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A Walk in the Peace Corps Park

At last, we’ll create a permanent space in the nation’s capital  recognizing the work and ideals that animate Volunteers and their partners around the world.

by Roger Lewis and Glenn Blumhorst

When scores of members of the Peace Corps community visited Congress in March 2022 for the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) Day on the Hill, those who made their way on foot from Union Station southwest toward the U.S. Capitol might have passed a spot that will soon symbolize the very Peace Corps ideals they hold dear. Just steps from the National Mall, in a triangular park bounded by Louisiana Avenue, 1st Street, and C Street NW, lies the future home of the Peace Corps Commemorative—the nation’s first commemorative work dedicated to the timeless search for world peace.

It’s meant to be a place to pause, to reflect, and—in its design and in the words engraved there—to recognize the importance of the partnerships forged through Peace Corps service for more than 60 years. And in very good news for the Peace Corps community, last September the National Capital Planning Commission approved the proposal submitted by the Peace Corps Commemorative Foundation in collaboration with the National Park Service.

This decision follows on more good news previously reported in WorldView—that the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts voted unanimously to approve the design concept for the Peace Corps Commemorative. The design consists of a landscape in which three curved, sculpted granite benches embrace an intimate circular plaza, each bench with an outstretched human hand symbolizing giving and receiving, teaching and learning. The bench sculptures surround a world map inscribed in the granite plaza and that show earth’s continents without geopolitical boundaries. Interpretive texts inscribed on the bench backs face the three surrounding streets to be seen by visitors walking into the plaza.

A grove of deciduous trees will define, frame, and shade the entire triangular park. The integrated sculpture and vegetation will create an attractive, ecologically sensitive park for the neighborhood and city, as well as a memorable, national commemorative work only steps away from the National Mall and U.S Capitol Building.

This project has been some 15 years in the making, sparked by the work of NPCA and the leadership of Congressman Sam Farr, who served as a Volunteer in Colombia 1964–66. Now that the proposed site and design concept have been approved, what’s next? The Foundation is following through on final design and fundraising to ensure construction of the Commemorative, with groundbreaking anticipated in 2024.

“A LASTING REMINDER”

Former Congressman Farr, known affectionately by his colleagues as “Mr. Peace Corps” during his time on Capitol Hill, was a stalwart champion of the organization during his 24 years representing California’s Central Coast in the U.S. House. “Peace Corps represents the best of America,” he said time and again, while urging colleagues to increase Peace Corps funding so more Volunteers could serve. Legislation bearing his name, the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act of 2018, aimed to improve access to medical care for Volunteers, strengthen accountability and oversight, and enhance procedures to reduce the risk of crime in the countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve. Farr now serves as a member of the Peace Corps Commemorative Foundation board of directors. “Peace Corps service is a life changer for the individual, their family, and the host country; it should never be forgotten,” he says. “The Commemorative Park will be a lasting reminder.”

We couldn’t agree more. In the heart of the nation’s capital stand scores of memorials honoring those who have led this nation since its founding as well as the millions of patriotic Americans who have served and sacrificed at home and overseas in defense of our country and freedom. What’s missing is a permanent commemorative work honoring a different manifestation of America’s history: promoting peace through understanding and collaboration among peoples. It’s time to tell this missing part of America’s story more fully.

The Peace Corps Commemorative will honor not only the enduring, historic significance of the 1961 establishment of the Peace Corps, but also those timeless, transcendent ideals and values—compassion, generosity, perseverance—embodied in the Peace Corps and Volunteer service abroad and at home. This unique commemorative work is about America’s aspirations and character. Indeed, the very words “the better angels of our nature,” which have served as a touchstone for generations, are among the phrases proposed to be carved into the stone of this Commemorative.

Janet Greig served as a Volunteer in Andhra Pradesh, South India, 1966–68; she and her husband, Wylie Greig, met, fell in love, and married while serving together. A lifelong advocate for international understanding and engagement, Janet has been an indefatigable leader in the Peace Corps community as well. She served eight years on the NPCA board of directors, including several years as treasurer. Her leadership was instrumental in reimagining NPCA’s business model and social mission following the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary celebrations. She is now serving on the Commemorative Foundation board of directors. “The parcel of land adjacent to the National Mall that awaits the Commemorative is the perfect place to welcome folks to focus on Peace Corps and American values associated with cooperation and respect,” Greig says, “as opposed to wars and war heroes.”

Other members of the Foundation’s distinguished board of directors include former Congressman Joe Kennedy III, who served as a Volunteer in the Dominican Republic 2004-06; former Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams, who served in the Dominican Republic 1967–70; and former Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, who served in Western Samoa 1981–84.

A BETTER AND MORE PEACEFUL PLANET

The verb commemorate means to remember or memorialize the past — and to acknowledge that which is worthy and endures into the future. The Peace Corps Commemorative is purposely not defined or designed as a monument to the Peace Corps as a federal government agency. Nor is it built as a tribute to individual Peace Corps Volunteers, President Kennedy, Sargent Shriver, or other seminal figures in the founding of the Peace Corps. Mark Shriver — one of Sargent Shriver’s sons — spoke in a recent interview in WorldView about the important living legacy of Peace Corps Volunteers: “Their work is not defined by grand monuments but through powerful, individual human connections.”

