Today we honor and celebrate a pioneering psychologist, Carolyn Robertson Payton. She was also the first woman and the first person of color to serve as Director of the Peace Corps, appointed by President Carter. Born in Norfolk, VA in 1925, she came into a family that placed a high value on education. She attended Bennett College for Women, a Historically Black College, and credited the experience with helping foster her confidence in her abilities as a woman. She established a scholarship fund at the school late in her life.
She attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison for her MS in clinical psychology. (Ironically, the commonwealth of Virgina paid for her education under its “separate but equal” program since no university there would admit African Americans into such a program.) Her Masters’ thesis challenged a recently adopted intelligence test as inaccurate for minorities. This dedication to fairness was a hallmark of her entire career.
Payton spent the 1950s teaching psychology and pursuing further degrees. She became an assistant professor at Howard University in 1959 and earned her EdD in counseling and student administration in 1962. She joined the Peace Corps in 1964, using her clinical background to develop tools to help volunteers prepare for their assignments. She became Country Director for the Caribbean in 1967. In 1977, she became Director of the Peace Corps. Sadly and strategically, President Nixon had created ACTION as an umbrella for many social service organizations of the federal government (The Peace Corps’s history is not one of social justice). The director of ACTION routinely pulled volunteers out of other countries after they had developed useful skills to assign them to other jobs in the U.S. Payton resigned in protest.
As Director, I could not, because of the peculiar administrative structure under which the Peace Corps operates, do anything about this situation. As an ex-director, I am free to sound the alarm.
As a result of her actions, President Carter issued an executive order recreating the Peace Corps as an autonomous agency.
Payton returned to Howard University where she served as Dean of Counseling and Career Development and later Director of University Counseling Services until her retirement in 1995. She was an active member of the American Psychological Association (APA), focusing on the social implications of the work of her profession. She published the seminal paper “Who will do the hard work?” in 1984, arguing that psychology divorced from ethics and social responsibility would become a bankrupt discipline–much like the current field of social work today!
In her service to the APA, she served on many committees and task forces including the Committee on Scientific and Professional Ethics and Conduct, the Task Force on Sex Bias and Sex Role Stereotyping in Psychotherapeutic Practice, the Committee on Women in Psychology, the Committee on Lesbian and Gay Concerns, and the Policy and Planning Board. She was particularly concerned about the organization’s code of ethics, demanding that it maintain a focus on fundamental human rights.
The current code (APA, 1992) appears to have retreated from prioritizing this humanitarian stance. Ethnic minorities, women, gay men, and lesbians have reason to be apprehensive about the apparent downgrading in importance of psychologists’ declaration of respect for the dignity and worth of the individual.
She died of a heart attack in 2001, leaving behind an impressive legacy of support for human rights and dignity.