Peace Corps’ Past and Present
By Jonathan Pearson on Friday, October 15th, 2010
- Jody Olsen and Stanley Meisler were two of the panelists discussing Peace Corps’ history
As Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary events at the University of Michigan began to give way on Friday to homecoming weekend, there was still activity, including a panel discussion focused on the history of the agency from its dynamic beginnings to the present.
Stanley Meisler served as Deputy Director of Evaluation and Research in the early years of the Peace Corps. He is also the author of the forthcoming book When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years. He noted that throughout its history, Peace Corps has faced a constant tension between being considered a relevant part of U.S. foreign policy and maintaining its independence.
In the early years, “The excitement level (about the Peace Corps) was very high,” said Meisler, who told an audience of 75 that the names of the first volunteers to go to Ghana and the Philippines “were listed in the New York Times, just like the listing of a new Secretary of the Army.”
The excitement wasn’t only on this side of the world. “We met the Prime Minister…We were wined and dined by every minister in Thailand,” said Al Guskin, whose activism and support for the Peace Corps led to his becoming a member of the first group of Thailand volunteers.
Meisler says the questions of Peace Corps’ relevance, U.S. foreign policy and politics has impacted decisions made over the years on country selection and volunteer numbers – from the shift to increase volunteers in Latin America in the early years, to the growth of programs and expansion of volunteers in eastern Europe and Central Asia at the end of the Cold War.
Former Deputy Director Jody Olsen (Tunisia 66-68) countered by saying that while many see macro political issues in those decisions, buried in there are the micro Peace Corps experiences that have a compelling impact. “The values of Americans being in these places during important times, learning from others during times of transition is why I’m such a believer in the role we play in some countries we don’t normally think of (for hosting volunteers).”
Olsen shared a story from Peace Corps’ early days in Poland, when she met with the Deputy Minister of Education who said that many people had come, made promises and then go away. Eighteen months later she returned with then Director Paul Coverdell. The Deputy Minister showed them a map of the 27 English language training centers that had been formed around the country. “The Deputy Minister said they were able to do this because of the Peace Corps and because Peace Corps kept its promise.” Olsen said that meeting was the only time she saw Director Coverdell cry.
All of the panelists agreed on the power of the personal relationship and the subsequent pathway to greater understanding. Al Guskin said the most profound experience he had as a Peace Corps volunteer was developing a sense of cultural humility. “While you love your culture, you learn that other people love their culture…A sense of cultural humility would not allow us to have the attitudes we currently have against Muslims.” Audience participant Richard Baron (Somalia 64-66) commended the panelists on those comments. “I’m glad there’s an emphasis on human relationships, because that’s where the change comes from.”