Orrin Luc posted an articleA diplomat committed to peace and prosperity in the Caribbean see more
He began his career as a teacher with the Peace Corps | 1949–2021
He was a diplomat who devoted decades to advancing peace, prosperity, equality, and democracy in the Caribbean. Peace Corps service set him on that path. Equipped with a bachelor’s from Emory University, he headed to Liberia as a Volunteer (1971–73) and taught general science, biology, math, and chemistry. He admired the commitment of U.S. Embassy staff he met.
He completed graduate degrees in African studies and education, then embarked on a career that took him to the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Ecuador before he was appointed ambassador to Honduras (2002–05) by President George W. Bush. He served as president and CEO of the Inter-American Foundation, focused on grassroots development in Latin America and the Caribbean, expanding support for underserved groups, including African descendants.
President Barack Obama tapped Palmer to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean (2012–16); Palmer concurrently served as ambassador to Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He understood the value of building relationships in person.
A moment with the press: Larry Palmer after speaking with the president of Honduras in 2002. Photo by Esteban Felix / AP
A story he shared, from a conversation with Alejandro Toledo, who, Palmer said, “always talks about his experience as a young student when a Peace Corps Volunteer identified him as a potential excellent student and leader and pushed him and gave him the courage that he needed to move on, further his education … And of course he ended up as president of Peru.” Larry Palmer died in April at age 71.
—Steven Boyd Saum
Communications Intern posted an articleAnd a conversation on Peace Corps ideals in today’s world see more
Williams issues a clarion call for building a more inclusive network for global development. And he explores the arc of Peace Corps history in an interview about the documentary A Towering Task.
By Del Wood and Steven Boyd Saum
We are in an historic moment. The protests against racial injustice that have swept the United States and scores of other countries since the end of May were sparked by the killing of George Floyd — one of so many Black women and men killed by police. The protests erupted with anger and frustration — and not only among Blacks. They have also ushered in the possibility of the United States coming to terms with systemic racism. That transformation needs to be carried over into global development work, writes former Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams.
“The diversity of the demonstrators gives me great hope that this could be the pivotal moment in our nation,” Williams observes in an essay published by Devex in June. “They are demanding that we live up to the American dream, and the ideals of democracy, civil rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality that the country was founded on two centuries ago.”
Williams also argues that international organizations have a responsibility to transform how they do their work:
“U.S. international and foreign affairs organizations should rise to this challenge, and seize this moment to demonstrate leadership in pursuing broad-based policies and programs that will promote diversity and social justice in both their U.S. and overseas offices. They play a prominent role — as principal partners with the U.S. government — in the country’s global leadership, and thus should invest in the diverse human capital of the future that will mirror the true face of our country.”
Williams served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1967 to 1970 and as Director of the Peace Corps from 2009 to 2012. Read the full essay here.
‘Transformed my life’: Aaron Williams on Peace Corps history and A Towering Task
With the screening of A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps in Florida recently, Aaron Williams sat down for a conversation about the film. He supplements the sweeping history of the Peace Corps in the documentary with personal stories. How he, as a young Black man from the South Side of Chicago, headed into Peace Corps with a nearly all-white cohort of Volunteers. Of the powerful impact Peace Corps had in Ghana — teaching a young man and inspiring him to become a scientist, then later vice president and president. And he makes the case for Peace Corps ideals as offering a way forward: with understanding what it means to be engaged with the world, and to live out those ideals at home.
Here are clips from the conversation with film exhibitor Nat Chediak.
“My entire career … whether I've been in business, I’ve been in government, I’ve been in the nonprofit world — Peace Corps was the trigger for that.”
