Category Archives: Peace Corps History

Tweaking Qormeh Sabzi Khoresh

 

As I skimmed through our newest accession–a collection of correspondence, photographs, and books donated by a PCV who served in Iran from 1964-1968– at the Peace Corps Community Archives, a flash of red caught my attention. At first glance a charming–yet unassuming–text, complete with an advertisement for Pan Am’s in-flight meal service on the back cover, Cookbook: Peace Corps · Iran seized my attention, and here is why:

The original recipe for Qormeh (more commonly spelled Ghormeh, meaning fried in Azeri) Sabzi (the Farsi word for herbs) Khoresh–among the “most famous and common rice-based food products in Iran”–calls for sautéing “meat, onions, [and] fat,” then adding “1/2 cup dried red kidney beans,” followed by a low and slow simmer for several hours. [1] The stew is then garnished with “1 cup chopped parsley and or 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.”

In the meager margins between recipes, however, someone had tweaked the recipe for Qormeh Sabzi Khoresh in red pen, suggesting that “1/2 cup chopped fenugreek, 4 dried lemons pressed or 2 tbsp lemon juice” be added to the recipe. This was not an anomaly; in fact, other recipes were modified throughout the cookbook with the same distinct red ink.

The cookbook contains recipes for a wide variety of staple Iranian dishes, but it also details recipes that would have been more familiar to American palates, such as: stuffed peppers, pan gravy, and porcupine balls. The latter is a cost-effective relic of the Great Depression.

The cookbook further features a comprehensive guide on how to make mulled (or spiced) wine and red wine.

Seeing as a cohort of Iranian cooks, Peace Corps Volunteers, and nutrition specialists all contributed to the cookbook, it is perhaps best read as an iterative artifact–a microcosm for the (ongoing) negotiation between Western and Iranian culinary cultures. On the one hand, the PCV who marked the cookbook in red ink embodies part of this negotiation: an American who embraced Iranian cuisine in a tangible way, via their service in Iran and interaction with Iranians. Their tweaking of Qormeh Sabzi Khoresh was not an attempt to co-opt or Westernize the dish; rather, the addition of fenugreek and dried lemon is actually reflective of the traditional version of the recipe that the PCV likely encountered in their everyday interactions with Iranians.

Houchang E. Chehabi, an Iranian scholar and professor of international relations and history at Boston University, describes traditional Iranian cuisine as “alive and well.” Rice and bread–both consumed as food, while the latter also doubles as a vessel, as makeshift cutlery, and as a general aid to eating–remain staples of Iranian cuisine, often served with a variety of traditional stews, pilafs, proteins, stuffed vegetables, sweets, and the like. The now widespread availability of Iranian food outside of Iran has, according to Chehabi, expanded our collective global palate and “helped relieve the monotony of life.”

The centrality of rice and bread in Iranian cuisine cannot be overstated; however, the image above illustrates regional variations in their preparation.

On the other hand, Iranian culinary culture has been shaped by Iranians’ interaction with outsiders and their respective cuisines, a process that predated the Peace Corps and the publication of this cookbook in the 1960s. Indeed, during the Qajar reign (1789-1925), elite Iranians at Court began adopting new culinary habits from Westerners, and these habits subsequently spread to the middle class and then to the “rest of the population in a process that is not complete–and perhaps never will be.”

Exemplified in the images above, the traditional Iranian sufra (food spread) was colorful, decorative, and dishes were served concurrently rather than in successive courses. Moreover, Iranians generally enjoyed their food atop embellished carpets, and food was to be consumed with the right hand–sans cutlery. In Qajar palaces, food was prepared by a permanent cooking staff in a kitchen some distance from the living area where it was presented and consumed.

Iranians embraced outside culinary habits in earnest during the 1900s. A 1928 decree issued during the Reza Shah period, for example, outlined several sweeping changes that Tehrani restaurants would be required to implement, including: seating around a table on chairs; containers for dispensing salt, pepper, mustard, and sumac; and strict use of cutlery, thus forbidding patrons from eating with their hands. Just before the inception of the Peace Corps, the consumption of traditional meats–chiefly camel and mutton–in Iran had been superseded by beef and veal, and today chicken–once a delicacy–is consumed ubiquitously. Immediately following the Iranian Revolution (1978-1979), however, food establishments that served western-inspired food and were operated by non-Muslims had to put signs in their windows to “alert those Muslims who considered non-Muslims, and therefore any food handled by them, as najis (ritually impure).”

Despite these changes, and especially since the 1990s, the dual westernization and resilience of Iranian cuisine remains evident; the scent of hamburgers on the grill and pizza in the oven drifts from fast food chains and global food courts scattered throughout Iran’s major cities, a contrast to the age-old aromas that flow (though not as numerously) from higher-end restaurants, street vendor stalls, and Iranian homes. Here, friends and family still sit atop Persian rugs, preferring their right hand to cutlery, as they enjoy an abundant feast (sometimes followed by a period of fasting). Until I have the privilege to experience Iranian cuisine in Iran, I look forward to trying this PCV’s version of Qormeh Sabzi Khoresh–with the addition of fenugreek and dried lemon–in my own home, and I hope you will do the same. Share your favorite recipes with us below, especially those that warm you up on a cold winter day!

“To Whom It May Concern”: The Peace Corps, Public Health, and COVID-19

In his capacity as tour manager for the University of Ibadan’s Shakespeare Traveling Theatre troupe, Tom Hebert brought renowned productions—like Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet among others—to audiences throughout Nigeria. The pictures above illustrate a core tenet of Shakespearian performance: audience interaction, which was anything but lacking in West Africa during the 1960s. In a recent blog post, Hebert recalls that millions of Nigerian students were required to study Shakespeare as part of their secondary education; consequently, audiences numbering in the “thousands would mouth the lines in an audible susurrus” during shows. [1] Hebert also came to understand that British colonialism and an entrenched caste system overshadowed the educational merits of theater: “literate African kids wandering the streets with nothing to do, and nowhere to go.”

In 1964, after two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), the time had come for Hebert to return to the United States. Addressed “To Whom It May Concern,” a disease identity card (pictured below) marked Hebert’s return:

Disease Identity Card, April 1963, Shelf: 12.03.05, Box: “Tom Hebert,” Folder: “Hebert, Thomas L, Nigeria 1962-1964, Training Materials–Supplies and Medical Information,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

In another example, an unnamed PCV received a similar card upon their return from India in 1968:

Disease Identity Card, 1968, Shelf: 12.03.02, Inquire for Box & Folder Information, Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

These cards were a reminder to PCVs as to the prevalence of disease in their country of service. They were also ostensibly a precautionary measure—designed to warn physicians that the returning PCV might well be a public health risk, in which case subsequent isolation, treatment, contact tracing, and the like would become necessary. [2] Thus, in addition to coping with “reentry, readjustment, and reverse culture shock,” returning PCVs further faced the (remote) reality that they themselves might inadvertently bring lethal pathogens—for which there was little protection against—home to friends and family. [3]

An example: there was no vaccine to combat Dengue Fever—one of several diseases that Tom Hebert was potentially exposed to in Nigeria—in the 1960s. To this day, a “safe, effective, and affordable vaccine” for Dengue Fever remains elusive. [4]

