Conversations: The Future of the Peace Corps
By Guest Contributor on Tuesday, November 8th, 2011
“Conversations: The Future of Peace Corps” was the featured 50th anniversary event for Saturday afternoon, September 24, 2011. With rumors flying about available seating, getting through the long line outside the National Theater to attend “Conversations” seemed like quite a feat. But once inside, everyone found a seat.
The big draw to “Conversations” was its master of ceremonies, Bill Moyers. Known to everyone for his candid and thoughtful commentary as a journalist and known to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) as a member of Peace Corps’ founding team, Moyers did not disappoint us.
He was there to moderate a panel of global leaders who, over the years, have frequently and publicly acknowledged their personal indebtedness to Peace Corps Volunteers for their own education and careers. Alejandro Toledo, President of his native Peru for 5 years; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, UN adviser, former Finance Minister and 2009 presidential candidate in Afghanistan; and Atiku Abubakar, former Vice President of Nigeria, were panelists with Moyers posing the questions and setting the tone.
The lead-off was a rouser. It went roughly like this:
Moyers: President Toledo, has the Peace Corps shaped your life?
Toledo: (pause) Is the Pope Catholic?
Moyers: We’re no longer sure.
Toledo went on to tell his story about how Peace Corps Volunteers found him in a Peruvian shanty town, looking for a way to go to school. They took him into their house; fed, clothed and supported him through high school. Peace Corps Volunteerss helped him get to the University of San Francisco where he earned the bachelors degree and later went on to earn a doctorate at Stanford University.
Toledo told us, “The second thing I did when I became President of Peru was pick up the phone and call the President of the U.S. asking for Peace Corps to return to Peru.” (Peace Corps left Peru in 1982.)
Ashraf Ghani said he learned English from PCVs, who taught him between 1963 and 1966. At the time, Peace Corps was a strong contrast in Afghanistan to the image of the U.S. in Viet Nam. PCVs express the American spirit in action, they “made things happen.” For volunteers “to delay graduate school and getting jobs, and to live in difficult circumstances is an act of greatness,” he said.
Atiku Abubakar had PCVs as teachers in Yola, Nigeria. His appearance was by satellite hook-up and, because he was linked in for only 30 minutes, he missed the personal tone of the conversation that had been set by Moyers and the previous speakers. Nonetheless he got several messages across; including “The Peace Corps is committed to avoiding a clash of cultures and that is what the world needs. There should be no fortress for Islam, no fortress for Buddhism; we need people to connect, to live and work in a network.”
Others picked up on the “network” topic, turned it into “social network” and discussed it in the context of the value of Peace Corps and its approach.
Moyers touched on the U.S. domestic situation with the observation that various forces are at work now that are “trying to de-construct the U.S. social contract, so delicately won over 200 years.” He commented: “We are a troubled society.” He referred to a recent conversation among American historians who observed that the current fractious times of uncompromising partisanship are similar in intensity to the period prior to the U.S. Civil War.
Overall the speakers reminded us how Peace Corps service makes a difference in host countries, often without the volunteers themselves knowing it. Moyers was his shining self and left us all thinking differently about one thing or another.
[Thank you to NPCA board member Patricia Wand for contributing this piece... and for her excellent note taking!]