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Pierce Martin

Martin Pierce came in contact with SCI-India in 1970 while teaching in the Punjab as a VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) volunteer. He returned to India as a LTV in Nangloi in 1972-1974, and again returned with Juliet in 1975-1977, volunteering at Visionville, leaving after the birth of their son. Subsequently he served with IVS (International Voluntary Service), as a Field Officer and as its Chairperson. He has used his experiences working as an independent development consultant, mostly in Nigeria or Sierra Leone.

Origin of the text
Olivier Bertrand: Breaking down barriers 1945-1975, 30 years of voluntary service for peace with Service Civil International.
Paris (2008)

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Martin Pierce

Joining SCI

In summer 1970 a friend told me he was going to a workcamp in Dharamsala in North India. Knowing nothing about workcamps or SCI, I decided this would be fun and went along with him, without applying through SCI India. We walked in one day late. Fortunately for me (not for him!), the camp leader, John Hitchins, was in hospital with hepatitis and nobody objected to my presence.
The Dharamsala workcamp was a significant ‘peak experience’. So many different strands of what I was looking for came together and I felt that I had arrived ‘home’. On reflection this can be explained by:

My expectations arising from the workcamp were essentially that I had found an organisation that had provided me, and could continue to provide me, with an experience of feeling complete.

My experience with SCI - dates and positions held:

Enjoyable aspects

The following were particularly pleasant experiences:

Some less happy experiences

An anecdote

One day on my first workcamp in Dharamsala it was raining hard and the workcamp team decided that it would be a rest day. However, I was so exhilarated by my new found purpose in life that I set off on my own, with crowbar in hand, up the rather steep hill to the work site. There I happily spent the day trying to break up the rock-face so that foundations for an orphanage could be laid. My enthusiasm was impressive but largely ineffective, particularly in contrast with the six Tibetan women besides me who were rhythmically and collaboratively splitting the rocks with far less effort and singing all the while. One wonderful aspect of SCI has always been that, for the most part, its volunteers may not ‘have a clue’ or be highly productive but their aspiration and commitment is what makes a difference.

My thoughts on the work

In my experience the short-term workcamps were mostly highly successful and had a significant impact on the majority of those that took part. In my view they are a very effective means of breaking down barriers between people, through the combined impact of socially productive work tasks, shared communal living, and the explicit ideology and objectives of the organisation.
The long term projects were, in my experience, less satisfying, being more complex and requiring a degree of management skills and life experience that were generally undeveloped in most of the volunteers. However, the experience and learning resulting from being given responsibility beyond what was merited were themselves highly valuable.

I never expected that SCI would contribute significantly to world peace and the abolition of discrimination and poverty. What mattered more was the opportunity to find out the power of what collaboration and working together can achieve and the importance of symbolic action.

As I look back

What I miss about my years in SCI are the ‘camraderie’, the sense of purpose, the internationalism, the innocent idealism and the sense of finding a ‘home’ outside in the world of work. I have no regrets about leaving and moving on and exploring other possibilities, but I have a deep and lasting affection for the organisation and the people in it. This is reinforced strongly when meeting up with SCI friends, and, particularly, at the recent get-together of the `70’s vintage of SCI in Birmingham.

Of the many organisations that I have been involved with subsequently, none has been as rewarding in such a complete way. Other organisations have been more effective, or better managed, or less conflicted, but none has taught me so much about what works well, what inspires and what heals. I think this is primarily because SCI more completely involves a person’s belief system, their working life and the way they relate socially to their fellows, whether on the basis of friendship or merely shared space.

My appreciation today of SCI aims

As I interpret these aims, they seem more relevant than ever and timeless. I would characterise them as:

Of its efficiency

I wouldn’t want to pretend that SCI is any more efficient than other organisations – however, as mentioned above, I would claim that workcamps as a methodology are highly efficient in achieving the aims of the organisation. I consider that SCI has been less efficient in its organisational management and development, especially in the following respects:

Personal benefits

SCI’s impact on others

From continued contact with very many of my colleagues from working in India, and, less so, from my days in IVS, it seems that, to a greater or lesser extent, the experience of working with SCI has been mostly positive and rewarding.
As frequently mentioned above, I think workcamps generally have a significant impact on the lives of most of the participants. Because many of SCI’s work projects took international teams to places and to people that would, otherwise, not be exposed to international and idealistic groups of people, I imagine there has been a beneficial impact, too, on our hosts.

Relevance to the requirements and spirit of the times

Not much has changed that would make SCI less relevant. Divisions and conflicts at a personal, communal, and international level require just as imaginative and transformative commitments from individuals. Whilst alternatives to military service may no longer be as much required, given the voluntary nature of most armed services, the visible demonstration of the power of individuals, whatever their superficial differences, to transform divisions and conflicts in the world remains as essential as ever.

Lasting impact - on politics or career

My politics were largely taking shape before joining SCI and were a reason for joining it. They have not changed much.

After SCI I worked in peace education, mediation and conflict management, and international development. What I bring to these areas of work was incalculably shaped by the experiences of working in SCI India and IVS.

On travel

Not sure how much the urge to travel was planted by an early childhood spent in India, or how much by working in India as an adult. Both have ensured that I now spend more time outside my home in the UK and more time in countries in West Africa.

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