This is not to say that the Peace Corps only took steps to protect PCVs on the back-end of their service. Additional evidence from the Peace Corps Community Archive is revealing; even in the 1960s, the fledgling Peace Corps had a robust front-end health program. It featured preventive medicine (where possible) and pre-departure education designed to reduce disease transmission:

Vaccination Appointment & Record Card, Shelf: 12.03.02, Inquire for Box & Folder Information, Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

PCV Medicine Book, Shelf: 12.03.05, Box: “Tom Hebert,” Folder: “Hebert, Thomas L, Nigeria 1962-1964, Training Materials–Supplies and Medical Information,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

In the case that preventive measures such as vaccination and sanitation failed, the Peace Corps also offered active PCVs reactionary treatment in the form of a standard medical kit:

Peace Corps Medical Kit with Health Guide, ID # 2011.0228.36, Transfer from the Peace Corps, National Museum of American History, https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1412958

Medical Kit Inventory, Shelf: 12.03.05, Box: “Tom Hebert,” Folder: “Hebert, Thomas L, Nigeria 1962-1964, Training Materials–Supplies and Medical Information,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

On balance, the health measures enacted by the Peace Corps—from pre-service medical training and vaccinations, reactionary treatment options during service, and disease identity cards upon return—were largely successful. From 1962-1983, 185 PCVs died during their service; of those 185, 40 died due to illness. For context: some 235,000 PCVs have served in hundreds of countries since the Peace Corps’ inception in 1961.

Relative to the Nigerians for whom he organized Shakespearean performances, Hebert enjoyed a position of privilege in terms of access to healthcare. For many PCVs, the prospect of becoming ill during service or bringing illness back to loved ones upon return was remote; indeed, the public health infrastructure of their home country, the United States, was robust compared to many countries where the Peace Corps operated.

However, what if the opposite were true? What if returning home was seemingly just as dangerous—if not more dangerous—to the well-being of PCVs? In March 2020, following the onset of COVID-19, this seeming impossibility came to fruition as all active PCVs were evacuated back to the United States. [5]

In a blog post for the Pacific Citizen, Kako Yamada—an evacuated PCV who had been serving in Comoros—recounts the abruptness of being evacuated due to COVID-19: [6]

Our plans for the remaining months or years of service vanished as we collected what we could of our belongings — some able to say their good-byes, others not so lucky.

I had been allotted one hour to pack and say my farewells to my host family — leaving my friends, students, teammates and co-workers in the dust.

Yamada did not fully grasp the gravity of the situation until she embarked on the long flight from Comoros—an island country off the coast of Africa—to her home in New York City:

On my layover in Addis Ababa, I saw people in full body suits; on the subsequent plane, flight attendants wore gloves and asked passengers not to help one another. Upon arrival at Newark Airport in New Jersey, a hollow silence echoed. Welcome home.

She also remembers questioning whether the evacuation was justified, especially because the situation in Comoros appeared much less dire (in terms of infection case numbers) than it did in the United States. It wasn’t until May 1 that the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Comoros; by then, in the month and a half since she had returned to New York, “there had been 304,372 reported COVID-19 cases in New York, a number that equated to half the population of Comoros.”

Moreover, in the United States, a crisis of public trust emerged—only compounding the threat posed by COVID-19. The situation rapidly devolved into a multifaceted culture war, one which pinned public health experts against conspiracy theorists and their sympathizers in government leadership. Anecdotal evidence and misinformation were disseminated to discourage mask wearing and promote unproven miracle cures, among other flashpoints of the culture war.

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, for example, were frequently touted by right-wing conspiracy theorists as miracle drugs in the fight against COVID-19. With the benefit of hindsight, and given that credible public health experts have historically warned of the untested efficacy of these drugs, we are now certain that neither chloroquine nor hydroxychloroquine are safe to administer to COVID-19 patients. [7] Records from the Peace Corps Community Archive do show, however, the historical—and empirically proven—use of chloroquine as an antimalarial drug in locales such as Senegal:

Chloroquine Program Document, Shelf: 12.04.02, Box: “Cherie Lockett,” Folder: “Cherie Lockett, Senegal 1979-1981, Health Care N.D.,” Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Library, Washington, D.C.

 Yamada grappled with guilt, for although the situation in the United States appeared dire upon her departure from Comoros, her evacuation ensured a better chance of survival:

It came down to privilege. After months of integrating — through language, food and dances — in the end, I am privileged. In a pandemic, I, as an American citizen and Peace Corps Volunteer, got to fly out to a country with better health care.

I could not escape the fact that I was a volunteer that would disappear if things got bad.

People often ask: how will the history of COVID-19 be written? What will history tell us about our response to a global pandemic? Historians and public historians themselves are asking different, more pointed questions: how will we remember our global response to COVID-19? Who gets to shape the memory of the American experience with COVID-19? Is it the historian’s place to weigh the immeasurable suffering and loss of human life against the resilience and moments of unity that will get us through this? Likewise, who and what dictates how Comorians remember COVID-19? What are the stakes if we omit the lived experiences of those who were and are the most vulnerable to COVID-19? Do public historians have a responsibility to interpret/challenge those actors who downplayed and mismanaged the crisis from its outset? For Yamada, her answer is fairly straightforward:

The situation of a country miles away, often labeled as one of the poorest in the world, is very much mirrored here in the United States.

The characteristics of denial, governmental inadequacies and systematic vulnerabilities of certain social groups over others are paralleled. However, one quality is certainly different: we have the resources, and yet, we dared to fail.

[1] Tom Hebert,  “Shakespeare and the Ins and Outs of Education Reform,” Peace Corps Writers, n.d., http://www.peacecorpswriters.org/pages/2001/0109/109cllkheb1.html.

[2] Amy Lauren Fairchild, Lawrence O. Gostin, Ronald Bayer, “Contact Tracing’s Long, Turbulent History Holds Lessons for COVID-19,” The Conversation, July 16, 2020, https://theconversation.com/contact-tracings-long-turbulent-history-holds-lessons-for-covid-19-142511

[3] Peace Corps, RPCV Handbook: You’re on your way Home (Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services, n.d.), 10, https://files.peacecorps.gov/resources/returned/staycon/rpcv_handbook.pdf

[4] World Health Organization, “Questions and Answers on Dengue Vaccines,” Immunization, Vaccines, and Biologicals, April 20, 2018, https://www.who.int/immunization/research/development/dengue_q_and_a/en/

[5] Jody K. Olsen, “Peace Corps Announces Suspension of Volunteer Activities, Evacuations due to COVID-19,” Peace Corps, March 15, 2020, https://www.peacecorps.gov/news/library/peace-corps-announces-suspension-volunteer-activities-evacuations-due-covid-19/

[6] Kako Yamada, “Welcome Home? From Peace Corps Service to COVID-19 America,” Pacific Citizen, May 22, 2020, https://www.pacificcitizen.org/welcome-home-from-peace-corps-service-to-covid-19-america/

[7] United States Food and Drug Administration, “FDA Cautions Against Use of Hydroxychloroquine of Chloroquine for COVID-19 Outside of the Hospital Setting or a Clinical Trial due to Risk of Heart Rhythm Problems,” July 1, 2020, https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-cautions-against-use-hydroxychloroquine-or-chloroquine-covid-19-outside-hospital-setting-or

 

 

Don’t Forget Your Helmet! Motorcycles and the Peace Corps

Since March 16, 2020, American University and Peace Corps Community Archives staff moved their tasks online to wait out the impact of COVID-19. While this bars access to our physical collections, the PCCA’s digital archives has a number of interesting journals, memoirs, and photographs available to explore.

