Orrin Luc posted an articleWhat Happens When Diplomats Fail to Understand the History of Nations Where They Serve — from the Perspective of the People in Those Nations?John Dickson provides lessons and insights from his 25 years in foreign service. see more
When History Collides with Foreign Relations
By John Dickson
University of Kansas Press
Reviewed by Nathalie Vadnais
John Dickson gleans insights from 25 years as a foreign service officer, much of which included hard lessons that came from not having a deeper knowledge of a host country’s history. That leads time and again to what he terms “history shock,” wherein dramatically different interpretations of history have blocked diplomatic understanding and cooperation.
Dickson served with the Peace Corps in Gabon 1976–79 before joining the U.S. Information Agency in 1984; he later served with the State Department when the two agencies merged. He uses vignettes describing personal interactions and an analysis of his experiences in Mexico, Cuba, Canada, Nigeria, South Africa, and elsewhere. “By cherry-picking those events that helped construct a nation that is exceptional,” Dickson writes, “the United States has consistently overlooked that slice of its history that does not correspond to its self-image.” And by “neglecting history, we are less able or willing to draw on memory to aid in how we learn, make decisions, behave, or develop new strategies.”
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. Story updated May 22, 2022.
Nathalie Vadnais is an intern with WorldView. She is completing a degree in international studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Communications Intern posted an articleMeet Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, Janelle Jones, and Jalina Porter see more
First Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the State Department. Chief Economist for U.S. Department of Labor. And Principal Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department.
Photo: Janelle Jones
“We are at a particular time in America, and the world is watching us,” Gina Abercrombie- Winstanley said after being appointed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to her new role. That would be the first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer for the State Department.
In January at State, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Jalina Porter also set precedent — when she became the first Black woman appointed as principal deputy spokesperson. Returned Volunteer Janelle Jones is breaking ground, too: She's the first Black woman to serve as chief economist for the Department of Labor.
Here's an introduction to all three.
First Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the State Department
Oman | 1980–82
A new post and a new leader for a decades-old problem: Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley was appointed in April as the first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer for the State Department. She is tasked with leading efforts to ensure that we nurture a diplomatic corps that truly represents this country — and looks like this country — and sheds once and for all the cliche of “pale, male, and Yale.”
This is not the first time that Abercrombie-Winstanley has led the way — and been tested. After serving with the Peace Corps in Oman, she went on to become the first woman to lead a diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia; she was serving as consul general in Jeddah in 2004 when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb near the consulate, killing nine.
She advised U.S. Cyber Command on diplomatic priorities, and she served as U.S. ambassador to Malta. In December 2020 she gave the keynote address for Peace Corps’ Franklin Williams Awards ceremony. “We are the messengers of what Peace Corps is and can be,” she said, recounting both the opportunities she helped create and the resistance she faced as a Black woman serving in the Peace Corps and in the U.S. Foreign Service. Read more: bit.ly/we-are-peace-corps
Photo of Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley by Mandel Ngan/AP
Chief Economist for U.S. Department of Labor
Peru | 2009–11
Appointed in January, Jones is the first Black woman to serve as chief economist for the Labor Department. Her top goals: create jobs, address inequality — like the fact that the unemployment rate for Black individuals is often double that of whites — and pursue economic recovery that truly benefits everyone. One way to do that is, she says, to pursue economic policies fueled by the sensibility of “Black Women Best” — that is, those that focus on pulling Black women out of recession and into prosperity, because that will mean we’re building an economy that benefits everyone.
Previously, Jones served as an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. Her research has been cited in The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Economist, Harper’s, and The Review of Black Political Economy. She holds degrees from Spelman College and Illinois State University.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer she worked on small business development; she also served as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in Sacramento with a grassroots nonprofit focused on community health.
Janelle Jones photo courtesy Economic Policy Institute
Principal Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department
Cambodia | 2009–11
Appointed in January 2021 to serve as deputy spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, Porter is the first Black woman in history to serve in that role. She was formerly communications director for Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-LA), who was appointed a senior advisor to the Biden administration.
Porter is also a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a 2020 recipient of Peace Corps’ Franklin Williams Award. In her work as a strategic communications advisor, she has focused on peace and security, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Throughout her career, she has advised and trained over 3,000 public and foreign policy professionals, veterans, artists, athletes, politicians, and leading corporate executives. She was named a 2018 top 35 Black American National Security and Foreign Policy Next Generation Leader by New America and a 2019 Foreign Policy Influencer by the Women’s Foreign Policy Group.
She is a member of the inaugural cohort of NPCA's “40 under 40” and previously served on the board of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington, D.C. as development director. Immediatly prior to her new post, she also served on the advisory council for the community-driven report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future.” She is a proud graduate of Howard University, where she received her bachelor’s degree, and Georgetown University, where she earned her master’s. A former professional dancer, Porter is passionate about the arts, living with intention, and unique storytelling through movement and writing.
