Orrin Luc posted an articleA wreath-laying ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery see more
A wreath-laying ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery on September 22, 2021
Photography by Eli Wittum
Pictured: Honoring a legacy: Three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Colombia. From left, they are Museum of the Peace Corps Experience co-founder Patricia Wand (1963–65), former Congressman Sam Farr (1964–66), and journalist Maureen Orth (1964–66).
On the afternoon of September 22, Northern Virginia Returned Peace Corps Volunteers hosted a wreath-laying ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. It was an in-person event paying tribute to the idea and ideals of the Peace Corps, and the president who ensured they took flight.
From left: Pat Wand, Clintandra Thompson, and Carol Spahn. Photo by Eli Wittum
Offering remarks were Acting Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn, Rep. John Garamendi, former Congressman Sam Farr, NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst, and Adopt a Black Peace Corps Volunteer founder Clintandra Thompson.
They spoke on the legacy of the Peace Corps and honored President Kennedy. Following speeches, attendees walked together to Kennedy’s gravesite to place a wreath and flowers.
Flowers and cake. Photography by Eli Wittum
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
Orrin Luc posted an articlePeace Corps beginnings — with Bill Josephson, Bill Moyers, Joe Kennedy III, and Marieme Foote see more
When President John F. Kennedy signed the Peace Corps Act into law, it permanently established the Peace Corps as an independent agency. But forging the legislation and getting it through Congress didn’t happen on their own. We take a look at those beginnings and share some stories few have heard. And we look ahead to what the Peace Corps must become.
A conversation with Bill Josephson, Bill Moyers, Joe Kennedy III, and Marieme Foote
The legislation that established the Peace Corps on a permanent basis, the Peace Corps Act, was signed by President John F. Kennedy in an Oval Office ceremony at 9:45 a.m. on September 22, 1961. On the day JFK signed the act, three groups of Volunteers were already in their countries of service: Colombia, Ghana, and St. Lucia.
To mark the 60th anniversary of the signing, National Peace Corps Association hosted a conversation with two key figures in the establishment of the Peace Corps — and one Volunteer who was evacuated in 2020, and whose commitment to the ideas and ideals of the organization points to the Peace Corps of the future. The conversation was moderated by Joe Kennedy III — JFK’s great-nephew and himself a returned Volunteer who, while he served in Congress, championed the creation of the Peace Corps Commemorative, which will establish a place in the heart of the nation’s capital to symbolize what the Peace Corps represents.
Here are edited excerpts. You can also listen to the conversation on Spotify.
Co-architect of the Peace Corps and Founding Counsel for the agency
Photo by Rowland Scherman
Journalist and first Associate Director of the Peace Corps
Photo by Yoichi Okamoto / LBJ Library
Joe Kennedy III
Former Congressman and Peace Corps Volunteer in Dominican Republic 2004–06
Photo courtesy Joe Kennedy III
Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin 2018–20; Donald Payne Fellow at Georgetown University
Photo courtesy Marieme Foote
“The Towering Task”
Joe Kennedy III: Walk us through those early days — taking an idea, translating that into legislation, getting members of Congress around it.
Bill Josephson: My colleague Warren W. Wiggins said that we needed to make an impact with this administration. The Peace Corps was what everyone asked us for our opinion about. The result was the writing over Christmas and New Year’s of 1960–61 the memo “The Towering Task,” and the distribution of it to as many people as we could find who would read it, including Harris Wofford. Harris describes walking into Sargent Shriver’s office, carrying “The Towering Task” and saying to Sarge this is something he ought to read — only to find Sarge was already reading it.
Joe Kennedy III: There’s a story I’ve heard about getting the bill signed into law that involves you and a number of senators in a cloakroom, some chicken scratch on a piece of paper, a clerk to type something up, a couple of taxicabs … And lo and behold, the Peace Corps was born.
Bill Josephson: Roger Kuhn was principal draftsperson of the Peace Corps Act. I was an important kibitzer and the upfront person in House and Senate hearings. The bill went to the Hill without a lot of changes from the White House or the budget division, and was introduced by Hubert Humphrey in the Senate and the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Doc Morgan of Pennsylvania. This was a genuine bipartisan effort. We enjoyed strong support from Republicans. Two women on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Marguerite Stitt Church of Illinois and Elizabeth Bolton of Ohio — strong, traditional Republicans — were amazingly persuasive supporters of the Peace Corps.
This was a genuine bipartisan effort … Two women on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Marguerite Stitt Church of Illinois and Elizabeth Bolton of Ohio — strong, traditional Republicans — were amazingly persuasive supporters of the Peace Corps.
Joe Kennedy III: Tell us how you were able to get such a big idea through Congress. At the moment, ideas are difficult to get through, to put it mildly.
Bill Moyers: There remains to this day, 60 years later, a certain vibrancy among people who were involved in the Peace Corps. It has really been a marvelous moment in American history. Lord knows so many people had talked about something like this from the beginning!
In 1950, Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers, proposed a kind of tech corps of young people who would go abroad. Maurice Albertson, who had done pioneering work in mechanics and hydraulics, wrote a draft of a Point Four youth program. Hubert Humphrey introduced the first bill in 1957. He said he got no enthusiasm. Reverend James Robinson of Crossroads Africa founded that program with an eye that could have well been on a future Peace Corps. This was an American idea that rose among the ranks of people who did not hesitate to call themselves idealists but knew how to pass bills in Congress; that made a big difference.
Sarge gave me the job of associate director for public affairs. I had three portfolios: one, Congressional relations; two, public affairs — news, press, and advertising; and three, recruiting. When Bill Josephson and Warren Wiggins and those who helped them drafted the legislation, they sent Sarge and me up to the Hill to sell it. We had to persuade a Congress that contained many advocates for the Peace Corps — but also some real opponents.
