Volunteers have begun to return to service. Yet millions in Ukraine are now in harm’s way. see more
Volunteers have begun to return to service. Yet millions in Ukraine are now in harm’s way.
By Glenn Blumhorst
This is a hopeful time for the Peace Corps: On March 14, a group of Volunteers arrived in Lusaka, Zambia. Just over a week later, on March 23, Volunteers arrived in the Dominican Republic. They are the first to return to service overseas since March 2020, when Volunteers were evacuated from around the globe because of COVID-19. The contributions of Volunteers serving in Zambia will include partnering with communities to focus on food security and education, along with partnering on efforts to disseminate COVID-19 mitigation information and promote access to vaccinations.
We’re thankful for the Volunteers who are helping lead the way, with the support of the Peace Corps community. And we’re deeply grateful for the work that Peace Corps Zambia staff have continued to do during the pandemic — work emblematic of the commitment Peace Corps staff around the world have shown during this unprecedented time.
Returning to Zambia: Two years after all Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated from around the world because of COVID-19, in March the first cohort returned to begin service overseas. Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy Lusaka
Invitations are out for Volunteers to return to some 30 countries in 2022. Among those who will be serving are Volunteers who were evacuated in 2020, trainees who never had the chance to serve, and new Volunteers. Crucially, they are all returning as part of an agency that has listened to — and acted on — ideas and recommendations from the Peace Corps community for how to ensure that we’re shaping a Peace Corps that better meets the needs of a changed world. Those recommendations came out of conversations that National Peace Corps Association convened and drew together in the community-driven report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future.” We’re seeing big steps in the Peace Corps being more intentional in fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion; working with a deeper awareness of what makes for ethical storytelling; and better ensuring Volunteer safety and security.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, NPCA has shared information and links to other ways you can help. One of the most important: Do not turn away.
At the same time, while we are buoyed by the fact that Volunteers are returning to work around the world building the person-to-person relationships in communities where they serve, we must not diminish the scale of the tragedy we are witnessing in Ukraine. More than 10 million people have fled their homes in the face of an invasion and war they did not provoke and did not want. Across this country and in Europe, thousands of returned Volunteers are working to help Ukrainians in harm’s way.
Thank you to all of you who are doing what you can in this moment of crisis: from the Friends of Moldova working to provide food, shelter, and transportation to refugees — to the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine putting together first-aid kits, leading advocacy efforts to support Ukraine, and so much more. Since the beginning of the war, NPCA has shared information and links to other ways you can help. One of the most important: Do not turn away.
At a time like this it’s important to underscore a truth we know: The mission of building peace and friendship is the work of a lifetime.
That’s a message we need to drive home to Congress right now. With your support, let’s get Congress to pass the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act this year. It’s the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in 20 years. Along with instituting further necessary reforms, it will ensure that as Volunteers return to the field it is with the support of a better and stronger Peace Corps.
President Biden will formally nominate Carol Spahn to lead the Peace Corps at a critical time.
It is becoming increasingly clear that we are entering a new era — one that desperately needs those committed to Peace Corps ideals. With that in mind, I am heartened by the news we received in early April that President Biden intends to nominate Carol Spahn to serve as the 21st Director of the Peace Corps. A returned Volunteer herself (Romania 1994–96), she began serving as acting director in January 2021 and has led the agency for the past 14 months, one of the most challenging periods in Peace Corps history.
We have been honored to work with Carol and her strong leadership team over the past year on collaborative efforts to navigate this difficult period of planning for the Peace Corps’ new future. We have full confidence in her commitment to return Volunteers to the field in a responsible manner and offer the next generation of Volunteers a better, stronger Peace Corps ready to meet the global challenges we confront. The continuity of this work is key. We are calling on the Senate to swiftly bring forth this nomination for consideration and bipartisan confirmation.
Glenn Blumhorst is president and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Guatemala 1988–91. Write him: email@example.com
As a Child, She Fled Nazi Germany with Her Family. Two Decades After the War, She Was a Chemist Teaching at a University in Lagos with the Peace Corps.Sonja Krause Goodwin's extraordinary time in the early years of the Peace Corps see more
My Years in the Early Peace Corps
Nigeria, 1964–1965 (Volume 1)
Ethiopia, 1965–1966 (Volume 2)
By Sonja Krause Goodwin
Reviewed by Steven Boyd Saum
Sonja Krause Goodwin had already traveled far from home, earned a doctorate in chemistry, and worked for six years as a physical chemist when she joined the Peace Corps. Born in St. Gall, Switzerland, in August 1933, she had fled Nazi Germany with her family and resettled in Manhattan, where her parents opened a German bookstore. Sonja entered elementary school without speaking a word of English.
Science is where she found her calling. She earned her bachelor’s in chemistry at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1957. After working six years in industry, she joined the Peace Corps and headed for Nigeria. She led the physics department at the University of Lagos until she and the other Volunteers had to leave the country in 1965 due to a politically motivated “university crisis.”
She was reassigned to teach chemistry at the Gondar Health College in Ethiopia 1965–66, a college that also served as the local hospital. On her return to the U.S., she accepted a position at RPI and taught there for 37 years, advancing through the positions of associate professor and professor, and retiring in 2004. These memoirs were published in fall 2021, shortly before Goodwin’s death on December 1, 2021.
Story updated May 2, 2022.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
Michael E. O’Hanlon Has Counseled ‘Resolute Restraint’ in an Age of Peace. But Has That Age Come to an End?Michael E. O’Hanlon’s most recent volume of strategy recommendations emphasizes restraint. see more
The Art of War in an Age of Peace
U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint
By Michael E. O’Hanlon
Yale University Press
Reviewed by Steven Boyd Saum
Published last year, Michael E. O’Hanlon’s most recent volume of strategy recommendations for U.S. global engagement has a title that’s been overtaken by events: In this “age of peace,” Russia has launched the largest invasion of another country since World War II. The gist of O’Hanlon’s counsel is “resolute restraint” with “an equal emphasis on both words.” That means avoiding overextension without retrenchment; either would make the world less stable and more dangerous. How does that counsel square with the current U.S. grand strategy? Essentially, there hasn’t been a consensus on one since the end of the Cold War, O’Hanlon argues. That’s the problem.
“Restraint should characterize the nation’s decisions on the use of force, including whether to go to war and whether to escalate once involved in combat,” he writes. Resoluteness, in addition to defining commitments to the security interests of allies, “should also characterize the country’s commitment to a global rules-based order that promotes interdependence among nations while strongly opposing interstate conflict or the pursuit of territorial aggrandizement by other powers. We can be more patient, and accept incremental progress, on building a more liberal order (featuring more democracies and greater universal respect for human rights). The liberal or progressive agenda can and should be pursued but largely through diplomatic and other soft-power instruments of statecraft.”
But as 2022 has made clear, the Putin regime explicitly intends to upend that rules-based order.
The U.S. has a responsibility to provide leadership, O’Hanlon notes, “guided by moral principles, strong institutions in Washington and throughout the country, a supportive citizenry, and good judgment on the part of leaders.” Yet he acknowledges that governments — including that of the United States — “can still make major mistakes ... in situations characterized by sycophantic aides, groupthink, or narcissistic leaders.”
Michael O’Hanlon adds “a second dimension of 4+1 threats,” which are “nuclear, biological and pandemic, digital, climactic, and internal-societal dangers ... The last on the list is America’s own social and economic and political cohesion.”
O’Hanlon is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1982–84. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Lawrence D. Freedman suggests this book “could serve as a guide for U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security team as they prepare for the challenges of the next few years.” Those challenges, as O’Hanlon outlines, include the “4+1” list the Pentagon has identified: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and transnational violent extremism. O’Hanlon adds “a second dimension of 4+1 threats,” which are “nuclear, biological and pandemic, digital, climactic, and internal-societal dangers ... The last on the list is America’s own social and economic and political cohesion.”
