Recruitment, support — and what next? It’s a conversation we’ve had again and again. Here are some ideas, insights, and hard truths.
ON SEPTEMBER 15, 2020, THE CONSTITUENCY FOR AFRICA convened a group of past, present, and future Peace Corps leaders for the annual Ronald H. Brown African Affairs series. It’s a timely and needed conversation — with all Peace Corps Volunteers evacuated from around the world because of COVID-19, and as our nation grapples with pandemics of coronavirus and systemic racism.
The conversation was moderated by educational consultant Eldridge “Skip” Gilbert, who served as a Volunteer in Sierra Leone (1967–69). Edited excerpts here. You can also watch the full video.
Melvin Foote: I served in Eritrea and Ethiopia in the early ’70s. Peace Corps is the reason I’m doing what I am today. Constituency for Africa is a policy advocacy organization; we help to educate Americans about Africa, improve cooperation and coordination between organizations, and help shape U.S. policy toward Africa.
Now Peace Corps has gone through the trauma of evacuation of Volunteers worldwide, trying to figure out when and how it will return to the field. We want to increase the number of African Americans and Americans of African descent in Peace Corps. It comes at an interesting time for our country, as Black Lives Matter and the forces of coronavirus have taken over our lives. How do we strengthen the Peace Corps going forward?
That is what this conversation is about.
Melvin Foote, Founder & CEO, Constituency for Africa (Ethiopia 1973–75)
Each One, Reach One!
Darlene Grant: I’m speaking from Birmingham, Alabama, where I am steeped in my family’s and our nation’s history — of overcoming overwhelming odds, injustice, and disparities to fulfill our ancestors’ wildest dreams. We know what it means that we’re stronger together. That it takes a village to help individuals realize their full potential. That is what we have to offer the Peace Corps. I have six points to make.
One, focus primarily on the health, safety, and security of Volunteers. Peace Corps partners with communities abroad to develop sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems and challenges. It’s critical to empower more African Americans and Black-identifying individuals to drive the narrative of who they are — Volunteers who can show the strength, resilience, ingenuity, beauty, richness of our culture in the spaces where they walk, live, and serve. It is critical that African American Volunteers work collaboratively with Latinx, white, Asian, and other identifying Volunteers, so that when they return to the United States, they are able to effectively communicate across differences. To mobilize diverse communities, form coalitions, make the U.S. — and the world — a better place.
Two, in today’s world, a college degree is not enough to impact socioeconomic mobility of oneself or one’s family. Peace Corps service pays dividends. We must better communicate those dividends so that our Black-identifying and African American sisters and brothers can communicate to their families, schools, businesses, churches, mosques the value of leaving to come back stronger, bigger, badder, leaner, meaner. Peace Corps offers a significant resume value, on-the-ground international development experience, foreign language immersion, small grant writing and implementation skills. It offers interaction with State Department, USAID, United Nations staff, and other communities — and opportunity to take the Foreign Service test. I was 50 years old at my mid-service, and I was thinking, “Man, if I had known about all of this when I was preparing to graduate from college, where would I be today?” So I’m making sure my grandkids know — and nieces, nephews.
My first leave of absence from Mongolia as country director I visited my niece’s first grade class. I was a secret reader of the day. I read a Halloween story. Then I held up a Mongolia flag, told stories of Mongolia to a bunch of first graders in a predominantly white elementary school in Birmingham, Alabama. Then I invited them to go home and tell their parents they were going to grow up to join the Peace Corps. That poor first grade teacher’s eyes got so big — she thought I was starting a ruckus she would not be able to control! But that is what we must do: Start early and often in the schools.
Three, in many African American and Black-identifying families — particularly in lower income communities — if you have earned a college degree, you are the family’s bootstraps, by which families have a chance to see a bigger world, a broader view, a hope for different tomorrow.
The role of African Americans in post-pandemic U.S. Peace Corps is to describe and design the doors for others to walk through.
Four, the role of African Americans in post-pandemic U.S. Peace Corps is to describe and design the doors for others to walk through.
Five, the pandemic has highlighted racial and socioeconomic inequities in our country. It has done so in countries abroad as well. They must see a more diverse volunteer corps to better understand and to better grow their own worlds.