As I flipped through the pages of a guestbook from the Volunteer Rest House in Kambia, Sierra Leone–donated by Jim Hiiter–one photo stuck out to me more than the rest.

A young woman perched on the seat of a motorbike, with the caption, “Posing with my ‘death machine’ and my controversial ‘to be a woman is not easy’ helmet. (Before the accident.)

Thankfully, Bernadette Chaloupka only injured her ankle after an accident on her motorbike; however, the Peace Corps still flew her back to Washington, D.C. to recover—cutting short her time in Sierra Leone. She writes about travelling back to the U.S. afer a local doctor called for surgery:

I’m a living example of why the Peace Corps has decided to ban motorcycles…Even though an operation was unnecessary, I tell Peace Corps plenti plenti tenki for that wonderful holiday!”

Chaloupka’s experience with motorcycles is just one of many. As I dug through Peace Corps policies, volunteer memoirs and letters home, I found that Chaloupka’s brief recovery period was a minor consequence compared with the many stories of motorcycle accidents.

Between 1961 and 2003, the Peace Corps reported that 89 volunteers died in motor vehicle accidents—21 of them involved a motorcycle. An article in the 1985 Peace Corps Times advised volunteers on motorcycle safety, reporting that in 1983, fourteen volunteers were evacuated to the United States due to motorcycle injuries.

That said, reliable transportation is an important piece of volunteer service, when distances between villages and cities could be several hundred miles away. For some, motorbikes were a beneficial way to get around during their assignments, connecting volunteers to important resources in other regions.

Alan Crew, a PCV in Nigeria 1965- 1966, mentions that as the only form of transportation available to him, his motorbike was important for travelling the long distances from his village to meet other volunteers or go into bigger cities. He wrote to his family in 1965,

My motorcycle is running beautifully, although it still isn’t completely broken in. I can understand the almost reverent feeling the old volunteers have for their machines, as they afford one the only means of mobility available…There are 104 of us within 125 miles of each other so that we can all get together on weekends if we like. Therefore, the mobility of the motorcycle takes on a new dimension of importance.

In the case of Jane Wertz, her motorcycle may have been the only thing that helped her safely leave Zaire during military-led riots in 1991. Wertz was featured in a Peace Corps News article following the event, relaying her journey from her host village to Kikwit, the closest city with a Peace Corps office. “Usually it’s about a 3 ½ hour trip, but it took me about six hours because I had too much stuff on my bike…It was dark. I had fallen about six times. The bike was really, really heavy. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t be able to pick it up.” Wertz’s motorcycle, as heavy as it was, was the only thing that could have gotten her to the office for evacuation.

Today, the Peace Corps allows volunteers to use motorbikes only on a project-by-project basis. Many of these exceptions are for volunteers in rural areas, only after comprehensive safety training. And, at the heart of the manual? Wear your helmet!

Sources:

Office of the Chief of Staff, “MS 523 Motorcycles and Bicycles” January 7, 2013. https://files.peacecorps.gov/documents/MS-523-Policy.pdf

Adventure in a Great Big World,” by Alan Crew, Peace Corps Community Archives, https://blogs.library.american.edu/pcca/adventure-in-a-great-big-world/

Angene Wilson and Jack Wilson, Voices from the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers (University Press of Kentucky, 2011).

Susan Trebbe and James C. Flanigan, “Exit from Zaire,” Peace Corps Times, Fall 1991. https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A2500?solr_nav%5Bid%5D=680d78e377b816da1f3b&solr_nav%5Bpage%5D=0&solr_nav%5Boffset%5D=8

Pat Seaman, “Peace Corps and the Art of Motorcycle Safety,” Peace Corps Times, January-February 1985, 8-9. https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A2463/datastream/PDF/view

“Project Peace Pipe”: In Practice

In theory, Project Peace Pipe intended to attract Native American applicants, diversify Peace Corps volunteers, and build the skills and confidence Indigenous trainees needed to serve two years in Colombia. However, in practice, twenty-nine volunteers arrived for training, five received placements, and only two completed full service. In the final project evaluation report, surveyors attributed the program’s failure to “racism…bungling…bureaucratic deafness [and] …sheer ignorance” of program administrators, leading training officials to wonder if Project Peace Pipe was doomed from the start.[1]

Recruitment

During the 1960s, Peace Corps recruitment featured advertisements stressing adventure, personal growth, and building international relationships—things that appealed to many Americans, but failed to consider other barriers to entry. As mentioned in “Project Peace Pipe”: Developing the Program, the project was one of the first attempts by the Peace Corps to specifically draw individuals from disenfranchised groups. Officials determined that a targeted enrollment campaign and adjusted application requirements would help these efforts.

Looking at retention rates from earlier groups, Peace Corps officials found that volunteers aged 20 or older were more likely to complete service than their younger counterparts. Therefore, recruiters for Project Peace Pipe focused on older volunteers—making the average age of trainees around 23 years old. They also voted to give personal interviews more weight than written references, as previous statistics reported that lower socio-economic class applicants had more difficulty obtaining written references.[2]

Application Requirements
Project Peace Pipe Peace Corps
At least 20 years old At least 18 years old
High school diploma; some college High school diploma; some college; bachelor’s degree
Personal interviews Written references

Recruiting efforts focused primarily on colleges with a high population of Native students, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools, and areas with large American Indian populations. The BIA funded a grant for new brochures and hired BIA education officials to identify possible candidates. Yes, the federal agency that sponsored boarding schools for Indigenous children under the motto, “Kill the Indian…save the Man,” also supported efforts to train American Indian Peace Corps volunteers. [3]

Donald Broadwell recalls the recruitment process in a 1998 letter to Friends of Colombia President Robert Colombo:

I was atypical of the Project Peace Pipe volunteers, having had little real identification with Native American culture prior to my entry into the Project…Although I grew up in Mahnomen County, Minnesota, which is part of the White Earth Reservation, it is an “Open Reservation,” i.e., one which transferred the property to individual tribal members…The Project Peace Pipe recruiters took the attitude of “close enough!” and signed me up.

The other 29 applicants came from clusters of the West around South Dakota, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Arizona—with varying levels of involvement with their Indigenous culture. Despite the initial prerequisite to recruit volunteers over twenty, six were between eighteen and nineteen years old, although the rest ranged in age between twenty and twenty-nine.

Photo of biographical excerpt about Sammie Chischilly. It reads: "Sammie, 25, is a Navajo Indian from Pinon, Ariz. He graduated from Phoenix Indian High School, where he trained for building construction. After graduation, he went into the army and trained for "paratrooper", and went to Viet Nam for 13 months. During the 3 years of his military career, he travelled and visited Hawaii, Wake Island, the Philippines, Thailand, and Japan. His hobbies include oil painting, fixing and patching things and automobiles to electrical equipment. English is his second language; he has spoken Navajo all his life. Now he is learning Spanish. His favorite sports are rodeo, wrestling and football. Before joining the Peace Corps, he got married.