That last one is the wild card in dealing with everything else on both lists. And perhaps it holds the key to whether peace can again define this new era we’re entering. Months before Putin amassed 130,00-plus troops on the borders of Ukraine, O’Hanlon assessed, “The world is becoming more dangerous again today.” Indeed, O’Hanlon has more than a little to say about Russia, and where a policy of resolute restraint might guide actions taken by the United States, NATO, and the European Union. “A strategy of deterrence by punishment can still work,” he argued, notiing, “So far at least, there are no brazen invasions of huge landmasses.”
But now there have been exactly such a brazen invasion — one that has wrought destruction unlike anything Europe has seen since the Second World War. And we have already seen atrocities that give lie to the mantra “never again.”
In the opening pages of his book, O’Hanlon cites President Kennedy’s estimation that “there could be 20 nuclear-weapons states by the mid-1960s and perhaps as many as 25 by the 1970s.” But, Hanlon notes, “Two decades into the 21st century, there are only nine countries in possession of the bomb.” One of them is of course Russia, which makes great power conflict particularly fraught. One of them used to be Ukraine — which gave up its nuclear arsenal in the mid-1990s in exchange for security and territorial assurances by the U.S. and Russia. That’s one reason, O’Hanlon and many others note, we owe a debt of gratitude — and responsibility — to Ukraine.
A shorter version of this review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. This story was updated April 30, 2022.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
Diversity is only a demographic concept, with an emphasis on numbers see more
Part of the discussion on “Building a Community of Black RPCVs: Recruitment Challenges and Opportunities”
Photo courtesy Hermence Matsotsa-Cross
By Hermence Matsotsa-Cross
Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo 1999–2001 | Founder and CEO of Ubuntu Speaks
Below are edited excerpts. Watch the full program here.
My father was a Volunteer in Gabon in the early ’70s, where he met my mother, a Gabonese woman from one village he worked in. So I’m very much the product of Peace Corps. Growing up, I always heard Peace Corps stories; more important was the idea of volunteerism, how important that was, and working with other people to achieve goals.
I wanted to do Peace Corps after high school. My father reminded me that I had to go to college first. When I got to college, I realized that as a kinesthetic learner, four years of sitting in class was too painful. I took a year off to work with an international development organization as a reforestation volunteer in Ecuador.
My senior year I put in my application. They told me I would be going to Uzbekistan. After speaking to my father and the Peace Corps, I said, “Is there a way that I can go back to Africa?” They sent me to Togo, where I became a girl’s education empowerment Volunteer — one of only three African American volunteers in a group of 40-plus.
Training was painful; I knew I stood out because I was Black. I wanted to stand out because I was passionate about the work and being willing to learn from others. Oftentimes, it was, “You can’t be a Volunteer — you’re Black … You’re African, so you can’t go with them.” On a daily basis, I felt excluded. I felt as though Peace Corps was not supporting me. When one of the three Black Americans decided to leave during training, I was heartbroken.
Peace Corps is very much about bringing Americans to a place where they will be challenged, forced to shed misconceptions and acquire a level of cultural intelligence and cultural communication to work with people who are different.
Black Volunteers and Volunteers who are people of color are forced — to a level that white Peace Corps Volunteers may not feel — to describe the diversity that exists in the United States. Not only Volunteers but also staff did not know the history, diversity, and richness that exists within our country that makes us all Americans; therefore it was difficult for them to support us.
I realized that inclusion was essential for me to be able to do my work. I was embraced for being honest about what I didn’t know, about what I wanted to learn. Peace Corps is very much about bringing Americans to a place where they will be challenged, forced to shed misconceptions and acquire a level of cultural intelligence and cultural communication to work with people who are different.
Some ways Peace Corps can help facilitate that understanding is to be honest about what the experience may be, pre-departure: difficulties, challenges — the fact that Peace Corps staff often don’t know how to treat you or communicate with you. There needs to be mentorship for Volunteers, pre-departure and throughout service. The goal is for you to finish your experience and not come home bitter, but feeling this experience is like no other — and that you left footprints in this world to make it a better place.
Diversity is only a demographic concept — this idea that, the more numbers you have, you can say, “We’re diverse.” The effort starts at belonging.
Peace Corps can be a great model for other international organizations seeking to implement the sense of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging — and showcase to the world that we can be one in the sense that “one” means being able to see each other for who we are, and to love and respect each other for that. Diversity is only a demographic concept — this idea that, the more numbers you have, you can say, “We’re diverse.” The effort starts at belonging. There will be more people of color, more African Americans, willing to be part of Peace Corps, or any institution, if they feel they belong.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine. Story updated January 19, 2022.
Hermence Matsotsa-Cross leads work incorporating the South African philosophy of Ubuntu human interconnectedness. Her organization has led projects with private and nonprofit organizations, global health and federal, state and community development programs, including the Peace Corps, CDC, and World Health Organization.
Progress, failures, and what’s on the horizon: a conversation convened for Peace Corps Connect 2021 see more
Progress, failures, and what’s on the horizon: a conversation convened for Peace Corps Connect 2021
Illustration by Anna + Elena = Balbusso
On September 26, 2011, as the Peace Corps community marked 50 years of Volunteers serving in communities around the world, the U.S. Senate passed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which was signed into law later that year. Three years ago, Congress completed work on the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act. These two pieces of legislation were designed to bring about improvements and reforms pertaining to the health, safety, and security of Volunteers. What made them necessary were two tragedies: Volunteer Kate Puzey was murdered after she reported a Peace Corps employee for sexually abusing children; Volunteer Nick Castle died when he did not receive appropriate medical care in time.
National Peace Corps Association brought together this panel on September 25, 2021, to discuss progress, shortcomings, and future steps needed to further support and protect Volunteers as Peace Corps prepares for global redeployment. Below are edited excerpts.
Watch the entire discussion here: Peace Corps Safety and Security: A Decade of Legislation for Change
Susan Smith Howley, J.D.
Project Director, Center for Victim Research at Justice Research and Statistics Association
Mother of fallen Volunteer Nick Castle
Casey Frazee Katz
Volunteer in South Africa 2009
Founder of First Response Action
Moderated by Maricarmen Smith-Martinez
Volunteer in Costa Rica 2006–08
Chair of the NPCA Board 2018–21
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: Issues relating to sexual assault and violence against women, and to inadequate healthcare, span the globe. Peace Corps is not immune to these challenges. We want to review the passage of laws aimed at improving and addressing challenges in Volunteer safety and health; consider how successful those laws have been in bringing about progress and change; explore where those efforts have fallen short; and consider steps to take moving forward — and identify opportunities in this unique moment.
My first foray into advocacy for Volunteer health and safety began as a member of Atlanta Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, after hearing Kate Puzey’s mother speak at Peace Corps 50th anniversary events in 2011. One activist who led the charge in securing the passage of the Kate Puzey Act is Casey Frazee Katz; she created First Response Action and built a grassroots movement to push this legislation forward. What did you hope to achieve?
Casey Frazee Katz: During my service as a Volunteer in South Africa, I was sexually assaulted. I found quickly that there were other Volunteers in South Africa and across the African continent and the globe who had also been sexually assaulted or harassed. What I couldn’t find were rules, laws, information, resources for someone who had been sexually assaulted as a Volunteer. So I founded First Response Action to work toward getting protections, support resources, and information codified for Volunteers.
We initially started working with Peace Corps administration. Quickly it became obvious that we needed to take a step up. We began working with legislators and pulled in other returned Volunteers and families, including Kate Puzey’s family. We drafted the initial legislation, which went through many rounds before that was signed in 2011 to codify some supports for Volunteers—and to establish victim advocacy. I’m grateful that 10 years later, victim advocacy exists within the Peace Corps. This is an issue that is ongoing. So I’m grateful NPCA is keeping this issue top of mind.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: One outcome of that legislation was creation of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council.
Susan Howley: I was a victim advocate at the national policy level for more than 25 years, working with people around the country as they passed their first victims rights laws: the first Violence Against Women Act, then the second, then the third. Now there’s a fourth. I worked with people who helped name and develop a response to stalking and human trafficking; worked to address the DNA backlog; worked with those raising awareness and calling for change in the military, on college campuses, in churches, in youth organizations, about sexual assault. I now work in the Center for Victim Research, trying to build an evidence base for how we can better support victims and survivors. In 2012, I was part of the first Sexual Assault Advisory Council and served during its first four years.