Finally, this pandemic and everything else going on have high-lighted global interconnectedness — and with that an increased need for people, for African Americans, who can effectively and sensitively navigate cross-cultural difference for the purpose of building a just and equitable world and systems, a just and equitable peace.
Dr. Darlene Grant, Senior Advisor to Peace Corps Director (Cambodia 2009–11)
Skip Gilbert: I would like to add a little bit more to that. Not only do we need to reach out and “each one, reach one,” but it’s wonderful that we have the opportunity of “each one teaching one.” So we can learn to not only reach out for contact purposes, but we have the responsibility to teach as well.
Dwayne Matthews: When I was in the application process, I asked, “What is Peace Corps doing to gain African Americans?” I wrote a list of things I wanted to do. I didn’t find out about Peace Corps until going to community college. I was watching an episode of “A Different World” and heard the character Whitley say, “Well, why don’t you just ship me off to the Peace Corps?” That prompted me to look into it.
When sitting in the village, I knew I wanted to target Historically Black Colleges and Universities. My first event as a diversity recruiter was doing an HBCU tour up and down the East Coast and the South coast. From there, I did the HBCU barbershop tour: 23 barbershops gave me the platform. We have to be more creative in the ways that we’re attracting folks.
I’m from Little Rock, Arkansas. Peace Corps just wasn’t a conversation. My folks didn’t travel.
I’m from Little Rock, Arkansas. Peace Corps just wasn’t a conversation. My folks didn’t travel. My dad’s a truck driver, my mother’s a housewife.
Now, in this COVID-19 pandemic and racial pandemic, I was able to speak with the Peace Corps powers that be, and we are in the process of creating an HBCU video where we’re talking to returned Volunteers who graduated from HBCUs about their experiences — how Peace Corps has set them up for their life.
Dwayne Matthews, Office of Peace Corps Diversity Recruiter (Malawi 2013–15)
Clintandra Thompson: Senegal is predominantly Muslim, predominantly Wolof speaking. My community was Catholic and Sarare. I was in my language group with one other Volunteer, a white woman from Utah. I remember her dad sending cards and letters at least twice a week. She got one for administrative professionals day, for Veterans Day, for Tuesday! Her parents were very supportive of her service.
My parents were a little lukewarm. When I saw the support white Volunteers had from their community — in the way of care packages, visits, sponsored trips to other places, social media, phone calls — I said to myself when I returned, There’s definitely something we can do to lift ourselves up. I reached out to RPCV friends and asked if they would help me send letters, care packages, make calls to Volunteers in service. I started out small on Facebook and was overwhelmed with the response; there are way more current Volunteers who wanted to be matched with a Black RPCV.
I started the Adopt a Black Peace Corps Volunteer exchange to help and encourage Black Volunteers, to allow them an opportunity to reach out to Black RPCVs who’ve been there.
I started the Adopt a Black Peace Corps Volunteer exchange to help and encourage Black Volunteers, to allow them an opportunity to reach out to Black RPCVs who’ve been there — who know what those slights and comments might sound like, what it’s like when your community kind of shuns you, what it feels like to be the only American for miles and miles and hours and hours of travel. The Adopt a BPCV exchange has been around since 2015. I usually gear up in September in anticipation for sending out a Halloween card, Thanksgiving card, Christmas card, Christmas care package.
Clintandra Thompson, Communications Professional; Creator, Adopt a Black PCV Exchange (Senegal 2012–14)
Why Peace Corps?
Harris Bostic II: After a decade of swimming in all things Peace Corps — as a Volunteer, agency employee, and NPCA board member — I stayed ashore for awhile. Now as the waters again beckon for help with diversifying this 60-year-old organization, I’m ready to dive back in.
The years I spent in Africa as an advisor to a microcredit program and local Guinean small businesses have directly impacted my career, my personal life — and, frankly, my mere being. The Peace Corps was great for me. I do admit that it is not for everyone. But it certainly should be a viable option for more Blacks than it is now.
