We are the messengers of what Peace Corps is and can be

In a keynote address for the Franklin H. Williams Award ceremony, Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley recounts the opportunities she helped create — and the resistances she faced — as an African American woman serving in the Peace Corps and in the U.S. Foreign Service.

 

By Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley

 

On December 15, 2020, the Peace Corps recognized six leaders in the Peace Corps community — and a civic leader with a shared commitment to Peace Corps values — with the Franklin H. Williams Award. The keynote address was delivered by Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, whose pathbreaking career in the Foreign Service has created new opportunities and possibilities for women and minorities. Abercrombie-Winstanley served with the Peace Corps in Oman, was the first woman to lead a diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia, advised U.S. Cyber Forces on diplomatic priorities, and served as U.S. ambassador to Malta. Meet this year’s winners and read Ambassador's Abercrombie-Winstanley remarks below.

 

I am so jazzed to be here with you. I asked what I should be aiming to leave you with today, but having seen the backgrounds of these nominees, I know we all will be leaving here today brimming with awe and inspiration.

I’m often asked how I got interested in public service and foreign policy, and I suspect my beginnings are similar to yours. I had parents, teachers and mentors, like you, who opened my eyes to the wider world. And they helped me understand that I could have a meaningful role in it. They advocated volunteerism and servant leadership — and they practiced what they preached. These people, and more, instilled in me a commitment to service. A commitment to what we now call “paying it forward.” That commitment is what Peace Corps stands for.

Now, I raised eyebrows when I said I wanted to join Peace Corps. My mother was a little nervous about me going over there.” My father asked me if I was going off to learn how to be poor, instead of getting a job to pay off my school loans. Our family’s international experience, until then, was largely confined to stints in the military. It’s a unique experience for many Americans — and especially so for Volunteers of color.

I remember the excitement about leaving home, the worry about fitting in, of learning how to do the job properly so I could  accomplish what we all want  to do — make lives better. Asked to describe what came to my mind when I remember my Peace Corps experience, I said a combination of frustration and pride. Frustration because some of my trainers wondered whether I was a good “fit.” Pride because I got the highest language score of my entire group. Frustration because of the occasional chauvinism from my host-country boss, and pride when a health worker confidently displayed the new vaccine storage techniques I had taught the previous month. As we all wait for a COVID vaccine, that is an especially strong memory.

I know what it feels like to be far from home and have people look at you quizzically when you explain you’re the American Peace Corps Volunteer. And we all know that feeling when interest starts fading in the eyes of your auntie ’cause you talked about your village experience just a little too long.

Many Volunteers can tell horror stories about the “stomach bug” diet, while others like me, bring back the local cuisine attached to our bodies! But what we also bring back are experiences that will serve us well in every aspect of life. My Peace Corps experiences have been a part of everything I have accomplished since.
 

Peace Corps provided the solid foundation that allowed me to work my way up in the U. S. diplomatic corps to serve our nation as President Obamas personal representative. Our nominees used their own experiences to become shining examples of servant leadership.

 

Peace Corps provided the solid foundation that allowed me to work my way up in the U.S. diplomatic corps to serve our nation as President Obama’s personal representative. Our nominees used their own experiences to become shining examples of servant leadership.

Peace Corps teaches resilience. In your personal relationships, in your work, and in yourself. So today, as I share a bit of my journey, I hope that I remind you of the possibilities of your own.

Peace Corps honed my language skills, and improved my interpersonal skills. Presented with the etiquette demands of communal eating, an uncomfortable style of restroom, or a wedding that begins at 2:00 AM? No problem. I had been there and done that as a Volunteer — and navigated all of these challenges smoothly as a diplomat. The little victories are sweet and lead the way to larger personal connections.

As we learned or confirmed in Peace Corps, there will be times when the fruits of our labors pay off in making a situation better for someone else. We might have taught someone or built something — and sometimes it is just the example of our effort. That we tried, that we didn’t give up, or in and we maintained our sense of self. That can be a victory.

We learned in Peace Corps to celebrate the accomplishments, large and small, along the way — and the best of us, like our nominees, bring that spirit home and weave paying it forward tightly into our lives.

We’ve all learned in this century we call the year 2020, that whether in our personal lives, or in our workplaces, or standing up to be counted in the larger battles that face us today, it’s possible to make a difference. That it’s important to be clear in our demands for inclusion. But it’s not easy. But people who leave home and travel around the world to help others? Those are not the people who take the easy path.

We are the ones who bring something extra to our work as Volunteers to other people’s lives. We are the ones who strive to be judged on the content of our character. We are the ones who had to overcome the resistance of foreigners who didn’t have us in mind when they requested a meeting with the U.S. volunteer, or program officer, or diplomat. Sometimes we are the ones who have to overcome resistance from our own colleagues who question our suitability for assignments or positions. But we know the importance of bringing our perspectives to the table with confidence. And in different parts of the world we have embraced the hard work and the adventure. In Peace Corps and beyond.

 

I was proud to be that example of what we say we stand for: America’s representatives looking like America. This starts with Peace Corps, and it’s incumbent on all of us to ensure this happens.

 

Peace Corps taught me to speak for myself and others who needed encouragement to break barriers. During my travels, I was often greeted warmly, and humbled by the welcome. Young Saudi women were especially kind in sharing how encouraged they were to see me, an African American woman, in a leadership position. And their excitement about the possibilities of their futures was palpable. And I was proud to be that example of what we say we stand for: America’s representatives looking like America. This starts with Peace Corps, and it’s incumbent on all of us to ensure this happens.

We are the messengers of what Peace Corps is and can be. We pay it forward by joining and we gain so much from the experience. Then we pay it back by inspiring the next generations of Volunteers. Because Peace Corps is made stronger with the experiences from a diverse cohort of Volunteers, and America made better with the contributions of Returned Peace Corp Volunteers.

As you listen to the stories and contributions of these nominees, I know you will be as humbled and inspired as I! Onward and thank you!