By the time that council first met, the Peace Corps had already taken steps to stand up an office for victim advocacy; they developed and piloted their first training; there was already a risk reduction in response programming beginning to be put in place; and there were plans to research and monitor impacts. We were asked to advise on certain things; one was creation of a restricted reporting process, where Volunteers could report confidentially and access services and supports.
What struck me were the complexities involved. There’s no uniform justice system around the world. Peace Corps has no criminal jurisdiction over foreign actors. The recognition of sexual assault was far from universal.
What struck me were the complexities involved. There’s no uniform justice system around the world. Peace Corps has no criminal jurisdiction over foreign actors. The recognition of sexual assault was far from universal, especially for crimes that don’t involve penetration; certainly no uniform understanding of what sexual harassment is, or that it’s wrong. Mental health response wasn’t consistently available in countries. Unlike the military, there was no universal authority over anyone who might be involved in an assault — or response. Even where one Volunteer assaulted another, the Peace Corps didn’t have the same ability to hold someone accountable that you might have in the military. Unlike on a college campus, there are only one or two opportunities to reach the bulk of Volunteers for training. Peace Corps wanted to do a survey of RPCVs to find out more about the extent of sexual assault and harassment; that was a heavy lift, because RPCVs are no longer affiliated with the Peace Corps. You had to go through a whole process with the Office of Management and Budget before you could even think about having a survey.
How do you train in-country staff? How often do they get together? Now we’re used to doing trainings by Zoom. It was a different world 10 years ago. There were a lot of issues that came up when Peace Corps was developing things like restrictive reporting; the Inspector General didn’t understand why they didn’t automatically get all reports — even confidential. It took time for country directors to understand they could not automatically get all information about confidential or restricted reports.
With the Sexual Assault Advisory Council, each year we would come together and get a briefing on new adjustments, progress, evolutions in trainings or policies. We would hear what happened to the previous year’s recommendations: Which ones had the Peace Corps agreed with and were adopting? Which ones did the Peace Corps partially agree with? Which ones did they disagree with — and why? Then we would meet to review everything new and make recommendations.
We would help identify best practices and adapt them. But the term “best practices” is really “best that we know right now.” Often you’re pointing to a program that worked for that group in that context. Does it work here with these people? Where there were no best practices, the Peace Corps and the Sexual Assault Advisory Council relied on key principles of trying to be as transparent as possible and trying to give victims options wherever possible. You create the best trainings and policies that you can at the moment; you implement them and monitor them. Then see where things aren’t working and adjust.
I can’t think of a single area of crime victim response where advocates have been able to say, “Now we’re done. We have a system where every crime victim gets a just and compassionate response.” The most we can say in any arena is: “This is an improvement. What’s next?”
I mentioned Zoom. There are new opportunities for virtual response and training. There’s new understanding of what it means to be trauma-informed, victim-centered. You can’t have a system of continual improvement without hearing from those for whom the system is not working. There have to be systems to identify and learn from cases where risk reduction failed, or response was harmful. We have to support victims who come forward after being failed, recognize their courage, and advocate for them.
Improvements in our system of response to victims and survivors of crime in all kinds of settings, including the Peace Corps, have largely occurred because someone who was harmed or was close to someone who was harmed said, “This has to change.” Even where we make major improvements, the struggle for all of us is to recognize that “this has to change” is a repeated theme. There’s always more to do to ensure a victim-centered response and working support system. I can’t think of a single area of crime victim response where advocates have been able to say, “Now we’re done. We have a system where every crime victim gets a just and compassionate response.” The most we can say in any arena is: “This is an improvement. What’s next?”
Illustration by Anna + Elena = Balbusso
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: In addition to safety, we want to discuss healthcare for Volunteers. I first met Sue Castle several years ago through NPCA advocacy efforts; she and her husband, Dave, were working closely with members of Congress to draft and advance legislation that is now named after their son. They have been fully engaged with NPCA efforts to support it. I’ve seen firsthand the powerful impact of their story when shared with members of Congress. I’ve also seen how difficult it can be to repeat this story over and over again.
Sue Castle: I must thank everyone who has dedicated their time and effort in supporting reform efforts. Yet it’s pretty disheartening, because it is 10 years after the Kate Puzey Protection Act was signed into law, and we’re still trying to see it followed.
A month after graduating from U.C. Berkeley, in 2012, my son Nick was sent to China as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He became quite ill while serving, and he died in February 2013. Medical care he received by a Peace Corps medical officer (PCMO) was poor and contributed to his death. My primary goal in being involved in advocacy was to make sure what happened to Nick could never happen to another Volunteer. Sadly, that did not happen.
No one wants to have to share some of the worst moments of their life.
In 2018, another Volunteer, Bernice Heiderman, died due to poor medical care. Policies were not being followed. It’s heartbreaking to see this. Peace Corps is supposed to be about what is best about American service: to learn about the cultures, values, and traditions of other countries. But the Peace Corps fails when it comes to taking care of Volunteers who have had a difficult service. Volunteers who return home ill or disabled have difficulty receiving healthcare. Volunteers who are a victim of a crime or sexual assault have difficulty seeing any resolution to their case, and in receiving proper mental health services to move forward in processing their trauma. Many times these Volunteers take their case public, hoping to get help. No one wants to have to share some of the worst moments of their life.
In 2018, the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act was signed into law. It extends some provisions in the Kate Puzey Act. Yet some of these provisions remain vague. I’ve talked to members in Congress about that. Some issues remain confidential and are unable to be discussed — such as performance reviews of PCMOs. I want to see better healthcare in training before any growth or expansion of the Peace Corps. I want to see professional PCMOs; less encouragement to tough it out or be ignored; and a more thorough examination of the patient. I want to see medical training that reflects current standards, and reviews that accurately reflect the competency of the PCMO.
Cultural bias can be difficult to overcome. There needs to be more training in regard to that. Voices with more recent experience in regard to safety and sexual assault need to be acknowledged and not dismissed. The approach that the Peace Corps has taken has not translated into long-standing change. New ways of dealing with these issues need to be explored. The cost of advocacy is high when you have to retell your story over and over again. Peace Corps shouldn’t have to wait for a response because of a story in The Daily Beast or The New York Times or USA Today. They need to do better.
Where’s the data?
Casey Frazee Katz: When I started talking to people in my group about being assaulted, some shared that they knew of other people who had come through South Africa who had also been assaulted, or had been in other countries and medevaced to South Africa. But we didn’t have data. So I created a basic survey where I asked Volunteers to share as widely as they could, to get better data: Who had been assaulted? Which countries had hot spots or particular issues? What was the response? Do they feel supported or not? The vast majority — three-quarters of people — felt they were not supported. We were hopeful to go in the direction of the quarter of people who did feel supported: What happened there, and how are they connected? How are they resourced? Then we know what to do next.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: Do you think that the efforts the council is taking are setting the stage for an evidence-based approach?
We were hopeful to go in the direction of the quarter of people who did feel supported: What happened there, and how are they connected? How are they resourced? Then we know what to do next.
Susan Howley: There’s always more to be done. There’s now a fully functioning RPCV survey, which will be very helpful. There’s about to be a new database that will make it easier to keep victims’ information confidential but allow pulling out more data about what happened, the kinds of responses people are getting. You still need a system that makes it comfortable for people who feel that they were failed to come forward and report — whether that’s anonymously or identifying themselves.
Just like there’s no best practice in response, there’s also no best practice in gathering this kind of data. We’ve tried national victimization surveys, local victimization surveys, college victimization surveys. There’s always a better way to improve response rates, accuracy, and understanding. The Peace Corps is about to undertake a more formal evaluation of its programs. That’s important, because one step is to try to articulate: What are the outcomes we are looking for? What are the indicators we’ll be able to gather that will show whether we are getting those outcomes? The outcomes are typically: We want people who have been victimized to thrive in the future. What is it that they might tell us is happening in the short term that is an indicator they’ll thrive in the future? You have to keep working at it and refining it.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: If things are not documented appropriately, we are liable to repeat mistakes.
