Interview by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
WHILE MOST OF US STRUGGLE with our own Peace Corps memoir, Jane Albritton undertook a herculean task: to gather enough Peace Corps personal experience essays to fill a multi-volume anthology. After four years of intense work, she completed the task in 2011 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps’ inception. The four volumes include more than 200 essays that describe the Peace Corps Experience in 88 of the 139 nations served during the past half century. The principal and founder of a writing and editing firm (as well as a university writing instructor), Jane began the Peace Corps at 50 Project with the posting of a very unusual website and an all-call for personal experience essay submissions. As the series editor, she recruited editors, oversaw editing, negotiated publication, supervised formatting, cover design and finally manages marketing.
What on earth inspired you to undertake such a colossal project, Jane?
Volunteers who served in the ’60s are pushing 70 (or more) and I am getting older by the minute. I come from a family of storytellers. It was through stories that I learned where I had come from and who I am. We all come to know who we are through the stories, our cultural memory. It seemed to me that stories of Peace Corps service tell us much about ourselves at our best. My fear was that we were already losing those stories.
Your Peace Corps @ 50 website went online in May, 2007. How did you recruit a computer wizard to set it up for you?
This project has been visited by a host of little miracles. I knew I couldn’t afford an agency, so I asked an old editor friend of mine if there were any young artists working for his company who did side work. He gave me Chris Richardson’s name. Based on a single 45-minute meeting, he sketched out a site design that nailed the spirit of the project. He took the text supplied by me and the other three editors and turned it into an invitation. He also created a beautiful video and brought the books to life with his cover designs.
Almost simultaneously, you were involved with a Peace Corps reunion in Fort Collins, Colorado (August, 2008) which included sponsored speakers, writing workshops, books sales and even music. How did you get involved in this?
Fort Collins is soaked in Peace Corps lore. The Colorado State University Research Foundation was contracted to prepare a Peace Corps feasibility study only one week after Kennedy’s election. Two of the three founding members of the team that prepared the study, Maury Albertson and Pauline Birky-Kreutzer, were to be honored in 2008. By that time, I had I had a whole stack of amazing stories from all over the world and had become aware that there was lots brewing in the world to preserve Peace Corps lore. For instance, Jill Vickers and Jody Bergedick were just completing a documentary about a PC group of small pox vaccinators — all women — who tromped beyond the beyond in Afghanistan helping eliminate that scourge. What better place to premier Once in Afghanistan? They came and blew people away.
When the story project was just a glimmer of an idea in early 2007, I visited Maury (then in his late 80s) to ask him what he thought. “Marvelous idea! Have you talked to Pauline?” I had not, but I just happened to be on my way to Tucson, where she lived independently. What a pistol she was even as she closed in on 90. A few years before at the age of 80, she had published her memoir, Peace Corps Pioneer, or The Perils of Pauline. It’s an important document and it confirmed for me the value of collecting and publishing our stories.
The sad note of the reunion was Pauline’s death. As hard as she tried to make it to Fort Collins for the event, she died just days before. Members of Pakistan 1, the group she trained and looked after as Pakistan’s first Peace Corps Country Director (can women really direct in Muslim countries?) gathered to honor her work and tell stories about their adventures in Pakistan.
How did you decide to publish four volumes based upon geographic regions?
The old saying that “Volunteers come back from Africa happy, from the Americas impassioned, and from Asia philosophical” had stayed with me as a Peace Corps truth. I had no idea how those who had served in post-Soviet countries came back, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t happy or philosophical or even impassioned.
Of course agents and publishers did not know that old saying. When I said “Four books of Peace Corps stories from four regions of the world” (thinking the reasons were perfectly obvious), they replied, “How’s about one book of inspirational stories? We might sell some of those.” Most Peace Corps stories are not Hallmark moments.
How did you recruit the other editors to help you? Who were they?
From the beginning, I knew that the editor of each book needed to have served in the region it represented. While I might have been able to judge the literary merit of stories from, say, Ghana or Honduras or Kazakhstan, I was pretty sure I could not choose or edit them as well as someone who knew those worlds by heart.
I asked my friend Dennis Cordell (Chad), a prominent historian and Africanist at Southern Methodist University to help me create the text for the website, and edit the Africa volume. I discovered that Bernie Alter (India 1967–69), a career foreign service officer who had been in my group had married a woman he had persuaded to go into the Peace Corps in Paraguay (1970–72). Bernie was retired; Pat, a librarian, still worked. But in 2007, her job was not excessively demanding. Check for the Americas.
That left the mostly newer Peace Corps countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia: All those post-Soviet countries (plus Iran and Turkey). It occurred to me that Dennis, Pat, and I were roughly the same age so I started looking at the blogs of Volunteers serving in Eurasia who could write and were near the end of their service. Bingo! There was Jay Chen (Kazakhstan 2005–08), writing like a dream and due to come home in 2008. He liked the idea.
Then Jay decided that he needed to stay longer in Kaz to finish work already in motion. So he re-upped for a year and, in the process, was discouraged from actively engaging in the story project. So, I filled in and kept in touch with contributors.
Pat got a new, more demanding job at a bigger library as the acquisitions librarian. Luckily, Bernie was willing to step in and take up the slack. That’s how the Americas volume came to have two editors.