We first called on a handful of friends: Hubert Humphrey and Congressman Henry Reuss from Wisconsin, who had proposed a Peace Corps along with Humphrey. We wanted our friends to stand and fight for us. As Sarge and I prowled Capitol Hill, we decided to call on every member of Congress. I think we made it, with the exception of one.
He was literally known as “Otto the Terrible” because he was so opposed to any foreign aid, except that which took a brickbat and tried to hit a communist over the head. He called the Peace Corps a “kiddie corps.”
We went to known adversaries of the Peace Corps — those who had declared opposition before they knew what it was. One was a congressman born in 1916, Otto Passman. He was literally known as “Otto the Terrible” because he was so opposed to any foreign aid, except that which took a brickbat and tried to hit a communist over the head. He called the Peace Corps a “kiddie corps.” He got Congressman H.R. Gross, an influential conservative from Iowa, on his side, and he called it a utopian playground.
I went first to see Otto Passman, because I was from the South. He was from a deeply Southern and segregationist district in Louisiana, not far from my hometown across the Texas border. I got my congressman, populist Wright Patman of East Texas, to call Otto the Terrible and say he was sending this kid over to see him and say, “Just listen to him.” I went over and Passman said, “What do you want to talk to me about?” I said, “I just am here to arrange a meeting with the future director of the Peace Corps.” “I don’t want to see any future director of the Peace Corps. I just want to veto the thing when it comes to my desk.” I said, “Don’t you want to sit down with the president’s brother-in-law and talk about this?” There was silence. He said, “The president’s brother-in-law?” I said, “Yes, Sargent Shriver, who is John Kennedy’s brother-in-law, married to Eunice, is going to head the Peace Corps, and he would like to come see you.”
That was an appeal to Otto the Terrible. He saw Shriver, and Shriver knew instantly what to talk about, because we had done our homework. While he didn’t want to hear about the Peace Corps, we wanted to talk to him about what it meant to be an entrepreneur. Sarge walked in and started talking to the Congressman about how he had started a business during the Depression selling refrigerators and other hotel and business equipment. Passman said, “How did you know that?” Sarge said, “I used to run the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, and we saw a lot of refrigerators and other things like that pass through. I was just wondering how you managed to do that in the Depression.”
Otto melted a little. He gave us a long visit that day. We probably paid more visits to Otto Passman, chairman of the influential Foreign Relations Funding Committee in the House, than any other Congressman. We never brought him around. But word spread quickly that Sarge had been given the courtesy of extended and frequent visits to Passman, and that turned into a lot of goodwill. When the legislation passed, we got some 90 Republican votes in the House; very few who had stood up and condemned it before they knew anything about it, protested. They didn’t vote for us, but they didn’t fight us tooth and nail. The legislation sailed through the Senate.
There was never a better salesman, never a better idealist at explaining what an ideal is, than Sargent Shriver.
There was never a better salesman, never a better idealist at explaining what an ideal is, than Sargent Shriver. He could adjust very quickly to the mood, interest, and concerns of a member of Congress. We sat down with the member of Congress, and their staff asked questions. By the time it was over, I don’t think there was a program in Washington that had a better aura around it. And we had the young, dynamic president behind us.
The moment: September 22, 1961, President John F. Kennedy (laughing) signs HR 7500, the Peace Corps Bill, in the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C. Looking on (from left): Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island (in back); Director of the Peace Corps, R. Sargent Shriver; Senator Philip A. Hart of Michigan (in back); Representative Edna Kelly of New York; Representative Chester Merrow of New Hampshire; Representative Thomas F. Johnson of Maryland (in back); Representative Clement Zablocki of Wisconsin; Representative Wayne L. Hays of Ohio (partially hidden behind Representative Zablocki); Representative Leslie C. Arends of Illinois (in back, facing right); Representative Roman C. Pucinski of Illinois; Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota; Representative Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts (in back); Representative Thomas E. Morgan of Pennsylvania; Representative Cornelius E. Gallagher of New Jersey; Representative Sidney R. Yates of Illinois. Photo by Abbie Rowe / White House, courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
An important factor: We asked President Kennedy to ask Vice President Lyndon Johnson — for whom I had worked — to be chairman of the Peace Corps Advisory Committee. Johnson had been director of Franklin Roosevelt’s National Youth Program in Texas 1935–37. He had done the best job in the country of all the state directors. Johnson gave us the time we needed when the State Department and the Agency for International Development tried to take over the Peace Corps and turn it into just another box on the bureaucratic chart. Johnson explained patiently to Sarge and me how the bureaucracy worked. He had seen it for 30-some years. “Here’s what you have to watch out for. Here’s how you have to turn the corner without running into somebody.” Two and a half hours later, we knew what to do. We went and talked about preserving the independence of the Peace Corps, which Josephson and Wiggins had said was so essential. Every time we needed help on the Hill, the vice president came through.
During the campaign of 1960, I had served as the liaison between the traveling teams. For Johnson, my job was to coordinate logistics, prepare speeches, answer questions to keep us on track. Every day I was in touch with some member of the traveling Kennedy campaign — most often Kenny O’Donnell, his closest political advisor. When it came time for me to want to go to the Peace Corps after the election, both Kennedy and Johnson said no, because then who would interpret Austin to Boston? I persuaded Ken O’Donnell to persuade President Kennedy to let me go. It’s the best move of my life, and to this day I am deeply indebted to JFK and LBJ.
Bill Josephson: A little known fact: Bill Moyers is the drafter of the first public speech favoring the founding of the Peace Corps, even before the Michigan speech of Kennedy. Johnson gave a speech advocating the creation of the Peace Corps in Lincoln, Nebraska, two weeks before the Michigan moment. The speech was drafted by Bill Moyers. My wife is Nebraskan; she knows about that event.