 

The commemorative is meant to recognize connections forged in the past and in the future, and the shared humanity of all the world’s peoples.

 

As a space, and in its artistic representation, the commemorative is meant to recognize connections forged in the past and in the future,and the shared humanity of all the world’s peoples. It also testifies to the belief that individuals can make a difference; and that by living and working with mutual respect and trust alongside others beyond our shores, we can lay the groundwork for a better and more peaceful planet. The Peace Corps can-do attitude and practical idealism enable Volunteers to willingly tackle “the toughest job you will ever love” and, more importantly, learn from and work with partners in communities where they serve.

Donna Shalala served as a Volunteer in Iran 1962–64 and went on to serve as secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration and to represent Florida in the House of Representatives. That work brought both prestige and tremendous responsibility. “Peace Corps was the best job I ever had,” she says. She recently joined the Commemorative Foundation’s emerging advisory board — an honorific group of advisers to the Commemorative Foundation board of directors — alongside former Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen, who served as a Volunteer in Tunisia 1966–68.

THE GO-AHEAD FROM CONGRESS

It’s important to note that this is a project authorized by Congress — a requirement since 1986 for all monuments, memorials, and commemoratives in Washington, D.C. It’s even more important to note that it has always received robust bipartisan backing. Grassroots support for the Commemorative, thanks to NPCA initiatives and advocacy over the years, has proved critical. Ohio Governor Bob Taft, a Republican, served as a Volunteer in Tanzania 1963–65. In 2013 he asked Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) to sponsor legislation authorizing the Peace Corps Commemorative. With Mark Udall (D-CO) as a co-sponsor, the bill was passed with unanimous consent that year. Over in the House, Joe Kennedy III, who was elected to Congress in 2012, introduced legislation co-sponsored by fellow returned Volunteers Farr, Tom Petri (R-WI), Mike Honda (D-CA), and John Garamendi (D-CA). In the end, the House and Senate approved creation of the Peace Corps Commemorative, and President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in January 2014.

With that law, Congress essentially gave its blessing to the project — but without funding. Then years of work began in a rigorous, 24-step commemorative implementation process governed by the federal Commemorative Works Act. That process included finding a site and then developing a design, which would be  subject to reviews and approvals by federal agencies. The Commemorative will have its home in a well-located yet modestly sized triangle of federal parkland, less than a quarter-acre in all. The National Park Service acts in effect as partner to the Peace Corps Commemorative Foundation; the Park Service will own and maintain the site and commemorative artwork in perpetuity after construction is completed.

Arriving at the approved design concept was a multi-step process. A national design competition open to artists, architects, and landscape architects drew nearly 200 submissions but no design that fully met the aspirations for this project. An invitation-only competition also failed to yield what the panel of distinguished jurists and the Commemorative Foundation board felt was needed. In 2018, the Foundation began working with sculptor Larry Kirkland and Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, whose combined approach at last led to a unique, compelling design concept. The design concept has evolved with numerous modifications and refinements in response to reviews and recommendations by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Park Service.

While this was happening, the clock was ticking. The legislation authorizing the construction of the Commemorative wasn’t open-ended, and as the year 2020 drew to a close, the window of authorization was also closing. Once more Rep. Joe Kennedy stepped up. In December 2020, in the waning days of the 116th Congress, he introduced the Peace Corps Commemorative Work Extension Act. With unanimous bipartisan support, he secured passage in the House. In the Senate, legislation cosponsored by Rob Portman and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) also passed with unanimous consent. Work on the Commemorative could move forward without interruption.

“For more than 50 years, the Peace Corps has served as a powerful vehicle for Volunteers who wish to use their talents to carry America’s humanitarian values to other parts of the world,” Senator Portman said. “By reauthorizing this project, we ensure that the Peace Corps Commemorative Foundation can finish this important project and honor those Americans who have donated their time and talent to serving others.”

We hope you’ll join us in this effort. Community advocacy and support has sustained this project from the outset. Donations from the Peace Corps community and other dedicated contributors have gotten us well on the way. To put shovels in the ground, we seek the remaining $8.5 million of the $10 million in total project funding needed for completion. Just as the efforts of thousands of members of the Peace Corps community have kindled the flame of the Peace Corps over the decades, we hope you will make a gift to bring the Peace Corps Commemorative to fruition.

Together we’ll make this public park and interpretive artwork a distinctive site for contemplation and inspiration, one that speaks to the importance of human connection. As a place for peace at the heart of the nation’s capital, it will look and feel unique among all other commemorative works in Washington, D.C. More important, the Peace Corps Commemorative will instill in visitors a deepened respect for everyone with whom they share the planet and for the spirit of service exemplified by the Peace Corps.

Roger K. Lewis is President and Chairman of the Peace Corps Commemorative  Foundation. An architect and professor emeritus of architecture at University of  Maryland, he served as a Volunteer in Tunisia 1964–66. Glenn A. Blumhorst is Chief Advancement Officer for the Peace Corps Commemorative Foundation. He served as  a Volunteer in Guatemala 1988–91 and is immediate past president of National Peace Corps Association. Renderings by Larry Kirkland & Mowry Studios.

 

Learn More: peacecorpscommemorative.org