Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Peace Corps and its challenges

BOND: Let me ask you this question—how did you decide that you would leave home, leave the country, go to a foreign land. It seems to me it's a challenge for any young person to do. Obviously, people did it and you did it. How did you come to that?

WILLIAMS: I think, first of all, I was inspired by what I heard from Sargent Shriver and Kennedy's idea—ask not and all of that. I think also because I had read so much I knew a lot about the world. Also, I studied geography in college and so geography took me around the world and I was curious. I wanted to know more about the outside world and I thought this maybe might be my only opportunity through the Peace Corps—well structured, planned activity and opportunity to do that, so I decided to do that but it was tough because everybody said this is a big mistake. You don't know what you're going to run into over there. You've given up a great job in Chicago and thank God my mother, and this is really interesting to me, my mother who had never traveled anywhere before, she had this vision, she thought this was a good idea. She said this is a great idea, you do this.

BOND: Really? And it turned out, I guess, as you imagined.

WILLIAMS: It turned out even more than I could've imagined. It turned out to be a marvelous experience. The people I met in the Peace Corps, the things I did in the Peace Corps, have been part and parcel of my life until right now.

BOND: I don't think we understand today how challenging it could've been there. I read something that you reminded me of—no cell phones, you had one telephone call per year with your family.

WILLIAMS: That's right. It was really quite a stretch. I was in a small town about 2,000 people, north of the capital of Santo Domingo. I would go to the post office and they would ring me through to Santo Domingo. Then they would ring me through AT&T long lines to Miami, then patch me on to Chicago and then I would've sent my mother a letter a month before saying, "I'm going to call you, Mom, on July 15th. Please be home to take my call." And so she'd be there. She'd answer the phone so I'd say, "can you hear me? Did you hear what I said? Did you get my letter? I can't talk long. This is very expensive. I can only talk about five minutes," and it was quite an ordeal. But it was amazing when we think back to those days and how easy it is today.

BOND: I can imagine today's Peace Corps volunteers with Skype and sitting before the computer talking to their mothers, their fathers, their friends and so on. You had none of that.

WILLIAMS: We didn't have any of that.

BOND: Now, going through your training, did you have any Spanish?

WILLIAMS: I didn't have any. I studied German in Chicago in high school, in elementary and high school.

BOND: And the Peace Corps gave you Spanish?

WILLIAMS: Spanish. Wonderful training. Wonderful instructors from the countries where we were going to serve and when you think about it, sometimes I think back to the time when I didn't speak Spanish and I can't remember actually it's been so long now. I've been speaking Spanish such a long period of time now.

BOND: Wow. What did you do in the Peace Corps?

WILLIAMS: I was a teacher.

BOND: Teaching what?

WILLIAMS: I taught everything. I was in a program, a teacher - training program, a really marvelous program. In those days, in the Dominican Republic, rural school teachers only had about a 6th grade education. They were barely ahead of the students they were teaching, so the government gave them an opportunity, also funded by the U.S. government, to get a high school diploma and improve their teaching techniques and also the opportunity to get a raise and a chance to be positioned to take a new job in an urban district which would improve their quality of life, so the teachers that I worked with gave up their summers for two years and all of their weekends to come to a central place where a group of Peace Corps volunteers taught them and we taught everything—language arts, math, science, chemistry. We taught geography and all this had to be done in Spanish so your Spanish had to get up to speed real fast.