By Patricia A. Wand, Colombia VIII 1963-1965
After the final session of Peace Corps Connect – Berkeley, as I got on the dorm elevator to retrieve my bags and head out, another returned PCV got on with me. He was probably in his sixties and, making small talk, I asked, “Is this the first Peace Corps Connect you’ve attended?” With a smile he said, “Yes, it is. And next year will be the second.”
That pretty well summed it up for all of us.
He went on to explain. The speakers were informative and stimulating, the contributions of fellow RPCVs to the world and their communities continue unabated and their stories are astounding. Most of all and overall, the spirit of Peace Corps was pervasive. Throughout the plenary sessions, the breakouts and individual interactions he was reminded of the reasons so many of us signed up in the first place.
For every Peace Corps Connect, Friends of Colombia joins forces with National Peace Corps Association to offer something special focusing on Colombia. And now that Peace Corps has come alive again in Colombia, it makes our efforts even more rewarding.
Peace Corps Connect – Berkeley was no exception. FOC sponsored a Colombia Gathering on Friday afternoon, June 5, and a lively dinner on Friday evening. In addition, and for their first reunion ever, fifteen RPCVs who trained in Colombia VIII joined forces for meals and informal events to mark the milestone 50 years since they left Colombia.
On Friday afternoon more than 40 Colombia RPCVs gathered on the UC Berkeley campus in standing-room-only space, introducing themselves one-by-one and participating in lively discussions with two outstanding speakers, Michael Edward Stanfield and Samuel Sharon Farr.
Michael E. Stanfield, Professor of History and Latin American Studies, University of San Francisco shared his research on why and how beauty has become a central positive identity marker for Colombians. He posits that Colombians focus on beauty and beauty pageants in order to divert attention from the complicated realities of daily life; that is, the insecurity, poverty and violence that pervade the lives of most non-elite Colombians. Through well-chosen photos spanning nearly two centuries, Stanfield illustrated how the Colombian concept of beauty changed from indigenous traits to European and western characteristics as Colombia shifted over time into the global economy. He admitted his own surprise in how much he discovered about Colombia and even U.S. policies through his study of Colombian fashion trends over time, aesthetic values and beauty. Stanfield’s latest book is Of Beasts and Beauty: Gender, Race, and Identity in Colombia (University of Texas Press 2013).
Our own U.S. Congressman Sam Farr addressed the group next, building on his keynote address earlier in the day at the opening session for Peace Corps Connect. Farr served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia 1964 – 1966, assigned to the barrio of Castilla in Medellin in an Urban Community Development program. Early in his service, Farr learned first hand the sustainability of citizen-focused, self-directed projects when he supported the barrio in the construction of a long-desired soccer field. That experience with Acción Comunál laid the groundwork for his life of service. He share stories about his recent return to Colombia and the barrio as well as Colombia-related legislation in Congress that he has help to craft. He saluted the return of Peace Corps Volunteers to Colombia and the role Friends of Colombia had in facilitating their return.
Colombia RPCVs, family and friends gathered Friday evening for more stories, reminiscing and laughter. Sixty-three people enjoyed an informal reception at the HS Lordship Restaurant overlooking the Bay and just as they sat to eat they were unexpectedly joined by Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet (RPCV Samoa) and staffer Chris Austin (RPCV). Their presence broadened the scope of topics at some tables to include current and future Peace Corps activities. On Saturday, Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet addressed a plenary session of Peace Corps Connect.
Friends of Colombia activities in Berkeley were supported by the FOC Board and coordinated by Pat Wand and Dick Miller who oversaw local arrangements. Pat Kelly, FOC Newsletter Editor, joined in hosting attendees.
Mark your calendars now. Peace Corps’ 55th anniversary is 2016 and we’ll be celebrating it at Peace Corps Connect in Washington DC, September 23 – 25, 2016. See you there!