Peace Corps Connect offers up a refreshing reality check on how we talk about service
This year’s Peace Corps Connect conference offered a 360-degree view on all things Peace Corps. For advocates, Congressman John Garamendi, the only RPCV currently serving in Congress, gave his views on Peace Corps funding and its role in U.S. foreign policy. For observers of the agency, Director Carol Spahn shared her vision for the future of Peace Corps, including greater efforts to combat climate change, expand youth development, and address gender equity at new posts being added regularly since the decline of the COVID-19 pandemic. For champions of the work RPCVs do at home, awards were announced, and a new platform for the continuation of service, GivePulse, was rolled out. Finally, NPCA leadership reported on the state of the organization — strong!
It was the candid keynote panel chaired by StoryCorps CEO Sandra Clark (Guinea-Bissau 1990–94) and featuring media personality Nicole Banister (South Africa 2013–16), documentarian Alana DeJoseph (Mali 1992–94), and Peace Corps Third GoalDirector Andrew Wilson (Senegal 1994–97), however, that many participants said stole the show.
All RPCVs love to tell their stories. Sometimes we get it right, and at other times, whether conscious of the fact or not, we modify, embellish, or alter our narratives to meet our own needs or to impress a point we think our audiences may want to hear. Their honest conversation about the importance of storytelling with integrity addressed head-on intentions, when spinning a yarn.
Below are excerpts from the panel’s exchanges on the topic of storytelling, edited for length and clarity. Check out the NPCA YouTube page to watch the conversation in full.
What I didn’t know [when I took the job] was that, like Peace Corps, StoryCorps’ mission is about creating a more just and compassionate world. – Sandra Clark
Sandra Clark: This is such a full-circle moment for me. A year and a half ago in the middle of the pandemic, StoryCorps, which many of you know from the NPR segment, came calling. What I didn’t know [when I took the job] was that, like Peace Corps, StoryCorps’ mission is about creating a more just and compassionate world. It’s built on a simple concept that everyone has a story and that everyone matters. StoryCorps helps us believe in each other by illuminating humanity and possibility in all of us — one story at a time. And I can’t think of a time where StoryCorps is more needed than now than ever.
When I think of storytelling at the Peace Corps, one key question I ask is “Who gets to tell the story? How is that story told? And who gets to hear that story?” – Andrew Wilson
Andrew Wilson: When I think of storytelling at the Peace Corps, one key question I ask is “Who gets to tell the story? How is that story told? And who gets to hear that story?” It’s thinking about the power dynamics when you are the individual telling a story about another country. It’s thinking about the biases that you might have that you’re not even aware of. I know for myself, for example, there are certain stories that maybe when I first came back would get a laugh or have some shock value, but now I ask myself, “Why was I telling you that story in that way? Who was impacted? How would the people I was talking about think about that story if they heard it?”
As Peace Corps Volunteers, we either have the tendency to go for the easy laugh — the shock value of the latrine stories or the further we get away from our experience, the more nostalgic we become about it. – Alana DeJoseph
Alana DeJoseph: As Peace Corps Volunteers, we either have the tendency to go for the easy laugh — the shock value of the latrine stories or the further we get away from our experience, the more nostalgic we become about it. We get away from the real story and it becomes harder and harder for other people to relate to us, because our stories don’t really connect. I felt like the first 20 minutes of every interview [for the documentary A Towering Task] were getting past the kumbaya. Like, OK, let’s all agree that we love the Peace Corps. Let’s all agree that we can slap each other on the back and congratulate each other about how wonderful it is. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Let’s talk about what’s really happening on the ground. Let’s talk about why it matters.
The reality is that right now the Peace Corps is not sexy, OK? – Nicole Banister
Nicole Banister: When I think about storytelling and the Peace Corps, the reality is that right now the Peace Corps is not sexy, OK? And when I say that the Peace Corps is not sexy, I mean it’s not a part of pop culture, it’s not trending, it’s not viral. And ultimately, because we’re not telling the right stories in the right places, Peace Corps is becoming irrelevant. We need to get Peace Corps into TV shows and movies. We need to get the main character of the most viral youth show on Netflix. Something like Insecure, something like Euphoria, something like Grown-ish. We need to get that main character graduating from college saying, “I’m going into the Peace Corps,” right? Suddenly, millions of eyeballs are now on Peace Corps that were never on Peace Corps before. We need to get Peace Corps into music. How do we get a singer or a rapper to include a line in the song that’s like, “Hustling hard … like I’m in the Peace Corps.” How do we get the biggest YouTubers or travel bloggers to go to a Peace Corps Volunteer site or spend a day with a Peace Corps Volunteer somewhere? How do we get an award-winning content creator to do a show on the Peace Corps? Or how do we get Peace Corps onto some of the more prestigious global conferences and platforms and spaces for thought leadership?