Jalina Porter photo courtesy Department of State
Ana Victoria Cruz posted an articleKeynote address by Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley at the Franklin H. Williams Award Ceremony see more
In a keynote address for the Franklin H. Williams Award ceremony, Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley recounts the opportunities she helped create — and the resistances she faced — as an African American woman serving in the Peace Corps and in the U.S. Foreign Service.
By Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley
On December 15, 2020, the Peace Corps recognized six leaders in the Peace Corps community — and a civic leader with a shared commitment to Peace Corps values — with the Franklin H. Williams Award. The keynote address was delivered by Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, whose pathbreaking career in the Foreign Service has created new opportunities and possibilities for women and minorities. Abercrombie-Winstanley served with the Peace Corps in Oman, was the first woman to lead a diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia, advised U.S. Cyber Forces on diplomatic priorities, and served as U.S. ambassador to Malta. Meet this year’s winners and read Ambassador's Abercrombie-Winstanley remarks below.
I am so jazzed to be here with you. I asked what I should be aiming to leave you with today, but having seen the backgrounds of these nominees, I know we all will be leaving here today brimming with awe and inspiration.
I’m often asked how I got interested in public service and foreign policy, and I suspect my beginnings are similar to yours. I had parents, teachers and mentors, like you, who opened my eyes to the wider world. And they helped me understand that I could have a meaningful role in it. They advocated volunteerism and servant leadership — and they practiced what they preached. These people, and more, instilled in me a commitment to service. A commitment to what we now call “paying it forward.” That commitment is what Peace Corps stands for.
Now, I raised eyebrows when I said I wanted to join Peace Corps. My mother was a little nervous about me going “over there.” My father asked me if I was going off to learn how to be poor, instead of getting a job to pay off my school loans. Our family’s international experience, until then, was largely confined to stints in the military. It’s a unique experience for many Americans — and especially so for Volunteers of color.
I remember the excitement about leaving home, the worry about fitting in, of learning how to do the job properly so I could accomplish what we all want to do — make lives better. Asked to describe what came to my mind when I remember my Peace Corps experience, I said a combination of frustration and pride. Frustration because some of my trainers wondered whether I was a good “fit.” Pride because I got the highest language score of my entire group. Frustration because of the occasional chauvinism from my host-country boss, and pride when a health worker confidently displayed the new vaccine storage techniques I had taught the previous month. As we all wait for a COVID vaccine, that is an especially strong memory.
I know what it feels like to be far from home and have people look at you quizzically when you explain you’re the American Peace Corps Volunteer. And we all know that feeling when interest starts fading in the eyes of your auntie ’cause you talked about your village experience just a little too long.
Many Volunteers can tell horror stories about the “stomach bug” diet, while others like me, bring back the local cuisine attached to our bodies! But what we also bring back are experiences that will serve us well in every aspect of life. My Peace Corps experiences have been a part of everything I have accomplished since.
Peace Corps provided the solid foundation that allowed me to work my way up in the U. S. diplomatic corps to serve our nation as President Obama’s personal representative. Our nominees used their own experiences to become shining examples of servant leadership.
Peace Corps provided the solid foundation that allowed me to work my way up in the U.S. diplomatic corps to serve our nation as President Obama’s personal representative. Our nominees used their own experiences to become shining examples of servant leadership.
Peace Corps teaches resilience. In your personal relationships, in your work, and in yourself. So today, as I share a bit of my journey, I hope that I remind you of the possibilities of your own.
Peace Corps honed my language skills, and improved my interpersonal skills. Presented with the etiquette demands of communal eating, an uncomfortable style of restroom, or a wedding that begins at 2:00 AM? No problem. I had been there and done that as a Volunteer — and navigated all of these challenges smoothly as a diplomat. The little victories are sweet and lead the way to larger personal connections.
As we learned or confirmed in Peace Corps, there will be times when the fruits of our labors pay off in making a situation better for someone else. We might have taught someone or built something — and sometimes it is just the example of our effort. That we tried, that we didn’t give up, or in and we maintained our sense of self. That can be a victory.
We learned in Peace Corps to celebrate the accomplishments, large and small, along the way — and the best of us, like our nominees, bring that spirit home and weave paying it forward tightly into our lives.
We’ve all learned in this century we call the year 2020, that whether in our personal lives, or in our workplaces, or standing up to be counted in the larger battles that face us today, it’s possible to make a difference. That it’s important to be clear in our demands for inclusion. But it’s not easy. But people who leave home and travel around the world to help others? Those are not the people who take the easy path.
We are the ones who bring something extra to our work as Volunteers to other people’s lives. We are the ones who strive to be judged on the content of our character. We are the ones who had to overcome the resistance of foreigners who didn’t have us in mind when they requested a meeting with the U.S. volunteer, or program officer, or diplomat. Sometimes we are the ones who have to overcome resistance from our own colleagues who question our suitability for assignments or positions. But we know the importance of bringing our perspectives to the table with confidence. And in different parts of the world we have embraced the hard work and the adventure. In Peace Corps and beyond.
