Blog

  • 23 Aug 2020 by Katie McSheffrey

    Women of Peace Corps Legacy (WPCL) is pleased to feature Betty Currie as we highlight the extraordinary work of former Peace Corps Volunteers and staff. Betty, a founding member of WPCL, was at the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” 57 years ago. We interviewed her about her experience at the march, as well as her time as a Peace Corps staff member.  

    Betty’s long career with Peace Corps began in 1969, after her job at USAID ended. She was initially recruited to work in the Africa Region as the secretary for the regional director. When the newly appointed Peace Corps Director, Joseph Blatchford, needed a secretary, Betty’s talents were already known at the agency. "The job was a crucial one. It had 10,000 people spread out over sixty-eight countries, and I needed a reliable, efficient person," Blatchford recalls. “I didn't ask if she was a Republican or Democrat. I wasn't interested because she was so good." Betty remained with Director Blatchford when he moved to ACTION, the federal agency that ran the Peace Corps, and she subsequently moved up to work for two other agency directors--Michael Balzano and Sam Brown. In 2006, she resumed her relationship with Peace Corps as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association. 

    Betty had met John Podesta, who also worked at ACTION, and in the early 1980’s he invited her to run the offices of the Mondale and Dukakis Presidential campaigns and to later join the Clinton campaign. After Clinton became president, Betty served as his personal secretary during both of his terms. Betty has remained involved in Democratic politics. An Obama supporter, she is close to the former president's mother-inlaw, and in a recent conversation told her friend that everyone Betty knew applauded Michelle's speech at the Democratic National Convention. 

    A summary of our interview with Betty follows. It has been edited for clarity and concision.  

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    First, let's talk about your experiences at the March on Washington 57 years ago. How did you get involved in the march?

    I’d gone to work that day at the Post Office at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, professionally dressed, ready for a day of hard work, and when I got there, my supervisor said, “What are doing here?” I said, “I have my job to do.” And he said, “You need to join the march so others will get a job!” So, I put on my tennis shoes and quickly ran down Connecticut Avenue to join the thousands of people gathering on the Mall. 

    I found a place to sit under a tree between the stage and the end of reflection pool.  Others joined me, and I met and talked to strangers who I felt I had a connection with. Together we listened to the most wonderful music by the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, singing “How I Got Over.” Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome,” and Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “If I had a hammer.” Then we quietly listened to the speeches that began under the statue of Abraham Lincoln.    

    What are the most memorable things that happened at the March? How would you describe the participants in the March?

    I remembering it being a joyful experience, fun even, full of people who were smiling and being kind to one another. The group was very diverse—there were people of all ages and races, gathered together in solidarity. Because it was a workday, people were dressed up in coats and ties and nice dresses. The atmosphere was peaceful, calm and friendly; I felt safe. It felt like a time of change, and we were all inspired about future possibilities. 

    The speakers, including Martin Luther King and John Lewis, gave rousing speeches, but we had no idea at the time that their words would go down in history. After hearing the “I Have a Dream” speech, I remember thinking, “Well, that was a pretty good speech.” He said we should not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. I thought that was very powerful.

    When it was over, thousands of people peacefully left the area and returned to work. 

    How would you compare this year's march with the one in 1963?

    Fifty-seven years ago, there was a lot of advance publicity about the march. I am not aware of that kind of publicity for today’s march. Ours was very organized with strong leadership, as one would expect with MLK’s people. And it wasn’t during a time of COVID, which will definitely affect turnout this week.  

    During the march, Martin Luther King gave his famous "I have a dream" speech calling for an end to racism.  How well do you feel America has achieved that dream?

    We still have a way to go. We were on a good path to racial equality, but we’ve strayed from it in recent years. I hope that we’re back on the path to progress. I feel hopeful.

    Now let's talk about your time with Peace Corps. What brought you to Peace Corps?

    Well, I would say it was the grace of God that brought me there.  I had worked for USAID and when that time was over, I was asked to interview with the head of the Africa Region of Peace Corps, Walter Carrington. I remember waiting for an interview when a young woman walked in and said, “We need to send this letter to Mauritius,” and I remember thinking, “Is there actually a country Mauritius?  Even so, I got the job!”

    I was lucky to attend a regional conference in Africa where I was asked to take notes.  I guess I did a good job because I was recommended to be the new Peace Corps Director Joseph Blatchford’s special assistant/secretary.  I remember after the interview I was told that if I got the job, I would have to either get rid of the afro or the pants suit—I couldn’t keep both. I chose to keep the pants suit.