Shortly after I concluded my service, I landed a position with the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. My boss chose me from a large number of applicants because of my Peace Corps experience: having a vast knowledge of the world beyond U.S. borders, the ability to embrace the unknown, push through ambiguity, work with limited direction and guidance, and continually learn about oneself and others. I became director of the 54 African Olympic National Committees, then advanced to the office of the chairman, Ambassador Andrew Young, where we were instrumental in negotiating South Africa’s return to the Olympics after a 30-year sanction due to apartheid.
At the Peace Corps agency I participated on many task forces. The “How to Quantify the Peace Corps Service” task force was incredibly important, but it lost steam due to the Peace Corps five-year rule, continual turnover, and loss of institutional knowledge. Today I challenge the agency, NPCA, and RPCVs, to come together and create crisp messages on all the salient reasons to join the Peace Corps — and benefits of service that target specific audiences: Blacks, folks from lower socioeconomic levels, people of color, etc.
Today I challenge the agency, NPCA, and RPCVs, to come together and create crisp messages on all the salient reasons to join the Peace Corps — and benefits of service that target specific audiences: Blacks, folks from lower socioeconomic levels, people of color, etc.
Career and grad school recruiters scour resumes, applications, and essays in search of various experiences. Often they see military service, an MBA, law degree, formal sports experience — and they associate discipline, decision making, critical thinking, teamwork, striving for excellence. Recruiters should see Peace Corps and think of all the core competencies associated with it.
Another call-to-action: Consider rebuilding the Peace Corps to attract Blacks and those from lower socioeconomic levels, who often just can’t afford to join the Peace Corps. They have college loans, credit card debt, need to support families back home. Unlike the military, the Peace Corps is unreachable — and sometimes seemingly more suitable for whites and privileged individuals. Allocate budgets to support those at lower socioeconomic levels so they can see Peace Corps as not only tenable but viable. Market and package Peace Corps service in such a way to attract Blacks by lifting up the quantifiable benefits of Peace Corps service.
The goal is for Peace Corps to assemble at the same table a group of both likely and unlikely allies — to work toward identifying solid benefits of service; quantifying, or translating them to understandable competencies; then market and package them into sellable traits and attributes that recruiters value and seek, especially among people of color, and from diverse backgrounds. Imagine what a group of RPCVs — business and community leaders, media, social scientists, academics, and changemakers — could accomplish by putting their heads together and brainstorming how the agency can not only quantify what it means to serve in the Peace Corps, but also give every PCV and even parents the proof that their service mattered.
Harris Bostic II, Strategic Senior Advisor & Client Services, Tides (Guinea 1988–91)
Anthony Pinder: Peace Corps has run through the veins of my understanding of what a global citizen is. I started as a Volunteer, came back to the agency as a country director in Central Africa and Equatorial Guinea, then came back to Washington as a national director for minority recruitment.
Removing barriers for underrepresented communities and creating a more just and equitable Peace Corps — we have always been concerned with that. It’s not enough to be concerned about increasing numbers. What are we going to do when we get them in the pipeline?
Removing barriers for underrepresented communities and creating a more just and equitable Peace Corps — we have always been concerned with that.
In the Office of Minority Recruitment, the first thing was change the name to the Office of Minority and National Recruitment Initiatives. I was given some university programs as well; you got to have tools in your toolkit. I did not want to just be the diversity guy. I wanted to have more juice among my own communities as I moved around the country and helped manage 11 regional recruiting officers.
I have worked in other spaces where the robustness of the folks in leadership positions was absent. And it’s awkward to bring up questions and strategies that benefit a particular community when certain people aren’t at the table. We were able to go into the HBCUs and negotiate awesome, big events, not just for minority recruitment, but for the agency. The first group of volunteers we sent to South Africa was on my watch. We did a dramatic sendoff in Atlanta, at Morehouse College, and also at Emory at the Carter Center.
Representation is important — as is supporting diversity at the country director level. As we talk about increasing recruitment of people of color, Black folks in particular, what happens when they get in country? Will there be advocacy for the difference that they bring, for the ingenuity and the wonderful things that make their experiences so rich — also for so many people alongside them? Look at what it takes for the successful completion of the volunteer experience, as well as leadership positions within the agency. This conversation is not a new one.
