Three weeks ago, I heard the awful news that Guyana Peace Corps country director, Earl Brown, sent two more volunteers home for “publishing” their Peace Corps experiences via a personal email to friends and family.
At the time, I knew little about the incident, which is why I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. Nonetheless, I still tossed and turned a few nights thinking about the fate of these two volunteers. I’ve since received a copy of an email sent by one of these volunteers regarding their departure.
A married couple, these two volunteers served as role models of how I hoped I would be seen by members of my community once I began my service. I think very highly of them both and assure you that Guyana suffered a big loss due to their departure.
Here are excerpts of their story. To protect their privacy, I’ll call them Chris and Sally.
After Sally and I returned from vacation, Sally was met with a cold reception at her office. The director told her that there was some “tension” that had arisen, and that Peace Corps staff had been notified.
We called Peace Corps three times that day and spoke separately to Kitty (security), Terrence (assignment director), and Earl Brown (country director). They informed us that “allegations” and “accusations” had been made against us, but would give no further details.
When asked how we should prepare for the meeting, Earl told us that if we had done nothing wrong, there would be no reason to prepare. No further advice was given.
At the meeting, it was revealed Sally’s office had a copy of a personal, private email I had posted sometime in September of last year. I do not know how they obtained it; it was not a newsletter, and although there was a large recipient list, it was not sent to any organization or group affiliated her office.
In it, I expressed my views about questionable practices that were rumored to occur at her office, including demonic exorcism as a part of their counseling sessions, and the sharing of their belief that prayer is a substitute for medication. I obviously never intended for her office to see the email.
The true intent was to seek advice regarding a difficult situation where her office, however flawed, was the only agency providing HIV/AIDS awareness to the community.
Besides voicing their displeasure at the email, her office fabricated additional accusations against us that, unprepared, we could not disprove, and the meeting degenerated into a farcical smear-fest of their-word-versus-ours.
Besides the email, the meeting was completely vilifying and unfounded. Terrence and Kitty (Peace Corps staff) made no effort to speak on our behalf, but joined the firing squad of accusations against us.
On more than one occasion, when I tried to defend myself against outright lies, Kitty told me to “shut up.” The meeting ended with Sally’s office saying they no longer trusted her or me in their organization. Terrence apologized for my insensitive behavior.
We were then cashiered to our home and given less than an hour to pack for a trip to Georgetown, where we met with Earl. The first words out of his mouth were “This is just like Jason Pearce all over again,” evidently disregarding the distinction between a public-domain website and a private email, dubiously obtained.
Although I regret my comments were interpreted as undiplomatic and critical, the email was private and never intended for public domain. I wrote the email from hearsay that I obtained from several different local sources, including other volunteers from Sally’s office.
At our next meeting, Earl asked what I had learned from my experience. I had not spoken more than twenty words about the friends I had made and people I met when he cut me off and interjected, “What about ‘cultural sensitivity?’ Or ‘humility?’ I would have expected this kind of behavior from a volunteer that had only been at their site a few months, but not from an experienced volunteer like you.” He ordered us pack our bags.
When we arrived home to pack, we found two of our friends waiting for us in tears. Within half an hour, our house was filled with almost thirty friends, neighbors, students, and business and community leaders, including Gordon Bradford, the regional chairman, the highest-ranking official in Region 7.
While we were saying our goodbyes, a friend handed me a petition to Peace Corps that had gone around town.
The petition has 204 signatures from students, the owners of the five largest businesses, the leadership of the Department of Education and the Regional Office, the Regional Democratic Council, the regional chairman, the hospital administration, three different international volunteer organizations, parents of students, respected religious and community leaders, and, interestingly, members of Sally’s office, including one who sat in on the meeting two days prior.
A copy of the petition was sent Sally’s office, Peace Corps Guyana, and the U.S. Embassy to be given to Ambassador Godard.
That afternoon, Earl told us that he’d received the petition, along with numerous phone calls along the same line. His concern, however, was with the image of Peace Corps.
Earl’s two major concerns were that we had irrevocably damaged our effectiveness in our community, and that if my email were ever leaked to the press, it could damage Peace Corps’ image throughout Guyana.
Earl informed us that he was giving Sally a non-disciplinary interrupted service, and that I had the choice of administrative separation or resigning. After much consideration, I decided to resign. The thought of continuing with this process in this bureaucracy is sickening. I have the support and thanks of my community; Peace Corps’ affirmation matters little compared to that.
After I had turned in my resignation, Earl told us that we were booked on the next flight out of Guyana, which was leaving early Saturday morning (Jan.18). After admonishing us one last time (and calling the stability of our marriage into question: “What kind of relationship do you have where you’d write something like this behind your wife’s back?”), he informed us that he would visit our community on Saturday to, as he put it, “mend fences.”
As he saw it, we had “divided the community,” What the people of our community had to say would have no bearing on our leaving the program; we were to be out of the country before Earl even arrived there. We were ordered not to communicate with anyone in our community.
Peace Corps Guyana has lost its way, ideologically. It is more concerned about maintaining image than serving Guyana. It is more concerned about the individual control issues of staff members than volunteer effectiveness or community needs. It is more concerned about making an example of problem volunteers than promoting a smooth entry into sites or developing site placement. It considers volunteers to be expendable and disposable, and not a resource.
Like any bureaucracy, it looks for the easiest way to cut its own workload, and if that means unnecessarily dismissing volunteers to provide two fresh new sites for incoming trainees, so be it. Peace Corps Guyana is not what Peace Corps should be about.
I make no excuses for my action in writing the email; I do not attempt to justify or minimize the severity of it. I recognize my mistake and understand the results of it. But: I submit that, if Peace Corps Guyana had acted differently, with the mindset of considering the best interests of its volunteers and the communities they serve, those results would have been different, and the outcome would have been far less damaging altogether. Blame me for the spark, blame them for the gunpowder they threw on it.