Sue Castle: What they need to do is hold people accountable for when they aren’t documenting. It tends to come out later that they did not document a safety and security or healthcare incident. There’s no accountability for not documenting. We’re going to have a new security management system. Training is critical. But I think there’s a cultural bias to dismissing some health or security concerns; that’s why they’re not documented. They need to document everything and make it clear: You’re not going to be punished for documenting, but you are going to be held accountable if you’re not documenting.
Is this a matter of needing more legislation — for example, for the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act? Or is it a matter of better implementing legislation we have passed — the Kate Puzey Act, the Farr-Castle Act? What types of measures would help support improved implementation?
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act is a great piece of legislation. It covers a lot: increase in the workers’ compensation rate from GS 7 to 11 for RPCVs who come home and are unable to work because of a service-related illness or injury; it extends whistleblower protection; it includes the Respect for Peace Corps Act. As far as prior legislation: That shouldn’t take this long to implement.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act would also increase the period in which Peace Corps would pay for post-service insurance from one month to three months. We saw that post-evacuation — so trying to make that permanent. The legislation proposes further reporting on post-service mental healthcare provided to returned Volunteers. What might the gradual reintroduction of Volunteers into the field mean when it comes to improving the safety and security and piloting measures?
Sue Castle: They’re already working on improving behavioral health resources for Volunteers — a good first step.
Casey Frazee Katz: What comes to my mind, especially thinking of the council working on risk reduction, is evaluating sites. I wouldn’t say that Peace Corps is inherently unsafe for anyone. Sexual assault, sadly, and sexual harassment, are issues that tend to have several commonalities. One is sometimes just opportunity. If Volunteers are in a rural area with limited cellphone reception, no independent way to get out of their site, that makes someone a little bit of a sitting duck to someone who knows that. As no Volunteers are in the field now, that gives a unique opportunity to evaluate how safe a site is, how many risk factors exist, what resources someone has access to — safety or support.
There ought to be a law. Implemented.
Casey Frazee Katz: Ten years ago, it surprised me that people we thought would be natural allies in Congress were not necessarily immediate supporters of our efforts. People were afraid that maybe we wanted, in bringing up this issue, to dismantle the Peace Corps. None of us wanted that. We believe in Peace Corps as an institution. We believe that Peace Corps does good work. We just wanted to make sure that Peace Corps was also accountable and supportive. These are reasonable measures. What Sue is talking about in terms of PCMO training is very reasonable. However, there is a pandemic and the current political climate, which can make things more challenging. In the best-case scenario, Peace Corps can be a model for supporting survivors, infrastructure, sustainability, and economy. Legislation is one part; implementation, follow-through, training, and assessment matter, too.
We just wanted to make sure that Peace Corps was also accountable and supportive. These are reasonable measures.
Sue Castle: My point has always been to make the Peace Corps better for Volunteers. I’ve done recruiting events and shared my story. I want people to be aware, but I also want people to be involved. Everybody’s voice needs to be acknowledged, whether you agree with it or not. They’re painful conversations — but necessary, and it’s only going to make the Peace Corps better.
Casey Frazee Katz: Pushing the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act forward is certainly critical. With the advocacy work we did 10 years ago, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, in addition to the Volunteers and returned Volunteers, we were supported by a legal team who helped us prepare for the hearing and get affidavits from survivors. These are complex issues and sometimes require complex solutions.
Susan Howley: The voice of the individual is key in advocacy efforts. Legislators and policymakers tell you that they want data, facts; they want to see the logic. But it’s the real story that brings it home, that really makes that data and research come alive for a legislator and their staff — and makes them care.
WATCH THE ENTIRE DISCUSSION here: Peace Corps Safety and Security: A Decade of Legislation for Change
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
Diversity in the Peace Corps: It’s over 50 years and we haven’t moved the needle very far. see more
Part of the discussion on “Building a Community of Black RPCVs: Recruitment Challenges and Opportunities”
Photo courtesy Howard Dodson
By Howard Dodson
Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador 1964–67 | Director, Howard University Libraries
I wanted to join the Peace Corps the day Kennedy announced it was going to happen. I was a junior in undergraduate school — first on both sides of my family on the verge of graduating from college. I took the idea home to my parents. My father’s response was: “Let me see if I understand this. You’re going to finish a college degree, go away overseas for $125 a month for two years. What?” I got talked out of it the first time. The second time I decided that’s what I was going to do.
I had read The Ugly American by Lederer and Burdick, about foreign service people working overseas who were, frankly, embarrassing representations of what Americans should be. I knew I could do a better job of representing America than that.
I was offered a job teaching, and I coached a basketball team. I was the only African American in my training group — and one of about three with Peace Corps in Ecuador. But I managed to travel around South America, getting to know people of African descent. It led to my professional training and study of the African diaspora in the world. I hope that there will be opportunities for more African Americans to have meaningful, substantive experiences with peoples of African descent and others around the world, especially in this time when America’s reputation has been somewhat tarnished by our public presence in other parts of the world.
Diversity in the Peace Corps: We haven’t moved the needle very far, both at the level of staffing and Volunteers. So what is wrong with our approach? We continue to do the same things.
Diversity in the Peace Corps: It’s over 50 years that we’ve been in this conversation. We haven’t moved the needle very far, both at the level of staffing and Volunteers. So what is wrong with our approach? We continue to do the same things. I know, from my period as a Volunteer, recruiting officer, director of minority recruitment, and training officer: What we call structural racism was present in Peace Corps from day one. The solution was find three or four more people so we don’t look bad. That doesn’t solve the problem. Because of the transient nature of people’s engagement with Peace Corps as an institution, you spend two years and what you’ve gained is gone; whatever was working has not been re-created in the structure.
There were assumptions about who made good Volunteers, what you look for — and they don’t have anything to do with Black people. The diversity and inclusion framework is at the center of public conversations now. I think it gets in the way of finding real answers, because nine times out of ten they’re looking for racial representation rather than a systemic problem solver. Simply putting some Black faces in places does not change any damn thing.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Howard Dodson is the director emeritus of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which he led for 27 years.
Diversity is only a demographic concept. The effort starts at belonging. see more
Part of the discussion on “Building a Community of Black RPCVs: Recruitment Challenges and Opportunities”
Photo courtesy Sia Barbara Kamara
By Sia Barbara Kamara
Peace Corps Volunteer Liberia 1963–65 | Educational Consultant
I live in Washington, D.C. But I grew up in what would be considered public housing in North Carolina. I graduated from Johnson C. Smith University, a historically Black college. The Peace Corps recruiter came to campus just before graduation. I said, Yes, if I can go to Africa. I graduated with a degree in mathematics and physics, and a minor in economics. My goal was to be a scientist.
When I went to Liberia, my parents were very supportive. They always had African students at my college come home and visit. During my time in Peace Corps, when so many African countries obtained independence, every time a country changed its name, they got a new atlas. They sent Ebony magazines to me. I was way up-country, and there were four African American Volunteers in my group; by the time that magazine reached me, it was all dog-eared, because people along the way would read it.
I was a teacher and worked with young women; we created a track team, and they went on to be national champions. As a Volunteer, I had been treated like an African queen; people welcomed the Black American. But they said, “We don’t let foreigners teach below third grade.” That’s when children learn about their own culture, and they learn it from people around them. Eventually they did allow me to do it.
A life of learning: Sia Barbara Kamara with a student in Liberia, where she served with the Peace Corps. She now advises the Ministry of Education of Liberia. Photo courtesy Friends of Liberia
When I returned to the States, I served as a Peace Corps recruiter in the Northeast. Sargent Shriver would have me lead sometimes, because he thought that it was important for people of color to be seen in leadership positions. Then I served on the team recruiting at historically Black colleges. I left to become an intern in a program organized by the wife of a former Peace Corps country director in Nigeria, helping historically Black colleges obtain resources. I wrote grants to expand an early childhood program. I knew little about what I was doing, but Peace Corps gave me the courage to do almost anything. I worked with a superintendent of schools and helped organize a master’s program for African Americans to obtain degrees in early childhood education. I had the opportunity to visit early childhood programs in every Southern state and document what they were doing. I presented a paper and met the president and dean of Bank Street College in New York. They asked, “Where did you get your master’s in early childhood?” I said, “I don’t have one.” They said, “You’re enrolled.”
