Confession of a Peace Corps Spokesperson
March 7, 2012 Leave a comment
– Hale Sargent, RPCV, Armenia
After five years working at Peace Corps, here’s my juiciest insight: it’s full of good people. Sorry, but that’s all I got. From top, down, inside the agency and out, boosters and even the critics, when your motivation is the Peace Corps mission, you’re probably a decent sort.
For five years, I worked a busy corner. As public affairs specialist in the Peace Corps Northern California recruitment office, I sat at the intersection where Peace Corps met the American public.
As all RPCVs know, most Americans have a fond awareness of the Peace Corps, but not a ton of knowledge or, frankly, interest. The Peace Corps occupies the same space in most brains as 4-H and Smokey the Bear. So I and the small team of recruiters I supported, with the tremendous help of RPCVs, worked to raise local awareness of our agency and to find the next generation of volunteers.
Have you ever wanted to be a Peace Corps recruiter? Here’s a recruiter’s life: In a given day she shows up early in a college town. She knocks on doors all morning, trying to meet with forestry professors, overworked career counselors and student diversity groups. Mid-day she runs over to set up a career fair table where she’ll talk nonstop for three hours. That evening she’ll organize a community panel discussion with local RPCVs. In the spaces between she’s interviewing and processing applicants, giving classroom presentations, and organizing her upcoming trip to another town. It’s routinely a 13-hour day several days a week.
The average career lifespan of a recruiter is 18 months, but in our Northern California office they regularly stayed the full five year limit, exhausted, but passionate. Our recruiter with the most seniority got to make the Hawaii circuit, a trip that was so tiring (five campuses in five days) it literally sent one recruiter to the hospital.
As I write this, the number one movie in America is Act of Valor, a feature-length film starring real Navy SEALs. Commissioned by the Navy. Released in theaters. The Peace Corps recruitment budget, by contrast, allotted us a box of public service announcements and some promotional pens. But we’re the Peace Corps. We do a lot with a little. And we like hitting the road. My job had me talking about the Peace Corps everywhere from Honolulu TV stations to Las Vegas convention halls to the floor of the California State Senate. Some audiences (Santa Cruz) thought we were imperialists. Some (Fresno) thought we were freaks. But working to bring stories from around the world into local communities was a hoot.
Our office also sat at the intersection where the volunteer requests from our host countries (French-speaking certified teachers who grew up on farms) met the reality of our Peace Corps applicants (vegan sociology majors). We had great applicants, of course: interesting, dedicated, and willing to stick through a long and unpredictable process. We worked with naturalized citizens, pageant queens, teen geniuses who had finished college early, dot-com retirees, carpenters and everyone in between. You would be proud to know the quality and diversity of those representing our country as Peace Corps Volunteers.
One of my fondest applicant memories is of Alice, a Bay Area woman. Alice had been born in Ghana, and as a young girl she had a Peace Corps volunteer for a science teacher. The Peace Corps stayed in her memory, even as she settled in the US and raised a family. Alice attended our recruitment events for four years as she approached retirement. My position lasted just long enough to see Alice retire, apply, get accepted, return to Africa, and finally become a PCV herself.
Lastly, my job sat at one of the many intersections where Peace Corps met RPCVs. RPCVs are a strange lot. I’m one of them, so I can say it. Driven by their fond memories and passion for the Peace Corps, RPCVs run 10Ks in host country dress. They drive three hours with a day’s notice to cover a rural community college career fair. They adopt highways. They volunteer weeks’ worth of time to run RPCV associations and organize community festivals. I saw RPCVs do all these things. And yes there are others who, driven by a 20-year grudge against their country director, hover by your career fair table, poisoning the air. I met them, too. But we’re all family.
Nearly every RPCV association meeting I attended included an existential crisis: “Why are we a group?” I witnessed RPCV groups wax and wane, usually due to the presence of some highly motivated members. Whatever its size, I always considered the LGBT RPCV Association to be a model group. From a recruiter’s point of view, the group is a real asset. Think of all the considerations to serving as a queer PCV that would never arise naturally in the general application process. It’s invaluable for prospective volunteers to have the LGBT RPCV Association to turn to for specific questions and concerns. How wonderful would it be to have an equivalent service for Asian American applicants? Or retirees? Muslims? Those kinds of support and advocacy groups don’t exist, and I think the LGBT group should be very proud of the special service it provides.
As for the intersection of Peace Corps and global LGBT equality, I don’t know if or where that lies. Obviously as an issue of equality, it’s important for Peace Corps to begin accepting applications from same-sex married couples. I must note that, behind the scenes, it’s pretty difficult to place ANY couple into a Peace Corps assignment. It broke recruiters’ hearts to see wonderfully skilled couples sit in the queue two or more years because no country lined up with their combined skills and language abilities. As a practical matter, recruiters may prefer that we stop placing any couple, rather than cast a wider net. I think placing same-sex couples is on Peace Corps’ wish list, but there are many items on that wish list. Most reforms that rise to the top of any government agency’s to-do list will be those accompanied by budgetary, Congressional or White House pressure.
A reporter for an LGBT newspaper asked me, “Why doesn’t Peace Corps have queer volunteers work with queer NGOs?” I’ve learned through the LGBT RPCV Association that, in fact, fate has dealt that hand to a few PCVs. But to me, the power and mystique of the Peace Corps is the organic way in which you can combine any PCV with any community and let the ripple effects go where they may. Women’s empowerment, youth empowerment, and LGBT empowerment can sprout wherever people make a friend who makes them see the world in a different light. And in return, I’ve met gay and allied RPCVs who have stereotype-busting opinions of countries like Jamaica and Uganda based on the friendships they formed there.
By law, you can only work for Peace Corps for five consecutive years, and so I inevitably reached my time to pass the baton to another. I’d carried it during two presidential administrations, growth spurts, budget crunches, the 50th anniversary and more. I loved every minute.
Hale Sargent recently became a member of LGBT RPCVs Steering Committee (our board). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org