Talking To, With, And About The Peace Corps
Karen Chaput, Video Production Manager in the Office of Communications for the Peace Corps, caught up with me when I was in D.C. recently and asked if I would sit down and be interviewed for her digital project. She recently sent me the unedited transcript of my 40 minutes with her talking about the history of the agency and the work we have been doing with Peace Corps writers. Here is a brief except from those 40 minutes. (With some additional editing by the author.)
Q. John, you’ve devoted a lot of your personal time to Peace Corps writers over the years. You obviously have a passion for helping people recreate their Volunteer stories. Can you explain a little bit about that?
John: Well, oddly enough, I’ve only written one story myself about the Peace Corps, and I have published 25 novels and books of non-fiction. Two of my collections, one fiction and one on travel, focus on Peace Corps writers, but I have written only one short story “Snow Man” that has a Peace Corps setting. I did edit three collections of essays by Peace Corps writers when I was working for the Peace Corps in the mid-’90s. The Great Adventure was one; To Touch The World another; At Home In The World, the third. Most of the material for those books came from the pages of our newsletter, RPCV Writers & Readers, that Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962-64) and I started around 1987. Our idea for that newsletter was to network Peace Corps writers and educate America about the Peace Corps as so few Americans have had the opportunity to go overseas. We wanted to share what the experience was like, that of living and working in the developing world. And the only way to do that in any sort of permanent way, we thought, was to get PCVs and RPCVs to write their stories, to tell their tales, so others might vicariously experience what it was like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.
At the reunion — the 25th anniversary reunion–held here in D.C., I did organize a panel discussion of Peace Corps writers. At the time, I didn’t know many writers, and there weren’t many, but it was a beginning. I’d say that today we have about 1,000 books written by RPCVs that touch in one way or another on the Peace Corps experience.
Out of that conference of RPCVs it was decided we should have someplace where the writings, the letters and journals of PCVs could be preserved. The idea for such a collection was originally expressed at the conference by novelist Suzy McKee Charnas (Nigeria 1961-63). The Peace Corps, as an agency at the time, couldn’t care less about what any of us had written home. The Peace Corps as a bureacurary has never cared about the writings of RPCVs, and my guess is that they never will. This is partially Shriver’s fault. From the first days, he didn’t want to ‘institutionalize’ the agency with a lot of historical data. His attempt, and I agree with it mostly, was to keep the Peace Corps endlessly new. You know, In, Up, and Out!
But back to the point I was making about preserving the writings of PCVs and RPCVs. I was part of a small committee to research libraries for our letters and journals and books. I wrote the Kennedy Library in Boston and they said they would be thrilled to have our writings. The curator in Boston at the time was an RPCV, so that was helpful. He understood the value of our documents.
As I said, the Peace Corps didn’t care about what Volunteers were writing. They didn’t care what RPCV thought about the experience. So what was started by Marian and I was preserving the history of the Peace Corps, and with the changes in technology, we moved our quarterly newsletter around 2000 onto a website. We have had two websites, and now we are Peace Corps Worldwide.org with a number of writers and RPCVs experts commenting on topics that are of interested in anyone who served overseas. We are doing with the Peace Corps never did. We are attempting to provide a platform where RPCVs with experience and knowledge can provide information, ideas, and resources to the entire Peace Corps Community, everything from getting a job to writing a book.
Q. Great. Why are these Peace Corps chronicles so important?
John: Because these Peace Corps chronicles capture a moment in time. The Peace Corps will not last forever. It will be lost in the pages of history and passed over by the cruel hand of time unless we can document this moment in some way. The wonderfulness of ‘now’ is that we not only have words on paper; we have digital images; we have the Internet; we have Twitter; we have a thousand ways of communicating. When I first went to Ethiopia in the fall of 1962, it would take a week for a letter to get back home. Now, we are in instant contact via the Internet. We live in a totally new world. It is almost as if no one leaves home. Kids don’t go away to college because they are constantly in touch with Mom and Dad. PCVs don’t go away to Ethiopia or any other country because they are always in communication.
But yet, because of the Peace Corps, they do leave home. The experience of living overseas– isolated from one’s own culture–allows a PCV to not only see our own culture from a different slant, but also to see another culture in a unique way.
Volunteers are different than tourists. They’re different than travelers. And the reason that they’re different is that they come to live; they settle into a community; they unpack their bags; they become neighbors and friends and families of the strangers that they meet and live with as PCVs.