Then as Dennis rose in the university’s administrative ranks, it became clear that he would simply not have the time to edit the Africa volume, the biggest of the four. That was in the fall of 2009, just as we were getting ready to go full tilt boogie on editing. I knew several RPCVs who had served in African countries, but they were all squeezed with work and feeling the crunch of the economy.
If ever there were proof that this project was destined to live, it arrived as an email from one of the first contributors to the Africa book, Aaron Barlow (Togo 1988–90). It said, “Just checking in. Is there some way I can help?” Aaron had just finished up his book on and thought he could fit editing the volume into his teaching schedule at the New York City College of Technology.
I need to add another name, Susan Brady, to this list. She had never been a Peace Corps Volunteer, but she intuitively understood the value of this project and has worked for something akin to a “subsistence allowance” for four years, serving as our guide through the thicket that is the world of publishing. I do believe she is the reason that Travelers’ Tales decided to take us on. They knew her and trusted that she would make sure we delivered a quality quartet of books.
While reading so many personal experience essays from around the world over a 50-year period, what were some of your impressions?
I don’t think there are many US citizens who are clear on what our presence in WWII has meant in the Pacific. If we visit battlefields, we go to Europe. My mother was living on Oahu when Pearl Harbor was bombed. So I grew up with those stories from the Pacific theater and knew what they were all about. Today, we are still a powerful presence in the Pacific, regarded as much a liberator as a colonizer. Volunteers who served there know these things.
Regarding the Americas volume, I sensed that there must have been some ambivalence on the part of Volunteers and maybe a reluctance to recount stories. The US has meddled in the affairs of South and Central America in egregious ways, and Volunteers who live and serve in those countries hear the stories. They must have sometimes wondered if they were somehow being “used.” You can feel it in the love the contributors to this volume have for the places they served while simultaneously, you can feel the restraint.
The Africa volume is the fattest book in the set, partly because there are so many countries on the continent and because Volunteers have been going to some of them since 1961. I also think that many African cultures are story-telling cultures. So Volunteers fall into the habit of passing on important information in a public way via stories.
As for the stories from the Heart of Eurasia, I was struck by how they seemed on the edge. Border crossings were a cause of great unease. Collapsed economies and the public evidence of want and hardship show up in story after story. Volunteers worldwide have certainly been no strangers to alcohol, but in the old USSR, booze was a problem. It’s part of the harshness that is still working itself out. I imagine many Volunteers who have served in this part of the world are of Eastern European descent. Seeing where they came from in shambles must be unsettling.
By contrast, the stories from Turkey, an early Peace Corps destination, are uniformly upbeat. Today tourists who visit the Cappadocia region are the beneficiaries of the work PCVs did with the local restaurateurs to spruce up their menus to attract foreign tourists.
You continue to collect and post Peace Corps stories online. Can you tell us about that?
Luckily, we live in a time when technology allows us to keep on receiving, editing, and publishing stories in an infinitely flexible digital universe. We can keep current as forces reshape countries and cultures, as well as the Peace Corps itself. It would be folly to imagine that the experience of Volunteers in a 21st century Colombia will resemble that of the 4,600 Volunteers who served there between 1961 and 1981. What a terrific opportunity to look at the dynamics of culture and power through the eyes of the Peace Corps Volunteers who serve, have served and will serve.
Fort Collins has a dream to build a Peace Corps museum to house art from around the planet. What exactly is the Peace Corps connection to Fort Collins?
Peace Corps and Fort Collins/Colorado State University hooked up when Professor Maury Albertson, a professor of civil (hydraulic) engineering and internationalist to his core, and his associate Pauline Birky-Kreutzer, sought and got a contract to conduct a feasibility study for the Point Four Youth Corps, renamed the Peace Corps. Colorado State became one of the first training sites for Volunteers and Pauline became the first director in Pakistan. Check it out. In 1961 a Farsi-speaking woman ran the show in Muslim Pakistan where the first group included three Black Volunteers.
Recently, a few hearty souls have created the Global Village Museum of Arts and Cultures. Fort Collins is loaded with RPCVs and Peace Corps lore. Trees, Water and People was founded by RPCVs who decided to locate in Fort Collins because of the forestry program for which Colorado State University is well known. Carl Hammerdorfer (Volunteer in Mali and country director, Bulgaria) arrived in 2007 as first director for the new Master of Science in Business Administration degree in Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise. His work is matched by that of his wife, Kathleen Lynch, founding member and Executive Director of Isla, the International Service Learning Alliance. The list goes on.
So that’s why it is entirely appropriate for Fort Collins to have a Global Museum with a Peace Corps room in it.
Where can interested people send donations?
Global Village Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, so any donation made to the museum is tax deductible. The museum is also in the Enterprise Zone, meaning donors receive an additional 25% tax credit from the Federal government on all monetary gifts. For more information on donating and the Enterprise Zone tax credit contact Erik Hofseth, the Coordinating Director, at (970) 221-4600 or email: info@globalvillagemuseum (http://www.globalvillagemuseum.com).
Thank you, Jane, for putting together such a valuable contribution to Peace Corps history.
The Peace Corps at 50 Project includes four volumes of personal experience essays available on Amazon.com. They include:
Former Volunteers and staff who wish to share their stories may do so at PeaceCorpsat50.org.