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, so I grew up in a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and people expected me to settle down, become a teacher and, you know, have a normal life. Well, I had become intrigued by the Peace Corps by listening to Sargent Shriver’s speeches. And I heard a couple of Kennedy’s speeches. I was still pretty young when Kennedy was president. But I decided, this is something that I should look into. It sounded like something that would be structured, would give me a chance to learn something about outside of the United States, and it turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime. I mean, truly, truly transformed my life. Everything that I’ve done, Nat, has emanated from the Peace Corps. My entire career … whether I've been in business, I’ve been in government, I’ve been in the nonprofit world — Peace Corps was the trigger for that.The other thing about the Peace Corps is that when I arrived out in California, the San Diego State College where I was trained, I was in a group of about 80 or 90 people. I was the only Black person in the group. And I was wondering to myself, those first couple of days, what have I parachuted myself into? I quickly found out, within a week or two weeks there, that I was in the presence of some very special people. People who had self-selected to join in this wonderful enterprise called the Peace Corps, who were interested in making the world a better place, and were open to ideas, to people, to thoughts, and philosophies. That was just amazing. So it was an amazing time. And I trained with some amazing people. Part of our group went to El Salvador, part went to Honduras, the other part went to the Dominican Republic, and we were teacher trainers. So that's how it all emanated. That’s how I ended up in the Peace Corps.
“And that’s when this young man who became vice president, and ultimately president of Ghana, decided he wanted to become a scientist.”
WILLIAMS: There’s also a great commonality. And that’s what you really learn in the Peace Corps, right? You learn about the commonality and things that we worry about: our children, the future, good healthcare, aspirations for our children and our family. And you learn that those are the basic common elements that we all share, no matter where you might be born or live on the globe.
Let me tell you a story. I was in Ghana to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. And I went to an event with the then-vice president of Ghana. He had been taught by a Peace Corps Volunteer when he was a young man in elementary school in a remote part of Ghana. Ghana was one of the first countries where Sargent Shriver established the Peace Corps in 1961. So when we arrived at this event, it was to celebrate the Year of the Teacher in Ghana. And a Peace Corps Volunteer was one of the ten top teachers that was being honored, as a matter of fact. And that Peace Corps Volunteer, by the way, her parents had served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Latin America, you know, years before — so what a marvelous confluence of events. As I was waiting in the government house in this regional city to go out to the event with the vice president, I had a couple of talking points I wanted to share with him about the future of the Peace Corps in Ghana and some things that the ambassador had asked me to share with the vice president. And instead, he wanted to tell me a story about how he met this Peace Corps Volunteer.
So he’s a young man in this classroom. They had never seen a white person before in the village, and they were worried about this new teacher they had heard about. They wondered, would this man even speak English? Could they understand him? What was this gonna be all about? He comes in and he says: How many people here in this room know how far the sun is from the Earth? And they’re thinking, why is he asking us this? Who knows the answer to this question? Everybody put their heads down, nobody answered. He went up to the board and he wrote on the board: “93.” Then he went around this one-room classroom — with these chalk balls — and he kept circling with chalk until he came back around to the front. He says, “Ninety-three million miles. Don’t you ever forget that.”
“And that’s when this young man who became vice president, and ultimately president of Ghana, decided he wanted to become a scientist.”
WILLIAMS: He could have told me anything that day, but that’s the story that he shared with me, which I have never forgotten. It was such a stunning, amazing — and it tells you a lot about the impact of the Peace Corps. Now, lastly, when I got back to the States I did everything I could see if we could find this volunteer who had taught him. And we did!
CHEDIAK: No kidding!
WILLIAMS: When he came over for a summit of African nations with President Obama, we arranged a reunion with the then-vice president and the Peace Corps Volunteer who taught him in Ghana in that rural school.
CHEDIAK: You're kidding. Were you there? Was it very emotional?
WILLIAMS: No, I was not there.
CHEDIAK: Ah, okay. Okay, but I can imagine now I'm, you know, what a beautiful moment that must have been for both of them.
CHEDIAK: Oh, my gosh, that’s incredible. That’s a beautiful story.
WILLIAMS: It’s a miracle they tracked him down. This is 50 years later.
“That’s what we bring to the rich tapestry of America when we return home."