When Lyndon Johnson read the speech that had been drafted for him he said, “I can’t deliver this stuff. It’s crap.” He said, “Write something stirring.”
Bill Moyers: There was a speech we had received by wire from headquarters in Washington. We were on the plane and had just taken off from Hampton, New York, headed for Lincoln, Nebraska. Johnson said, “I can’t deliver this stuff. It’s crap.” He said, “Write something stirring.” The proposal he made, based on that speech, was called a Youth Corps. I wish I’d used the phrase “Peace Corps,” but that hadn’t occurred to me. But it was a great event — and promptly lost to history.
“You wanted to be independent, you’re independent.”
Joe Kennedy III: I’ve often said there wasn’t a single day when I was serving in Congress that I didn’t draw on my experience as a Volunteer. It wasn’t so much the language skills, speaking Spanish; it was understanding that if you want to bring people together to achieve a common goal, they need to be active participants in that process, and you need to help create the circumstances to allow people to buy in and hear them out. You mentioned trying to keep the agency independent. That issue came up when I was serving in Congress, an effort to try to subsume the Peace Corps within the State Department.
Bill Josephson: One of the arguments was that the State Department and the to-be-transformed International Cooperation Administration — which would become USAID — regarded the Peace Corps as a gem, as opposed to what they did, which did not enjoy anything like broad support, either in Congress or in the nation. Foreign aid was — and to some extent, still is — the stepchild. They coveted the Peace Corps. Sarge and Warren and Bill and I felt that the Peace Corps, to succeed, had not to be any part of the foreign affairs bureaucracy or Cold War programs of the United States. Legislation was the vehicle for independence.
There was a climactic meeting in the White House. I was there. Also present was Ralph Dungan, an important member of the White House staff; and the director of the budget, David Bell. We waited to see the president but didn’t get in. Ralph purported to resolve the issue against the Peace Corps and in favor of the State Department and the foreign aid programs. Bill Moyers then went to the vice president. The vice president had a private meeting with President Kennedy later that day, and persuaded him — in the way that Lyndon Johnson uniquely could persuade people — to make the Peace Corps an independent agency. Ralph called me the next morning to tell me this decision. I said, “Well, I’d like to come over and smoke the pipe of peace with you. We’re going to be working together for a long time.” He said very clearly, “Uh uh. You wanted to be independent, you’re independent. Don’t come running to us when you’re in trouble!”
“Already more than 13,000 Americans have offered their services to the Peace Corps.” President John F. Kennedy delivers remarks after signing HR 7500, the Peace Corps Bill, in the Oval Office, White House, on September 22, 1961. Looking on (from left): Representative Edna Kelly of New York; Representative Clement Zablocki of Wisconsin; Senator Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma (in back); Representative Roman C. Pucinski of Illinois; Representative Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts (in back); Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota; Representative Thomas E. Morgan of Pennsylvania; Representative Cornelius E. Gallagher of New Jersey; Representative Sidney R. Yates of Illinois; Representative Harris B. McDowell of Delaware (in back, in shadow); Senator Clair Engle of California (partially hidden); Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee; unidentified man in back; Senator Jacob Javits of New York; Senator Thomas H. Kuchel of California; Representative John Brademas of Indiana; Senator John A. Carroll of Colorado; Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky; Senator Paul H. Douglas of Illinois; Representative Carl Albert of Oklahoma. Photo by Abbie Rowe / White House, courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Bill Moyers: There is another point to be made — slightly less lofty: You can hardly channel the imagination up an organization chart, nor can the imagination flow downward through an organization chart. Along the way, there are other people charged with responsibilities and duties that cause them to hack away at that passion to reduce it to their grasp. To persuade Congress to support you, go up unencumbered by other people’s mistakes and less desirable thoughts. Make your case, and stand and fall on what you can say about what I, Sargent Shriver, am going to be responsible for — and if you don’t understand this, you can count on me to keep my word to Congress.
Those powerful barons in Congress who opposed the Peace Corps considered us naive, if not harebrained. You couldn’t have sent a 25-year veteran of the bureaucracy to give a tutorial. One morning I took Sarge to have coffee with the vice president. Johnson called me later and said: “The way to sell the Peace Corps is to sell Shriver. They won’t be able to resist him.” And they weren’t. Most were dazzled to be courted by the president’s charismatic brother-in-law, not some long-standing official from the bureaucracy.
I saw jaded politicians begin to pay attention as Sarge talked about America’s revolutionary ideas and our mission to carry them out in the world as down to earth, believable: card-carrying idealists who can show how freedom is served by a teacher in a classroom, clean water from a pump in the village square.
I’m not damning the bureaucracy. It is central to the running of our government. And what turned the tide was not Sarge’s glamour but his passion. I saw jaded politicians begin to pay attention as Sarge talked about America’s revolutionary ideas and our mission to carry them out in the world as down to earth, believable: card-carrying idealists who can show how freedom is served by a teacher in a classroom, clean water from a pump in the village square.
One old unreconstructed racist, whose chairmanship of a key subcommittee could have meant life or death for our appropriation, was aghast that young Americans living and working abroad under official auspices might not only practice miscegenation but bring it home with them. Only Shriver could answer that — not a schedule C appointee in the Agency for International Development. Because when that congressman made the case that if Volunteers went abroad, they’d come back and marry interracially, Sarge never blinked. He said, “Congressman, surely you can trust young Americans to do abroad exactly what they would do back in your district in Louisiana.” That left the man scratching his head. When I returned later, for a follow-up call, his secretary told me he had confessed, “I was had.”
You can’t get that from — bless their hearts — career people who’ve had so much drained from them by compromise over the years. It took this man making the case and saying, “Believe in me, because I believe in the Peace Corps.”
