Country of Service: Mauritania, Mali
Dates in Service: 1989-1991
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 1 short story excerpt
Country of Service: Mauritania, Mali
Dates in Service: 1989-1991
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 1 short story excerpt
Country of Service: Panama
Place of Service: Tranquilla, Chagres National Park
Dates in Service: 1991-1993
Accession Date: August 31, 2021
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 14 cassette tapes and digital files
Marjorie Michelmore was a 23-year-old Smith College graduate when she applied to the Peace Corps in 1961. Selected to serve as an English teacher in Nigeria, Marjorie became a member of the first cohort of Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) sent to the country. After two months of teacher training at Harvard University, the volunteers flew to Nigeria to complete phase two of training at University College in Ibadan. On October 13, 1961, Marjorie Michelmore wrote a postcard to her boyfriend back in Boston. She drew a scene of the city of Ibadan on the front of the postcard and wrote on the back:
“Dear Bobbo: Don’t be furious at getting a postcard. I promise a letter next time. I wanted you to see the incredible and fascinating city we were in. With all the training we had, we really were not prepared for the squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions rampant both in the city and in the bush. We had no idea what “underdeveloped” meant. It really is a revelation and after we got over the initial horrified shock, a very rewarding experience. Everyone except us lives on the streets, cooks in the street, sells in the street, and even goes to the bathroom in the street. Please write.
P.S. We are excessively cut off from the rest of the world” .
The postcard, however, was never mailed. In a 2011 interview for the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Smith College’s alumnae magazine, Margery recalled: “I either dropped the postcard or it was taken out of the mailbox. I have no idea how it was found” . Either way, a Nigerian student found and made copies of the postcard and distributed them throughout the university. The students were furious. They attended rallies and passed resolutions that denounced PCVs as “America’s international spies” and their teaching program as “a scheme designed to foster neo-colonialism” . The story appeared in nearly every Nigerian and U.S. newspaper. While the “Peace Corps Postcard” incident is a well-known story, it is also telling of the agency’s flaws. Marjorie Michelmore’s story sheds light on the most prevalent critiques of the early Peace Corps and allows us to consider the agency’s role in both the past and the present.
Marjorie Michelmore represents the ideal PCV in the agency’s early years—a young, recent college graduate. At the heart of the Peace Corps mission was the idea that America’s young people were motivated and enthusiastic global citizens with a deep commitment to humanitarian service. The notion of sending young, unskilled college graduates abroad to fix the world’s problems, however, received ample criticism. President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to the Peace Corps as a “juvenile experiment” . The nick-name assigned to the first wave of volunteers, dubbed “Kennedy’s Kids,” reflects public perceptions of amateurism. This critique certainly holds some truth. In the 2019 documentary A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps, Christopher Dodd —Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) and former U.S. Senator from Connecticut—says:
“The idea that I—an English Literature major—it was a presumptuous idea that I was somehow going to eradicate ignorance, poverty, and disease.”
Christopher Dodd (RPCV: Dominican Republic, 1966-1968)
A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps (2019)
Dodd’s reflection puts words to the ultimate paradox of the Peace Corps. Although thousands of young Americans were inspired by President Kennedy’s call to action, PCVs often found that their efforts were not enough to make a large-scale impact. While naiveté is a prominent critique of the Peace Corps, the same concept—that young Americans could go abroad and fix complex global problems—brings forth questions of neo-colonialism.
The Peace Corps emerged during the post-war era of decolonization. After World War II, dozens of countries in Africa and Asia gained independence from European empires. In the 1950s and 1960s, international development volunteering organizations emerged across the globe—Australia’s Volunteer Graduate Scheme (VGS) in 1951, Britain’s Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO) in 1958, and the United States’ Peace Corps in 1961, to name a few. Development volunteering models, including the Peace Corps, exacerbated a neo-colonialist distinction between “developed” and “developing” nations . In the case of Marjorie Michelmore, Nigerian students condemned the Peace Corps’ teaching program as a “scheme to foster neo-colonialism.” Nigeria had been independent for just one year at the time of the postcard incident. Many newly independent nations were reluctant to allow PCVs into their country to begin with. Margery’s discussion of “primitive” conditions and her blatant use of the word “underdeveloped” not only broke the trust of host country nationals, but also echoed the colonial rule that the country had just broken free from.