The president and dean of Bank Street College in New York asked, “Where did you get your master’s in early childhood?” I said, “I don’t have one.” They said, “You’re enrolled.”
I went on to work in North Carolina, responsible for an eight-state Head Start training program. Then I went to work for the governor of North Carolina. President Carter asked me to come work as an associate commissioner in the Department of Health and Human Services, responsible for the national Head Start program, the Appalachian Regional Commission child development programs, childcare regulations, and research and demonstration programs. Then I worked for four mayors in Washington, D.C., to help transform the early childhood system. For the last 10 years, I have been a consultant in early childhood to the Ministry of Education in Liberia. I’ve returned to that place where I got my start, working in Africa.
Early childhood educational center: Sia Barbara Kamara, right, and a sign announcing the work of a center named for her. Photo courtesy Sia Barbara Kamara
When I think about current and returned Volunteers, many need support — networking opportunities, validation, mentoring. It’s important that we continue to provide these during training and reentry, and as people are in service.
People in Liberia have the skill, knowledge, will, and commitment to do for their own country. We can help identify funding opportunities, and be a mentor and coach.
I’m very active in our Friends of Liberia group. However, I’m the only African American in our education work group. We have been able to focus on building human capacity to help groups obtain the resources and background and know-how they need to sustain programs. People there have the skill, knowledge, will, and commitment to do for their own country. We can help identify funding opportunities, and be a mentor and coach.
Going forward, Peace Corps needs to understand what Volunteers are experiencing during training or when they go out. I had spent four years going to jail as part of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. When we were undergoing Peace Corps training in Syracuse, New York, they didn’t want us to go and participate in a march. That was a part of my DNA. It went all the way to Washington for Sargent Shriver to have to make a decision. We marched together.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
Sia Barbara Ferguson Kamara received the Peace Corps Franklin H. Williams Award for Distinguished Service in 2012. At Head Start, she managed a budget of approximately $1 billion. When she started, there were 100,000 children in the program; it grew to serve 122 million under her watch.
Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders have a conversation on Peace Corps, race, and more. see more
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Leading in a Time of Adversity. A conversation convened as Part of Peace Corps Connect 2021.
Image by Shutterstock
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are currently the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S., but the story of the U.S. AAPI population dates back decades — and is often overlooked. As the community faces an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and the widening income gap between the wealthiest and poorest, their role in politics and social justice is increasingly important.
The AAPI story is also complex — 22 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, each with unique histories, cultures, languages, and other characteristics. Their unique perspectives and experiences have also played critical roles in American diplomacy across the globe.
For Peace Corps Connect 2021, we brought together three women who have served or are serving as political leaders to talk with returned Volunteer Mary Owen-Thomas. Below are edited excerpts from their conversation on September 23, 2021. Watch the entire conversation here.
Rep. Grace Meng
Member, U.S. House of Representatives, representing New York’s sixth district — the first Asian American to represent her state in Congress.
Julia Chang Bloch
Former U.S. ambassador to Nepal — the first Asian American to serve as a U.S. ambassador to any country. Founder and president of U.S.-China Education Trust. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia (1964–66).
Former Director of the Peace Corps (1991–92). Former Secretary of Labor — the first Asian American to hold a cabinet-level post. Former Secretary of Transportation.
Moderated by Mary Owen-Thomas
Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines (2005–06) and secretary of the NPCA Board of Directors.
Mary Owen-Thomas: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing racial and ethnic group in the United States. This is not a recent story — and it’s often overlooked. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines, and I happen to be Filipino American.
During my service, people would say, “Oh, we didn’t get a real American.” I used to think, I’m from Detroit! I’m curious if you’ve ever encountered this in your international work.
Julia Chang Bloch: With the Peace Corps, I was sent to Borneo, in Sabah, Malaysia. I was a teacher at a Chinese middle school that had been a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The day I arrived on campus, there was a hush in the audience. I don’t speak Cantonese, but I could understand a bit, and I heard: “Why did they send us a Japanese?” I did not know the school had been a prisoner of war camp. They introduced me. I said a few words in English, then a few words in Mandarin. And they said, “Oh, she’s Chinese.”
I heard a little girl say to her father, “You promised me I could meet the American ambassador. I don’t see him.”
In Nepal, where I was ambassador, when I arrived and met the Chinese ambassador, he said, “Ah, China now has two of us.” I said, “There’s a twist, however. I am a Chinese American.” He laughed, and we became friends thereafter. On one of my trips into the western regions, where there were a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers and very poor villages, I was welcomed lavishly by one village. I heard a little girl say to her father, “You promised I could meet the American ambassador. I don’t see him.” He said to her, “There she is.” “Oh, no,” she said. “She is not the American ambassador. She’s Nepali.”
Those are examples of why AAPI representation in foreign affairs is important. We should look like America, abroad, in our embassies. We can show the world that we are in fact diverse and rich culturally.
Mary Owen-Thomas: Secretary Chao, at the Labor Department you launched the annual Asian Pacific American Federal Career Advancement Summit, and the annual Opportunity Conference. The department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting the employment data on Asians in America as a distinct category — a first. You ensured that labor law materials were translated into multiple languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean. Talk about how those came about.
Elaine Chao: Many of us have commented about the lack of diversity in top management, even in the federal government. There seems to be a bamboo ceiling — Asian Americans not breaking into the executive suite. I started the Asian Pacific American Federal Advancement Forum to equip, train, prepare Asian Americans to go into senior ranks of the federal government.
The Opportunity Conference was for communities of color, people who have traditionally been underserved in the federal government, in the federal procurement areas. Thirdly, in 2003 we finally broke out Asians and Asian American unemployment numbers for the first time. That’s how we know Asian Americans have the lowest unemployment rate. Labor laws are complicated, so we started a process translating labor laws into Asian, East Asian, and South Asian languages, so that people would understand their obligations to protect the workforce.
We are often seen as invisible. In Congress, there are many times I’ll be in a room — and this is bipartisan, unfortunately — where people will be talking about different communities, and they literally leave AAPIs out. We are not mentioned, acknowledged, or recognized.
Grace Meng: I am not a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I am honored to be here. My former legislative director, Helen Beaudreau (Georgia 2004–06, The Philippines 2010–11), is a twice-Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I am incredibly grateful for all of your service to our country, and literally representing America at every corner of the globe.
I was born and raised here. This past year and a half has been a wake-up call for our community. Asian Americans have been discriminated against long before — starting with legislation that Congress passed, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, to Japanese American citizens being put in internment camps. We have too often been viewed as outsiders or foreigners.
I live in Queens, New York, one of the most diverse counties in the country, and still have experiences where people ask where I learned to speak English so well, or where am I really from. When I was elected to the state legislature, some of us were watching the news — a group of people fighting. One colleague turned to me and said, “Well, Grace knows karate, I’m sure she can save us.”
By the way, I don’t know karate.
We are often seen as invisible. In Congress, there are many times I’ll be in a room — and this is bipartisan, unfortunately — where people will be talking about different communities, and they literally leave AAPIs out. We are not mentioned, acknowledged, or recognized. I didn’t necessarily come to Congress just to represent the AAPI community. But there are many tables we’re sitting at, where if we did not speak up for the AAPI community, no one else would.
At the root of hate
Julia Chang Bloch: I believe at the root of this anti-Asian hate is ignorance about the AAPI community. It’s a consequence of the exclusion, erasure, and invisibility of Asian Americans in K–12 school curricula. We need to increase education about the history of anti-Asian racism, as well as contributions of Asian Americans to society. Representative Meng, you should talk about your legislation.