    How did your time at Peace Corps affect your life?

    I learned that working in the Peace Corps office could bring great joy. Volunteers returned after two difficult years, full of happiness and hope for their future. It was as if they had gained the knowledge that you could be happy with very few creatures comforts and understood the oneness of mankind. They also came home with a deep appreciation for their life in America and the democracy they enjoyed in the U.S. Meeting them was truly inspirational.

    I remember one time when I was asked to host local Peace Corps staff who were visiting from Mauritius, and I was asked us to host them at our home for a real American meal and experience. “What am I going to do?” I thought because I wasn’t much of a cook. So, I called my daughter and told her to cook some spaghetti for our new guests that I would be bringing home.  It was quite evident that they couldn’t figure out what we were serving—I guess they’d never had spaghetti before—so we took them to a nearby restaurant that featured good old Southern cooking with ribs and collard greens, and they loved it! 

    You were at Peace Corps at a time when Nixon wanted to do away with it. What is your memory of that experience?

    It’s true—Nixon wanted to do away with Peace Corps. I remember that at one point some Volunteers took over the building in protest. I was on the frontlines when Peace Corps was folded into ACTION, something Director Blatchford reluctantly agreed to so that President Nixon would not dissolve the Peace Corps. I know that Blatchford is still criticized for that, but I thought it was a brilliant move because it kept Peace Corps alive.

    Finally, let's talk about the current Black Lives Matter movement. As you know, Black Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, a new group affiliated with the National Peace Corps Association, is actively involved in the August 28th march. What advice would you give to young people who are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement?

    First, let me say how much I appreciate the work of Women of Peace Corps Legacy.  Your support of women’s empowerment around the world is very admirable. 

    The Black Lives Matter movement is relatively new, and I wholeheartedly support their efforts. I would say to all young people—and to people of all ages: “Join them, support their efforts, and enjoy every minute!”

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    To learn more about the March on Washington and the Black Returned Peace Corps Volunteer organization please visit the Black PCV in the DMV website: https://blackrpcvdmv.wixsite.com/website

     

    To watch a previous interview with Betty Currie, watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAcpoZEPJXs#action=share

     

  • 01 Jul 2020 by Alicia Barrera

    Women of Peace Corps Legacy is shining the spotlight on a true leader in our political process, China Dickerson!  

    China Dickerson, a Black, Christian, 36 year old woman from the Deep South; Charleston, SC to be exact, is a political strategist based in Washington, DC. She mostly works with women of color candidates and organizations that support such women.

    China, like many Black PCVs and PCVs of color,  had never heard of the Peace Corps until her National Government professor at Howard University suggested that she research the organization more and perhaps join. Since the second grade, she had aspired to be an attorney. In her junior year of college, she approached said professor for a recommendation for her law school application. He said no, explaining that the legal field was already so saturated and that she should consider diplomacy, a field that needed more Black woman representation. Her professor thought that the Peace Corps would give her a good sense of what it would be to represent and express America while living, experiencing, and becoming a part of a community overseas. 

    China with community members in her Peace Corps site in El Salvador

    China was hesitant at first because she had never traveled outside of the country. She also didn’t come from a culture that thought that international relations should be a priority for successful Black people. While international relations is important, she says “my culture believed that we had so much on the line at home, in America, that we should prioritize our work here.” While she tends to agree with that sentiment, she now understands that we can work on more than one thing at once stating that “Our freedoms and liberties in America can not be absolute if we don’t have global freedoms and liberties.”

    As a PCV in El Salvador, China worked in a very rural community with the mayor’s and other administrative offices. She mostly helped them to brainstorm, strategize, and bring resources to the community. Additionally, she organized and oversaw workshops given to women in regards to their civil rights and prevention of domestic violence; men on the topic of sexism; and youth regarding self-esteem, STD awareness, and sexual abuse. Her experience was very difficult, but she shared “that it was of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my entire life. I would do it again!”

    China in her Peace Corps site in El Salvador

    When China initially returned to the U.S., she was involved with RPCV/W in a leadership position. Since then she has maintained a network of friends that are also RPCVs that she stays in touch with. 

    How did China's experience as a PCV influence her career path and other volunteer/activist work?

    “Simply one influence, I knew that I wanted to be a public servant. Initially, I wanted to be an attorney that represented international corporations. My Peace Corps experience showed me that individuals and families need more help and advocacy and protection than multi-million or billion dollar corporations. While I believe that business is critical to our economy which impacts families, I also believe my first priority as a young graduate was to work to protect humans first.”