John F. Kennedy’s remarks on signing the Peace Corps Act. Courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
We carry two passports.
Joe Kennedy III: I’m struck not only by the power of the idea but the relentlessness and optimism its champions demonstrated. Given your experience in the Peace Corps’ conception, implementation, and development — and looking back over these 60 years — what does the Peace Corps mean to you?
Bill Josephson: The essence of the Peace Corps is service. That’s a concept we emphasized over and over. You could see it in the reaction of the University of Michigan students to President Kennedy’s off-the-cuff speech. You could see it in the flow of applications that followed the announcement of the Peace Corps. You can see it in what more than 250,000 Volunteers did in service, and continue to do in serving those ideals after their Peace Corps service.
Relieve misery, nurture minds, inspire others, crack open a little further the gates long shut by ignorance, bigotry, or just sheer misunderstanding.
Bill Moyers: What I take away is that America must always try to put its best foot forward. We will never know the prints it leaves — but we know that we still are trying as human beings to do our best in the world as patriots and as citizens of the world.
Sarge taught me that we carry two passports: one grounded in the soil of American democracy, which he served five years in the navy to defend; another as a global citizen. He believed that seeing a person could be as important as any institution — could relieve misery, could nurture minds, inspire others, and could crack open a little further the gates long shut by ignorance, bigotry, or just sheer misunderstanding. When I was his deputy, he gave me a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Promise and highlighted this paragraph: “Human beings don’t live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value there is to human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than a blink of an eye? I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye itself is nothing. The span of life is nothing; but the man or woman who lives that span, they are something. They can fill that tiny span with memory so that its quality is immeasurable.”
I believe almost every Peace Corps Volunteer has discovered that about him or herself. And what they did was immeasurable, and unforgettable.
All those years later, he just wanted to pass along that gratitude. He never asked my name, where I was from, what I was doing. He just wanted to take a moment to credit that individual.
Joe Kennedy III: When somebody asks me what Peace Corps service is all about, I often share the story of being on an overcrowded bus on my way back into Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, when I got a tap on my shoulder. An older gentleman asked if I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was surprised and asked how he knew. He looked at me like I was crazy. Why else would I possibly be in the back of a crowded bus in the Dominican Republic? And he said, Thank you. Because when he was a little boy, there was another Volunteer sent to his village who put in a pipe to provide clean water to his community. He never got a chance, as a child, to be able to say thank you. All those years later, he just wanted to pass along that gratitude. He never asked my name, where I was from, what I was doing. He just wanted to take a moment to credit that individual. That matters.
New and enduring
Joe Kennedy III: We talked about the past and the roots of the Peace Corps. One of my mentors, Senator Chris Dodd, talked about the early days of the Peace Corps and getting dropped down in the Dominican Republic himself and picked up two years later. The world has changed now that everybody has a smartphone.
Marieme Foote: The Peace Corps was created on the heels of the civil rights movement. So much has changed in the past 60 years. My father, Mel Foote, served in Ethiopia in the 1970s. He had to drive to the village next door, hours away, to place a phone call at a post office to speak with his parents — maybe five times in his service. I had 4G in my village. I could stream Netflix. Look at the world around us — and conversations around racial justice, equity, class — and how this should affect the Peace Corps. These things are all connected. We have more Volunteers coming from diverse backgrounds, who are first generation, whose parents were served by Peace Corps Volunteers. My mother was served by Peace Corps Volunteers in Senegal. You see also a need for the Peace Corps itself to change; it can’t remain the same as it was in the ’60s. That’s a good thing. It was created as a radical, beautiful concept. National Peace Corps Association put out the report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” last year, which brought out important issues that Volunteers today are facing, and ways we can support Volunteers and better serve communities. Those are questions we need to ask.
Look at the world around us — and conversations around racial justice, equity, class — and how this should affect the Peace Corps. These things are all connected.
Joe Kennedy III: In the early 2000s, I had to get on a bus to go into town to check email and such — but I was still in more or less consistent contact with my family; they could call a cellphone that worked. That constant flow of communication creates challenges, obviously. It also creates enormous opportunities when looking at climate change and the need to make changes and investments at the hyperlocal level. There’s an opportunity to leapfrog technologies and help make a dramatic impact, whether it’s climate resiliency, access to water, electricity, connectedness. There’s a huge opportunity for the Peace Corps as an organization to start to think: How do we leverage those opportunities that come with technology? How do we think through opportunities for partnerships — when obviously with COVID, we’ve seen that impacts around global health are hugely consequential? How can we leverage people on the ground in these communities, with the backing of the people of the United States, to make a long-term, sustained impact?
Marieme Foote: In my village, a lot of people didn’t have access to electricity; solar panels and renewable energy changed that. Among Volunteers I know, everyone has WhatsApp; they’re able to continue conversations overseas from the U.S., and a lot are working on projects with their communities and raising funds — creating educational centers, building resources for communities — all through the internet.
Joe Kennedy III: I’m struck by that, particularly when we talk about the Third Goal of the Peace Corps. Peace Corps can be leveraged to make an impact in communities overseas. But this also means a Volunteer coming home, engaging in teaching or an after-school program, being able to create a connection with a community the entire world away. We’ve all run into that challenge of somebody saying, “Oh, you just came out of the Peace Corps. How was it?” As if you could sum up the last two years of your life in 20 seconds. This enables us to actually be able to show those connections and tell that story in a much more powerful way. Given your time in Benin, your commitment to the ideals that Peace Corps hopes to help ignite in people, and your future with the U.S. Foreign Service: What does the Peace Corps mean to you?