Grace Meng: My first legislation, when I was in the state legislature, was to work on getting Lunar New Year and Eid on public school holidays in New York City. When I was in elementary school, we got off for Rosh Hashanah; don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to have two days off. But I had to go to school on Lunar New Year. I thought that was incredibly unfair in a city like New York. Ultimately, it changed through our mayor.
In textbooks, maybe there was a paragraph or two about how Asian Americans fit into our American history. There wasn’t much. One of my goals is to ensure that Asian American students recognize in ways that I didn’t that they are just as American as anyone else. I used to be embarrassed about my parents working in a restaurant, or that they didn’t dress like the other parents.
Data is empowering. We can’t administer government programs without understanding where they go, who receives them, how many resources are devoted to what groups.
Julia Chang Bloch: I wonder about data collection. We’re categorized as AAPI — all lumped together. And data, I believe, is collected that way at the national, state, and local levels. Is there some way to disaggregate this data collection and recognize the differences?
Elaine Chao: A very good question. Data is empowering. We can’t administer government programs without understanding where they go, who receives them, how many resources are devoted to what groups.
Two obstacles stand in the way. One is resources. Unless there is thinking about how to do this in a systemic, long-term fashion, getting resources is difficult; these are expensive undertakings. Two, there’s sometimes political resistance. Pew Charitable Trust, in 2012, did an excellent job: the first major demographic study on the Asian American population in the United States. But we’re coming up on 10 years. That needs to be revisited.
Role models vs. stereotypes
Elaine Chao: Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch and Pauline Tsui started the organization Chinese American Women. I remember coming to Washington as a young pup and seeing these fantastic, empowering women. They blazed so many trails. They gave voice to Asian American women.
I come from a family of six daughters. I credit my parents for empowering their daughters from an early age. They told us that if you work hard, you can do whatever you want to do. We’ve got to offer more inspiration and be more supportive.
Julia Chang Bloch: Pauline Tsui has unfortunately passed away. She had a foundation, which gave us support to establish a series on Asian women trailblazers. Our inaugural program featured Secretary Chao and Representative Judy Chu, because it was about government and service. Our next one is focused on higher education. Our third will be on journalism.
I want, however, to leave you with this thought. The Page Act of 1875 barred women from China, Japan, and all other Asian countries from entering the United States. Why? Because the thought was they brought prostitution. The stereotyping of Asian women has been insidious and harmful to our achieving positions of authority and leadership. That’s led also to horrible stereotypes that have exoticized and sexualized Asian women. Think about the women who were killed in Atlanta.
That intersection of racism and misogyny that has existed for way too long is something we need to continue to combat.
Grace Meng: There was the automatic assumption, in the beginning, that they were sex workers — these stereotypes were being circulated. I had the opportunity with some of my colleagues to go to Atlanta and meet some of the victims’ families, to hear their stories. That really gave me a wake-up call. I talked about my own upbringing for the first time.
I remember when my parents, who worked in a restaurant, came to school, and they were dressed like they worked in a restaurant. I was too embarrassed to say hello. Being in Atlanta, talking to those families, made me realize the sacrifices that Asian American women at all levels have faced so that we could have the opportunity to be educated here, to get jobs, to serve our country. And that intersection of racism and misogyny that has existed for way too long is something that we need to continue to combat.
Julia Chang Bloch: We’ve talked about the sexualized, exoticized, and objectified stereotype — the Suzie Wongs and the Madame Butterflys. However, those of us here today, I think would fall into another category: the “dragon lady” stereotype. Any Asian woman of authority is classified as a dragon lady — a derogatory stereotype. Women who are powerful, but also deceitful and manipulating and cruel. Today it’s women who are authoritative and powerful.
Mary Owen-Thomas: Growing up, I was sort of embarrassed of my mom’s thick Filipino accent; she was embarrassed of it, too. I was embarrassed of the food she would send me to school with — rice, mung beans, egg rolls, and fish sauce. And people would ask, “What is that?” Talk about how your self-identity has evolved — and how you view family.
You do not need to have a fancy title to improve the lives of people around you. I became stronger myself and realized that it was my duty, my responsibility, as a daughter of immigrants, to give back to this country and to give back to this community.
Grace Meng: I don’t know if it’s related to being Asian, but I was super shy as a child. And there weren’t a lot of Asians around me. I was the type who would tremble if a teacher called on me; I would try to disappear into the walls. When I meet people who knew me in school, they say, “I cannot believe you’re in politics.”
What gave me strength was getting involved in the community, seeing as a student in high school, college, and law school that I could help people around me. After law school I started a nonprofit with some friends. We had senior citizens come in with their mail once a week, and we would help them read it. It wasn’t rocket science at all.
I tell that story to young people, because you do not need to have a fancy title to improve the lives of people around you. I became stronger myself and realized that it was my duty, my responsibility, as a daughter of immigrants, to give back to this country and to give back to this community.
Julia Chang Bloch: At some point, in most Asian American young people’s lives, you ask yourself whether you are Chinese or American — or, Mary, in your case, whether you’re Filipino or American.
I asked myself that question one year after I arrived in San Francisco from China. I was 10. I entered a forensic contest to speak on being a marginalized citizen. I won the contest, but I didn’t have the answer. At university, I found Chinese student associations I thought would be my answer to my identity. But I did not find myself fitting into the American-born Chinese groups — ABCs — or those fresh off the boat, FOBs. Increasingly, my circle of friends became predominantly white. I perceived the powerlessness of the Chinese in America. I realized that only mainstreaming would make me be able to make a difference in America.
After graduation, I joined the Peace Corps, to pursue my roots and to make a difference in the world. Teaching English at a Chinese middle school gave me the opportunity to find out once and for all whether I was Chinese or American. I think you know the answer.
My ambassadorship made me a Chinese American who straddles the East and the West. And having been a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have always believed that it was my obligation to bring China home to America, and vice versa. And that’s what I’ve been doing with the U.S.-China Education Trust since 1998.
We should say representation matters. Peace Corps matters, too.
WATCH THE ENTIRE CONVERSATION here: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Leading in a Time of Adversity
Mirror the Face of Our Nation: Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International CareersThe program you may not know that inspired JFK. And how we change what America looks like abroad. see more
The past: The program you may not know about that inspired JFK. The future: How we change what America looks like abroad.
Photo: Rep. Karen Bass, who delivered welcoming remarks for the event, part of the Ronald H. Brown Series, on September 14, 2021.
On September 14, 2021, the Constituency for Africa hosted, and National Peace Corps Association sponsored, a series of conversations on “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers.” Part of the annual Ronald H. Brown Series, the event brought together leaders in government, policy, and education, as well as some key members of the Peace Corps community.
Constituency for Africa was founded and is led by Melvin Foote, who served as a Volunteer in Eritrea and Ethiopia 1973–76. In hosting the program, he noted how the Peace Corps has played an instrumental role in training members of the U.S. diplomatic community. “Unfortunately, the number of African Americans serving in the Peace Corps has always been extremely low,” he wrote. By organizing this forum, he noted that CFA is attempting to build a community of Black Americans “who served in the Peace Corps in order to have impact on U.S. policies in Africa, in the Caribbean, and elsewhere around the world, and to form a support base for African Americans who are serving, and to encourage other young people to consider going into the Peace Corps.”
Representative Karen Bass (D-CA), Chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, delivered opening remarks. “I have traveled all around Africa, as I know so many of you have,” she said. “And we would love to see the Peace Corps be far more diverse than it is now. Launching this effort now, diversity and inclusion has to be a priority for all of us, including us in Congress. And we have to continue to try and reflect all of society in every facet of our lives … I am working to pass legislation to diversify even further the State Department, and looking not just on an entry level, but on a mid-career level. This effort that you’re doing today is just another aspect of the same struggle. So let me thank you for the work that you’re doing. And of course, Mel Foote as a former Peace Corps alum, and I know his daughter is in the Peace Corps. You’re just continuing a legacy and ensuring the future that the Peace Corps looks like the United States.”
