Who is J. Larry Brown and why is the Peace Corps trying to shut him down, or so he thinks

Several weeks ago I was contacted by J. Larry Brown who had written a Peace Corps memoir and wanted to attend the Library of Congress Luncheon for Peace Corps writers. The book is published by Lucita Press and available through Amazon, as a paperback and  eBook. It is  entitled, Peasants Come Last: A Memoir of the Peace Corps at Fifty. peasants-come-lastThe author was an early PCV (India) and an assistant director of the agency under Carter during the ACTION years, and later a Country Director in Uganda during Ron Tschetter years as Peace Corps Director.

I checked Amazon and read this description of his book written by Earl Shorris, who is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine: “In the tradition of popular activist scholars like Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, J. Larry Brown has spent decades linking the findings of science to the realities of human existence. He gives us a candid look at what it means to try to do good things in a harsh world. We are taken to the make-shift huts of refugees driven from their homes by the insane barbarism of the Lord’s Resistance Army. We stand with Brown where Livingstone once stood, at Murchison Falls overlooking the powerful Nile filled with hippos and crocodiles. We see the grinding lives of people who eat the same meal every day. But of all the obstacles faced by Brown and his colleagues, none is as nonsensical as the tone-deaf dealings of Washington. We see how the needs of peasants come last when the realities of their lives are no match for the machinations of Washington’s rigid routines.”

Of the author, Amazon said: “Serving many years on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. J. Larry Brown riveted national attention to the existence of hunger in America in the 1980s, when he led a team of prominent doctors on field investigations into twenty-five states. The founding director of the Center on Hunger and Poverty, Brown also founded the Feinstein Famine Center and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy. Dr. Brown chaired the board of Oxfam America, and also chaired the medical task force of USA for Africa and Hands Across America. He is brown-j-larrythe author of numerous articles in both lay and scientific journals, such as Scientific American and Encyclopedia Britannica, and several books including Living Hungry in America. He has appeared often on national television including CNN, Good Morning America, Today Show, and network news programs, and testifies frequently before Congress. A young Peace Corps Volunteer in rural India in the late 1960s, Brown later served under President Carter as Assistant Director of the Peace Corps. He recently served a stint as Country Director for the Peace Corps in Uganda, and now resides with his wife, Judi Garfinkel, in Oman, where they head programs for World Learning/SIT.”

As an author of a Peace Corps Experience book Brown and his wife were invited to the Library of Congress luncheon and while we never met, I had been hearing about him from other friends at the agency. Some tales were being told that the Peace Corps had ‘freaked out” about his book as it was “seemingly” critical of the Peace Corps Administration, and because Brown had emailed copies of it to Peace Corps Country Directors around the world. I was told that the agency was sending out messages to the field telling CDs not to have anything to do with him.

A week or so after the weekend in D.C. I got this email from Larry who had returned to Oman for the 50th Anniversary with his wife, Judi. He told me of an incident he said took place at the Library of Congress on that Thursday afternoon of the Peace Corps Writers official luncheon.

“John — here is an interesting story: My wife, Judi, was placing promotional brochures for Peasants Come Last on the author’s book tables at the Library of Congress event (I was on the Hill meeting with a number of Foreign Relations staffers). A Capitol Hill policeman walked up to  a friend, Judy Weitz, and asked if she was my wife, and then approached my wife, Judi.

The officer told both Judy Weitz and my wife, Jodi, words to this effect: ‘We don’t want any trouble from Dr. Brown… he should not say anything controversial today.’

“When I arrived and learned what had happened, I went over to introduce myself to the policeman who then repeated these points. I asked if he was saying these things to all the authors attending the event. He replied, ‘No, only you. You’re the one that the Peace Corps called us about.’ I then noted that at the age of seventy I probably was not any security threat, to which he retorted: ‘You never know, the guy who killed two people at the Holocaust Museum was eighty-two.'”

I checked with a few sources at the Peace Corps HQ and got this answer from one of my ”usually well informed sources’:

“I cannot imagine that anyone from Peace Corps would have said anything about Larry Brown to a policeman at the Library of Congress.  The Browns and their friends were allowed to distribute their literature unfettered in front of the Peace Corps building, with no comments at all from our own security staff.  I am not saying the incident with the policeman didn’t happen, but I am quite certain that nobody from Peace Corps is behind it.”

I checked with my contacts in Congresseman John Garamendi’s office–the Congressman had made the arrangements for this luncheon–and they had no contact with the LOC police, or even really knew who Larry Brown was. Therefore, it appears ‘someone’ at the Peace Corps was ‘tracking’ Brown as he is in no way a public figure, and had only been back in the U.S. for a few days.

I was also told by another source in the Peace Corps Building that Williams  specifically decided upon a hands off policy regarding Brown, that  Larry could promote his book without interference.

That is, of course, is not to say that another Peace Corps staff person — i.e., someone in the African region, or one of the lawyers– may have been acting on their own to bad-mouth Brown at the Library of Congress. But the official position at Peace Corps HQ was (and is) to not obstruct. No one on the senior staff, I’m told, wrote any official email to the field regarding him. Williams, in fact, had prohibited that kind of response. Again,  someone might have acted independently, according to friends inside the building.