Marieme Foote: Peace Corps, at its heart — as Bill Josephson said — is about wanting to serve and be with people. The people-to-people connection is the best part of Peace Corps. I still talk to my host family; I hope they’ll be my family forever. It has built some beautiful relationships in my life. Finding new ways to make this experience something all Americans can do, that everyone around the world can partake in and celebrate, is important in bridging connections. How we can make this experience accessible to this new generation — that’s my question going forward.
For All They’ve Done: Recognition and Thanks to Bill Josephson and Bill Moyers
As part of the Mark the Moment celebration, National Peace Corps Association presented Bill Josephson and Bill Moyers with special recognition for their work. In presenting the tokens of recognition, NPCA Board Chair Maricarmen Smith-Martinez noted, “Peace Corps wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for your efforts and the collaboration of others 60 years ago. And the greatest tribute, no doubt, is the impact of the 240,000 Volunteers who have served in every part of the world, an impact that is both immeasurable and unforgettable.”
The Peace Corps Act: first page and last, with JFK’s signature. Document courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
NOW LISTEN to this conversation on Spotify.
Story updated December 22, 2021 at 3 PM.
Suggestions to the President by eleven former Peace Corps directors see more
Here’s what eleven former Peace Corps directors would say.
To mark the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps on March 1, University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted a conversation with 11 former Peace Corps directors. Topics ranged across the decades, with a focus on this unprecedented moment — pandemic that led to global evacuation — and an eye toward what Peace Corps can and should do for a changed world.
The conversation was moderated by Donna Shalala, former secretary of health and human services and former member of Congress. Shalala served as a Volunteer in Iran 1962–64, when Sargent Shriver was Peace Corps Director. “He came out to visit us. One of the things I remember, other than he was a charismatic character and we had a lot of fun with him, is that he stuck us with the hotel bill. Thirty years later I presented him with that bill — and his wife made him pay it.”
In all seriousness, she noted that amid a time of rancorous political divide, if she had three minutes with the president to talk about the Peace Corps, she would drive home this point: “The Peace Corps has always been bipartisan. It has always had the support of both parties. Some of the most significant budget increases were during a Republican presidency.”
Bolstering support for Peace Corps is something that earns support on both sides of the aisle.
—Steven Boyd Saum
I’d tell the president: Get them back out there as quickly as you can. Number two, use it as a base to build a national service program for the entire United States. And number three, hire everybody who’s a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer for your administration.
My first request would be to double the size of the program, because we clearly have always had the demand, way more than we could ever fill … Peace Corps has remained strong and a very durable brand throughout multiple challenges, multiple crises, multiple attempts to defund the agency, people who tried to submerge it in another agency … It has survived and prospered.
DOUBLE IT! We’ve come to appreciate the importance of public health, both at home and globally, in a much more immediate way. Can we declare a decade committed to global public health, in which the Peace Corps plays a role overseas — and then brings that role home? The public health system here can use great strengthening, and it could become part of a comprehensive national service program.
For a while I was with the Pan American Health Organization, and people told me that Peace Corps Volunteers in Latin America, in Africa, and in countries in other parts of the world, were key in the smallpox eradication program, and Volunteers worked on polio eradication. Looking forward, it seems to me that would be the kind of challenge Volunteers would respond to. COVID is not going away quickly. Peace Corps Volunteers can help, through their ability to bring technology to bear on health communication in countries around the world.
I am a big proponent of universal national service. I would tell the president that we have a blueprint, which is ready to go, for expansion of national service. Now is the time. We need something that created the greatest generation, that brought people together from Tulsa to New York, from Brooklyn to Fresno — and national service can do it. As we look for ways to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, national service would be an ideal platform to expand opportunities for young people around the country.
I’d try to add an initiative that was dear to my heart: the 50-plus initiative, and talk about the fact that the Peace Corps is not only for young people; it’s for those who have had successful careers, and now have years of experience that they have the ability to share with people around the world. I think it would be impactful on the president to hear some of those stories.
The most important point is the proven track record, success, and value of the Peace Corps — to set the foundation to have a discussion about the ultimate objective, which is to grow and expand the Peace Corps. The domestic dividend is the one aspect that I tried to emphasize, particularly, both to the president and on the Hill; the return on that investment far, far exceeds the boundaries or the time of service in country.
My conversations with Sargent Shriver confirmed to me the whole ethos of the Peace Corps was innovation — and making the Volunteer the North Star. Which led me to think through ways that we could contemporize the Peace Corps and make it right for the times. I used to think the domestic dividend was one of the more underreported or unobserved strengths of the Peace Corps.
We know the good work that happens in some of the most desperate places across the planet — what that means to those communities and villages, certainly the Volunteers. We now know the impact on American lives when they return is the brilliance of the Third Goal of the Peace Corps. We’re at a point in our history where the importance of national and community service cannot be more important. It’s what unites us. Volunteers would say that it crosses the boundaries of difference.
We’re at a point in our history where the importance of national and community service cannot be more important. It’s what unites us.
As we celebrate this 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps, a major accomplishment in the next ten years can be to enhance the threads of service. We know the demand is there. The interesting question for me now is: What will the next ten, 15, 20 years bring in innovation? During my time, we thought of ways to use short-term assignments, initially Crisis Corps, which became Peace Corps Response. Every director here had a moment where they could build upon that history through innovation, respond to needs.
America’s young people — and those not so young — are looking for ways to make a difference. As to the future of the Peace Corps, we’re going to need everyone’s support to make sure the funding is ample. This anniversary is so joyful — but the 70th will be even more so when the Peace Corps will have been doubled.
Many people don’t really understand what Peace Corps does. So I would share a story that conveys what Peace Corps is really about — a story told me by Alpha Condé [first democratically elected president in Guinea], who early in my tenure as director came to visit with President Obama to celebrate democracy in West Africa. He asked to see me; he had a short period of time in Washington, D.C. I went to his hotel, and we had a very formal meeting and exchanged gifts.