After seeing the ways in which Marjorie Michelmore described their country, Nigerian students suspected PCVs were “international spies.” This allegation reveals another dimension of Peace Corps critique. The Peace Corps was, in many ways, a response to the Cold War—an era of heightened international tension, suspicion, and fear. Founded at the height of the Cold War, motivations for the establishment of the Peace Corps certainly venture outside of promoting “peace and friendship” abroad. Was the goal of the agency to foster peaceful international relations? Was it to assist in the development of emerging nations? Was it to show the Soviet Union and the world the power of American democracy and capitalism? Or, was it to “win” the allegiance of unaffiliated countries? With historical hindsight, we can infer that it was all of the above.
The founders of the Peace Corps were keenly aware of the pervasiveness of Cold War ideology, however. President Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, and others worked hard to allay fears that the Peace Corps would harbor secret agendas or become a tool of the CIA by requiring countries to request volunteers. To this day, previous work with an intelligence agency automatically disqualifies citizens from Peace Corps service. Despite these measures, host countries were still suspicious of the Peace Corps. Concerning Marjorie Michelmore, Nigerian students almost immediately questioned the motives of American volunteers. While the founding of the Peace Corps in 1961 cannot be divorced from the political climate in which it emerged, it is also difficult to overstate the significance of the establishment of the Peace Corps, an agency devoted to peaceful engagement with the world, amidst Cold War international tensions.
During his presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy said in regards to the establishment of a peace corps: “I want to demonstrate to Mr. Khrushchev and others that a new generation of Americans has taken over this country…young Americans [who will] serve the cause of freedom as servants of peace around the world, working for freedom as the communists work for their system” . This quote and the above cartoon, published in the Washington Post on June 26, 1962, demonstrate the influence of the Cold War on the establishment of the Peace Corps. Not only did the United States want to compete with the Soviet Union for the allegiance of newly independent nations, they also wanted to promote American democracy abroad.
Poster denouncing the Peace Corps in Colombia. Translation: “The Peace Corps is: 1) an international affiliate of the FBI-CIA, 2) a military corps that supports dictatorships, and 3) yankee mercenaries of the oligarchies. What do they do: 1) plot coups, 2) defend yankee interests, and 3) prepare attacks against democratic and nationalist leaders.”
The Peace Corps has remained a controversial agency throughout its history. I address additional questions and critiques briefly below.
Early proponents called for the implementation of a program like the Peace Corps to provide a “moral equivalent to war” . Richard Nixon, however, famously deemed the Peace Corps a “haven for draft dodgers.” In 1966, as war raged in Vietnam, over 15,000 PCVs were promoting peace and friendship abroad. There is no greater demonstration of the tension between the altruistic idealism and the harsh political realities that defined the sixties in America . More firmly, the Peace Corps is a crystallization of American attempts to engage with the world in a different, more peaceful way. Considering the Peace Corps in tandem with the U.S. military also poses evocative questions. Is service in the name of peace just as worthy of respect and remembrance as that of war?
The Peace Corps was established as an independent agency within the State Department to avert influence from short-term foreign policy goals. Throughout its history, however, the Peace Corps has struggled to navigate the dynamics between the White House, policymakers in Washington, DC, Peace Corps leadership, and volunteers abroad. To date, the agency has operated under 12 U.S. presidents and 20 Peace Corps directors. The Peace Corps has, at times, strayed from its mission and promoted the White House’s foreign policy goals to remain relevant. For example, when the Cold War ended, President George H.W. Bush eagerly sent Peace Corps Volunteers to Eastern Europe to “impart capitalism” .
In 2009, Kate Puzey was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the West African country of Benin. Puzey believed a Peace Corps employee was sexually harassing female students at the school where she taught and sent an email to her country’s headquarters to inform them. Although she asked to remain anonymous, Puzey was found dead shortly thereafter. President Barack Obama signed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Protection Act in 2011, designed to protect Peace Corps Volunteers and improve the agency’s response to acts of violence and sexual assault . Nevertheless, in 2021, many RPCVs came forward and expressed their disappointment in the Peace Corps after experiencing sexual assault during their time of service, and not receiving support from the organization . Kate Puzey, however, is just one PCV who died during service. Engage with The Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project to learn about the more than 500 PCVs who died during service.