“You’re continuing a legacy and making sure that in the future the Peace Corps looks like the United States.”
— Karen Bass, Member, U.S. House of Representatives
Read and Explore
The 2021 Anniversary Edition of WorldView magazine includes some keynote remarks and discussions that were part of the event.
Reverend Dr. Jonathan Weaver | Pastor at Greater Mt. Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church; Founder and President, Pan African Collective
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley | Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, U.S. Department of State
Aaron Williams | Peace Corps Director 2009–12
“First Comes Belonging”
Watch the Program
Remarks were also delivered by Melvin Foote, founder and CEO of Constituency for Africa; Glenn Blumhorst, President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association; Dr. Darlene Grant, Senior Advisor to National Peace Corps Director; and Kimberly Bassett, Secretary of State for Washington, D.C., who welcomed participants on behalf of Mayor Muriel Bowser. Watch the entire event here.
The Constituency for Africa was founded in 1990 in Washington, D.C., when a group of concerned Africanists, interested citizens, and Africa-focused organizations developed a strategy to build organized support for Africa in the United States. CFA was charged with educating the U.S. public about Africa and U.S. policy on Africa; mobilizing an activist Constituency for Africa; and fostering cooperation among a broad-based coalition of American, African, and international organizations, as well as individuals committed to the progress and empowerment of Africa and African people.
CFA also founded and sponsors the annual Ronald H. Brown African Affairs Series, which is held in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Legislative Week each September. The series honors the late U.S. Commerce Secretary for his exemplary accomplishments in building strategic political, economic, and cultural linkages between the United States and Africa. More than 1,000 concerned individuals and organizational representatives attend each year, in order to gain valuable information and build strategic connections to tackle African and American challenges, issues, and concerns.
Lessons from the past in how to become a less polarized country once again see more
The U.S. is profoundly polarized — politically, culturally, socially, and economically. That was true during the Gilded Age, too. Halfway between then and now, John F. Kennedy exhorted his fellow Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you — but what you can do for your country.” So what happened? And how do we turn things around?
From a conversation with Shaylyn Romney Garrett
We Can Do It! image courtesy the National Museum of American History
In The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett offer a sweeping overview of U.S. history from the Gilded Age to the present, tracing how the country was transformed from an “I” society to a “we” society — and then back again.
Earlier this year we caught up with Garrett to talk about this project — which would seem to have a special resonance for the Peace Corps community. The period their data pinpoints as the pinnacle of an American sense of “we are all in this together” is the early 1960s — the same moment that gave birth to the Peace Corps.
Garrett served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan 2009–11. She is a founding contributor at Weave: The Social Fabric Project, founded by David Brooks and housed at the Aspen Institute, and she writes about rebuilding community and connection in a hyper-individualistic world. Here are edited excerpts from her conversation with WorldView editor Steven Boyd Saum.
Origins of The Upswing
A lot of people ask, “How did you come to write a book with Robert Putnam?” In the year 2000, his seminal book Bowling Alone was published. I was taking his seminar on Community in America, his foray into teaching the research behind Bowling Alone. He closes that book with a look at the Progressive Era as a potential template for how to revive communities, associations, and the social capital that he documented as having been lost over the previous half century. I was captivated by the Progressive Era, particularly the settlement movement. Some people are familiar with Jane Addams and Hull House in Chicago. But there were hundreds of settlement houses across the United States. The movement itself — sort of imported from the U.K. — sought to build bridges across lines of difference and, in a sense, offer educated, college-age people a Peace Corps–type experience within the United States. Something like AmeriCorps today.
I wrote an undergraduate thesis advised by Robert Putnam. In the subsequent 20 years, he and I have worked together on multiple projects, the last of which is The Upswing. Bob brought me into the project at a point when he had discovered a remarkable statistical finding that serves as the backbone of the book.
Bowling Alone looked at one aspect of American society — social connectedness, social ties, social cohesion — and asked: What does the trend look like over time? Looking back to roughly the 1960s, Bob saw a marked decline in measures of association, community, and social capital. It was a big finding. But it was a pretty narrow picture. So over the years, Bob started to ask: What was going on with other things — economic inequality, religion?
The Upswing incorporates four different metrics. One is social capital, a measure of how connected people are to one another in society. Another is economic inequality. Another is political polarization. The final one is culture — whether we’re more oriented toward a culture of solidarity versus a culture of individualism. It looks at the last century and then some, roughly 1900 to today. When you track those four metrics over this period, they follow the exact same trajectory. For each individual metric, the century-long trends are widely known. But Bob discovered that what scholars had largely thought of as independent phenomena are actually all part of the same century-long meta-trend — a truly striking finding.
In the early 1900s, we were a very unequal, polarized, disconnected, and narcissistic America. Over time, that turned a corner dramatically — into a multifaceted upswing, where all of those measures started moving in a positive direction for six to seven decades. Then, remarkably, in roughly the same five-year period, all of those disparate metrics turned and went the other direction. All that progress we saw over the first two-thirds of the century was reversed, landing us today in a situation remarkably similar to the one in which Americans were living in the late 1800s or early 1900s; historians call it the Gilded Age.
There are different ways you can interpret that upswing/ downturn story. One is to look at the downturn and say, “We’ve had this fall from grace. We need to make America great again. Let’s turn back the clock and go back to this mid-century America that was so wonderful.” A lot of people, particularly of the generation who lived through that period, have been putting forward that narrative. To a certain extent, that narrative culminated in sort of an ugly way with Trump’s MAGA movement.
“If we’ve been in a situation that is, by hard data, measurably identical to the one that we’re living in today — a multifaceted, deep crisis, in all sorts of areas of our society — if we’ve been here before, but we pulled up and out of it, what lessons can we learn from that period that was a downturn that turned into an upswing?”
That’s not really the story Bob or I wanted to tell about these trends. Much more powerful was to ask: “If we’ve been in a situation that is, by hard data, measurably identical to the one that we’re living in today — a multifaceted, deep crisis, in all sorts of areas of our society — if we’ve been here before, but we pulled up and out of it, what lessons can we learn from that period that was a downturn that turned into an upswing?” That becomes a story of when the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era and set us on this upward course that lasted decades. The book looks at the Progressive Era as an instructive period where we can gain inspiration, ideas, and lessons about what to do and what not to do to bring about another upswing.
ECONOMIC, POLITICAL, SOCIAL, AND CULTURAL TRENDS, 1895–2015. Through the early 1960s, all four metrics swing upward: toward equality, bipartisanship, and a greater sense of the common good. The question: How do we move the metrics in that direction again? Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
I-We-I and the origins of the Peace Corps
We needed a bit of a shorthand to describe this curve — an inverted U curve: Things were bad, then they went up and got better, then they got bad again. Bob was looking for a way to track cultural trends over time — culture is a notoriously difficult thing to measure statistically — and he discovered Ngram, a database of digitized books in the English language that Google has put together. You can put in different words to track their frequency of use over time. If you put in the word “the” over this 125-year period, it would be a flat line. The incidence of the use of “the” has not changed, which makes sense. However, more culturally tied words are used more or less frequently over time, which gives us a clue about what our culture was more or less focused on during different time periods.
When we track the ratio of the first-person pronoun versus the plural pronoun — “I” and “we” — the curve looks exactly like the curve for economic inequality and polarization. Society was very “I” focused; then “we” as a pronoun became much more common during those first two-thirds of the 20th century. Then it flipped at almost the same time as all of these other curves did, to where “I” became a much more common pronoun. We’re talking about pronouns in all kinds of books, not just academic books: gardening books, cooking books, books about traveling. Mainstream culture books. It’s shocking that it really does look like that, I-we-I.
One interesting point about that moment when the Peace Corps was founded: When we look back to the ’60s we can see two more or less simultaneous phenomena. One was very communalistic, very “we” — the founding of the Peace Corps and the Great Society programs, for example. Then there’s the countercultural movement, which was much more focused on personal rights and freedoms. What’s fascinating about the historical narrative underneath the statistical findings of The Upswing is that you see clearly in the ’60s this moment when the “we” gives way to the “I.”
