Chuck Ludlam and Paula Hirschoff write: Renewing the Bond of Trust with Volunteers
At its founding, the Peace Corps was premised on a radical and idealistic notion that many thought was impractical and even outlandish. It took bold vision and risk taking—a New Frontier mentality, a land-on-the-moon mentality—to give this notion a try. The notion was that we could trust Americans, mostly young Americans, to envision what it would take to improve the lives of villagers in the developing world, to survive hardships, and to make the best of the situation and its challenges. It took visionaries like Sargent Shriver, Bill Moyers and Harris Wofford—leaders who trusted and listened to Volunteers—to put this brilliant idea into practice.
Over the decades, there has been no change in Volunteers that warrants a diminution of this bond of trust. As stated above, we are impressed with the Volunteers with whom we serve. Almost without exception, they are idealistic, resourceful and hard working. We find that they are more mature and wise to the world than we were at their age. We are proud to serve with them, and know that many will be friends for life. We invite you to visit the Volunteers in the field to see for yourself. We believe you will be inspired as we are.
Unfortunately, today some Peace Corps managers seem to assume that Volunteers are slackers and adolescents needing strict rules and discipline. Volunteers often get the impression that the managers don't trust us. They often seem to act as if Volunteers need to be tethered so that we won't embarrass the Country Director or generate a Congressional inquiry. When the agency suffers a rare negative incident, its instinct is to construct a bulwark of paperwork and rules in hopes of preventing a recurrence. En loco parentis condescension and risk aversion seem to be common attitudes.
One probable cause of condescension is the substantial age differential between managers and Volunteers, who tend to be straight out of college with little work experience. These skewed demographics might pose problems, but they do not justify treating Volunteers like juveniles. The Volunteers may be young, but they are exceptional individuals with deep insights into their work, their sites, and their needs at site. Condescension is sure to discourage older Volunteers from serving.
Hierarchical organizations, like the present-day Peace Corps, are notoriously poor at listening. They tend to command, dictate and impose, demoralizing Volunteers in the process. In many cases what Volunteers hear from the managers are demands—to write more reports or comply with more rules. Predictably, some Volunteers become resentful and unproductive or they terminate their service early.
Early termination is a plague in the Peace Corps. It squanders the expenses of the selection process, screening, site preparation, training and settling in. It dashes the hopes and expectations of the community in which the Volunteer was serving. The best way to reduce ETs is for the Peace Corps to listen better to what the Volunteers need to be effective and productive, as S. 732 commands.
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