The plot thickens.

Brown also emailed me recently from Oman about another incident that had happened in Washington, D.C. over the 50th Anniversary Weekend.

“I was being interviewed by a camera crew on the sidewalk outside the Bill Moyers event that the NPCA was holding,” Brown wrote. “A woman named Erica Burman (NPCA’s Communications Director) approached my wife demanding to know who she and I were. She fired four or five questions at Judi, not even awaiting a response. Ms. Burman became so loud that the camera crew stopped the interview at one point because of the background noise. I later wrote a note to Kevin Quigley, President and CEO of the NPCA (whom I don’t know), to report what happened. Mr. Quigley wrote back to defend Ms. Burman, saying she was enforcing a policy not to let outsiders take over NPCA events. What’s funny is that my interview– requested by the TV crew when someone apparently mentioned I was the author of a new book– took place on a public sidewalk about fifty feet away from the entrance to the event.”

Now it gets better. I decided I should at least look at Brown’s book and from it I learned that he was fired as CD in Uganda by Jody Olsen two days before she left the Peace Corps as Acting Director and Aaron Williams took over.

Brown’s fight, it appears, was with someone named Lynn Foden in the African Region. Lynn is still at the Peace Corps, having been kept on by Williams.  She is now the CHOPS (number two) in the African Region.

Also, Brown told me that when Jody Olsen telephoned Ron Tschetter, who had hired Brown, to tell Ron that she had  fired Brown, Tschetter was stunned and upset, perhaps because Olsen was two days or so from walking out the Peace Corps doors as Acting Director, and perhaps because Brown was Tschetter’s friend. Olsen quickly explained that it was done because of issues of  ‘Volunteer security.”

What is puzzling to me is why was Lynn Foden being blamed. She is not a ‘political’ type. A former Volunteer, she is more involved with issues then politics. I can’t image Foden getting rid of Brown. Olsen, however, is a political person, and she was the Peace Corps Director at the time.

While Brown doesn’t not touch on other issues of his tour in his book, the Peace Corps maintains that there were complains from PCVs, the Embassy, and others about his tour as Director. My guess is that Olsen decided (in her final days) to clear up what she might have considered a ‘mess’ so Aaron Williams  would not have to deal with a CD problem in Uganda.

Brown’s position is that the Acting Ambassador in Uganda was “very upset” when Foden called to say Brown was being dismissed, especialy since the agency wouldn’t say why. As for the PCVs in-country, Brown remembering them arriving at  his home with “tears in their eyes.”  Today, he is still in touch with many of his Volunteers.

Brown also wasn’t the only Country Directer pushed out during Judy Olsen’s final days. Three other African CDs were removed in might might be called a Peace Corps version of a Friday Night Massacre.

Brown  in his book writes he believes he was fired  because he was working with other African CDs in writing a memo to give Aaron Williams on what needed to be done in the African Region.

Clearly, Brown was a considered a ‘rogue director’ by this Republican Peace Corps administration in Washington. Of course, the history of the agency is full of wonderful stories of Rogue Directors. Whether Brown was that, or his own worst enemy, I don’t know.

Brown was a good friend of the late Senator Kennedy, according to his book, and Kennedy had sent word that ‘he would handle’ the incident’ of Brown being fired.  Unfortunately all of this happened in the final months of Ted Kennedy’s life.

Meanwhile, other friends, including his daughter, suggested that Brown take legal action against the agency but Brown, now in his early 70s, decided to move on with his life and leave the Peace Corps experience behind him.

But he did write a book!

Now  we’ll never know what happened unless there is a Congressional Investigation, and I’m sure there won’t be one. This is a minor event in the world of Washington, even though it was major one in Brown’s life.

We’ll be reviewing Peasants Come Last: A Memoir of the Peace Corps at Fifty on our site in the near future. Look for the review. It is being done by a seasoned Washingtonian who was a PCV, Country Director, and former  Peace Corps Chief of Staff.

This is not the end of the Larry Brown story!

19 Comments

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  • Why don’t we get one of those giant saws-in-the-sky, cut off the District from the rest of the land mass, let it float down the Potomac and out into the Atlantic? Think of how many problems that simple, one-time action would solve
    .

  • David, David, David, I lost a bet. I was a sure that your first observation would be that all the principles involved were RPCVs, thus destroying my oft stated assumption that only RPCVs, pure of heart and noble of purpose, could “save” the Peace Corps!

    Thinking out loud: Could it have been the NPCA that was “tracking” Brown and that the Capital Hill police officer got all the various “branches” using the name Peace Corps mixed up and just said
    “Peace Corps” instead of NPCA?”

  • Nobody has used the word ‘peasant’ much since Pearl Buck. It went out of polite use some decades ago, along with words like ‘houseboy’ and ‘coolie.’ You can just say ‘subsitence farmers’ or some such. It’ much less patronizing.

  • JC , John we are not talking about Larry Brown the revered former Redskins running back, or Larry Brown , the deceased Mississippi novelist . No, we are talking about J. Larry Brown, an RPCV writer and PC staffer being chased by the Library of Congress police( LOC Police or private security guards) and surviving the harmless lament of NPCA ‘s Erica Bauman.