We’ve talked about the awkwardness of a five-year rule. Why is it, as one of the few minority directors of Peace Corps, as a country director, I’ve never gotten a call from Peace Corps? I have leveraged the awesome experience that Peace Corps was into a career in higher ed and other areas. We should know who each other are, the strengths and resources we possess, so another person following Dr. Grant does not have to start from scratch trying to identify stakeholders.
We should not have to revisit this topic again.
Dr. Anthony L. Pinder, Associate Vice President of Internationalization & Global Engagement, Emerson College (Ecuador 1987–90)
Skip Gilbert: One historical footnote: I also had a wonderful Peace Corps experience. And from that time until now, we’ve only had two African American Peace Corps directors. One, Dr. Carolyn Payton. And the other person, who is on this call, is Aaron Williams. Now Aaron Williams and I worked on an Office of Minority recruitment, under the leadership of one C. Payne Lucas. He and the late Dr. Joseph Kennedy were personal mentors to myself, and certainly others — among them Aaron Williams.
Marieme Foote: Peace Corps is almost in my blood. My mother is Senegalese and grew up in Senegal, surrounded by Peace Corps Volunteers, where she learned English and then came to the U.S. to pursue her graduate degree. My father was a Volunteer. Before that, he had no understanding of Africa as a whole. His career has been shaped by it. This has transformed their lives, and other Black lives across the world, and has transformed my own.
I’m still reeling from the difficulty of being pulled suddenly from Benin. With the reality of COVID-19 in the U.S., I’ve seen Volunteers going through homelessness, unemployment, lack of health insurance. COVID exposed a wound that hadn’t really been addressed. As Volunteers, we were rapidly trying to adjust to the reality of Blackness within the U.S. Within weeks of getting back, after quarantine, I was on the streets, protesting in front of the White House.
Peace Corps does have the capacity to transform lives, which is why it’s so important that we make sure that when Black Volunteers do return, they have support they need.
African Americans are disproportionately impacted by socioeco-nomic issues in the U.S. For many Volunteers, what is provided in terms of support when returning is not enough. Evacuees are facing issues with paying for health insurance or paying for their Close of Service medical exam and not being reimbursed. If you don’t have the money in the first place, how do you even pay for it?
Peace Corps does have the capacity to transform lives, which is why it’s so important that we make sure that when Black Volunteers do return, they have support they need.
Marieme Foote, Advocacy & Administrative Support Associate, National Peace Corps Association (Benin 2018–20)
Rahama Wright: In Mali I served at a community health center. I also started working on developing cooperatives and small and medium enterprises. I was so impacted by my experience — seeing many women in my community struggling to care for themselves and their children. And I became obsessed with learning about making shea butter. When I came back to the U.S., I launched Shea Yeleen with a goal of helping women who make this amazing product bring it to the U.S. market in a way that was sustainable.
My parents met when my dad did the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso in the ’70s. I grew up in upstate New York in a family where I knew I would do Peace Corps. But I did not know the impact it would have: changing everything I thought about the continent of Africa, about people who lived in rural communities — experiencing what they were because of global social, economic, and political issues outside their control.
We have been given tools and experiences as Volunteers that we can use to make sustained, longterm impact in communities we serve. We have the knowledge and cultural competencies that a lot of Americans don’t. Most Americans don’t have a passport.
For Peace Corps, that means centering the role and contributions of Black and Brown people — not in a “we want to support diversity and inclusion by bringing more people to the table” — but really building an entirely new table.
Now, what we’re dealing with in terms of Black Lives Matter and COVID: The humanity of Black and Brown people is under attack not only here in the U.S. but globally. We have to rise to the occasion and say, “We’re not going to allow the things that we’re seeing without taking a stand.” That is so important, especially when we’re thinking about the future of Peace Corps. Everyone wants to build back better. For Peace Corps, that means centering the role and contributions of Black and Brown people — not in a “we want to support diversity and inclusion by bringing more people to the table” — but really building an entirely new table. We need to reimagine Peace Corps.
