I’m told that less than 200 RPCVs attended last month’s NPCV conference in Minnesota. With over 210,000 RPCVs and Peace Corps Staff 200 turning up for an NPCA Conference isn’t much of a showing.
Now, what does that poor attendance tell us about RPCVs? How insignificant and unimportant are we in the eyes of the power brokers of the U.S.?
Last September, as we know, we had the 50th Reunion in D.C. and it did attract RPCVs from across the country, but no ‘official Washington types’ beyond a few Peace Corps Staff turned out to recognize what we had done for America. No senators or members of Congress came to the official and unofficial gatherings, except for the Library of Congress Luncheon that Marian Beil and I organized for Peace Corps Writers.
There was an ‘official’ event earlier in the summer at the State Department but it wasn’t for ordinary RPCVs. Or at least I didn’t get invited. (Well, maybe it was just because it was me!) But you could have been invited!
All of that got me thinking about the very first Returned Peace Corps gathering in Washington, D.C. on the weekend of March 5-7, 1965. More than 1,231 RPCVs came for the “Citizens in a Time of Change” Conference held at the State Department. Some 253 leaders of the American ‘establishment’ also attended the event. College and corporate president, ambassadors, Congressmen, political journalists, government agency heads, the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a Special Assistant to the President, and the Vice President of the United States all came that weekend, and they were all engaged in serious, unprecedented, and occasionally (of course) heated discussions with the RPCVs.
The RPCVs at the conference were about one-third of their number who had returned home by then. (By June of that year 4,545 Volunteers would complete their tours.) These 1,231 RPCVs went to D.C. to put on record, and to impress on the minds of the ‘establishment,’ how they felt about their two years of service, and most of all, how they felt it equipped them to deal with the problems here at home.
Public opinion expert Elmo Roper, who was on one of the panels discussions on local communities, noted that RPCVs were impatience to “shake things up” and is quoted as saying, “Of all the groups I’ve met recently, there is none I would rather see batter down the walls of the Establishment than this one.”
Abram Chayes, who was also in that discussion group, and worked as a Legal Advisor to the State Department, warned the RPCVs, “Don’t expect a bed of roses. No establishment ever welcomes the agents of change.” And how right he was.
Vice President Humphrey in his address to the gathering spoke in loftier terms (sounding more like Barack Obama, before there was a Barack Obama). “I ask you not to lose your sense of idealism…I ask you to help America achieve its old dreams…Let America continue to be what it was meant to be: a place for the renewal of the human spirits.”
Bill Moyer, then the Special Assistant to President Johnson, who had recently been the Deputy Director of the Peace Corps, told the RPCVs to continue to think of themselves as ‘special’ because if they didn’t, they would “disappear into the bog of affluent living–you won’t make a difference.”
Later, Richard Rovere, also at the Conference, wrote a piece for The New Yorker, where he said, in part, “If large number of them (RPCVs) infiltrate federal, state and local governments and the educational system, the impact of the Peace Corps will be great–great enough, perhaps, to threaten its existence.”
By that June (according to the Peace Corps’ Career Information Service, which no longer functions at the agency to help RPCVs) 54% of the 4,545 RPCVs had changed their career plans. The most significant trend in career choices was in the direction of teaching. In all, one third of RPCVs were teaching. Eleven percent had gotten jobs with the federal government; 13 percent jobs in local and state government, Civil Rights work, non-profit organization, etc. 75 RPCVs were working in federal, state and local poverty programs. Agriculture, business, and self-employment accounted for 20% of jobs for RPCVs. This was only 4 years after the creation of the Peace Corps, an agency TIME Magazine called the most significant accomplishment of the Kennedy Administration.
Well, what have RPCVs done to change America?
Not much. I don’t see political leaders paying attention to us, individually, or as a band of important citizens. President Obama couldn’t be bothered to recognize our existence last September. He was invited to special events but never showed up for any of the Peace Corps Agency or the NPCA events. (He didn’t come to the three events that the Peace Corps Fund staged.) Nor did any presidential candidate (or any other political candidate) go to Minnesota last month to meet and greet RPCVs. Why, Michele Bachmann didn’t even attend and she’s from Minnesota!
There are, I think, several reasons for this lack of interest in RPCVs by ‘official Washington.’
RPCVs as a group have never rallied around any one person or any cause. If you have two RPCVs in the same room, they’ll create three organizations. That’s the curse and the charm of PCVs and RPCVs. They don’t agree on much.
Marian Haley Beil and I took one sliver of the Peace Corps experience, the Third Goal, and focused on the writings being done by RPCVs. We believe you can only get family and friends to look at so many slides, or listen to so many stories about our experience, but a book on a library shelf has the chance of being taken down and read by generations yet to come. Americans will learn about the world from those of us who have been in the world. It is as simple as that. That has been our Third Goal effort since we organized the first panel discussions on writing at the Peace Corps’ 25th Anniversary, back in 1986.
Other RPCVs, many other RPCVs, have done amazing amounts of ‘good work’ themselves, but not in the U.S.. RPCVs have done it for their host countries. That has been the real Third Goal Gift of Returned Volunteers.
The gift RPCVs have given is the continual support, attention, and good will to the people and places where they lived and worked. That is the ‘hidden’ story which has not been recognized by the Peace Corps, by the NPCA, or any other federal, state or local government agency.
Yes, RPCVs teach in large numbers in American classrooms, many have gone to work with AID and the State Department, as well as for non-profit organizations, and the majority of former PCVs, without fanfare or praise, have given time, money, and energy to projects and causes that directly relate to where they served as Volunteers.
RPCVs have supported students, schools and organization; they have built classrooms and clinics, and even hospitals, and most importantly and tellingly, they have kept in touch with families and friends and students they met because of their service in the Peace Corps.
That is where the Peace Corps has made a difference. Yes, we didn’t build bridges in the Peace Corps, but we still cross them again and again and again.