the worldwide effect of U.S. foreign policy.

Secondly, the Turkish head of the English Dept. at METU was an extremely difficult man. He had been educated at Oxford and had an annoying air of arrogance about him. He was all about meetings where he pretended to listen to input from the teachers (both PCV’s and Turks), but then did things his own way. I don’t believe he had ever taught in a classroom and was completely ignorant of what planning went on, what needed changing, what we needed from the budget, etc. He was dismissive of Peace Corps teachers. It was even more distressful because the Turkish natives in the Dept. completely agreed with us. They were embarrassed at how we were treated, but could do nothing about it because their jobs were in jeopardy.  I became engaged to my current PC husband and we were married in January, 1966. My Turkish friends helped arrange our wedding (in the Italian Embassy chapel) and hosted our reception at a local “tennis club.” They were wonderful, and we remained friends via letters for several years!

Karen (Thode) DeAntoni, June 1965, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey. PCCA.

Karen (Thode) DeAntoni, June 1965, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey. PCCA.

Q: How has your Peace Corps service influenced you in your post-Peace Corps work?

A: I went on to continue teaching English for a total of 34 years.  My experiences in Turkey were never far from my duty at hand. I learned how to TEACH writing (something no college prepares prospective teachers how to do). I also learned how to run a department, how to listen, how to guide, and how to help my colleagues and interns evaluate and construct curriculum. I also coached a girls’ dance line, girls’ tennis, and cross country. Clearly, teaching–in the broadest sense of the word–was in my blood. I loved it.

Karen (Thode) DeAntoni with freinds' children, Turkey, Christmas 1964, PCCA.

Karen (Thode) DeAntoni with friends’ children, Turkey, Christmas 1964, PCCA.

Q: What advice would you give current and future Peace Corps volunteers?

A: Absorb all you can from your host country! Be patient. Laugh a lot. Try not to let negative experiences color your total experience. Master the language, if you can. If you can’t, do your best to become a part of your country and its inhabitants. If you don’t “love” them, let them love you. Don’t let your American ways be the only ways to do things. Defend what you believe about America. Don’t be afraid to agree with SOME criticisms of American foreign policy, including the military and its presence, if there is one. Stay “grounded”; make close friends with other PCV’s, for support, but don’t behave foolishly. It could come back to haunt you. And remember: this could be the most significant experience of your life!

That’s about it. I want to say that Ed and I still have a deep love for Turkey. We have been back twice, once to take our son and his wife so they could see why we loved it. We continue to cook Turkish food, use Turkish expressions in our daily conversations, and read anything we can about what is going on there. Our being wedded there and sharing the experience have been a great boon to our marriage (Note: we are coming up on our 50th wedding anniversary! We would love to celebrate it there, but January weather and expenses will keep us here with our sons, their wives, and grandchildren.)

And finally…the mailman just delivered a letter from a former student from 25 years ago who wants to reconnect. (Of course, I will!) And thanks me for being such “a wonderful teacher of life and literature.”

You can’t beat that for continual rewards…

 

 

 

 

Interview with Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Robert Meade

The following post features an interview with Returned Peace Corps Robert Meade. Meade served in Paraguay from 1968-1969, and remained active in training future PCVs. In 2013, Robert Meade donated many of his Peace Corps materials to the Peace Corps Community Archive, including his correspondence, 35mm slides, training materials, reminiscences, and additional publications from his time in Paraguay.  We thank Robert Meade for his time in answering our questions.

 

"Volunteer Robert Meade on the patio of the Hotel Terraza in Asuncion. The hotel was the unofficial Peace Corps home-away-from-home for Paraguay PCVs when they came to Asuncion from their posts." PCCA

“Volunteer Robert Meade on the patio of the Hotel Terraza in Asuncion. The hotel was the unofficial Peace Corps home-away-from-home for Paraguay PCVs when they came to Asuncion from their posts.” PCCA

Q: What inspired you to enter the Peace Corps?

A:  I was in high school when John F. Kennedy proposed and established the Peace Corps. The idea struck me as something I might want to do once I got through college.  Like many people of that era, I was motivated by the idea of service to my country. I had an idealistic streak, too.  My older brother was encouraging. He was close to people in the Kennedy administration and a backer of the Peace Corps from its beginning.

 

"Paraguay II PCV Vince Francia (far left) and PCV Bob Meade (center) at the health center in General Artigas with U.S. YMCA representatives and Paraguayan nurses and student nurses." PCCA

“Paraguay II PCV Vince Francia (far left) and PCV Bob Meade (center) at the health center in General Artigas with U.S. YMCA representatives and Paraguayan nurses and student nurses.” PCCA

Q: What surprised you most about your first few weeks outside the United States?

A: I think I was surprised by how little I really knew about the work I was supposed to do. My service involved work in rural public health and sanitation. I asked myself, “how I could play a useful role during my time in Paraguay?”

