Questions on Trump? Peace Corps Volunteers Change the Topic
By EMILY COCHRANEJULY 5, 2017
WASHINGTON — As a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to a school in Gostivar, Macedonia, Sarah Blake would listen, waiting for the English words that began to puncture the conversations during the first months of 2017.
Ms. Blake, in her third year as a Peace Corps volunteer, was often the only American in the city of about 80,000 in the Macedonian foothills, where the predominantly Muslim population speaks Albanian. She began to stress about having to explain the Trump administration’s new travel policy and the president’s own statements about Islam.
Shoulders hunched, head down, she would conjure reasons to step away in case these questions came up, she said. Too much work. A meeting to attend.
“There hasn’t been a really perfect president,” said Ms. Blake, a Maryland native who now lives in Istanbul after completing her Peace Corps service in May. “But when the president of your country is saying horrible, horrible things, I felt embarrassed.”
While the Peace Corps has been nonpartisan since its creation in 1961, politics are always entangled with the educational and developmental work the organization does abroad.
Under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, volunteers were accused of being Cold War-era spies for the C.I.A. Volunteers working during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama fielded questions about American military involvement in the Middle East and gun violence at home.
But the stances taken by President Trump, both in Twitter statements and administrative policy, have prompted intense foreign scrutiny about American values, making it particularly difficult for many of the roughly 7,200 Peace Corps volunteers currently abroad to remain nonpartisan.
“I think I lost the innate authority that comes with being an American figure,” Ms. Blake said. “Their questions came with a skepticism as well. They weren’t sure what authority I had as an outside person.”
Among those still at home and considering a Peace Corps tour abroad, interest remains steady in volunteering, even in an environment of proposed budget cuts for the agency.
Elizabeth Chamberlain, who works in the Peace Corps’s east region recruitment office, said she had yet to hear any concerns from potential recruits over proposed funding reductions. Since the application process was streamlined in 2014, the organization has received about 23,000 applications annually.
“I think generally there’s a lot of confidence that the F.Y. ’18 proposed budget will enable us to continue to support our volunteers and keep our operations around the world running smoothly,” Ms. Chamberlain said.
In his sessions with students at the University of Idaho, Eric Anderson, the school’s associate director for career development, has seen a slight increase in interest, especially since the election, he said. But interested students have begun asking about the budget and how it would affect their service.
“I don’t think it’s deterred anyone from wanting to do the program, except maybe worrying about it getting cut,” Mr. Anderson said.
News coverage of protests and the president’s statements prompts most of the questions from those in the host country, said Nick Herrmann, a volunteer who has been working in the Tanzanian Southern Highlands for just over four months. For Mr. Herrmann, a Kansas native, it is a welcome challenge to explain American democracy in a mixture of Swahili and English, using analogies to his host village’s relationships with neighboring tribes.
“It’s a great time to explain that, in American politics, you can have differing views,” Mr. Herrmann said. When needed, he added, he redirects the focus of the conversation to the Peace Corps work taking place in the village — a tactic recommended by Peace Corps directors during training.
Asked about the impact of the Trump presidency on its volunteers, the Peace Corps directed questions to the White House press office, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Several Peace Corps volunteers, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns and agency news media restrictions, said that while they all embraced their work, it was often difficult to deflect more pointed questions about American policy. Volunteers in Africa face questions about Mr. Trump’s view of racial minorities and the status of funding for H.I.V. medication. Volunteers in Asia and Europe face inquiries about travel bans and funding for programs like the Agency for International Development and Let Girls Learn.
“Peace Corps — they tell you don’t talk about politics, sex and religion, and of course that’s all everyone wants to talk about,” said Chris Robinson, president of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington. “How you navigate that determines how well you integrate with your community.”
In the fledgling stages of the agency, volunteers had no qualms representing Kennedy, but as the 1960s wore on, his assassination and those of other prominent American figures began to present difficult situations.
Representative John Garamendi of California, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer with his wife, Patti, in Ethiopia from 1966 to 1968, remembers his wife’s stories of weeping children asking after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated: “Why did you kill the father of all black men?”
Sometimes it was easier, before the age of the internet, to remain detached, said Randolph Adams, who volunteered in the Dominican Republic in the late 1960s. Volunteers were prohibited from having radios, to avoid accusations of espionage.
“Most of us didn’t really think about U.S. politics — it just wasn’t important,” Mr. Adams said. “What was important was what we were doing locally.”
But during the Bush and Obama administrations, some volunteers dealt with inquiries about military missions abroad and gun violence at home.
Rahama Wright, who worked in Mali, in West Africa, from 2002 to 2004, said she had faced questions about the country’s motives in invading Iraq.
“I felt a little embarrassed, because I saw the contradiction with what the government policy was having,” Ms. Wright said. “We were promoting friendship and peace, yet here we were engaging in a war that was tearing apart a country.”
President Trump’s budget includes the largest proposed cut to the Peace Corps by a president in more than 40 years. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
Volunteers working under Mr. Obama said they had also faced questions about violence and gun control in the United States, especially after the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn.
“Moments of violence would start hard conversations,” said Parker White, who volunteered as a teacher in Azerbaijan from 2012 to 2014. “But being a regular person out in the world can still foster a positive vision of America.”
That is a sentiment echoed by both current volunteers and alumni actively advocating for the agency in Washington: The Peace Corps’s work is more crucial than ever.
“It’s like you have a kinship, a brotherhood, a sisterhood, and that’s so important when the government says things like: ‘It’s all about America. Make America great again,’” Ms. Wright said. “You need people who are not Americans to interact with Americans who have different values.”
Beyond challenging the diplomatic tightrope between honesty and emotion, the policies of Mr. Trump’s administration, both proposed and enacted, have hampered the volunteers’ work abroad, they said.
A January executive order that revived a Republican policy threatens to freeze federal funding to organizations that discuss abortion referrals. This has limited what volunteers can say, particularly in African countries where teenage pregnancy is a dominant issue. One volunteer described how hard it was to leave unanswered an anonymous note from a teenager asking if an abortion would send her to hell.
Some volunteers, seeing a need for more assistance in their host countries, voiced concerns about Mr. Trump’s proposed budget, which includes the largest proposed cut to the Peace Corps budget by a president in more than 40 years. If passed, it would slash Peace Corps funding by nearly 15 percent.
“A reduction in the Peace Corps would affect, in the short term and long term, international relations,” said Mr. Garamendi, who helped form the bipartisan Peace Corps House Caucus in 2013. “It’s not wise.”
Mr. Garamendi, a Democrat, is confident in the agency’s bipartisan congressional support, and plans to fight for, at a minimum, a maintenance of the agency’s current $410 million budget. The proposal, he said, shows a lack of understanding about the Peace Corps’s international impact.
John Bridgeland, who served as director of the USA Freedom Corps, created under Mr. Bush to coordinate service after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said he was shocked at the lack of engagement between the administration and the Peace Corps and other national service organizations.
“It’s contrary to decades of bipartisan presidential leadership to support the Peace Corps,” said Mr. Bridgeland, now a vice chairman of Service Year Alliance. “In a time when the administration is disengaging from the world and diminishing American leadership abroad, I think the Peace Corps is more important than ever.”
Urvi Patel will have left for Tonga to work as an English language facilitator before Congress approves the final budget this year. While Ms. Patel declined to say how she felt about the current administration and the potential budget cuts, she said her service was an opportunity to directly represent her country.
“I’m just trying to show them that there is good in the United States, despite the news they may hear, the politics they may hear and the leaders they see,” Ms. Patel said.