I write this inspired by a New York Times op-ed earlier this year, “Should Young Americans be Required to Give a Year of Service?” I also note that this week marks the 60th anniversary of enactment of the legislation which created the Peace Corps.
In 1968, my former wife and I were among 80 volunteers selected for two-year Peace Corps assignments in Jamaica, the fifth Peace Corps group to be sent to Jamaica following President Kennedy’s founding of the Peace Corps in 1961. Like many, I was inspired by JFK’s grand vision, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” (Dismissed by Richard Nixon as a refuge for draft dodgers, the Peace Corps created a deferment, but not an alternative to military service. When I returned in 1971, I narrowly missed the draft, thanks to a lucky draw in the draft number lottery.)
Our class of 80 volunteers trained together for eight weeks immediately prior to our departure for Jamaica. We lived with families in San Diego’s inner city, and trained at a neighborhood school facility. My wife and I lived with Gladys and “Daddy,” who were having second thoughts about their sign-up when we first arrived, but who fully embraced us as they came to understand the Peace Corps through us. Personal cars were verboten for all of us, so getting around was by foot or the bus. The point of siting our training in the inner city was cultural immersion in preparation for our Jamaican cross-cultural experience. That summer happened to mark the Black Panther’s first presence in inner-city San Diego, just one facet of our very real cross-cultural experience. OK, everybody out of their comfort zones! Our trainers were a mix of Peace Corps administrative staff from Washington and returned volunteers, just back from their two-year assignments in Jamaica. This team was made up of the most energetic and earnest people I’ve ever known. There was discipline and intensity to the training, and as many as six or eight of our class didn’t make the cut. In Peace Corps speak, they were “deselected.” Several others voluntarily deselected during our first year in Jamaica.
With just a few exceptions, we were all fresh college grads. By design, the Peace Corps had chosen us as generalists, not technical specialists. The jobs into which most would be slotted were public school teaching assignments. But I was one of seven assigned to work with the commercial fishermen, almost all of whom fished from dugout canoes powered by sails or outboard engines. Each of my six colleagues was assigned to live and work with the fishermen in one of the many fishing villages around the island. Assessed as the “corporate guy,” I was assigned to the Kingston-based Jamaica Co-operative Union, Ltd., the headquarters organization for the loosely affiliated fishermen’s cooperatives established in each of the larger villages. The co-operative union’s primary functions were to import and distribute fishing equipment, strengthen wholesale seafood marketing channels, and be the public and government relations voice for fishermen. None of us (the volunteers) knew anything about commercial fishing. Our work was about building community support for the mutual benefit of cooperative efforts and promoting rudimentary business methods at the village co-ops. Today, we probably would be best described as “community organizers.” Much of my work was traveling around the island, meeting with fishermen’s groups, proselytizing for the co-operative union. I also worked on communications and government relations, starting a monthly newsletter, the Jamaican Fisherman, and organizing an All Island Fishermen’s Conference involving delegates from across the island in sessions with representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
Peace Corps assignments were typically for two years, but I stayed for three. The project motivating my request for a third-year extension was the co-operative union’s launch of a boatyard to build deep sea fishing boats. The co-op’s goal was to create a new offshore fishing fleet to reduce the pressure on inshore fish stocks. We brought together international financial and boatbuilding technical help from the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, and British, Canadian, and Jamaican governments. I wanted to be there for the splash of our first boat, and we made it!
My Peace Corps experience was a great personal benefit. It was my first job involving professional responsibility, and a sort of on-the-job graduate education program, better preparing me for law school and beyond. “Privileged” is a relative term, and I had never thought of my middle-class upbringing as such. But the Peace Corps gave me perspectives on the American experience that influence me to this day. I think I served well as an “ambassador” for America, and made real contributions through my work. As volunteers we took JFK’s founding vision seriously.
I wouldn’t mandate public service, but if our country could rekindle and inspire public service among young Americans in greater numbers, I know that they and our nation would be better for it.
Doug West, a retired attorney and Chilmark resident, spent three years in the Peace Corps from 1968 to 1971.