This post is inspired by Alison McDowell’s series, Letters from the Labyrinth.
Attention all Dandelions!
I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Czech Republic from 1994-1996, returning there in 1998-9 to teach at the Natural Sciences Faculty at Charles University in Prague.
I’ve written often about my experience and consider those years to have been formative on many levels, including that which defines my worldview to the present day.
While I have written often about those years, I have shared almost no criticism about my time there or the Peace Corps as an institution. I wrote a blog with other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for several years, from which I was unceremoniously deplatformed as soon as I ventured into (unbeknownst to me at the time) the forbidden territory of ‘conspiracy theory’.
The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
“On March 1, 1961, Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924 that officially started the Peace Corps. Concerned with the growing tide of revolutionary sentiment in the Third World, Kennedy saw the Peace Corps as a means of countering the stereotype of the “Ugly American” and “Yankee imperialism,” especially in the emerging nations of post-colonial Africa and Asia. Kennedy appointed his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to be the program’s first director. Shriver fleshed out the organization and his think tank outlined the organization’s goals and set the initial number of volunteers. The Peace Corps began recruiting in July 1962; Bob Hope recorded radio and television announcements hailing the program.”
The organization was in the Czech Republic for only seven years.
From the Peace Corps’ ‘legacy booklet’:
“Through the work and contributions of Volunteers, the Peace Corps has emerged as a model of success for efforts to promote sustainable development at the grass-roots level. The Peace Corps, however, is much more than a development agency. Volunteers embody some of America’s most enduring values: optimism, freedom, and opportunity. Volunteers bring these values to communities around the world not to impose them on other people or cultures, but to build the bridges of friendship and understanding that are the foundation of peace among nations.”
A portion of Vaclav Havel’s parting statement to the Peace Corps:
“The results of the Peace Corps’ work can be seen throughout the Republic. The Peace Corps assisted in establishing many new libraries, completed more than 100 ecological projects, and gave more than one thousand Czech entrepreneurs the opportunity to gain new business experience.” Prague, 1997
Ambassador Shirley Temple Black attended the official opening of the Peace Corps office in Prague in 1991.
Shirley Temple Black’s Remarkable Second Act as a Diplomat | History| Smithsonian Magazine
Speaking of Temple-Black:
According to Kounalakis, “Her personal and informal style worked well with the new government, made up of formerly imprisoned, hard laboring and human rights Charter 77-signing artists, musicians, actors and a playwright president named Vaclav Havel. Many of those new Czechoslovak political leaders admired their American colleague, President Ronald Reagan, an actor-politician like themselves who expressed in the clearest terms – and to the whole world – their deepest desire for freedom.”
The dissident playwright turned politician, President Vaclav Havel’s wife was also a famous actress. Olga Havlová – Wikipedia
Also from Wiki:
“Havel was born in Prague on 5 October 1936 into a wealthy family celebrated in Czechoslovakia for its entrepreneurial and cultural accomplishments. His grandfather, Vácslav Havel, a real estate developer, built a landmark entertainment complex on Prague’s Wenceslas Square. His father, Václav Maria Havel, was the real estate developer behind the suburban Barrandov Terraces, located on the highest point of Prague—next door to which his uncle, Miloš Havel, built one of the largest film studios in Europe. Havel’s mother, Božena Vavrečková, also came from an influential family; her father was a Czechoslovak ambassador and a well-known journalist.
“He was known for his essays, most particularly The Power of the Powerless (1978), in which he described a societal paradigm in which citizens were forced to “live within a lie” under the Communist regime. In describing his role as a dissident, Havel wrote in 1979: “we never decided to become dissidents. We have been transformed into them, without quite knowing how, sometimes we have ended up in prison without precisely knowing how. We simply went ahead and did certain things that we felt we ought to do, and that seemed to us decent to do, nothing more nor less.”
Remembering Ambassador Shirley Temple Black – U.S. Embassy in The Czech Republic
As far as Peace Corps assignments go, I was sometimes rightly chided as having ‘served’ in the “Paris of the Peace Corps.” I did not live in a village in a shack without running water, as is often the stereotype, and sometimes the reality.