I was proud to be that example of what we say we stand for: America’s representatives looking like America. This starts with Peace Corps, and it’s incumbent on all of us to ensure this happens.
Peace Corps taught me to speak for myself and others who needed encouragement to break barriers. During my travels, I was often greeted warmly, and humbled by the welcome. Young Saudi women were especially kind in sharing how encouraged they were to see me, an African American woman, in a leadership position. And their excitement about the possibilities of their futures was palpable. And I was proud to be that example of what we say we stand for: America’s representatives looking like America. This starts with Peace Corps, and it’s incumbent on all of us to ensure this happens.
We are the messengers of what Peace Corps is and can be. We pay it forward by joining and we gain so much from the experience. Then we pay it back by inspiring the next generations of Volunteers. Because Peace Corps is made stronger with the experiences from a diverse cohort of Volunteers, and America made better with the contributions of Returned Peace Corp Volunteers.
As you listen to the stories and contributions of these nominees, I know you will be as humbled and inspired as I! Onward and thank you!
Anne's affiliate posted an articleGlobal Opinions, By Bren Flanigan, Aug 31 see more
Bren Flanigan is a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, where he serves as a community economic adviser. He is a recent graduate of Washington and Lee University. This commentary does not represent any official view of the Peace Corps.
After surviving nine hours in a non-air-conditioned bus in the hot West African climate, during which the only escape from the jolting ride is a “pee-pee stop,” the last thing I wanted to do was converse in my extremely limited French with my Peace Corps host father. But I was instantly interrogated on the then-ongoing tumultuous 2016 presidential election: “Why do all Americans hate Muslims?”
It’s humbling to find people in Benin following U.S. current affairs with intense interest, when many Americans could never locate Benin on a map. Addressing questions like these gives Peace Corps volunteers the opportunity to shatter the stereotypes about the United States portrayed in television and movies.
These conversations represent the public diplomacy of the Peace Corps. They do not occur behind closed doors or classified offices in Washington, but at a grass-roots level in a community, and it’s not limited to policy discussions. Hosting my landlord, his wife and their three young daughters to try pizza for their first time is a small, but enduring, act of cultural exchange. My guests came in their Sunday best, wearing shimmering matching fabric, to go less than five feet from their front door.
Even though the parents hated the pizza — eating only one or two pieces — they praised my “cooking skills,” rather than offend their host. The girls wiped their plates clean. They later returned the favor, inviting me to dine at their house and offering me the larger of only two pieces of meat.
These small interactions are invaluable to our foreign policy. Playing Whitney Houston’s version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” during July 4th to a group of more than 50 locals — while also sharing a bit of A1 Steak Sauce — made people elated to celebrate our American independence and hear our national anthem for the first time.
There is no such thing as a cultural “ambassador” who can represent the melting pot of the United States, but Peace Corps volunteers are frequently interpreted as direct extensions of American values and principles. That gives the Peace Corps an unrivaled position to promote a positive perception of our country and learn from the citizens of others.
The way to influence societies is not solely through intimidation or economic isolation but also through an integrated cultural exchange, whose effects will endure through political administrations and fluctuating diplomatic relations. No organization does a better job of forging this exchange than the Peace Corps.
In 2016, the Peace Corps published a survey of 21 countries on five continents that studied perceptions of Americans in volunteer communities. More than 60 percent of the 928 host country nationals surveyed reported they had a “much better” or “better” understanding of Americans after having a volunteer, and the trait most frequently used to describe their perceptions of all Americans was “kind.” Even country nationals who worked with volunteers more than five years ago still reported the same level of improved understanding as communities with current volunteers.
Volunteers promote this understanding by entering a society ready to experience everything with their local communities. Living in a family with four wives and close to 20 children forced me to respect a different way of life. Defecating in latrines full of flies and cockroaches, bucket-bathing and sharing the frustration when the electricity or water supply got cut for several hours all taught me to recognize real necessities.
Now, with the largest budget cut for the Peace Corps in more than 40 years proposed by the Trump administration, Congress should not forget that volunteers are immersing themselves and serving in more than 60 countries around the world for modest sums. (My living allowance is less than $10 per day.) For many communities, we are the real American ambassadors, the only ones they will ever meet, and the ones they will remember.
The Peace Corps tells volunteers that it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love. The Peace Corps is hard when it is 100 degrees in my house. The Peace Corps is hard when I cannot move away from the trash can because of the latest bout of food poisoning. But I loved the Peace Corps when my host mother came to my rescue after I woke up with a mouse on my neck. I loved the Peace Corps when my friend spent hours searching food stands for bananas to settle my stomach. I loved the Peace Corps when my French instructor told me she fasted the entire day before my language exam, in the hopes I would attain the results I wanted. These actions of kindness and the knowledge that I have a responsibility to help foster a rapport between the United States and Benin motivate me — and they confirm that President John F. Kennedy’s 56-year-old Peace Corps has a vital purpose in U.S. foreign policy.