Race, sexual orientation, and gender identity greatly influence Peace Corps experience. African American, Asian American, and Latino PCVs have been questioned if they are really Americans in their host countries. What does this say about perceptions of Americanism abroad? Identifying as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is illegal in many countries. Queer volunteers often have to weigh coming out to their community with the potential danger that it may put them in. View Many Faces of Peace Corps, 60th Anniversary and explore the former LGBT Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Association website to learn more about how race and identity shape Peace Corps service.
The everlasting question of impact has haunted the agency since its inception. Does Peace Corps service primarily benefit the volunteers? Volunteers have the opportunity to live abroad, add to their resume, and receive eligibility for government jobs upon their return. Many volunteers do report that they gain much more from the international communities they serve than they give. Historically, the Peace Corps has struggled to quantify its success because it is typically on an interpersonal level.
If the Peace Corps is a Cold War relic, is it still relevant? RPCV Lacy Feigh writes for the Washington Post’s Made By History:
“At 60 years old, has the Peace Corps outgrown its time and relevance? Viewed as an organization meant to provide foreign aid and development, maybe. But as a vehicle to build relationships, empathy, and experiences, it is as important as ever” .
Just as the Peace Corps faced challenges at home and abroad in the 1960s, the organization faces challenges today. In 2020, for the first time in its history, the Peace Corps evacuated all volunteers from their posts due to COVID-19. During that time, the agency reflected on how they can redefine their mission to remain relevant today. Read the 2020 National Peace Corps Association’s (NPCA) report, Peace Corps Connect to the Future, to learn about the future of the Peace Corps.
While some view the mission of the Peace Corps as more important than ever, others are vying for its abolishment. Shortly after being evacuated from Mozambique due to COVID-19, 3 PRCVs founded Decolonizing Peace Corps—a project to abolish the Peace Corps. Functioning primarily through Instagram, Decolonizing Peace Corps collects data from volunteers and host country nationals with the hope of inspiring the abolishment of the Peace Corps by 2040 .
The Peace Corps has been a contentious agency since its inception in 1961. While it is difficult to disentangle the Peace Corps’ idealistic fervor from its shortcomings, understanding and recognizing criticism of the agency allows us to better understand its complex history and rethink the ways in which it can or should exist in society today.
 John Coyne, “Our Most Famous and Infamous RPCV: Marjorie Michelmore (Nigeria),” Peace Corps WorldWide, November 2, 2019.
 Stanley Meisler, When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 39.
 Meisler, When the World Calls, 42.
 Agnieszka Sobocinska, “How to Win Friends and Influence Nations: The International History of Development Volunteering,” Journal of Global History, 50-51.
 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), 606.
 “Peace Corps Fact Book, April 1961,” From Papers of John F. Kennedy. Presidential Papers. President’s Office Files. Departments and Agencies. Peace Corps, 1961: January-June. https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKPOF/085/JFKPOF-085-015.
 Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 10.
 Meisler, When the World Calls, x-xi
 Angela M. Hill and Randy Kreider, “Obama Signs Kate Puzey Volunteer Peace Corps Protection Act,” ABC News, November 21, 2011.
 Donovan Slack and Tricia L. Nadolny, “Sexual Assault rises as Peace Corps fails its Volunteers,” USA TODAY, April 22, 2021.
 Lacy Feigh, “Now 60 years old, the Peace Corps can be more than a Cold War artifact,” Made By History at the Washington Post, 5 March 2021.
 Shanna Loga, “Should the US Abolish the Peace Corps?,” Medium, September 20, 2020.
Eric Brookens joined the Peace Corps in 1964, where he served in Panama on the Rural Community Development and Agriculture Cooperative project. He lived in Cerro Punta, Chiriqui Province—a mountain village 6,000 feet within the mountains of Volcán Barú. During his service, Brookens painted houses, assembled English classes, constructed a school, ran a local summer youth camp, and worked with a potato surplus cooperative—among other things. A year after he arrived in Cerro Punta, Brookens and another PCV Duane got the idea to create a national park on Volcán Barú.
Brookens and Myklejord spent the spring and summer of 1965 exploring the mountain, collecting notes on the wildlife, vegetation, waterfalls, and volcanic craters at the summit. The U.S. Geological Survey measures Volcán Barú at 3,475 meters—the tallest mountain in Panama. The summit offers clear views of both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea on a clear day. After their hikes, Brookens jotted down five essentials to maintaining a successful national park: signs, flattened areas for camping, paved roads up the mountain, laws against burning and waste, establishing borders, and publicizing the park in tourist offices around Panama.
