Tag Archives: Art

Volunteers to America: a Case of National Service

B. Paxton 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.

In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson, addressed Congress and called for the establishment of a “reverse peace corps”, in which volunteers would come from other countries to teach and assist in development projects in the United States as part of the War on Poverty. Congress agreed to fund a pilot program from the Peace Corps budget, with additional costs covered by organizations and school boards in areas where volunteers were placed. In the summer of 1967 the first group of volunteers arrived. The program was named Volunteers to America (VTA), and Neil Boyer was designated program director. Despite the program’s low operating cost and the fact that a majority of sites at which volunteers were placed wished continue the program, Congress not only declined to fund it, but also passed a ban on similar programs being funded out of the Peace Corps budget. The program closed in 1970. The rise and fall of the VTA program provides an interesting case study in the framing of national service in the United States.

The Neil Boyer collection in American University’s Archive documents the short but rich history of the program. Boyer donated the collection to the university in 2018. It contains official documents, memos, records from State Department and Congressional Hearings; training and promotional materials; two theses; and letters between Neil Boyer and program volunteers.

Various letters, postcards, and airmail scattered on a table.

A few of the letters between Neil Boyer and VTA Volunteers.

In my two years as an Americorps member, I never heard about the VTA. Perhaps, given its short run and abrupt cancellation this is not surprising. However, as I looked through the collection, I was struck by how similar many of the program’s issues and participants’ experiences—60 years later—were to my own. The daily log (a record of day-to-day overall program activity) records volunteers with unrealistic expectations and concerns about site or project supervisors. Letters between Boyer and volunteers reflect the reality of national service, with passionate people who want to effect change trying to manage big workloads with little pay, while also struggling to reconcile the idealistic stories they had heard about America with the poverty and discrimination they found.

In the collection, there are inspiring stories of success, such as a volunteer placed in New York City working to develop and expand block organizations and help communities to communicate their needs to the city. However, there is also frustration and sacrifice. An Israeli volunteer expressed in a report the growth and insights that she gained from her position, but also her intense loneliness and concerns about the longevity of the programs she had started, because of community divisions. One volunteer joked in a letter about going to bed filled with excitement of over new ideas for teaching, but then the joy of going back to asleep the next morning since it was a snow day and she was exhausted. Several volunteers in teaching positions expressed how they been able to connect with students and teach them about their culture, but also concerns that the schools or districts they were placed with did not see them as fully qualified despite certification and previous experience in their home countries.

Cartoon of a crying hippy, reads "V.T.A. Hippie Philosophy: I love schools, it's schools systems that I can't stand."

A drawing by a volunteer about perceptions of the program and frustrations with education.

Finances were another matter of frequent concern. A volunteer’s living stipend was $200 to $300 per month paid by their placement organization or school district, which was challenge for many volunteers. One volunteer had to ask for donations when she moved into better living situation, because she could not purchase basic household items like pots and pans. They also experienced discrimination and inequality directed both toward the communities and students they worked with and towards themselves. An Argentinian volunteer was accused of being a “card-carrying communist” by a volunteer from another program and African volunteer was racially profiled by police.

These dualities of passion/pressure and ideals/reality are at the heart of national service. Peace Corps and later Americorps were founded on ideals of people helping people at a community and individual level. The words of David Busch, whose correspondence with Boyer and graduate thesis are included in the collection, describe those contradictions:

The VTA was the most daring effort to fully realize the Peace Corps’ cosmopolitan
alternative to standard development policy…[It] imagined the “community” in
community development not as a set boundary of local particularities, but as a
nexus of relations that transcended national borders. The goal of the VTA was to forge a transnational dialogue across local politics and traditions, combat notions of superiority
embedded in American post-war development thinking, and encourage cross-cultural
exchange in American communities. (Busch, 2018 pg. 671)

Though the VTA was a short-lived program, the VTA collection encapsulates the experiences, ideals, and reality of national service in the United Sates.

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Playing in the Archives? A glimpse into the board game “Join the Peace Corps!”

This summer, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer A. Michael Marzolla donated materials from his service as an Agricultural Cooperative Volunteer in Guatemala and El Salvador. One of my first tasks as the 2019-2020 PCCA Fellow was to organize Marzolla’s collection, which featured his hand-drawn educational graphic books and a homemade board game titled “Join the Peace Corps!”

The game includes Marzolla’s hand-drawn board and 42 cards within twelve categories separated by themes: the application and acceptance process, training, on the program site, the termination process, and readjusting upon return to home country.

As I sorted the game cards and read the directions, I was struck by a flurry of questions about the game’s origins. Luckily, Marzolla agreed to answer my burning questions about the history of the game:

"Join the Piece Corps!" Game Board, hand drawn in the shape of a dove carrying and olive leaf.