He had to meet with President Obama in just a minute. I jumped up to leave — and he reached for my arm and he said, “Please sit down, because now that we’ve dispensed with the formalities, I want to speak to you from my heart. I want to tell you how Peace Corps has transformed my life — but even more important, how it has changed the lives of my people.
“There was a Peace Corps Volunteer who lived next door to me — the first person who believed I had a future outside the boundaries of my village. His late-night tutoring helped me to pass my national exams. He helped me navigate the journey through university application, financial forms, etc. I would not be president today if not for his support and encouragement.
“But more important, the impact your Volunteers have had on my people: During my campaign for presidency, I visited over 300 villages in Guinea. I went to villages in the far east of my country, where Ebola started. My campaign staff wouldn’t go there — and there were Peace Corps Volunteers. I went to the villages in the north where civil servants refused to be posted — and there were Peace Corps Volunteers. I went to small villages in the center of my country; they are visited occasionally by NGOs, which do great work. But at the end of the day, they get back in their SUVs and go back to Conakry, where they live. Your Peace Corps Volunteers stay.
Alpha Condé, the first democratically elected president of Guinea, said: “Your being there validates my people in a way that sending them money or building them a school could never accomplish. In all honesty, your being there validates my people more than millions of dollars in foreign assistance.”
“By your presence, you tell my people that Americans care, that my people are important, that you’re willing to give us your most precious asset — your sons and daughters — and that they are willing to leave everything that is dear to them to travel thousands of miles from home to learn our language, eat our food, learn about our culture, and work on our priorities. Your being there validates my people in a way that sending them money or building them a school could never accomplish. In all honesty, your being there validates my people more than millions of dollars in foreign assistance.
“My people are so proud to show their culture and their language. They’re so proud to work together with your Volunteers to create a better world together, who give them a hand up and not a handout. And that makes a difference.”
I’d share that story. In this world that has become so divided, presidents need to know about those interpersonal connections. Unless people really understand that, they don’t see a benefit in the Peace Corps. We need to be able to communicate the importance of Peace Corps in a way that is profoundly personal. When I was director, there were more than ten presidents on the continent of Africa alone who said they got their start with a Peace Corps Volunteer. That’s extraordinary.
I was sometimes asked by Volunteers, when I was director, what is their real impact? I assured them that I had the great privilege of seeing the continuum of work from one Volunteer to another — work that’s built upon one another.
What you’re all illustrating is the one-on-one, the humbleness; you learn the language, you learn the community, you are with a family. One example that several of you were involved in: Peace Corps going back to Indonesia. There was a lot of mistrust, and a tiny program — maybe ten Volunteers. We came, we worked, bit by bit by bit. I was able to go back to Indonesia about 15 months ago for a meeting with the Ministry of Education and the other agencies that have come together for Peace Corps in Indonesia. They said, “We want to say to you now, ten years later — we want to open up the next section for the country. We want to bring in 30, 40, 50, 60 more Volunteers. We trust you. We respect you, because you honor and respect us as individuals working in communities.”
An invitation to listen, learn — and roll up our sleeves see more
An invitation to listen, learn — and roll up our sleeves.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Let’s start with a story about an invitation. There’s that historic letter from JFK below, sent to the first would-be Volunteers. And let me tell you about Laurel Hunt, a recent engineering grad from University of Minnesota, and the years of Peace Corps service she has yet to undertake in Peru, working with a community on health and sanitation. Return to March 2020: “Friday the 13th was my last day at work,” Hunt writes. “As I packed up my desk that afternoon, I got a phone call from Washington, D.C. A frazzled-sounding Peace Corps employee told me that my Peru 35 group would be delayed at least 30 days.”
COVID-19 was burning its way across the globe, countries shuttering airports and closing borders. Two days later, Peace Corps announced a global evacuation of all Volunteers.
Peace Corps was something Laurel Hunt had her heart set on since junior high. While earning her engineering degree, she co-founded and served as president of Out in STEM. “As a queer woman in engineering, I’m used to feeling out of place,” she says. Peace Corps would no doubt bring more of that sense of displacement, in ways humbling and unexpected — and, so the story goes, lessons in patience, flexibility, resilience.
“I don’t know what my future holds, and the uncertainty is tough,” Hunt wrote a year ago. “For right now, all I can do now is wait, support my community, and wash my hands. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a safe place to stay and enough savings to make it through a few months in limbo.”
On her blog she wrote with admiration about returned Volunteers who, as the global evacuation was taking place, rallied to help the evacuees. There was a Facebook group focused on providing that support; within days, its membership swelled to 6,000 members, and then 14,000. Hunt pitched in as an administrator for the group.
She hoped, as so many did, that the pandemic might be tamed — and that Volunteers would return to their sites later in the year. By summer it was clear that wouldn’t happen. Hunt took a job at a seafood processor in Alaska for a few months. She returned to Minnesota. The firm where she had been working offered her a job again, while she waited to hear when she might begin Peace Corps service.
“The uncertainty is tough,” wrote would-be Volunteer Laurel Hunt. So she established a group to support others in the same boat: Peace Corps Invitees in Limbo.
Many hundreds of others were in the same boat, waiting. So Hunt formed a Facebook group to give them a place to share updates (what’s the latest on departure for your country?) and to offer advice and support and a shared sense of what it was to be living with this uncertainty while other forces in life exerted their gravitational pull. Hunt christened the group Peace Corps Invitees in Limbo.
When the first Peace Corps Volunteers received their letters of invitation from President Kennedy 60 years ago, they were embarking on something uncertain and new. When Volunteers arrive once more in countries around the world, the communities and individuals who serve there will begin a journey very different from what has come before. I have heard from one of my former students — Olena Halapchuk-Tarnavska, who is now on the faculty at Lesya Ukrainka Volyn National University in western Ukraine and who has been training incoming groups of Volunteers for years — that they are eager for Volunteers to return. Those sentiments have been heard from every country where Volunteers were serving. But how things will be different remains to be seen.