    This is an election year and due to the nature of China’s professional career, she has some advice for the RPCV community looking to be engaged in the democratic process:

    1. Run for OFFICE!!! And if you need help doing it, reach out to her!.

    2. DONATE MONEY to candidates you support. Even if it’s $5, nothing happens without money. Volunteering your time is great, but nothing shifts votes like paid advertisements. Also, candidates should pay their staff and not rely on volunteer help. Money helps, a lot!

    3. VOLUNTEER! You already know that that is important.

    4. Support candidates that are DIFFERENT than what you are used to. For too long, white, wealthy men have run our communities and country. Support candidates that are more reflective of the population. Our communities and country works best when we have people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs representing us.

    China is an inspiration!  Here is one final reflection that she shared on her Peace Corps experience: 

    “Peace Corps is difficult. It is probably the most difficult thing you will do in your entire life. However, if your heart is in helping people and making the world a better place, even if it is just to make one child’s day better, you should consider joining the Peace Corps. You will leave a better person; a person you didn’t know you could be.”

  • 30 Jun 2020 by Alicia Barrera

    For Pride Month this year, we would like to turn our attention to two amazing RPCV's, Roma Guy and Diane Jones, both recipients of the Women of Peace Corps Legacy's Diane Harding Award.  

    Roma Guy was born at the northern Maine & Canadian border in 1942. At that time in history Roma says that she was “born a criminal” because of her sexual identity as a lesbian. Over time, Roma learned to recognize these social identifiers, own them, and then eventually enjoy them in an historic personal and social struggle despite her confusion and fear at a younger age.

     Roma Guy, Peace Corps Volunteer, Cote d'Ivoire 

    In 1962 Roma joined the Peace Corps as part of the first group of volunteers invited to serve in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa.  Roma was was assigned to the town of Bondoukou, along an ancient trade route between Egypt, across the Sahara Desert ending at the Atlantic Ocean borders of the Gold Coast.  This group of Volunteers, with guidance and support from staff and the Ivory Coast health system, opened a community-based literacy and health education center for women. During her service she moved to a central region to Tiebissou Village. In her village she developed and expanded comprehensive health education and programs, such as digging water wells and creating village links to the nearest health care center on “market days” in the regions. 

    Roma shared the following on her time in the Peace Corps:

    “A life giving, deep core experience, personally and socially I absorbed history, cultural beliefs and what it takes to accomplish structural change especially related to who defines who we are, the focus needed over time including the importance of local and institutional leadership and consensus. I learned who I am during this tiny moment alive on the planet.”

    In 1967-68, Roma enrolled at Wayne State University in the MSW program, studying community organizing and urban planning. In 1967, she was an organizer in an all-Black elementary school in the middle of the Black community. Her colleagues included  a white principal, a diverse staff of teachers, and a superintendent who was a “cool-headed, rabid anti-union, anti-Communist overseer of the whole area.” Then it happened: July 23, 1967 Detroit exploded, Roma remembers it as a “Black Rebellion (a riot for some)…fight or flight?”  She needed to know how to move with the protest, the resistance, and the negative and positive consequences. This included harnessing what she called “the energy and focus of movement building to change the history of former slaves, Jim Crow, second-class citizens. I stood with the teachers, experienced the terror of policing, stayed on point bringing the social and educational needs of poorly resourced public schools.”

    Diane Jones, Peace Corps Volunteer, Togo, West Africa

    In 1972 Roma met Diane Jones, her life partner, who she married legally in 2008. The two met in Togo, West Africa when Roma was recruited by the Peace Corps to direct a training program. Since her return to the U.S. she has conducted and participated in training programs and evaluation for the Peace Corps.  She also worked on the opening of new sites in Africa for the Peace Corps in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Cameroon and Tanzania. On one of those training programs in Togo, West Africa, she met Diane. While the two fell in love, Roma says that she “was still in flight, a significant case of denial mode!” Through ups and downs, turmoil, love letters back and forth, they acknowledged their loving moments and enjoyed the fun and strength love brings home. 

    Roma’s story of activism in San Francisco was featured in the ABC miniseries “When we Rise”, directed by Lance Black, and released in 2017. 

    Diane was a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to support health clinics in her site in Togo. This is what spurred Diane’s lifelong career.  Today, Diane is an RN which she credits to her experience in Togo. She returned to the U.S. to attend midwifery school. 