That is a significant difference from any other American who is passing through on a bus, or on foot, who has a backpack and is constantly moving onwards. Volunteers leave a part of themselves in the places where they serve; they take home part of people and the land where they lived as PCVs. Whatever country that they worked in as Peace Corps Volunteers is always their country. I can look at a newspaper today, decades after I was overseas, and the word Ethiopia will jump out at me in a way that it would never have had except I’d had the experience of living in this land. Ethiopia will always be my other country. Addis Ababa will always be my second home town.
Q: What makes our PCVs, in particular, great at telling stories?
John: Oh, God, I guess because they have a lot of time on their hands. They hang out in bars so they meet strangers and they start talking. They ride buses and things happen to them that they want to share. Two Volunteers will, in any gathering, end up talking by themselves about their experiences. The Peace Corps is an intense personal experience. It is not easily shared with others because there’s a certain understanding and trust between PCVs and RPCVs that goes unspoken.
There is a bond between total strangers because of the shared experience of the Peace Corps. It is a knowledge, an understanding, which oddly separates them from those who have not been overseas. Soldiers, too, I am sure, experience the same sort of connection. A lot is unsaid and understood by strangers just because they have at one time in their lives been Volunteers.
There is another point I want to make. Everybody who goes into the Peace Corps owns the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is that person. It’s a very personal thing. The Peace Corps is not a government agency. It is not part of official Washington, or even this building. The Peace Corps is the Volunteers and their experiences. They are the only people that know what it means to be a ‘Peace Corps Volunteer’; they are the ones who have gone through two years of similar experiences, even though the experiences might be a different country, in a different moment in time, and doing another kind of job. Nevertheless, among PCVs there is a connection, a brotherhood and sisterhood.
Q: I’m doing a video right now about the Third Goal. Can you explain the importance of the Third Goal?
John: The Third Goal is something the Peace Corps as an agency has not done anything about in 50 years. When the planners of the Peace Corps first met in the Mayflower Hotel there was Sarge Shriver, Harris Wofford, Warren Wiggins and Bill Josephson and a handful of others, they hammered out 13 or 14 goals of what the Peace Corps would be as a government agency. Shriver honed those goals down to three that he gave to President Kennedy.
We all know what those goals are and the Third Goal was equal to the others, but it was never given any importance within the agency, by any administration. If PCVs came home and educated Amereica about the developing world, fine and good, but the Peace Corps–as an agency–couldn’t care less. The agency gave the Third Goal lip service, but nothing else.
One of the reasons Marian Beil and I started our newsletter, and now our website, was to do just that: educate Americans through promoting the writings of RPCVs. Everything we have done with Peace Corps writers has been to fulfill the Third Goal left unfullfilled by the agency!
The U.S. government, the Peace Corps administrations, has never helped RPCVs finish their tour of service by doing the Third Goal. In this Peace Corps Headquarters everybody looks overseas. No one looks home. The Peace Corps, for the most part, couldn’t care less about RPCVs. And Peace Corps Volunteers, who comes back to their towns and return to their lives, are left on their own.
You know, Sarge Shriver once said, and this was very early in the Peace Corps years, that the real benefit of the Peace Corps would be the children raised by Peace Corps parents. They would raise their children to be aware of the world, to be committed to service, to go out and make a difference in the world. In many ways he saw that, I think, as the Third Goal. And that really has been the most positive element of the long history of the agency. Today, more and more serving Volunteers are the sons and daughters and grandchildren of Peace Corps Volunteers.
Perhaps it is because all these kids have been listening to Peace Corps stories all their lives and they wanted to go overseas themselves and get their own stories so that they could come home again and tell their tales to their parents and grandparents of what the Peace Corps is like today. How does that old country-western song go, ‘Let The Circle’ Be Unbroken? Well, that’s not a bad legacy for any Peace Corps parent. And, in truth, it’s not a bad Third Goal.
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Good ideas on the Third Goal. I never thought of it in terms of giving our children a different outlook on the developing world. With us, it automatically happened. We had two young Somalis (children of friends) living with us while our own kids were growing up. We talked Somali politics at our dinner table as naturally as discussing the mayoralty campaign in DC. To this day, either of our kids can knowledgeably converse with Somali cabdrivers about the current situation in Somalia and Somali history.
Once again, Sarge was rilght.Maybe PC should have done more to promote the Third Goal, but RPCVs did it on their own,through efforts like your and Marian’s, as well as passing on the experience to the next generation.
Hi, my friend and I are working on a project on the Peace Corps about the impact and change it had on our society. We’re doing a video, and need current and former volunteers who would be willing to talk on our video about their experiences with the Corp. We’re also interested on how it impacted their lives. We are doing this as a project for National History Day, the theme is innovation in history, impact and change. We’d appreciate hearing form you as soon as possible.