It all seemed a bit overwhelming at first. Even though the people I worked with were very friendly, they didn’t quite know how to deal with the whole notion of a “volunteer” who left behind a “rich” life in the US to live with them and help them improve their lives.  Such altruism was very foreign to the Paraguayans.

 

"PCA Bob Meade and PCV Bpb Caruso (P-III) play soccer with the shoeshine boys who frequented the area around the Peace Corps office in Asuncion. The volunteers "adopted" these boys and took them on excursions to parks, professional soccer matches, picnics, etc." PCCA

“PCA Bob Meade and PCV Bob Caruso (P-III) play soccer with the shoeshine boys who frequented the area around the Peace Corps office in Asuncion. The volunteers “adopted” these boys and took them on excursions to parks, professional soccer matches, picnics, etc.” PCCA

Q: What projects did you work on during your Peace Corps service and what challenges did you face during their completion?

A: The principal focus of my work was public sanitation, especially the effort to control the parasitic hookworm among the general population in rural Paraguay.  This involved projects aimed at providing clean water and the use of sanitary latrines (outhouses). I also educated people in basic hygiene such as washing hands, wearing shoes, and constructing latrines at their houses and schools. Fortunately, I had a Paraguayan counterpart who had a pretty good idea of how to attack these problems.  One of the challenges we faced were the lack of financial and physical resources to carry-out our work. We also had to confront the basic ignorance of the population about preventing an endemic disease that was just part of life for many of them. Explaining the life cycle of the hookworm, an intestinal parasite, to a mainly illiterate population was no easy task.

We also had to confront the fairly ubiquitous presence of “curanderos” (witchdoctors) in rural areas who, because they sometimes prescribed an efficacious herbal remedy, had some credibility in the local population. Another challenge was transportation. We had to use my counterpart’s motorbike to get around or take public transportation and walk to many of the sites we had to get to.  The problem of hauling equipment such as pumps and piping for wells had to be arranged. We had no budget for this purpose, nor did we have money to buy cement, bricks, wood, etc. to build latrines.  This money problem was a constant struggle and, often, I used my PC living allowance to purchase supplies.

 

"PCV Bob Meade working in the garden at Kilometro 5." PCCA

“PCV Bob Meade working in the garden at Kilometro 5.” PCCA

Q: How has your Peace Corps service influenced you in your post-Peace Corps work?

A: Despite the difficulties of Peace Corps service, my two years in Paraguay made me decide to pursue a career focused on Latin America and in public service of some sort.  Immediately after Paraguay, I completed a Master’s Degree in Latin American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. I also worked for 15 months as a trainer for the Peace Corps in California and Puerto Rico.

In 1973, after having passed the written and oral exams, I joined the U.S. Foreign Service as a commissioned officer with the U.S. Information Agency (now part of the State Department).  In this role, I worked for 23 years overseas and in Washington.  I had assignments working in cultural and educational affairs in Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Spain, with domestic tours for eight of those years.

My Peace Corps experience continued to serve me throughout my professional life. My experience gave me excellent command of the Spanish and Portuguese languages. I also gained an ability to work in foreign countries and develop meaningful relationships with people of different cultures while serving my country at the same time.

 

Q: What advice would you give current and future Peace Corps volunteers?

A: The Peace Corps experience is a very personal one, and how a volunteer reacts to an assignment and “fits in” varies greatly from person to person. I would recommend that you enter into service with an open mind. Do not have too many preconceived ideas about how things should be done.  Remember that you are only “passing through” your place of service.  In all probability, you will get a lot more out of the experience than you will leave behind. You will be a better person for having been a PCV. Lastly, bring back your new-found knowledge and perspectives to your fellow citizens.

 

Brienne Thomson in Paraguay

Brienne Thomson

Country of Service: Paraguay
Place of Service: San Estanislao
Service Type: Community Economic Development
Dates in Service: 2013-2015
Keywords:Paraguay, San Estanislao, Community Development, Economic Development

Accession Date: November 17, 2014
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 9 items

Document Types

https://wayback.archive-it.org/1435/20141020140854/http://brienne.yolasite.com/b-blog/an-update-on-perspectives-n-plans-in-paraguay-peace-corps-volunteer-reporting-form/

https://wayback.archive-it.org/1435/20141020140848/http://brienne.yolasite.com/b-blog/the-peace-corps-asked-i-indulged/

https://wayback.archive-it.org/1435/20141020140857/http://brienne.yolasite.com/estudio-de-la-comunidad-san-estanislao.php

Peace Corps Philippines IX

Country of Service: Philippines
Service Type: Education
Dates in Service: 1962-1964
Keywords: Education

Accession Date: October 1, 2013
Access: No restrictions other than copyright
Collection Size: 1 item

Document Types

  • Publication- Memories and Reflections (includes photographs, interviews, and excerpts from diaries and letters)