Sammie Chischilly served three years in the army as a paratrooper in Vietnam prior to joining the Peace Corps. He and his wife Cynthia left training while in California. Sammie Chischilly, Peace Corps Escondido, Summer 1968. Colombia Rural Community Development Group B, August 28-October 14, 1968.

Training Programs

Project Peace Pipe applicants joined “Colombia- Rural Community Development- Group B,” (RCD-B) however, the Project Peace Pipe program was a sub-category within this larger Peace Corps group. These volunteers attended six extra weeks of training in Arecibo, Puerto Rico before joining volunteers from the general group. The pre-training operated under the assumption that “lack of confidence was a major barrier for Indians interested in Peace Corps Service,” and so the program was devoted more towards developing Native “self-awareness” and skills for service overseas.[4]

To do so, OIO (Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity) inverted the Peace Corps’ cross-cultural training model by designing a pre-training that sought to reverse “psychological effects of internal colonization, [and instead] emphasize the racialized and economic inequalities within the United States rather than impending culture shock abroad.”[5] Like the typical Peace Corps training, Peace Pipe trainees received intense Spanish language training; however, in place of Colombian history and practical skills training, they received “communication” and “attitudinal” training directly focused on changing the temperaments of Peace Pipe volunteers. One component consisted of a week “imaginal education” course and discussion groups three times a week for self-confidence counseling.[6]

Project Peace Pipe recruits speaking with Senator Fred Harris during training in Puerto Rico, 1967. Featured in Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century, Duke University Press, 2012. Courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, D.C. (490-G-63-82068-C2-19)

The Project Peace Pipe pre-training seemed to be a success, with close relationships formed between the trainees and staff, and most of the volunteers transitioning into the general Peace Corps training. However, Donald Broadwell describes the altered atmosphere following the arrival of other Peace Corps volunteers:

Most of the Project Peace Pipe volunteers were, like me, young and without college educations. Most of us had had some college experience, but most had not completed a degree. We were a group who were interested in an adventure, but most of us did not have the inner resources to be fully independent. We enjoyed our Pre-training experience in Puerto Rico, where we received intensive training in Spanish and a little bit of training in establishing cooperatives.

Many of us found the transition to the training program in California to be a difficult one to make, and many volunteers began opting out of the program. Other volunteers joining us for RCD-B were largely college educated and a few years older than the Project Peace Pipe volunteers. Many of us felt we couldn’t “measure up” to the other volunteers joining us, and began to feel overwhelmed with the prospect of being independent in a foreign country, whose language we spoke only haltingly.

The issue of retaining Peace Pipe trainees continued throughout training and service. An article by LaDonna Harris and Dr. Leon H. Ginsberg, social work professor at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, reported: “In addition to the pressure of selection for Peace Corps service…, the composition of the training group itself was perceived as potentially threatening for some American Indian trainees.”[7] Whereas the middle-class Ivy League and large state university volunteers experienced culture shock overseas, the psychologists within the RCD-B training reported adjustment issues with Native volunteers once merged with the predominantly white trainees.

The language used by Broadwell, Harris and Ginsberg attribute this issue to intimidation from the superior experiences of other volunteers; however, a survey of the group’s biographical pamphlet reveals something else. While the project evaluators described Peace Pipe volunteers as lacking confidence and skills in communication, the pamphlet reported that most had attended some higher education schooling, spoke two or more languages fluently, and already performed leadership roles within their local communities. Several had traveled around Mexico, Canada, and Puerto Rico, and one woman served as a Congressional intern on Capitol Hill.[8] While many may have felt that they didn’t “measure up” as Broadwell suggests, others felt suffocated by rigid expectations. One unidentified Peace Pipe trainee complained in an interview with the Washington Post, “Peace Pipe seems like an effort to make us nice little WASPS so that we can fit in…”[9] Ironically, the fears that Peace Corps officials had regarding the agency’s “lily-white” composition destroyed their intentions to appeal to minority group volunteers.

The Results

Project Peace Pipe ran for three years—just long enough to train and place 2 groups of volunteers—before termination. By 1970, only six trainees from Project Peace Pipe served full terms in Colombia. The Washington Post, who wrote about the results in November 1970, reported that undercurrents of racism marked the program and the instructors believed the program was doomed to fail:

The report charges the Indians were not trained for Colombia, were discriminated against on draft deferments, were lied to about assignments, and got such miserable medical care that many were ill for weeks…

…An outside consultant, according to the evaluation office, viewed the program with open disgust. Said the consultant, “Anyone who doubts there was racism can look at what Peace Corps did to help the two Indians who had draft problems. Nothing at all—while everyone was killing themselves for some of the white trainees.” [10]

Jack Anderson, “Peace Corps Indiana Project Fails,” Washington Post, 4 November 1970.

The article also indicated that the failure resulted in the creation of the Peace Corps’ first Office of Minority Affairs, as part of the agency’s “New Directions” initiative. Peace Corps Director Joseph H. Blatchford appointed the former director in Tanzania and Black American, William Tutman, as the office’s new head.[11] Tutman resigned the following April, writing that “while dedicated to cross-cultural understanding abroad, [the Peace Corps] has failed to deal with the subcultural misunderstanding in its midst.”[12] An article in the New York Times reported that Tutman pointed to specific examples of discriminatory hiring practices and preference given to “white males.” The article also cited Blatchford’s statement regarding the resignation, asserting, “the record of the Peace Corps in minority affairs has been outstanding,” and promised to name a “prominent black American” to fill the post.

The Peace Corps’ reputation regarding racial and cultural sensitivity has improved since the ’70s. Today, volunteers from a variety of backgrounds share how their identities impact their service on the official Peace Corps blog. Here, you can read reflections by several Indigenous volunteers serving in the 2010s—Madiera Dennison, Anthony Trujillo, and Dennis Felipe Jr.

References:

Peace Corps Honors American Indian Volunteers, October 31, 2008.

Peace Corps Celebrates National Native American Heritage Month, November 5, 2009.

Peace Corps Escondido, Summer 1968. Colombia Rural Community Development Group B, August 28-October 14, 1968.

Sterling Fluharty, “Harris, LaDonna Vita Tabbytite,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=HA035.

Fritz Fischer, Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), 102 –3.

[1] Jack Anderson, “Peace Corps Indian Project Fails,” Washington Post, November 4, 1970, B19. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[2] Harris, Mrs. Fred R. and Leon H. Ginsberg, “Project Peace Pipe: Indian Youth Pre-Trained for Peace Corps Duty”, Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 7 No. 2, January 1968, 23.

[3] Charla Bear, “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” NPR, May 12, 2008. npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865

[4] Harris, Mrs. Fred R. and Leon H. Ginsberg, “Project Peace Pipe: Indian Youth Pre-Trained for Peace Corps Duty”, Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 7 No. 2, January 1968, 23.

[5] Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century, Duke University Press, 2012, 104.

[6] Harris, Mrs. Fred R. and Leon H. Ginsberg, “Project Peace Pipe: Indian Youth Pre-Trained for Peace Corps Duty”, Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 7 No. 2, January 1968, 25.

[7] Harris, Mrs. Fred R. and Leon H. Ginsberg, “Project Peace Pipe: Indian Youth Pre-Trained for Peace Corps Duty”, Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 7 No. 2, January 1968, 23.

[8] Peace Corps Escondido, Summer 1968. Colombia Rural Community Development Group B, August 28-October 14, 1968.