“Join the Piece Corps!” Game Board, A. Michael Marzolla

I designed “Join the Peace Corps!” while working as a recruiter in Boston circa 1978-1980. I wanted to create a game that would simulate the Peace Corps experience from application through training, placement and in-country to the close of service. I had input from my RCPV recruiter colleagues, friends, and contacts so that every card was based on an experience someone had as a volunteer. The game was played three or four times—sadly, it was never published although people who played the game seemed to enjoy the experience.

With 42 different card options, Marzolla presented an amusing repertoire of experiences, from “you begin adopting local dress and customs” to “you are accused of being a spy for the CIA.” Both cards contribute to the historic context of the game and reflect true or rumored events within the Peace Corps. For example, when certain host countries accused Peace Corps volunteers of spying for the U.S. government, the CIA released a statement in 1965 that publicly barred volunteers from gathering military intelligence for any country in which they volunteered (however this lapsed after 5 years of resignation).

Arrow points to game board square and reads "You want only a warm sunny country with sandy beaches. You ask if the PC supplies suntan oil. Go back one and miss a turn."

“Join the Peace Corps!” Game Board Tile

The game also clearly punishes the negative qualities of a potential volunteer, represented in the board tile: “you want only a warm country with sandy beaches. You ask if the PC supplies suntan oil. Go back one and miss a turn.”

Of course, I immediately wanted to play this game. Associate archivist Leslie Nellis and I contacted local RPCVs and a few others from the American University community to join us. Library staff Matthew, Sarah, and RCPV Alayne agreed to help us try it out.

From left to right: Sarah, Matthew, and Leslie play "Join the Peace Corps!" with game board in front of them.

From left to right: Sarah, Matthew, and Leslie play “Join the Peace Corps!”

On Wednesday, September 11, we assembled in the archives processing room. Aside from difficulties shuffling the cards and defining when to move forward, the game was an enjoyable glimpse into the Peace Corps. We looked to Alayne to compare her own experiences as a volunteer in Nepal with the stories feature on the game board. She found that the lengthy application period and digestive complications upon arrival were true to form.

Enjoyment value aside, Marzolla’s game introduces an interesting aspect of archival materials. Whereas archives traditionally collect, preserve, and share materials for research purposes, interactive items such as board games challenge the definition of what it means to “share” collections. Thanks to Michael Marzolla and his donation, we were able to consider these complexities while rolling the dice.

A. Michael Marzolla in Guatemala and El Salvador

Name: A. Michael Marzolla
Country of Service: Guatemala and El Salvador
Place of Service: Mixco and El Tigre
Service Project Title: Regional Agriculture Cooperatives Volunteer
Dates in Service: 1973-1974, 1976-1977
Keywords: Agriculture, Community Development, Education, Environment, Health

Accession Date: April 25, 2019
Access: No Restrictions
Collection Size: 0.5 linear feet

Document Types

  • Photographs
  • Artwork
  • Reports
  • Publications
  • Sound (Cassette Tapes)

Homemade Greetings for the Season: Christmas Abroad

While abroad, Peace Corps Volunteers like to stay connected with their families and friends, especially during the holidays when it’s not always possible to travel home. As a continuation of this earlier post, Sending Seasons Greetings: Holiday Cards from Abroad, we will look at more holiday cards that volunteers sent and received.

While it was easy to find and buy cards to send, it was often common for volunteers to make their own holidays cards.

Margie Tokarz, while serving in Antigua from 1967-1968, found time to make this card to send home.

She mentions in the card that being away from home is making her “find a happiness of Christmastime on a different level. I have to focus instead on its essence,” instead of its commercialism. But she writes to her family that she misses them terribly and that a great part of her will be with them on the holidays.

 

Claire Pettengill, who served in Morocco from 1978-1980, got started early on her cards, mentioning in a December 3rd letter that she was designing them and planning on making cookies as well. She says “Christmas is fast approaching and making me homesick. Oh for stockings, presents, and the radiators humming away in the night.” She made two cards to send her family. The first was all pictures with a framed palm tree and hanging stockings, colorful Christmas and New Years wishes and Arabic translations of those holiday wishes.

 

Her second letter looks much the same. Except in this one she included a holiday greeting to her family.

 

It was also common for volunteers to send letters to each other. This one Charlotte Daigle-Berney received from her friends while serving in Uganda from 1966-1968.

 

 

Every year, PCVs also receive seasons greetings from the director of the Peace Corps. Early volunteers including Maureen Carroll (Philippines, 1961-1963) received holiday wishes from Sargent Shriver, founder and first director of the Peace Corps.

 

Even though volunteers could not always see their families during the holidays, they could still keep in contact and send them warm wishes and updates about their lives abroad.