NorCal Historic Overview
In 1981 some local RPCVs decided to organize as an “alumni group” in northern California. Peace Corps had just celebrated its 20th anniversary, which included a conference at Stanford that year, and conferences attendees, with support from the local Peace Corps recruiting office, wanted to stay connected. NorCal came out of that 1981 Stanford conference and is now one of the largest RPCV groups in the country. Following is our history
Prior to 1981, there was a group called “After-Action,” made up of RPCVs and ex-VISTAs, when the federal agency of ACTION administered those programs. In the late 70s, they had social events, helped recruit and swapped stories. And, even earlier, there were RPCV activists in the Bay Area from the Committee for Returned Volunteers, which resisted the Vietnam War and occupied Peace Corps headquarters in DC.
In 1981, the San Francisco Peace Corps recruiting office invited some RPCVs to organize a celebration for the 20th anniversary of Peace Corps. From that came a conference at Stanford University in November 1981. The conference committee included a bunch of 60s volunteers and some recently-returned 70s folks. By coincidence, 4 of these ” Phil Liston, Michael Jonas, Tom Thibault and Andy Grimstad ” worked at Wells Fargo Bank, so they got us $500 seed money. Peace Corps did the mailing and publicity; the fee was $10 for the daylong event, plus $2.50 for a bag lunch from Togo’s. 200 people showed up. There were Peace Corps and country updates, workshops, and a guest speaker, followed by a reception. It was a huge success and the energy carried over to form a group.
The Northern California Council of RPCVs formed in late 1981 and incorporated as a nonprofit by October 1982. It was to be an “umbrella organization” for RPCV groups in northern California with the stated purpose of public awareness of Peace Corps and developing nations and to assist prospective PCVs and returned PCVs. The clever 60s volunteers “chose” young, recently-returned Marilyn Hyde as the first president, a wise move, and used her San Mateo home as our address. We linked up with the National Council of RPCVs, then based in Omaha. Our first newsletter came out in late 1982 and by 1983 it was named Connecting.
For an encore to Stanford, we had a conference in Berkeley in October 1982 called Activism after Peace Corps. There were country/regional updates and symposia on issues and activism. The keynote speaker, Nepal RPCV Julia Chang Bloch from USAID, created some controversy with discussion of cooperation between Peace Corps and AID, not a popular approach at the time. Some more activist RPCVs set up an East Bay group to get more political than NorCal felt comfortable with ”but they re-infiltrated NorCal a few years later and claim they took it over.
Since we were on a roll, we held more conferences in the 1980s, at USF in 1985, where US Senator Alan Cranston and State Senator and RPCV John Garamendi spoke, and at San Francisco State in 1986 for the 25th anniversary of Peace Corps, with Peace Corps Director Loret Ruppe as keynoter. In addition, NorCal had a strong presence at the big 25th Anniversary Conference in DC; NorCal president Susan Neyer was also on the National Council Board. NorCal’s slide show/video, Peace Corps Impressions (produced by Darrel Hess and Ken Logan) was shown at the Kennedy Center as a highlight of that 1986 conference.
NorCal was very involved with outreach to the community in the 1980s. We sponsored panels covering current issues in Central America, Philippines, South Africa, and Ethiopia. As an organization of nonprofits involved in development arose in the Bay Area (Forum of International Development Organization - FIDO), NorCal joined forces with several, including Oxfam and IDEX, to commemorate San Francisco CARES week with well-attended dinners with international speakers. In the late 80s, we carried out a High School Awareness Program, running essay contests and sending three students each year to spend time with PCVs in the field (to Sri Lanka in 1988 and Belize in 1989). NorCal received a Biden-Pell grant from NPCA to develop a series of regional slide shows for our speakers.
In the 80s, NorCal’s board met monthly at the Peace Corps office in San Francisco, where Pete Johnson worked for years. The group was perceived as a San Francisco-centered group. A Member Group Task Force proposed by RPCVs from the South Bay was set up in 1991 to review NorCal’s structure with the aim of decentralizing. Sacramento had set up a separate group in 1987, so the task force sought to strengthen the local groups ” as envisioned when we were created as an umbrella organization. As a result, board members now represent member groups based on the size of the group with some at-large reps, all still under term limits and meetings rotate among the 5 large member groups. Dues were shared with member groups for their activities. The organization also changed its name in 1994 to the Northern California Peace Corps Association and revised bylaws were approved in 1995.
Berkeley Conference: 1993
NorCal’s reputation as a strong and active group with close to 1000 members drew Peace Corps Directors Paul Coverdell, Elaine Chao and Carol Bellamy to visit us in the late 80s/early 90s, along with Chic Dambach from NPCA. In 1993, NorCal hosted the national conference at UC Berkeley, which drew 1200 attendees. It was a huge undertaking and brought in many RPCVs to plan and work on it ”some of whom stayed involved with NorCal over the ensuing years. Our membership grew and the proceeds from the conference and from the sale of our T-shirts and other products allowed us to set up an endowment from which we continue to fund our grants program.
After the “high” of the Berkeley conference, NorCal continued its evolution into a more member group-based organization. There were fewer NorCal-wide events than in the 1980s and more of the activity was based in the member groups. From the homeless dinners in the South Bay to trail clearings at Pt. Reyes in the North Bay, from hangouts and ethnic dinners to community service projects, there wereâ€”and areâ€” lots of opportunities for RPCVs to participate. Make A Difference Day each October in the late 90s gave member groups a chance to do community service on a set day.