When the first Peace Corps Volunteers received their letters of invitation from President Kennedy 60 years ago, they were embarking on something uncertain and new. When Volunteers arrive once more in countries around the world, the communities and individuals who serve there will begin a journey very different from what has come before.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of Peace Corps beginnings, in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView we also lean hard on what Peace Corps might be — and what place it has in a changed world. And not only Peace Corps, because this audacious endeavor — independent from the exponentially larger USAID and State Department, thanks to the vision and efforts of the early architects of the agency — does not exist in a vacuum. Which brings us to the words on our cover: The Time Is Now! For what? To commit as never before to a sense of service with a sense of solidarity, building up communities across the United States and around the world, fostering the personal connections that deepen our awareness and understanding — of shared humanity, of what equity and justice mean, and, for better or for worse, a common fate on this planet.
The thing about service and solidarity is that these are not a one-and-done commitment, boxes to be checked. For this work, there’s a standing invitation.
Letter image courtesy Maureen Carroll Collection, Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Archives and Special Collections
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.Write him.
This essay appears in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine. Sign up for a print subscription by joining National Peace Corps Association. You can also download the WorldView App for free here: worldviewmagazine.org
Communications Intern 2 posted an articlePeace Corps beginnings up to global evacuation in 2020 — and advice for what should be next. see more
Sixty years since the Peace Corps was founded. Beginnings in a troubled world. Amid an unprecedented time, an anniversary like no other. And unfinished business in an age of divisiveness and uncertainty.
In the print edition of WorldView, these photos open a section of the magazine that brings together a few stories of service across the decades. Plus, advice that former Peace Corps directors would share with the current president of the United States. Read. Explore. And share your stories.
1961: Towering Task Edition | Once More, with Feeling | Our Stories Are America’s Stories | “If I had three minutes to talk to President Biden about the Peace Corps…” | Peace Corps Week 2021 | Make It Cool, Make It Last | This Isn’t Over | In it Together
Peace Corps training in Hawai‘i in the 1960s.
Archival photo courtesy Peace Corps
Mangrove reforestation in Panamá, and Elias, a boy fom the community, high-fives Volunteer Bailey Rosen. Her service was cut short by evacuation in March 2020.
Panamá photo by Eli Wittum
Peace Corps Community Connect launches to bring together the Peace Corps community see more
Introducing Peace Corps Community Connect—an effort to connect, inform, and engage the Peace Corps community like never before.
By Marieme Foote, Caitlin Nemeth, and Molly O’Brien
Illustration by Forum One
The past year has underscored just how crucial the experience of Peace Corps service is, as are the values that it instills. Recent months have also driven home the fact that we need to connect, inform, and engage our community like never before. Which is why National Peace Corps Association has launched Peace Corps Community Connect.
As part of that team, we’re already partnering with groups of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and individual community members to find fellow RPCVs from their country of service. One goal is to connect our robust and active community and, in this time of social distancing, host virtual events, hear and better understand the impact of service on us and our communities — whether that service took place decades ago or was brought to an abrupt end last year.
At a time when it’s important to amplify our voices, Peace Corps Community Connect is also intended to link the entire Peace Corps community and bring change-makers together to engage on key issues like accessible healthcare, racial justice, and climate change. Lessons in the value of community are something learned by Volunteers who have served around the globe.
The 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps is a time for celebration. And it’s a time to commit to shaping a better future together. This year will be crucial for advocating for the reimagining and retooling of the Peace Corps for a changed world, and ensuring more meaningful positive and sustainable impact here at home.
As community outreach specialists, we’re working to connect 250,000 members of the greater Peace Corps community. For Marieme Foote, this work is shaped in part by her experience being evacuated from Benin in March. For her, it will help ensure we can build a better and stronger Peace Corps. Together with other evacuated Volunteers, she has advocated for greater support to Volunteers more broadly, and she has appreciated the sense of community she has experienced since returning.
For Caitlin Nemeth, who completed her service in The Gambia in 2019, the stories and insights from Volunteers and staff who went through the evacuation last spring have struck a chord. As Meg Holladay put it in the summer 2020 edition of WorldView, speaking of the work she was doing in Ghana: “Peace Corps work is so powerful because it’s work we do together with our communities, based on their priorities.” That sense of community-driven work carries into the efforts of Peace Corps Community Connect.
At a time of isolation that has lasted months, Molly O’Brien, who served both in Jordan and Thailand, has taken comfort in reconnecting with fellow RPCVs. It reminds her that a support network is always nearby: a place to share memories and experiences, and to find camaraderie with Volunteers from many generations and all walks of life.
We have already begun working with groups of returned Volunteers and former staff from around the world, helping them broaden and deepen their connections. We’ve been working with groups connected to countries including Guyana and Pakistan, Kenya and Kiribati, Vanuatu and Sudan. In the months ahead, we’ll be working with groups connected to every country where Peace Corps has served. As we do that, it’s with a clear awareness of this fact: Together we are stronger.
Editor Steven Saum speaks on issues of the current times and how NPCA can move forward. see more
Peace Corps teaches us a new way to think about time. Pandemic does, too. So what do we do with this?
By Steven Boyd Saum
ACROSS THE DECADES and countries and communities where tens of thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers have served, there are a few things we share. One: a new grasp of time. Be it seasons or how we count the days, a revised sense of punctuality or the value of hours in terms of money or daylight, be it devoted to sleep or preparing a meal or hiking to the well, be it in the presence of friends or alone with this self you are becoming — one of the gifts: to be invited into a new way of measuring a life. Step outside of the this, then this, then this. Also a gift: the dawning of the truth that empathy and understanding are not transactional stuff, giver and receiver both richer, stronger, wiser, more human.