Rahama Wright, Founder & CEO of Shea Yeleen Health & Beauty Company (Mali 2002–04)
It’s About Ubuntu
C.D. Glin: For me, this conversation is about Ubuntu: “I am, because we are” — because of this community. Because of Tony Pinder leading minority and national recruitment, because of Harris Bostic in San Francisco as regional recruitment director. From being in the first Peace Corps Volunteer group that showcased diversity as a strength to a new South Africa: 32 volunteers — four African Americans, four people identified as Latinx, five people over 55, five Asian Americans. Having an African American country director, being greeted by the Mission Director to South Africa and the ambassador being African American men — Aaron Williams and James Joseph.
“Why are we still having this conversation?” We’re having this conversation again, and again. I went to South Africa in February 1997. It was a transformational time for our country but also for South Africa, with a democratically elected president who had battled back the racial oppression of apartheid. That historic moment was an opportunity to showcase the America that we all are — people of different backgrounds coming together for a cause.
That entry point into Peace Corps opens up the world. But if we as people of color, as African Americans, are not part of that, the rest doesn’t happen. Looking at foreign assistance and national security and diversity in all its forms: 189 Americans are serving as U.S. ambassadors. Seven are people of color: three African Americans, four people who identify as Latinx. Many in the State Department and foreign service, where did they start their careers? Peace Corps. We’re not in the pipeline if we’re not being recruited by people like Dwayne, supported by people like Dr. Grant.
That entry point into Peace Corps opens up the world. But if we as people of color, as African Americans, are not part of that, the rest doesn’t happen.
There was a full court press at the agency from the mid ’90s to early 2000s to recruit diverse volunteers. This was beyond race and ethnicity; this was ability, people over 50. There was a real intentionality. We lost some initiatives because they were never institutionalized.
People who are not traditional Volunteers — they’re not looking for adventure, they’re looking for a way to enhance their professional portfolio: the Foreign Service exam; universities looking for returning vol-unteers in the Peace Corps Fellows Program, in the master’s international program; a leg up in international development work. These are critical to tell people who are nontraditional recruits, predominantly African Americans, who come from places that represent and sort of look like some places where we are sending Volunteers.
When I arrived in my community in South Africa, there was a welcome: majorettes and a band at the school where I was going to serve. I had studied U.S. foreign policy toward Africa at Howard University, I’d been a Foreign Service intern in Ghana. I got to South Africa and knew this community was waiting for me. The Land Cruiser pulled up and I hopped out, and everyone was still looking around and looking over me and almost through me — because I wasn’t the American that they were waiting for. I didn’t look like the volunteer they were told they were going to get. Just by showing up, I knew I was going to transform the way that they thought about the U.S. I took it as a challenge. This is an opportunity for us as people of color, as African Americans, to show up, to represent.
I saw examples of what Peace Corps could do for careers by those who mentored me. I’m grateful to be “a success story” because of all those who’ve come before me — and to have reached back as I climbed. When I see Curtis Valentine on the chat, I remember a call from the country director in South Africa, Yvonne Hubbard, saying there’s a young brother here who’s a Morehouse man who wants to talk to you. Curtis Valentine has gone on to Harvard and become a leader in education throughout the state of Maryland.
I lead the U.S. African Development Foundation. Almost half of our staff are former Peace Corps Volunteers. The foundation, second to Peace Corps, is probably the government’s best kept secret.
It’s our duty to use our experiences to make young African Americans more aware of opportunities Peace Corps can provide. It’s incumbent upon the agency to ask us to do more.
The realities of today are not unlike the past. But what got us here, where we have so many success stories — they need to be leveraged. When I was a Peace Corps diversity recruitment specialist, it was my job to think about successful African Americans who had done Peace Corps. I got to know Ambassador Johnnie Carson, returned Volunteer, three-time ambassador, and an icon in the Foreign Service, now a mentor to me. After volunteering on the Obama campaign and leading the transition team at Peace Corps, to join the staff of Aaron Williams as the second African American, first African American male, to lead the Peace Corps—to focus on global partnerships and intergovernmental affairs — this was a true honor.
It’s our duty to use our experiences to make young African Americans more aware of opportunities Peace Corps can provide. It’s incumbent upon the agency to ask us to do more — give back in new ways, such as Adopt a Black RPCV. There is a recruitment issue, a pipeline issue, a retention issue. We also want to focus on advancement and leadership. It is about the intentionality that we need to bring. Let’s be innovative — and institutionalize the initiatives — so 10 years later, we aren’t having the same conversations again.