    Both Diane and Roma went on to lead very rich careers in public health which was mostly impacted by the rise of HIV/AIDS.  Diane played a critical medical role in the start of the hospital-based, community-centered, and individual care known as the “SF Model”. Diane has been part and parcel of San Francisco General Hospital and the University of California team for 35 years. In addition to her work in San Francisco, Diane conducted several HIV trainings in Cote d’Ivoire between 2009 and 2010. Today, she and her team of infectious disease specialists have pivoted to apply their skills and values to Coronavirus pandemic.  In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic Diane and Roma were recently featured on KQED FM.  They were interviewed by Scott Shaeffer, which was aired on PBS in May 2020.  

    Diane leading HIV training in Côte d'Ivoire.

    Currently, Roma and Diane live in San Francisco with their extended family, including their three grandchildren.

    Even after a long, distinguished career, Roma says that her focus remains on “women, cis/trans rights, health rights for all, decarceration of San Francisco jails.” She is also very focused on “how the latest police murder of George Floyd has finally smashed shield and armor projecting fear and harmful values and practices in the name of policing for safety.”

     

    Roma and Diane on an early morning stroll in San Francisco

    Roma’s and Diane’s advice to the RPCV community:

    “Find your spot in the current movement for justice, Black Lives Matter at its core; commit to whatever place and ability you appreciate in yourself and be honest in your contribution. Grow beyond human fear, denial and flight by advocating for cultural and structural change based on practices of transparency and public accountability. Develop a baseline for equity---build and vote for equity of our taxation system so that we can invest with equity driven decarceration, housing, health care, real education for all our children and a safe climate change strategy for our children and grandchildren for at least 7 generations. VOTE! Locally, statewide, nationally and make voting safe and efficient for all. All our human rights and liberties are at stake."

    For Roma, her “honest contribution” is working towards defunding racist housing and education policies and increasing access to mental health and substance use services.  She is also engaged in breaking down the stigma of the poor and homelessness, all of which includes policing and incarceration. 

    Roma Guy soliciting signatures for a tax reform petition at the San Francisco Pride Parade in 2018

    In Roma’s words, “PRIDE HONORS AND REPRESENTS personal and social struggles for action, resting, listening and reflection, protest and persistent focusing.  Structural change takes consensus, usually first by a small group of people who are inspired and are willing to go for an imagined transformation by and for all of us. To change the rules of codifying our values, some of us must willingly account culturally and with leadership. That’s what our current Movement spurred by Black Lives Matter and the current COVID-19 pandemic teaches.”

  • 27 May 2020 by Alicia Barrera

     

     

    Meet Dawn Spellman, RPCV Zambia (2005-2008).  Dawn is a Program Manager in Public Health- Seattle and King County.  She has worked in the public health field for over 30 years. Most of that time has been in HIV/AIDS/STIs. In February of this year she was deployed to start working on the COVID-19 response with the Emergency Preparedness team.  

    On a daily basis she coordinates services in King County for those who are in isolation or quarantine at their home due to a positive Coronavirus test or as a contact of someone who tested positive. She and her team provide transportation, groceries, diapers, medical supplies, medicine and other things to help people stay safely in their home during this period. They also assist households with referrals if they have other needs such as rent, unemployment and medical assistance. Knowing this is not sustainable, they are currently exploring options with community partners to assist and delve deeper into long-term assistance.

    Her current position does not allow her to telecommute which means that she is in the office 6-7 days a week. Dawn feels like one of the lucky ones because she lives alone, so in this scenario she is able to get some human face-to-face contact. 

    When asked how her experience in the Peace Corps trained her to work in the response to Coronavirus at the local level, Dawn says, “I used to think I was very patient and during my Peace Corps experience, I discovered I wasn’t as patient as I thought. I learned a lot of new communication skills and most importantly I learned to manage my expectations. I realized I function well in situations with high chaos and I learned to make decisions in the moment quickly and with little information.”

    The response to the Coronavirus is dynamic and changing all the time. There are days where Dawn can leave one meeting with a plan of action and step into another meeting 10 minutes later and the entire plan has changed. She has  learned to roll with the changes and always—manage her expectations. Peace Corps service helped her identify and grow those skills. 

    Sustainability is also at the core of all that she does. As the response and recovery efforts continue, Dawn hopes to collaborate with others and the communities themselves for long-term solutions.  Dawn also sees lots of disparities in those that are directly impacted.  “Whether it is this virus, natural disasters, economic downturns, climate change....It is always the same vulnerable communities and populations that are impacted the most.  Fundamentally as human beings I keep wanting us to be better. My hope is that we have better systems, support and kindness going forward.” 

