Review of James Stewart's history of his Peace Corps years in the Philippines

ask-what-you-can-do-140Ask What You Can Do: Our Days in the Early Peace Corps
by James C. Stewart (Philippines 1962–64)
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672 pages

Reviewed by Maureen Carroll (Philippines 1961–63)

THE 50th ANNIVERSARY OF THE PEACE CORPS seems to have brought out the secret memoirist in all of us. Jim Stewart was one of the 600 to 700 Volunteers who arrived in the Philippines during the first two years of the program — the largest in the world at that time. Stewart was in Group IV, arriving in the Philippines in June of 1962, on the heels of Groups I, II and III which had begun arriving in October of 1961, each group trained in sequence at Penn State University. The groups kept on coming every few months despite the fact that the job of “elementary school aide” had turned out to be a “non-job,” a term used by first director Larry Fuchs (staff: CD Philippines 1961–63) in his 1967 book Those Peculiar Americans: The Peace Corps and American National Character, about the program.

Day by day
Stewart has either a prodigious memory or stacks of journals that fully recorded every iota of his experience. He uses 662 pages to take us almost day by day from March of 1961, when he applies to Peace Corps, through the completion of his service in 1964. Stewart’s chronicle is extremely thorough — to a fault. The equal attention given to all events, tangential characters, conversations, and even romances slows the narrative and undermines the significance of some of the more interesting and dramatic aspects of the experience.

Yet, Jim’s record of day in and day out life as a Volunteer in the Philippines rings true, and his knowledge of and respect for Filipino history and culture are noteworthy. As a member of Group 1, I was there at the same time in a totally different part of the Philippines; yet, his descriptions of Volunteer life in Cebu and in Mindanao could have been my own and that of many of my peers — as recently documented in a series of essays recently published by members of the first three groups. He captures well the beauty of the islands, the particulars of Philippine culture, the Peace Corps “culture,” the challenges of the “non-job,” and the varied ways Volunteers adjusted and found a niche to “make a difference.

Volunteer Leaders
One of the important contributions of the book is the description of the role of the Volunteer Leader. The use of Volunteer Leaders by the Philippines program may well have been the most exhaustive use ever of Volunteers as staff. (Nowadays, Peace Corps allows only third-year Volunteers to become leaders and requires them to devote a portion of their time to volunteer work.) The Philippines program could not have grown as rapidly as it did, spreading throughout the country with the arrival of each new group, without Volunteer Leaders. From the very beginning, they supplemented a small staff with little to no knowledge of the Philippines in providing administrative and counseling support to Volunteers, opening up new provinces by scouting sites and negotiating with Filipino school personnel, and handling emergencies — in short performing the full range of staff responsibilities. Group I started with six Volunteer Leaders (and 5 Senior Volunteers!), and Peace Corps named additional Leaders from each group as PC expanded into new provinces. Many of the Leaders, like Stewart, were young folks with limited job experience, who wound up turning in performances that certainly matched and perhaps even exceeded staff performance.

Stewart’s experience in becoming a Leader illustrates the inherent disadvantages and the benefits of assigning Volunteers to the role early in their service. Stewart had two Volunteer Leader assignments. The first was shortly after his arrival in his idyllic town by the sea when he was asked to be a Leader in support of his own group in Cebu. He struggled with the decision to accept, “I felt like a rat to turn my back on the people here. I’d be running out on them . . ..” So, he accepts with the proviso that he can have a trial period of one month and the option of going back to his site. And he does just that, finding it unsatisfactory to be a person of authority within his own group. But, opportunity knocks again. Peace Corps has sent 220 Volunteers in Group VII to Mindanao, the very large southernmost island in the Philippines, which is less developed, has worse roads, long distances between sites, poor communications systems, etc. Peace Corps opens Mindanao with just one staff member and relies on a team of Volunteer Leaders. Stewart is invited again to become a Leader and accepts, having discovered that it’s difficult to “go home again” when he returns to his site. And during a trip to the Zamboanga Training Center, he is “seduced” by the country director, the regional director, and other Volunteer Leaders to “join the team” in opening up this important area for Peace Corps. He becomes a de facto staff member based in Davao City. He appears, like many of the other leaders, to have handled his responsibilities quite ably. They include the kind of duties that most staff members hope they will avoid during their tours — identifying the bodies of Peace Corps victims of a plane crash, handling the accidental prescription drug overdose death of another Volunteer, and escaping from and managing the aftermath of a fire that rips through Davao City.

Stewart’s performance and that of many others who served as Volunteer Leaders as well as the performance of many of the current day Volunteer Leaders should be instructive for Peace Corps. Might not an expanded use of Volunteer Leaders — possibly even recruiting Volunteer Leaders — contribute to wise use of budgetary resources in lean times? It might also strengthen the quality of ongoing support given to PCVs by Leaders based near Volunteers rather than in the capital city with the rest of staff.

Reading their story
The audience most likely to savor this book will be Group IV and Group VII because the book is their story as well as Stewart’s. And, they will have a great time trying to figure out who’s who — including themselves. Stewart decided to change the names of people and places “in the interest of respecting privacy.”

Maureen Carroll was a Volunteer in Philippines Group I and recently co-edited a book of essays by Volunteers from Groups I, II, and III: Answering Kennedys Call: Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Philippines. She is President of the Peace Corps Alumni Foundation for Philippine Development and has worked as a Peace Corps staff member in the 1960s and 1990s.

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