I got lucky, very lucky in fact. I was assigned to a brand new school, with a private office, and lived in the vacated 2-bedroom flat of the school’s principal. It even had a private phone.
A short time after arriving I was summoned to the state-of-the-art, just being organized, computer room. I had requested an e-mail address. The teacher running the show was excited, thrilled even, to have someone even remotely interested in his very claustrophobic cyber-world.
The enormous room was full of donated equipment, mostly used, monitors and hard-drives and equipment I didn’t recognize were stacked up on every inch of the floor and only he and a handful of others knew how to use it all, or even cared to use any of it.
And new shipments were coming in at a regular clip. He couldn’t keep up with all the offerings.
At the same time, the old Soviet materials were stacked up on the street twice a week to be hauled away by the trash crew. Huge stacks of newspapers, magazines, books, busts, badges, portraits that seemed bottomless in those early days.
“We just traded one Big Brother for another,” one teacher quipped.
I was thrilled to be there. I fully expected to find, as per the slogan, “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” Bring it on, I thought.
But, I was young and naive and idealistic and I didn’t understand bureaucracy. I was dumb enough to think I was supposed to be honest on the seemingly endless ‘ratings forms’ we were required to complete. Instead of spend five minutes giving five stars and glowing reports to any and all activities and instructors like most of my fellows, I actually thought about it, wrote what I thought needed improvement, made suggestions I thought would be helpful.
That got me labeled as a complainer almost immediately, I later learned.
One thing we weren’t supposed to complain about was the vaccine schedule. Even though some volunteers were insisting they were getting sick from it.
However, the Volunteer Handbook was unequivocal. “Also during Staging, you will be given immunizations that are required for overseas travel and for re-entry into the United States. Please do not obtain any immunization before going to Staging. If you are sensitive to any immunizing agents or medications, or have religious reservations concerning the taking of immunizations or medications, you should notify the Office of Medical Services before accepting an invitation to training.”
Another touchy topic for the form-police was concerning which projects got funded. My grant request for the impoverished orphanage for ‘Romany’ (Gypsy) children was rejected, while seemingly less necessary funding was granted to other projects, especially those in cooperation with other agencies, like USAID (in our case, for English-language textbooks), in more recent cases, it’s known for such causes as: With USAID Support, Ukraine’s Tech Sector Thrives Despite Russia’s Full-Scale War | Ukraine | Press Release | U.S. Agency for International Development
Other project missions had impressive corporate sponsors, like the English-language essay contest about women’s role in Czech society, organized by Fran Aun, currently a Public Relations professional with such current successes as the trans campaign:
You can pee next to me!
Fran Aun’s efforts in Prague got me noticed. Hmmm, yikes?
The Peace Corps is now hiring for a new position: Climate Financing Support Specialist.
My Report Card for the Agency, according to their own stated goals:
1. To help the people of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower, particularly in meeting the basic needs of those living in the poorest areas of such countries, 2. And to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served 3. And a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people.
As for goal number one, I give a C-. I do not consider an essay questioning women’s role in modern society to be more in line with basic needs of the poorest children in orphanages.
As for goal number two, I give a B+. That is, considering the people who were actually served were not those needing to meet basic needs, but those with an American-loving entrepreneurial spirit, that seems ‘fair’, I guess.
As for goal number three, I give an unequivocal F. The only stories that are allowed are those demonstrating our relentless positivity and the plate-spinning and mask juggling and illusions of a thousand other cultures who apparently dream of becoming just like U.S.
What I actually learned in my service from the Czech people, and tried to bring back home to fulfill the 3rd goal was categorical rejected by the current day Peace Corps: suspicion of government, especially volunteering; the critical importance of life skills; self-reliance over government reliance; local aid over foreign aid; and in fact, a good dose of paranoia, which was rampant among the Czechs, and would be wisely adopted by the majority of U.S. in the present times.
The line between entrepreneurs, civil servants, and philanthropists was breached ages ago, and it seems like Americans might be the last to know.
Fellow RPCV TEFL Volunteer, Antonio Lopez, “While I was serving my term as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was definitely aware that a large scale societal change was under way, and that I was taking part in it. I guess I felt that way because I was a teacher working with teenagers, people who are always in a process of change and seeing the world around them with fresh eyes.”