Now here we are: old strictures of time dissolved, pandemic time warping the distance between today and last Monday until that day is shockingly distant. When time itself has taken on new meaning—or lack thereof. But how?
It’s been nearly nine months since most Volunteers around the world got the news — via phone call or email or WhatsApp: Because of COVID-19, they were being evacuated. The pandemic was burning its way across the globe. In this country and others, it still exacts a terrible toll. As we put the fall edition of WorldView magazine to bed, globally there have been 43 million cases and 1.16 million people have died, more than 226,000 lives lost in the United States alone.
We look to a pandemic a century in the past for lessons on enduring this one. And we behold a future that came too soon.
We look to a pandemic a century in the past for lessons on enduring this one. And we behold a future that came too soon.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, which I call home, this was the year of the Blade Runner sky: Dry lightning sparked hundreds of fires up and down the Golden State, including the largest blaze in recorded history — more than 1 million acres. As summer faded, fires were burning up and down the West Coast of the United States and Canada, fulfillment of Cassandra climate change warnings that would visit themselves upon us within a quarter century if we didn’t do something now. Then here they were.
To Louisiana came four named storms: Marco, Laura, Beta, Delta — the second of that lot blowing the fiercest winds of any tropical cyclone in modern history to make landfall on the Bayou State.
The arc of a storm, the arc of history, the path of the fire or the pandemic of COVID or hateful racism: Where will we find ourselves in the time that matters? Digging the perimeter to halt the flames, preparing meals for the first responders, helping someone breathe?
WorldView Fall 2020: What’s the role of Peace Corps now? Cover illustration by David Plunkert.
THIS UNPRECEDENTED MOMENT, 2020 continued. Let us speak of world peace and friendship. We’ve just begun commemorating six decades since this whole audacious Peace Corps endeavor caught the 1960 election-year zeitgeist. Origin story: 2 a.m. at the University of Michigan on a drizzly and chilly October 14, cut to San Francisco’s Cow Palace on November 2, and not even six weeks after inauguration day 1961 there’s the executive order on 3/1/61 — JFK signs the Peace Corps into being. Youthful idealism that set in motion something that could and should be the best of what this nation aspires to be.
Perhaps not coincidentally, when I was teaching contemporary American literature as a Volunteer in western Ukraine — the independent country then all of three years old — the poem that most fired my students’ imaginations was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting.” It is a litany of an American promise unfulfilled, ideals unmet, but that does not mean giving up:
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
Because as we studied this Beat poet (now 101!) I asked these future teachers and bankers, singers and city council members, mothers and fathers and citizens — notebooks, please: What are you waiting for?
WE ARE HOPING for Volunteers to return to communities around the world, knowing what’s ahead is uncharted for all. Yet ambassadors and colleagues, students and families have all asked: When? Because solidarity, not charity, calls. Yet we know that the safety and security of communities and Volunteers must circumscribe what is possible. And these cannot be empty words.
Because we carry with sorrow and compassion a tragic truth underscored in recent weeks. In January 2018, Bernice Heiderman, from Inverness, Illinois, was serving as a Volunteer in Comoros. As a New York Times article detailed this fall, she contracted and died from undiagnosed malaria. Had it been treated, she might have made a full recovery. She was 24 years old.
To her loved ones, the Peace Corps community sends the deepest condolences. And a pledge to ensure that the agency does better. As NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst wrote in an open letter, “The current challenge of suspended Peace Corps programming provides a tremendous opportunity—and clear responsibility—for the agency to engage global health experts, Congress, and the broad Peace Corps community in a transparent dialogue on where improvements in volunteer health care are needed and what is needed to implement those improvements ... And we must commit to the care and well-being of these Volunteers in a changed world.”
We can do nothing less.
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He was as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Fall 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:
STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.
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At 2 a.m. on October 14 the Peace Corps community kicked off 60th anniversary celebrations see more
We’re marking the events in 1960 and 1961 that led to the creation of the Peace Corps. And we seek inspiration in how we can reimagine Peace Corps for a changed world.
By WorldView Staff
At 2 a.m. on October 14 the Peace Corps community kicked off 60th anniversary celebrations with a once-a-decade gathering: We returned (virtually) to the steps of the student union at University of Michigan to commemorate the impromptu speech by John F. Kennedy that helped launch the Peace Corps.
The questions that caught the zeitgeist: “How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers: how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can. And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we’ve ever made in the past.”
JFK at the Union: 2 a.m., October 14, 1960. Photo courtesy Peace Corps
November 2 marks the anniversary in 1960 of a speech at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, in the final days of his campaign for president, in which Sen. John F. Kennedy proposed “a peace corps of talented young men and women, willing and able to serve their country in this fashion for three years.”
These “ambassadors of peace,” he said, “would be a volunteer corps, and volunteers would be sought among not only talented young men and women, but also Americans, of whatever age, who wished to serve the great Republic and serve the cause of freedom, men who have taught or engineers or doctors or nurses, who have reached the age of retirement, or who in the midst of their work wished to serve their country and freedom, should be given an opportunity and an agency in which their talents could serve our country around the globe.” Watch a clip here.
PEACE CORPS DAY | MARCH 1
Celebrations with the Peace Corps community across the United States— and around the world.
PEACE CORPS CONNECT | JULY 29–31, 2021
Howard University, Washington, D.C. + Online
We hope that we’ll be able to come together in person for our annual conference, hosted by Howard University. But wherever you are in the U.S. or around the world you can join us—because we’ll have a robust digital program.
Stay tuned for more—and updates on how we’ll host our annual Days of Action on Capitol Hill at the beginning of March 2021.
STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.
STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.