CHEDIAK: Even in these difficult, nationalistic days — and I’m not talking simply about the U.S. — you know, but it’s something that we have seen in other countries that is a troubling concern. You still feel that the goodwill of men will prevail?
WILLIAMS: I think so, and I think the Peace Corps is really my foundation for believing that. Because I’ve seen people prevail against really tough situations — horrendous conditions, right? Fighting disease, fighting poverty, political unrest, civil war, and they come out the other side, in most cases, better than they were in the beginning. Not in all cases, right — but it happens. So, that’s the reason I continue to be optimistic about the future of the world and mankind. And I’m so proud of Peace Corps Volunteers who have served for almost 60 years in countries around the world, who represent the true face of America and who really understand what it means to be engaged with the rest of the world and to become effective and optimistic global citizens. That’s what we bring to the rich tapestry of America when we return home and what we do in our future careers here at home.
Communications Intern posted an articlePeace Corps Commemorative continues to pay tribute to the Peace Corps legacy. see more
A concluding moment to the service of Joe Kennedy III in the House: legislation to enable work on the Peace Corps Commemorative to carry forward
By Jonathan Pearson and Steven Boyd Saum
Illustration by Edward Rooks
Joseph Kennedy III served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. After he was elected to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, one of the first pieces of legislation he introduced and passed focused on Peace Corps: It provided congressional authorization for the creation of a Peace Corps Commemorative in Washington, D.C.
In September 2020 the design was unanimously approved by the Commission on Fine Arts. But authorization for completing the project was set to expire before ground would be broken. On December 17, 2020, in the closing days of Kennedy’s tenure in the House, he and others secured passage of a time extension that will allow work on the commemorative to continue. Colleague Rob Wittman (R-VA) noted that it is fitting for the legislation to be sponsored by President Kennedy’s grandnephew.
Photo by Drew Altizer Photography. Rendering courtesy Peace Corps Commemorative Foundation
And Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) said the commemorative will serve as a “lasting tribute to the legacy of the Peace Corps.”
Late on December 20, the Senate unanimously approved the legislation. Sponsors Rob Portman (R-OH) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) issued a release paying tribute to Volunteers. “For more than 50 years, the Peace Corps has served as a powerful vehicle for Volunteers who wish to use their talents to carry America’s humanitarian values to other parts of the world,” said Portman. “We can ensure the Peace Corps Commemorative Foundation can finish this important project and honor those Americans who have donated their time and talent to serving others.”
President Trump signed the bill into law on January 5.
Steven Saum posted an articleBenjamin Rietmann left friends and project partners, and students trying to start their own business see more
Dominican Republic | Benjamin Rietmann
Home: Condon, Oregon
Photo: Build your dreams: Ben with two students who competed in the Peace Corps "Construye tus Sueños" competition, where they presented business plans trying to win seed money to start businesses. The young woman wants to make and sell yogurt, and the young man wants to start a hardware store.
I’m from a small town in eastern Oregon. I was in the community economic development sector, working with an association of dairy farmers and teaching entrepreneurship to high school-age students. We held the Construye tus Sueños competition — Build Your Dreams — where they presented business plans trying to win seed money to start businesses.
When we were evacuated, I left behind friends and project partners with whom I’d worked to build relationships over the past year. I left behind students who had yet to finish my entrepreneurship and personal finance programs. I left behind my dog, house, furniture.
We held the Construye tus Sueños competition — Build Your Dreams — where they presented business plans trying to win seed money to start businesses.
I was helping several dairy farmers to organize and better understand their finances. I was helping the association administrator learn more computer skills, and I was creating an annual budget for the association. I was helping a students start their own business making yogurt and other dairy projects. Much of what I was doing seemed promising.
Got milk? The dairy association collection center where Benjamin was working, in process of having a second story built on the building. Photo by Benjamin Rietmann
Coming back to the U.S., I was fortunate to have a place to stay and a family to provide for me during quarantine. As I write this, I’m unsure if I’ll be able to return to Peace Corps service, unsure if I’ll be able to get a job during the pandemic, unsure what the future holds.
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