[9] Jack Anderson, “Peace Corps Indian Project Fails,” Washington Post, November 4, 1970, B19. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[10] Jack Anderson, “Peace Corps Indian Project Fails,” Washington Post, November 4, 1970, B19. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[11] “Director Blatchford Names New Peace Corps Program For Minorities and Women,” The Harvard Crimson, November 7, 1970. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1970/11/7/director-blatchford-names-new-peace-corps/

Joseph H. Blatchford, “The Peace Corps: Making it in the Seventies “Foreign Affairs, October 1, 1970. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1970-10-01/peace-corps-making-it-seventies

[12] “Peace Corps Aide Quits In Protest,” The New York Times, April 19, 1971. Page 41. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/04/19/archives/peage-corps-aide-quits-in-protest-minority-affairs-director-charges.html

“Project Peace Pipe”: Developing the Program

What makes a good Peace Corps volunteer? Is it experience and compassion, leadership or flexibility? Or, is it confidence? What does it mean to be a Peace Corps volunteer, and what do we expect to gain from volunteering abroad? These were the questions that Peace Corps officials mulled over as they prepared a special training program directed at young Native American volunteers.

Ladonna Harris is speaking to a group of people out of the frame, wearing a blazer and carrying a hat in her left hand. Her right hand is raised as she speaks.

LaDonna Harris in 1976. (2012.201.B0250.0666, photo by P. Southerland, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, OHS).

Developing the Program

“Project Peace Pipe” was created in 1966, as a collaborative program between the Peace Corps and a Native-led organization called Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity (OIO). The project specifically recruited and trained Indigenous adults for service in the Peace Corps, following OIO’s mission to improve the lives of American Indians by offering programs for community development, work experience and placement, and youth activities.[1] Comanche political activist and OIO founder LaDonna Vita Tabbytite Harris hoped that Peace Corps service would help the volunteers develop “talents for organization and skill in mobilizing community action…applicable to the problems of Indian communities in all parts of the United States where skilled Indian leadership is needed, but often unavailable.”[2] Not only would these volunteers return with practical skills, OIO envisioned that American Indian RPCVs would have greater opportunity to work in federal agencies and provide healthy role models for other Indigenous youths.

Photograph of Donald I. Broadwell with biographical data, reading "Donald, 19, born in Park Rapids, Minnesota, is from Fosston, Minnesota. He studied at Bemidji State Collece, Bemidji, Minnesota, majoring in English and French. He has extensive experience in library materials circulation. He has experience in grounds maintenance and with pre-sensitized photographic plate processing. He also has general farm background. He attended Peace Corps pre-training program in Peurto Rico. Don has held various leadership positions in 4-H and other school and college organizations. He has done volunteer teaching in remedial reading. Hobbies include skiing, swimming, hiking and other individual sports."

Donald Broadwell, Peace Corps Escondido, Summer 1968. Colombia Rural Community Development Group B, August 28-October 14, 1968.

Donald Broadwell, a PCV recruited through this program, also believed that the project operated under the assumption that Native Americans would have a greater ability to understand with the life experiences and bond with rural Colombians, many of whom were subsistence farmers with strong Mayan backgrounds.

As for the Peace Corps, the project was one of the first attempts to attract volunteers with working-class and marginalized backgrounds. Although the Peace Corps sought to emphasize “self-reliance, racial equality, the right to self-determination, and social justice,” the organization struggled to attract volunteers of color.[3] An article in the Journal of Black Studies reported that in the 1960s, most Black youths considered the Peace Corps to be “an agency for White, middle-class Americans.” While service was possible to many white, middle-class individuals fresh out of college, many people of color and working-class graduates took jobs to support their families or sought to improve their own communities. [4]

Peace Corps officials used the interest in Project Peace Pipe to counter this WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) image and attempted to create more accessible avenues for “socio-economically deprived minority group youngsters.”[5] While there are no available records that mention the origin of the project’s name, the use of the term “peace pipe” traces back to the arrival of European colonists, who applied the term to Indigenous ceremonial pipes.[6] It is likely that the name “Project Peace Pipe” may have just been the result of the Peace Corps’ desire for “peace” imagery, and the irony was not lost on volunteers.

In an article in the August 1968 issue of the Peace Corps Colombia monthly newsletter, Porvenir, one editor commented:

“Regardless of the appropriateness of this name, it is curious that a program, intended to integrate, labels the group in question with a title that differentiates them. Names serve to categorize and tell things apart; why make a distinction when the intent is to show the similarity of different Americans when working toward a common end? Even if the title “Operation Peace Pipe” proved useful in training and recruiting, that should be the extent of its function.”

The unique title was not the only difference that set the group apart from the other volunteers. The OIO and Peace Corps officials designed the program around the idea that Native youths, “because of their lack of self-confidence, felt they had little to contribute to persons overseas.” Working under this assumption, the program designed targeted recruitment processes and a five week pre-training to build confidence and develop communication skills.

Peace Corps-Indigenous Relationships and Red Power

Project Peace Pipe was not the first interaction Native communities had with the Peace Corps. In fact, impoverished conditions on reservations were so similar to underdeveloped areas in Latin America, Africa, and Asia that the Peace Corps used them for preliminary community development training. In at least one instance, in 1962 volunteers stationed at the University of Arizona prepared for service at Gila River Reservations in Arizona. The Peace Corps Volunteer reported other development programs at the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. [7]

Black and white photo of three men dig in dirt with shovels. Another group of men stand along a wooden fence in the background.

Peace Corps Volunteers during training at the Gila River Reservation in Arizona. 1962. University Archives Photographs, Arizona State University Library.

The Project also coincided with the rise of the Red Power movement. Across the country, Native Americans mobilized to protest and rewrite the history of American Indigenous peoples, address high levels of poverty, and bring legal suits against states stealing Indian land and violating federal treaties.[8] During the 1960s, communities formed organizations like the National Indian Youth Council (NYIC) and the American Indian Movement (AIM), leading groups to Washington, D.C. to occupy the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, called the “Trail of Broken Treaties.”

In fact, three volunteers recruited through Project Peace Pipe were Sioux members from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where the town of Wounded Knee is located. Growing up in Pine Ridge, these volunteers were likely influenced by the violent confrontations between white supremacists and their community, and the increased political militancy of the organized Red Power movement. If the volunteers returned after their service in 1970, they could have been involved with the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973; however, no available records mention this. To learn more about the history of Wounded Knee, visit Democracy Now and the History Channel.

Landscape color photo of the Pine Ridge road sign, covered in bullet holes.

Pine Ridge Sign, October 17, 2016. posted to Flickr Creative Commons by Orientalizing.

So why did a Native-led organization like Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity join forces with a federal agency at the height of the Red Power movement? The answer lies with activist LaDonna Vita Tabbytite Harris. Harris founded OIO after Oklahomans elected her husband Fred Harris to the Senate. After her family relocated to Washington, D.C., Harris loudly advocated for Native rights and legislation, including championing the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. Her determination and husband’s political networks put her in a place to help Indigenous communities gain federal recognition and push for change. Seeing an opportunity for youth engagement, Harris instigated a partnership with Peace Corps and established authority over the program design from the onset. 