C.D. Glin, President of US African Development Foundation (USADF) (South Africa 1997–99)
Skip Gilbert: What policies would you implement to increase African American presence in this new Peace Corps?
Dwayne Matthews: I was looking at an old Ebony magazine from 1978, with Mohammed Ali on the cover. It had Peace Corps Director Carolyn Payton inside — talking about the same thing we’re talking about today. But she had a three- or four-page ad about African Americans and the need for them in Peace Corps.
I don’t know where that money is being allocated to. I do know that if they’re trying to target us, the budget needs to be bolstered.
Skip Gilbert: We have a marvelous opportunity to engage in a new dialogue, which will allow us to help create that new Peace Corps.
Anthony Pinder: It’s not about creating safe spaces, but brave spaces. I had some really courageous supervisors; if you’re going to empower me to do something, I need you to advocate for me, even if I do something wrong.
There needs to be a holistic strategy — people empowered to be great, and hired because of their innovation, genius, courageousness. When you have directors and all levels throughout the organization empowered, so we are not in isolated roles, we don’t have to have major conferences about inclusive excellence; it’s gonna happen.
I am now at a predominantly white institution as a vice president. We are having the same kinds of conversations. This is not peculiar for Peace Corps; this is a national dialogue, some systemic things we need to fix. The agency has to be braver than it has been.
Harris Bostic: I like to ask hyperbolic questions in situations like this: What if the goal of Peace Corps was to have 90 percent of Volunteers be people of color? What would be done differently? How would recruitment and benefits be explained? How would the application process be different? Reentry?
Take it further: What if, in 1961, when they were designing the Peace Corps, they were designing it for people of color and people from the lower socioeconomic 90 percent? How would the Peace Corps have been developed?
What if, in 1961, when they were designing the Peace Corps, they were designing it for people of color and people from the lower socioeconomic 90 percent? How would the Peace Corps have been developed?
Like I said, hyperbolic questions. But think about Peace Corps in 1960–61: Who did it appeal to? A young, white, usually female, from middle or upper class. It has grown from there.
To the structure over 60 years — how do we rebuild? We can’t forget that equality is different from equity. We don’t have to treat everyone the same. If people coming in are people of color, Black, lower socioeconomic levels — they should be given different benefits and opportunities, a different return. There’d be pushback. But ask those bold questions — if we really want to get high numbers of people of color in the Peace Corps — what we have to do, or what we have to stop doing.
Melvin Foote: This is just the tip of the iceberg. Before I joined Peace Corps out of Gunnison, Colorado, I had a column in a newspaper called “The Back of the Bus.” I wrote about the experience of Black people. My audience were cowboys, folks up in the mountains. A guy wrote me a note — white guy from Michigan — and we met over coffee. He told me that he went to Ghana as a Peace Corps Volunteer, fell in love with a Ghanaian woman, and what is my opinion about interracial marriage?
“You love who you love. I can’t tell you about that. But, ”I said, “what is this Peace Corps?” I wanted to go to Africa. I put in my application.
A few months later, they wrote: You’re going to Ethiopia. I thought: Ethiopia—the Middle East, because of the Bible stories. I went to the library, found an atlas — Ethiopia, right in the heart of Africa. When we flew over, I thought that Tarzan would be at the airport to take us to the village. That’s the level of knowledge we had about Africa. I was shocked when I got to the airport and people were in suits and ties and carrying luggage and doing the things that people do at airports.
My message is: Don’t agonize, organize. You could get mad all the time; here in Washington you’re always mad.
How far we have come — and how far we have to go. I’m an advocate. My message is: Don’t agonize, organize. You could get mad all the time; here in Washington you’re always mad. Figure out what constructively you can do to shape policy.
I’ve had my hand on just about every U.S. policy toward Africa — everything from PEPFAR to the Rwanda intervention to President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. We have to find constructive ways to add our voices, educate people about the Peace Corps, raise the issue with members of Congress who ought to be more supportive of the Peace Corps. We’re a coalition of the willing who want to help continue the legacy of the Peace Corps.
WATCH MORE: The full conversation
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