On a NorCal-wide basis, the Annual General Meetings (AGM) in February (held since 1983) and the annual picnic (held since 1984â€”in Golden Gate Park before the fog moved us to Lafayette) continued to draw crowds. Giants and A’s games were fund-raisers and good times for all of NorCal. NorCal worked with the Peace Corps office in recruitment, including using a 1994 NPCA grant for minority awareness. The job mentor program for recently-returned PCVs was given a boost by another 1994 NPCA grant plus a 1998 training workshop for mentors, both made available from Peace Corps funding to NPCA. Even though our Speakers Bureau has been dormant, we have still been able to participate in Peace Corps Day each March. Since 1994, Chris Carlisle has hosted a party for recently-returned PCVs.
And in November, 1997, NorCal celebrated its 15th anniversary with a one day conference at the College of Marin, where over 100 turned out to hear speakers, recognize our founders, attend workshops, see exhibits and party.
NorCal continued to be active in the Southwest Region (CA, NV, AZ, HI) by participating in regional meetings and conferences. Nationally, we were present at national conferences, selling our products and playing an active role in workshops and Presidents’ Forum meetings, as well as partying and seeing old friends. From 1986 until 2001, Susan Neyer and then Pete Johnson represented us on the NPCA Board. From 1999-2001, Jim Solomon was Presidents’ Forum Coordinator and thus also on the NPCA Board, while other NorCal’ers have served on NPCA committees.
Into the 2000s
Peace Corps turned 40 in 2001. NorCal celebrated at Lake Merritt in Oakland in February as 200+ turned out for a dinner, speakers and dancing, setting a precedent of Annual General Meetings with a party. A panel of prominent RPCVs took place at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. The national conference, postponed from September 2001 by 9/11, was held June 2002 in DC and NorCal was there as usual. Advocacy returned as a component of NorCal via an NPCA workshop in early 2002, as issues affecting the developing world and Peace Corps followed 9/11. The Peace Corps Cultural festival in Golden Gate Park in 2004 and 2005 brought huge crowds to an educational and fun event jointly sponsored by NorCal and the San Francisco Peace Corps Office (which moved to Oakland in 2006). The annual picnic returned to Golden Gate Park in SF in October 2006 after 12 years in Lafayette in the East Bay. In 2008 we “found” a small neglected Peace Corps park in Martinez (dedicated to a PCV who died in service), helped rehabilitate it and held an event there. The NPCA held its Annual General Meeting plus board meeting and Group Leaders forum in SF in October 2008 with NorCal as host. Later in the decade NorCal could boast 3 RPCVs in Congress (Sam Farr, Mike Honda, John Garamendi) out of 6 total in the House and Senate. The “Pre-Connect” and “Country Connect” projects with the local Peace Corps office were upgraded and revitalized in the early 2000s as we assisted future PCVs. Our regular member group activities continued along with the annual recently returned party in Berkeley and an annual holiday party. The NorCal Grants Committee continued to fund projects, mostly overseas, via fundraising and calendar sales.
NorCal Changes for New Century
A new generation of RPCVs stepped up to lead us into the 21st century. The majority of the board was PCVs from the 1990s or later, with lots of support from "old-timers" on committees and just helping out. The use of electronic communication became a dominant theme of the new leadership. The NorCal web page and 7 listservs had already become mainstays of communication along with our award-winning bimonthly newsletter, Connecting.
In early 2005, the monthly electronic newsletter e-Connection came online to provide timely and cheaper communication in a format appealing to many while the paper Connecting became a quarterly publication. The last paper issue of Connecting was sent out in May 2008 as it went electronic with issues available on the website for downloading until November 2009 when it ceased regular publication after 28 years. Connecting transitioned to an annual report to be sent out prior to the AGM and board elections.
Our 7 listservs switched to Yahoo Groups in 2005. Our website was upgraded in 2006 and switched to a new host as we added the option to pay online via PayPal in 2007. When our volunteer database guru moved east in 2005 our database was transitioned from ancient FoxBASE to Excel in a “holding pattern” awaiting a new online database with NPCA. The “holding” lasted until 2009 when NorCal developed its own online database on our website.
In February 2005 NorCal amended its By-Laws for the first time in years to end term limits for board members while requiring them for officers who now would serve two year terms with a limit of two terms. In February, 2008 the By-Laws were amended again to allow for electronic voting plus some other changes including eliminating the small groups board representative and making it another at large rep, eliminating specific member group numbers and moving the Annual General Meeting from the last Saturday in February to January.
Changes in our membership structure came as dues paying members decreased from a high of 800 plus in the 90s to 400 in the middle of the decade and NPCA from 12,000 to 7,000. The causes were seen as national dues increasing to $50 (including one group) and more RPCV info was available free online so why pay. Thus our finances were tighter than normal. As of February 2006, after almost 20 years as a “joint dues” group where members had to join both NorCal and NPCA, NorCal returned to an “optional dues” group where members could chose between both NPCA and NorCal or just NorCal. Family and 3 year memberships were dropped by NPCA and thus by NorCal. NorCal dues were raised from $15 to $19.
Editors Note: Compiled by NorCal Archivist Pete Johnson in September, 2002 from the memories and notes of former NorCal Presidents Marilyn Hyde, Susan Neyer and Phil Liston, as well as his own and updated in January, 2006 and March 2017 through the the end of 2009. Stay tuned for the next decade coming soon.