Moving Forward

Only 5 years prior, President Kennedy announced to the nation, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” before establishing the Peace Corps.  Project Peace Pipe also considered what Peace Corps could do for Indigenous youths. But how did the actual volunteers compare with the judgments made by OIO and the Peace Corps?

Project Peace Pipe Part 2 will explore the practical aspects of specialized training, the experiences of volunteers, and the outcome of the program following the merge into the rest of Peace Corps Colombia- Rural Community Development-B.

References:

Amin, Julius A. “The Peace Corps and the Struggle for African American Equality.” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, No.6, July 1999, 817. (Accessed January 22, 2019) https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2645886.pdf

Chavez, Aliyah, “LaDonna Harris ‘stumbled’ into a legacy of impact,” Indian Country Today. August 18, 2019.

Harris, Mrs. Fred R. and Leon H. Ginsberg, “Project Peace Pipe:Indian Youth Pre-Trained for Peace Corps Duty”, Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 7 No. 2, January 1968

Moore, Powell A. (1959). The Calumet Region: Indiana’s Last Frontier. Indiana Historical Bureau. Retrieved 20 August 2015.

Old Elk, Hunter “127th Remembrance of the Wounded Knee Massacre,” Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Decmber 29, 2016. (Accessed January 27, 2020) https://centerofthewest.org/tag/wounded-knee/

Peace Corps Division of Volunteer Support, The Peace Corps Volunteer, a Quarterly Statistical Summary, (Columbia University: The Division, 1962), 13. https://books.google.com/books?id=mIOKCxx-scUC&pg=RA16-PA13&lpg=RA16-PA13&dq=peace+corps+training+on+indian+reservations&source=bl&ots=grUjRQ3-TY&sig=ACfU3U1fOyhvcjnt_zwg5KA-EumuUzxTaA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwie_rKY7YXnAhWQq1kKHRbRBUMQ6AEwEnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=%20indian%20reservations&f=false

Peltier, Leonard “Wounded Knee II, 30 Years Later,” Democracy Now, May 9, 2003. (Accessed January 27, 2020) https://www.democracynow.org/2003/5/9/wounded_knee_ii_30_years_later

“The Native American Power Movement,” Digital History, 2019. (Accessed January 27, 2020) http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3348

“Wounded Knee,” History, November 6, 2009. (Accessed January 27, 2020) https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/wounded-knee

[1] Mrs. Fred R. Harris and Leon H. Ginsberg, “Project Peace Pipe:Indian Youth Pre-Trained for Peace Corps Duty”, Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 7 No. 2, January 1968, 22.

[2] She left OIO in 1968 after President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the National Council on Indian Opportunity (NCIO), but the organization’s inaction led her to resign and continue grassroots activism.  Mrs. Fred R. Harris and Leon H. Ginsberg, “Project Peace Pipe:Indian Youth Pre-Trained for Peace Corps Duty”, Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 7 No. 2, January 1968, 21.

[3] Julius A. Amin, “The Peace Corps and the Struggle for African American Equality.” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, No.6, July 1999, 811. (Accessed January 22, 2019) https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2645886.pdf

[4] Julius A. Amin, “The Peace Corps and the Struggle for African American Equality.” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, No.6, July 1999, 817. (Accessed January 22, 2019) https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2645886.pdf Marshall, M. (1984, October). The Peace Corps: Alive and well, and looking for Blacks. Ebony Magazine, pp. 48-54.

[5] Mrs. Fred R. Harris and Leon H. Ginsberg, “Project Peace Pipe:Indian Youth Pre-Trained for Peace Corps Duty”, Journal of American Indian Education, Vol. 7 No. 2, January 1968, 22.

[6] Moore, Powell A. (1959). The Calumet Region: Indiana’s Last Frontier. Indiana Historical Bureau. Retrieved 20 August 2015.

[7] Peace Corps Division of Volunteer Support, The Peace Corps Volunteer, a Quarterly Statistical Summary, (Columbia University: The Division, 1962), 13. https://books.google.com/books?id=mIOKCxx-scUC&pg=RA16-PA13&lpg=RA16-PA13&dq=peace+corps+training+on+indian+reservations&source=bl&ots=grUjRQ3-TY&sig=ACfU3U1fOyhvcjnt_zwg5KA-EumuUzxTaA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwie_rKY7YXnAhWQq1kKHRbRBUMQ6AEwEnoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=%20indian%20reservations&f=false

[8] “The Native American Power Movement,” Digital History, 2019. (Accessed January 27, 2020) http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3348

Postmarked “Peace Corps”

On this day in 1972, the United States Postal Service released a First Day of Issue, or First Day Cover (FDC) stamp, “Honoring the Peace Corps.”

What in the world is a First Day Cover? The FDC is an envelope featuring a stamp “cancelled on the day [it] is initially placed on sale by the postal authorities.” Some collectors actively participate by placing the stamp on an envelope and sending it to the National Postal Service for cancellation.

A new stamp release is a large event, and is typically on the day significant to the stamp’s subject. The United States Postal service released the Peace Corps stamp on February 11, 1972—which seems to bear no special significance to the organization; however, according to the National Postal Museum, the timing was indicative of the agency’s decline. In 1971, the Peace Corps had been absorbed into the Nixon Administration’s umbrella domestic volunteer service agency ACTION. The Peace Corps petitioned for a stamp to celebrate the Peace Corps’ 10th Anniversary in an effort to boost recruitment and reassert independence.

Although the proposed stamp did not meet the criteria for the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee (eligibility of commemoration in multiples of 50 years, themes of widespread national appeal, or ineligibility of government agencies or non-profit organizations) Peace Corps officials submitted designs from their 10th Anniversary poster contest.

Officials settled on the first runner-up poster design submitted by David Battle of Yellow Springs, Ohio, which features the flag’s stars turning into doves. This symbolism proved contentious after the stamp was first issued, with various people writing to the Postmaster General to complain about the disrespectful use of the flag and its reference to the peace movement.  In an interview with the National Postal Museum, Battle said, “the doves were not inspired by the “peace movement” but rather represented the birth of an idea reaching out into an international arena. The stars morphing into birds represent a daring venture, much like the Peace Corps itself.”

In January, Dr. Robert Englund donated this envelope and stamp, addressed to Dr. J Allen Metz, to the Peace Corps Community Archive.

References:

“A Short Course on First Day Covers,” American First Day Cover Society, n.d. (Accessed January 21, 2020). http://www.afdcs.org/fdccourse.html/

Raynor, Patricia and James O’Donnell, “Object Spotlight: 1972 Peace Corps Stamp,” Smithsonian National Postal Museum, c. 2011 (Accessed January 2020) https://postalmuseum.si.edu/collections/object-spotlight/1972-peace-corps-stamp

“Stamp Subject Selection Criteria,” U.S. Postal Service. (Accessed January 21, 2020) https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/csac/criteria.htm

News from Home

Every volunteer watches as the world at home continues while they are abroad. Some changes are personal, such as the birth of a nephew or the death of a loved one. Other events are huge—where the entire country laments at the news of a disaster.

Thousands of miles away, Peace Corps Volunteers received news that shook the nation, and even the world. Radios broadcast the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Senator Robert Kennedy, the destruction of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001. While distance can lend space to heal from tragedy, it also cuts PCVs off from important support systems.