    Dawn’s advice to RPCVs looking to get involved in the relief efforts at a local level: “If you get involved in working this response, consider it a privilege. No matter what you are doing, it is changing lives for the better. We are in an emergency situation now where we are still trying to stop the bleeding. If you do work the response please always look for the future sustainability. There will be more disasters and difficulties and if we do good work now, that impact will be much less severe in the future.” #WashYourHands

  • 25 May 2020 by Alicia Barrera

    This year, for Memorial Day 2020, the Women of Peace Corps Legacy remembers those members of the U.S. Armed Services members that lost their lives during service to our country.  Women of Peace Corps Legacy would also like to honor those whose lives were lost while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers.  There are two very special women, Donna and Chelsea Mack, the mother and sister of a fallen Peace Corps Volunteer who have dedicated lots of time to honoring those lost Volunteers via the Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project.  

    Donna and Chelsea Mack in Washington, DC

    They were also inspired by the correspondence that Donna had had for many years with Alma Rolfs, the mother of Jeremy Rolfs. Jeremy was a PCV who died in Lesotho just before her son died in Niger. Donna’s letters to and from Alma had been a refuge in dark times. Someone at Peace Corps Headquarters had thought to give Donna Alma's address, and she will be forever grateful for that. 

     

    There is something unique about losing someone in the Peace Corps and Chelsea thought those of us who had experienced that loss might be uniquely positioned to understand and to comfort each other. There was no formal way of connecting those that were grieving to each other, so Chelsea and Donna began one.

    Jeremiah Building in Niger 1996

    Before they created the site in 2003 (6 years after Jeremiah’s death), Chelsea used to search for her brother on the internet and find nothing. Donna would tell her that she did the same thing. Chelsea imagined that other families might also be looking, and feel saddened when they found nothing. Now there is something to find, something that they have built gradually with the help of others. Families and friends of FPCVs share photos and memories. They leave comments and send emails to Chelsea and Donna and to each other. 

     

    Jeremiah, Donna, and Chelsea Mack

    Twenty-three years have passed since Jeremiah died, but they just received a new comment about him on fpcv.org a couple of weeks ago. It was such a nice surprise to hear a story that they'd never heard before, from someone they never would have heard from otherwise. Things like that happen somewhat regularly. Returned volunteers seem to visit the site as much as families do. Some of Chelsea’s favorite comments and emails have come from host country nationals, either just sharing a story or searching for the family of a fallen volunteer so they can tell them what an impact the volunteer had on their lives. Chelsea’s hope is that, by giving people a place (albeit only a virtual one at this point) to visit and to find community, some small need has been met. She knows the support that she has received from others in this community has lessened her burden, and she hopes that she has done a bit of the same for them.

     

    Chelsea and her mother have also spent some time with other families in-person at events in Washington D.C., traveled to nearby states to meet for lunch, and hosted visitors in Maine!

     Chelsea and Donna Mack at the U.S. Capitol Building

    Both Chelsea and her mother Donna have some words to share with those that are grieving the loss of a loved one:

    From Chelsea:

    “I think people need to be patient with themselves. Grief is like love; it is always with you. I used to wonder when it would get easier, but I haven't asked myself that question in a long time. I've learned that it just changes and evolves. I think it helps if you can find something to pour your grief into. The people I've come to know through this project do so in many different ways. Some continue the work of the volunteer they lost or support the community in which they served. Others work for change related to the safety of volunteers, raise money for scholarships, or tend memorial gardens. I think we are all striving to honor the service and sacrifice of the volunteer we loved and lost.”

     

    Chelsea and Jeremiah in Niger in 1996

    From Donna:

    “In the beginning, the biggest help for me was writing letters to Alma (mother of FPCV Jeremy Rolfs) and receiving her letters in return. We had never met and we live on opposite coasts, but we emptied our souls to each other in those letters. Later, the FPCV website led to correspondence with other parents. Now, we also have a Facebook page and have become Facebook friends with many other FPCV families. Some of us met in Washington D.C. at the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, but most of us never have. Somehow, though, it feels like we know each other. Some of them feel almost like family. We follow each other's lives, understanding the sorrow of birthdays and anniversaries (and every day in between) as well as the bittersweet nature of the joyous occasions. My advice to others would be to find people who understand you and help you to feel less alone. If we can be those people for you, please reach out.”

     

    We thank Chelsea and Donna Mack for their contribution to the legacy of the Peace Corps and for creating this beautiful community where families and friends of fallen Peace Corps Volunteers can pay tribute to those that lost their lives while serving others so far from home and in pursuit of peace.