    This story is on par with this week’s assasination plot against the Saudi Ambassador here in Washington. I think you have been sucked in, because this guy wrote a book (yet to be reviewed by a seasoned Washingtonian) and bags a TV interview during the 50th. Now that’s the story, we should all be chasing. Why and How the Peace Corps gets no national publicity for its 50th Anniversary celebration .At least Colombia I’s plaque dedication at Rutgers University last November, acknowledging the first Peace Corps group in training , made the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams!

    Dennis Grubb
    Colombia I

  • It’s clear that John’s blog gets a lot of activity, because several friends already have emailed me about the posting regarding my new book. Peasants is a term widely used in the world– campesinos in Spanish means peasant. But with that, and all the intrigue about PC’s response to my book, I think the real issue is that we have a program representing one of the better things our nation has ever done, and PCVs still do amazing work. Yet virtually all serious observers, from Bill Moyers to Dick Celeste, note that PC Washington is too top-heavy and too top-down. My firing, and that of other Africa CDs at the time, is less a personal story than it is an organizational one. I hope more RPCVs contribute to the discussion about building a Peace Corps, in whatever form, for the next fifty years.

  • “Sire, sire, the peasants are revolting,” cried the knight as he approached his king. The king simply replied, “You’re telling me?”

    “Campesino” literally means, someone of the fields. Perhaps a neutral word would thus be, “fieldhand.”

  • It is great to become reacquainted with Larry Brown again. He has not changed in the 30 or so years since I worked with him after he left ACTION. He received a grant to study lead paint in Boston when he returned to the Harvard School of Public Health. Unlike the vast majority of the grants for which I served as project manager, his project report was exceptional: it showed that tenants with lead paint in their apartments, placing their children at risk of lead poisoning, failed to report it because they were afraid of loosing their leases, a significant finding from a public policy perspective. His subsequent work on poverty and malnutrition was also a landmark in that his work could show that the increase in malnutrition in children observed by doctors in the south were a conicident indicator in preicting increased levels of poverty; which one could only assume prior to their definitive findings.

  • As an RPCV (Lesotho I) who rarely has had either a good thing or bad thing to say about the Peace Corps, and who had very little to do with in-country or Washington Peace Corps during my two years of service (something that was possible in 1968-69; probably not now), I want to say that I am proud to be affiliated with an organization with which a person of Larry Brown’s caliber was also affiliated.

  • Okay, okay, fearless defenders of J. Larry Brown, I’ll set down my peasant churlishness and check out his book. It’s just that, if you follow this site for any length of time, every three months or so some Peace Corps author or other makes a fuss about how the Peace Corps is up in arms about his or her book, and it has never yet been true.

  • I really do not think that anyone in Peace Corps Washington reads, other than to check the amount on their payroll checks .

  • Since 90% of all Peace Corps books are self-published, there are bound to be hurt feelings, mostly by amateurs (like myself) who long to be treated as professionals. Keep ’em coming. These books have intrinsic historical value and all have a home in the Kennedy Library and the Library of Congress.

  • As one of the many who attended the PC 50th events in Washington and was disappointed by the feel-good, but empty celebrations, I want to chime in here. Despite my expectation that there would be meaningful discussion about the future of PC — and its future relevance — there was none. The topic was completely avoided at the 50th events… until I picked up info on Larry Brown’s new book, PEASANTS COME LAST, at the Library of Congress PC authors event. After reading strong endorsements by Rep. John Lewis, former PC director Richard Celeste, and others, I ordered it on Amazon. Brown clearly is dedicated to the future of the Peace Corps (despite its abominable treatment of him). We need more voices like his involved in the discussion of reforms to strengthen an agency that has become way too bureaucratic and top-heavy. All of us need to read this book and demand discussion on PC reform — and future relevance.

  • I,too, have just finished Brown’s excellent book. I think his concern about Peace Corps “targeting him,” might well be justified!

  • Larry Brown and I worked together at ACTION, lo those many years ago and I hold him in high regard. If Larry suggests that an issue should be addressed, I pay attention. His assertions about Peace Corps’ past and future deserve serious consideration, in my view.

  • all this fuss about “treatment of Larry Brown” and/or his (and other authors) criticism fo the Peace corps organization isl great fun for us RPCVs–it gives us a chance to expound ad nuaseum and ad infinitum.

    Meanwhile most of the PCVs go on doing good work in most of the 8,000 sites to which theyare assigned–bless thier souls. also meanwhile the Congress has already cut the budget from $400 million to $375 million and in the FY 2012–PC may be lucky to keep that figure. After that the “Failed super-Committee’s” sequestration starts and PC will lose at least $30 million more in each of the subsequent five years.

    there is no known strategy of either PC, NPCA or public polcy adept RPCVs to counteract the threat from Tea Party members of congress and the upcoming deficit reduction bduget cuts. This may be PC’s last decade–we may not even have PC when the 60th anniversary rolls around.
    John Chromy India I1963-65

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