These six volunteers watched American events unfold from the non-military, external broadcasting program Voice of America, newspapers, and letters from their families and friends. They reflected on national elections, assassinations, and devastating disasters—often remarking on their isolation and questioning their faith in humanity.

“I don’t see much in the future.” Assassination of John F. Kennedy- November 22, 1963

Colombian newspaper El Espectador with the headline "Oswald Acusado del Crimen."

Headline in Colombian Newspaper on November 23, 1963. Friends of Colombia Collection, Peace Corps Community Archives.

Geer Wilcox learned about the assassination of John F. Kennedy’s while living in the Dominican Republic. As a blind Peace Corps Volunteer, Wilcox relied on hearing the news from neighbors reading newspapers and the radio. He often commented on the state of American politics or the Vietnam War as he listened to the international news broadcast, the Voice of America. When the news of Kennedy’s death broke, Wilcox reported feeling apprehensive of Lyndon Johnson and the future.

Wilcox expresses his shock in a recorded letter home to his parents on November 30, 1963:

Rene Cardenas was in Colombia when the news broke. She processes the aftermath of Kennedy’s death in a poem titled “Yesterday November.”

The address for sorrow
two inches away
the president has been killed

the clouds of wet season
the earth’s longest pity
everything is split time

a piece of wood
pulled apart at the grain
in an apartment in Cucuta

han asesinado a Kennedy
bells toll for three days
sent notes of condolences

to the wall
by my bed
two inches away
from my face.

Additional reactions to President Kennedy’s death are recorded here.

“What a sick society I left.” Assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy- June 6, 1968

Even as he served in Western Samoa, Arthur Aaronson wrote home often about the 1968 Democratic candidates Senator Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. He heard about the attack on Senator Kennedy from other PCVs and the radio, which gave details about what happened in the hotel kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. Aaronson wrote to his parents that evening:

I heard the news about Kennedy Wed. night as I was walking back from a dance with my sister. Two volunteers walked by and they told me the news. I was stunned. Then when I heard it on the radio that night I could only cry as the radio gave the details. The death of Martin Luther King didn’t hit as hard. Probably because Kennedy was on the way to being the next President. All the wealth and power of the U.S., it does not hide the fact of what a sick society I left.

The letter reads, "I heard the news about Kennedy Wed. night as I was walking back from a dance with my sister. Two volunteers walked by and they told me the news. I was stunned. Then when I heard it on the radio that night I could only cry as the radio gave the details. The death of Martin Luther King didn’t hit as hard. Probably because Kennedy was on the way to being the next President. All the wealth and power of the U.S., it does not hide the fact of what a sick society I left.”

Aaronson’s letter home on June 6, 1968. Peace Corps Community Archives.

 “I can only hope something good comes of all this.” Rodney King Riots- April 29, 1992

Woman holds newspaper up to show headline, "looting and fires ravage L.A."

Photograph submitted by Dark Sevier on January 1, 2008. Flickr Creative Commons

In March 1991, a bystander recorded a video of four L.A. police officers beating Rodney King—a black motorist—for a reported 15 minutes as other LAPD officers looked on. Despite the video evidence, the court found the four officers “not guilty” of excessive use of force on April 29, 1992. Fueled by this acquittal and years of racial and economic inequality, riots broke out around South Los Angeles, raging for 5 days.[1]

Tina Singleton watched the riots transpire as she completed her volunteer staging in Cameroon. She had lived and worked in San Francisco for 10 years before joining the Peace Corps in 1992. Singleton followed the events and devoted several diary entries to her thoughts:

30 Avril 1992

Just heard about the 4 police officers in the Rodney King Case being acquitted—I was sad and in shock. I just don’t understand how the jury came to that conclusion—it blows me away—I’m so upset. It’s hard to concentrate on anything. I’ve had a few good cries. Also heard about the rioting in L.A.—it’s awful—but I understand the reaction. This was such a blatant disregard for justice and Rodney King’s civil rights—what a disgrace—and with all the evidence—a videotape and all the tapes of the officers’ conversations—and they still got off. Rose-Marie and Soyeon and I were/are very shaken by this. The U.S. is getting worse by the minute. It makes me not want to even go back to the U.S.—I’m happy I’m here for two yrs.

1 Mai 1992

It’s gotten worse—protesters are now in San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas—they’ve blocked the Bay Bridge again. Can’t believe all this is happening—1992 and we’re having race riots. I can only hope something good comes of all this—the rioting, the looting—I almost wish I could pick up a phone and call Jean and Peggy. This was my first taste of what it’s going to be like when a serious situation arises in the U.S.—I felt pretty cut off. I see what volunteers mean when they say the shortwave will become your best friend. We listened to is as much as possible. What I wouldn’t do for a newspaper right now. This is the weekend we stay with a Cameroonian family—should be interesting. Though I’ve been upset and crying today about this Rodney King episode. I just can’t believe this has happened—It still blows my mind.

Lundi, 3 Mai 1992

Heard on the news this morning about L.A.—2,000 people hurt, 40 dead, Bush has declared L.A. a disaster area. I guess he’s going to LA this week to see the damage—don’t have figures on the other sites—saw the news this weekend on TV at my family. L.A. looks pretty bad—fires everywhere. Saw Rodney King—he was so upset. I felt so bad for him. He kept saying “it’s not right, this isn’t right—we only want our day in court.” He was pretty devastated about all the violence as well—he spoke about the people not being able to go home to their families. He looked so devastated—I felt so bad for him. He just looked so bad—so down. Like I said before—I hope something good comes of this.

5 May 1992

Well, last nite was a real shit nite. Sebastian brought newspapers from Dovala—A USA Today and some French language papers. I was not ready for what I saw—the pictures really floored me. I knew it was bad in LA, but I didn’t know how bad. The man [Reginald Denny] being dragged from his truck and shot—then robbed. The white man who was on the ground and being kicked by 3 Black men—it’s so sick. I’ve got such a bad headache. I can’t stop thinking about all this madness. This whole thing has me wondering why I’m here and not at home doing something to help the situation there.

It’s so hard to concentrate on my French—we’re here for only 2 more weeks. I am worried about my French—it doesn’t seem so important anymore. I hope I’m not going to feel like this for a long time—I know if I do, I’d leave, and I don’t think that’s what I want. I’m just so confused now. People here seem to think things will be better after this, but I don’t think so. I’m feeling pretty pessimistic at this point—I’ve no other reason to feel otherwise. Soyeon and I had a good cry last nite. We’re both in a daze, as is Rose-Marie. Heard on the news this A.M. that 10,000 businesses were lost as well as at least that many jobs—which is something we can’t afford to lose.

Soyeon and I are calling home tomorrow—I can’t wait. I really need to talk to the folks—I might call Jean too. I’m not sure—it will be great to at least talk to Mom and Dad. It’s sounds like Mom’s feeling a little lost with me gone. It’s weird for me not to be able to pick up the phone. I was dying to talk to them last night—tomorrow will come soon enough.

— T

As a Black woman who lived in California—or rather, anywhere in the United States—Singleton was shocked and devastated by reoccurring injustices in the United States. Cut off from her friends and family and relying only on news from the radio and infrequent newspapers, she found support from two other Black volunteers—Soyeon and Rose-Marie—to process the injustice of the trial and the impact of the riots.