Plans for the park went public in May 1965, when Brookens traveled to David, the capital city of Chiriquí Province, to meet with Governor Sitton about the project. Pleased with the idea, Sitton introduced Brookens to the Engineer Manuel Barrelier, chief of CAM (an agency within Panama’s Public Works Ministry)—who had direct power over plans for a national park.
Brookens describes the meeting with Barrelier in his diary:
I presented the plan written out on the yellow sheet of paper, and between frequent interruptions he finally said that he thought he could work it out, but would like pictures of the planned areas and groups of people that might be willing to cooperate, such as the Boy Scouts. I told him I would try and work it out and return in a month or so to give him the pictures and a report on what I proposed. Everything seemed to be OK when I left, but I always try and cut myself from by too optimistic with the Panamanian government!
To bolster their proposal, the volunteers joined forces with local groups, including a tree conservation club, “Los Amigos del Arbol.” They also connected with the Forest Service, the Director of Land Reform, the Department of Agriculture, and the Smithsonian Institute in the Canal Zone. The proposal began:
North America, during more than a hundred years of intensive exploration and settlement of the wilderness, ruthlessly destroyed several of the once numerous species of animal life and beautiful forest areas. Fortunately today, conservation has reversed the trend of diminishing wildlife and forests through the use of national parks…”
“After hiking extensively around the area, seeing its wildlife, thick vegetation, a 400 foot waterfall, numerous extinct Volcanic craters at its top, and overall natural beauty; we want to present the thought to the Panamanian people of forming their first national park.
Brookens submitted a proposal to Barrelier in December 1965, with suggested steps to attract tourists and get the area ready for camping and hiking.
Plans for the park began to falter during the winter of 1965-1966 as Panamanian interest waned and the volunteers became involved with other projects. Brookens and Myklejord continued to hike the mountain, and used it for activities during a youth camp in February 1966. By their termination of service in July, plans for the national park had fallen by the wayside; however, Volcán Barú did acquire national park status in 1976. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that the volcano is still active and expected to erupt again “in the near or distant future.” Continue reading
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
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.
“I can only hope something good comes of all this.” Rodney King Riots- April 29, 1992
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
As promised in the last story post, here is the newly-digitized exhibit which had been featured in at the AU Archives between October 2018 – February 2019. The Developing Volunteers exhibit shares themes, examples, and ideas with another blog post, The Making of Global Citizens, but explores the artifacts in a different way.
Please enjoy this exhibit and I hope you will tell us if you’ve ever felt the same. Have you ever lived abroad or experienced tremendous change which left you with a different perspective? Tell us about it in the comments below!
For this next installment in the PCCA blog, I have decided to try something a little different. For the last several months, I have worked on expanding the kinds of interpretation that can be done with the collections, including editing reel-to-reel tapes into digital podcasts and putting both visual and auditory media into exhibits.
In the AU Library Archives, we have a three-case exhibit space where small exhibits can be displayed. If you follow the blog and live near DC, I encourage you to stop by and see in person how these items come together to tell slice-of-life stories about the PCV experience. But, since many of our lovely readers do not live in the DMV area and since exhibits rotate, the exhibits are now going digital, starting with the current exhibit, Services Asked for, Given, and Received.
This exhibit explores the disconnect that sometimes occurred between what a PCV thought they would do and what they were asked to do, and the disconnect between what a partner government or community wanted from their volunteers and what they received. This tension shows up in several of the collections, but featured here are pieces from the Geer Wilcox, Gail Wadsworth, Debby Prigal, and Ann Holmquist collections.
I hope you enjoy this little exhibit, and we would love to hear from you and your experiences. So, what about you? As a PCV, have you ever experienced this kind of disconnect? Or in any other line of work? Let us know in the comments!
In 2009, The Hawaii Returned Peace Corps Volunteers began a weekly series of volunteer interviews. They interviewed a little over 70 volunteers who served in countries from Bolivia to Poland, and from Ghana to to the Philippines. Volunteers talked about their time in service, what work they did, and discussed their overall experience in the Peace Corps.
Listen to their stories here: RPCVHI Youtube Channel