Despite her initial desire to return home, Singleton spent 3 years in Benin, West Africa as a Health Educator. She became an international development worker for over 20 years and launched a program called Transformation Table, devoted to promote sharing a meal and culture between communities, in November 2016 in Charleston, SC.

“We shortly came to the realization that life had changed.” September 11, 2001

Living in a remote village in Zambia, Lara Weber was listening the the Voices of America when the voice over the radio reported, “”A… plane… has… hit… the… World… Trade… Center… in… New… York… City…” With no electricity, internet, or phone within a day’s drive, Weber explained feeling detached as more and more reports rolled in. She also worried about her father, who occasionally visited the Pentagon on business.

The weeks that followed were strange in that I had no Americans to talk with at all. Some of the elder men of the village visited me one day. They wanted to understand the news better, and their questions were interesting. One man wanted to know more about the Twin Towers and Manhattan. Why did so many people need to live and work on top of one another in such vertical spaces — had we run out of land in the rest of America? I tried to answer, but what I said felt inadequate and the whole idea of New York suddenly made no sense. Why did we pile into cities like that?

Rhett Power’s experience was a little different. As a volunteer in Uzbekistan, Power remembers a sense of confusion and urgency following the events, as the Peace Corps determined when to evacuate PCVs in the countries close to Afghanistan.

Power remembers sitting on the floor of a hotel room in the capital with his wife and a group of PCVs after a series of new volunteer training sessions. They were watching CNN when it happened. Power recalls the initial reaction:

 

I remember it distinctly. My wife and I were…Well, we were in the capital. So we were actually getting ready to go to the airport. I think a group had either come the night before or the day of. We were at a hotel. We were doing a Peace Corps training for new volunteers. There was another married couple there, they were education volunteers—I think he was a health volunteer—but anyway, we were together in the hotel. We were actually loving life because we were in a bed. A really good bed and we actually had two boxes of pizza on the floor. I think we had Orange Fanta and we were beside ourselves. The luxury of it all.

I distinctly remember this—we had a tiny little TV on CNN. You know, again we were watching TV. We didn’t have anything else to watch. But we had one international channel. And, that’s when it happened. And, we were watching it and just—we were just as shocked as everybody else was. I think [we] shortly came to the realization that life had changed. Because we all knew what would happen. Very shortly thereafter—within that hour we knew that something had changed and that something would change.

After three weeks, the Peace Corps evacuated Power and the other PCVs living in the Middle East and sent them back to the United States without reassignment.

 

As people back home find support within their communities, during times of tragedy PCVs find themselves relying on other Americans, throwing themselves into their work, or talking with their host communities about the implications of the event. Often, these tragedies lead to a renewed sense of faith in the mission of the Peace Corps—as seen in the uptick of Peace Corps applications in the wake of the Kennedy assassinations and 9/11. In other cases, such as the riots in L.A., it can be a reminder of how far we haven’t come.

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Good Intentions and the Cold War: Exploring Peace Corps Service in the 1960s

Sarah Leister is an anthropology graduate student in Dr. Adrienne Pine’s Craft of Anthropology I course (ANTH-601). This blog post was written in fulfillment of a course assignment.

This blog post will analyze two items from the AU Archives associated with Margaret (Peggy) Gleeson’s volunteer services in the Peace Corps. Gleeson was a nurse who joined the Peace Corps in 1963, just two years after it was founded by President John F. Kennedy. She volunteered in a small village in Colombia called Fusagasugá, where she was tasked with teaching classes to Colombian nurses who worked at the local hospital. This post will focus on Gleeson’s Peace Corps training before she went to Colombia by analyzing two documents: the training manual and her biographical sketch. These documents highlight the political context of the Cold War and how Gleeson and her fellow volunteers felt about their upcoming Peace Corps service.

Cover of Gleeson's Peace Corps training syllabus, reads "Peace Corps Training Program. Colombia Nurses Brooklyn College of the University of the City of New York. October 28, 1963 to January 31, 1964."

Gleeson’s Peace Corps training syllabus.

In the early 1960s, Cold War tensions were high. The Cuban Revolution had succeeded in 1959, and the 1961 CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion that attempted to reverse it had failed. The U.S. aimed to prevent a supposed threat of communism in other Latin American countries. This imperial project coincided with updated Social Darwinist ideologies proposed by U.S. economist Walt Whitman Rostow that placed Latin American countries (and especially the indigenous communities within them) in an earlier stage of development and modernity than the United States (Geidel 2010).

It is against this political backdrop that Gleeson embarked upon an intensive Peace Corps training program in 1963 at Brooklyn College. She was a member of the first group of nurses to be sent to Colombia by the Peace Corps. According to the program’s syllabus, the training included courses on common diseases in Colombia, Colombian history, Spanish language, and ten sessions on “The Challenge of Communism.”

As I looked through the Peace Corps Training Program syllabus, I was surprised to see that Brooklyn College, rather than a U.S. governmental entity, was responsible for training the Peace Corps volunteers. Fernando Purcell and Marcelo Casals (2015) point to the crucial role of U.S. universities in offering training during the Cold War, which were known to give volunteers “theoretical and practical knowledge about modernity and community development, along with a reinforcement of ideological values that were defended during the Cold War” (2). The Brooklyn College syllabus includes readings by staunch anti-communist Zbigniew Brzezinski—an advisor to President and Peace Corps founder John F. Kennedy. It explicitly frames communism as a threat and focuses on the study of Soviet models while glossing over the “great variety of revolutionary models” in Latin America (Purcell and Casals 2015).

Page from The communism section of the Peace Corps training syllabus.

The communism section of the Peace Corps training syllabus.

Also in the syllabus, a letter to the volunteers from the Office of the Mayor of New York City states “We in New York City are proud that one of our great municipal institutions is becoming part of the world-wide efforts of the Peace Corps to help the underprivileged peoples of the world.” Similarly, most of the volunteers in Gleeson’s training group stated that their reason for joining the Peace Corps stemmed from a desire to help or serve others.

Photograph of Gleeson and her biographical info, reads "Margaret J. Gleeson, from New Rochelle, New York where she was graduated from high school. Her professional work was done at the Nursing School in New Rochelle. She received her B.S. in Nursing Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her most recent position was as Administrative Supervisor at the New Rochelle Hospital. Margaret enjoys out door sports, theater and travel. The Peace Corps is her means of living with and helping people of another culture."

Gleeson’s biographical sketch featured in a booklet of volunteers’ biographical information.

These documents show an interesting parallel between the U.S. government’s battle against perceived communist threats and the volunteers’ desires to help. They also shine light on the ways in which volunteering, aid efforts, and even social science research have coincided with U.S. imperialism, despite volunteers’ and researchers’ good intentions. While Gleeson and many other Peace Corps volunteers went abroad with a desire to be helpful, a consideration of the broader political context might evoke the title sentiment of Ivan Illich’s provocative speech given to a group of U.S. volunteers in Mexico in 1968: “To Hell with Good Intentions.”

As a white anthropology student from the U.S. who has also traveled to Latin America with good intentions, I am in many ways similar to Peggy Gleeson and other Peace Corps volunteers. This leads me to ask, how can U.S. students, volunteers, and workers analyze their individual intentions within structures of power? To what extent do our intentions matter? How can we make our intentions match up with our actions? How can we combine our intentions and actions in pursuit of international solidarity and social justice, rather than as charity that ultimately reinforces empire?

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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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