When John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” we often think it was like reveille for a new era. People at the time really felt it that way … like this was a call for the new and greater heights of “we” that America could move toward, including a more global “we,” which the Peace Corps is part of. However, in retrospect, what felt like reveille for a new era actually ended up being more like “Taps” sounding for an era that was closing.
When John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” we often think it was like reveille for a new era. People at the time really felt it that way. Bob Putnam was physically present at that speech and says he felt it zing throughout his entire body — like this was a call for the new and greater heights of “we” that America could move toward, including a more global “we,” which the Peace Corps is part of.
However, in retrospect, what felt like reveille for a new era actually ended up being more like “Taps” sounding for an era that was closing. We went into the ’60s with all of this energy moving toward “we,” but then there were a number of things that turned that energy into a downward trend toward “I” — such that in the 1970s, you get the “Me” Decade, as Tom Wolfe famously called it, on the heels of this president calling not only for a greater sense of “we” in the sense of civil rights, but also that global sense of what kind of influence America could have in a world that was becoming increasingly connected.
In some ways, that was the heyday of something that is now lost. But that heyday was itself the culmination of something that had been building for 60 to 70 years. Often it’s that first piece of the century that we miss. We don’t realize that America wasn’t always that “we”-focused. Quite the contrary. It took quite a while for us to build up to that apogee in American thinking that spawned things like the Peace Corps.
Only the strong survive.
How did an idea like the Peace Corps get into the atmosphere? What were the decades of work and change, and thinking — and change in language — that got us to that point? That story, again, begins back in the Gilded Age — a time, culturally speaking, that was characterized by social Darwinism. Darwin had articulated a theory about the laws that govern the natural world. Much to his chagrin, people in the social sphere began to take those ideas and say, “Survival of the fittest — this is a great way to organize society.” Essentially, society is one giant competition, there are winners and losers, and the devil take the hindmost. It’s the philosophy that spawned the robber barons and horribly exploitative situations that so many Americans — particularly immigrants and women — found themselves in during the Industrial Revolution.
Onto that scene came reformers who began to question the morality of that as an organizing principle. Jane Addams was one moral voice saying, “Something is not right about the exploitative way that we have organized our society. It’s a betrayal of our founding ideals as Americans. It’s also a betrayal of Christian ideals.”
So we began to ask whether we were really being called upon to take care of our most vulnerable, and not just work for the good of the self. That cultural transformation began to take hold. Moral outrage became the reigning narrative; people began to translate outrage into action. It wasn’t just outrage where we wanted to identify all the bad apples and expel them from society. Jane Addams realized that she had become complicit in systems that were exploitative, so she began to work in innovative ways — at the level of the neighborhood, at the level of the tenement — to try and create change. She was working at the level of individual lives, individual families, trying to help them get out of poverty and exploitative employment relationships. Ultimately, her vision became one of changing policies so that it would become illegal for these things to take place, and more social safety nets would be in place.
A lot of the reformers of the Progressive Era created narratives that we describe as “we” narratives. Over time, these really took hold: in policy, politics, economically, culturally, and socially. But there were also ways these didn’t take hold, particularly around issues of race. The “we” that was being built by Progressives was a very racialized “we.” But at the same time, Black Americans were themselves engaged in a very deep effort to build their own “we,” especially as they moved out of the South during the Great Migration — to build a deeply enmeshed society of mutual aid and care that propelled them forward despite the inequality and exclusion that persisted during the 20th century.
Looking back to this period, you might think, “This was this horribly dark moment. How could people have let it get this bad?” But look around; then you say, “Oh no, this same thing is happening again today.” During the Texas power crisis earlier this year, the mayor of one city literally said to his constituents that they were on their own, that “only the strong will survive.” This is the epitome of the “I” moment we’re living in once again as a nation. As extreme as it sounds to talk about the social Darwinism of the Gilded Age, I think that we are living through an absolute and very clear revival of that cultural mindset today.
COMMUNITY VS. INDIVIDUALISM IN AMERICA, 1890–2017. “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Were those words spoken by JFK in 1961 reveille for a new era — or “Taps” for one that was ending? Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Ends and means
Not only was there a cultural self-centeredness in the Gilded Age, but there was also a deep sense of isolation and social fragmentation. So Progressives started all of these association-building initiatives to invent new ways of bringing people together. Paul Harris, founder of the Rotary Club, had moved from a small town in the Northeast to Chicago, and described himself as feeling desperately lonely as a result. So he invited a few other professionals to start getting together for lunch to create community. For him, that was an end — to satisfy his own need for connection.
But over time, a lot of reformers begin to realize that there’s real power in associations. They could do more things together than they could do alone. And as they were able to bring people together from disparate worldviews or across class lines, they built bridges and started weaving a stronger social fabric.
That same phenomenon goes on with the Peace Corps: Association is an end, in the sense of wanting to go out and meet people in another culture, have an experience that’s connected. It becomes a means because Volunteers are able to take what they learn, and those relationships, and bring them back to educate people and knit together a more cohesive world. All the research shows the power of social capital as something that’s not only good in and of itself, but also has all these positive externalities that it brings with it: in terms of the health of democracy, the mental and physical health of the people engaging in relationship. That was something that the Progressives discovered that we could look to today and emulate.
We need new ways of bringing people together to solve our problems. We have to center our efforts on that idea of relationship and connection once again.
What causes the shift?
Can we identify the main culprit behind what’s driving these massive — positive or negative — shifts? That’s the million-dollar question — both in the sense of what caused the upswing and what caused the downturn. But that’s hard to do because we’re looking at scores of data sets. It’s a little bit like looking at a flock of birds in flight: They’re all going one direction, then suddenly they change to a different direction. Which one turned first? Which was the leading edge of that change?
It’s a little easier to do with the upturn. It’s harder with the downturn. However, we do know that economics was a lagging indicator; we didn’t fix the economic inequality first. We actually fixed it last, which is very counterintuitive, particularly to people on the Left; there’s a sense that if we could just fix inequality, then we would love each other again. I think there’s a little of that mindset even in the Peace Corps: If we could just help improve the material lot of people in the developing world, that would bring all these other good things. Of course material well-being is critically important, but what’s fascinating is, the other stuff shifted first — particularly culture, both in the upswing and in the downturn.
Of course material well-being is critically important, but what’s fascinating is, the other stuff shifted first — particularly culture, both in the upswing and in the downturn.
During the upswing, those first two-thirds of the 20th century, we were not very careful in creating a “we” that was welcoming to all different kinds of Americans. It was a “we” that was heavily white, male, upper middle class. And there was a lot of pressure to conform to that ideal. So in the 1950s — a decade before you see this big pivot — you see cultural harbingers, people saying, “I don’t like this conformity that’s coming along with intensifying community.” You see Rebel Without a Cause, The Catcher in the Rye, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — cultural narratives saying there’s a cost to this hyper “we” mentality. That counter-pressure culminated in a kind of “be yourself, don’t worry about any commitments.” The response to hyper-communitarianism became hyper-individualism.
Another harbinger that we can’t fail to mention is race. This highly racialized “we” being built during the first two-thirds of the 20th century essentially meant that the upswing, as great as it was for creating positive change, had knit into it the seeds of its own demise — in the sense that the Progressives were largely racist. They created great programs to address inequality, poverty, and polarization. But they did so while kicking the racial question down the road. As a result, we’ve never really done the work of racial reconciliation. We sort of skipped over that. The New Deal very clearly sacrificed the needs of people of color in the name of progress.
At the peak of this moment — the 1960s, when the Peace Corps was founded and we passed the civil rights legislation — America was ready. Vast majorities of Americans supported the Civil Rights Acts. But the minute racial equality became about more than just laws and regulations, when it became about desegregating neighborhoods and schools, sharing resources with people whom we didn’t have to share them with before, there was a huge white backlash: a very clear “not in my backyard” phenomenon, which to me indicates that we didn’t do the hard work underneath what we were doing legally and politically. It’s hard to say whether the broader societal turn toward “I” precipitated the white backlash, or whether the white backlash fueled the broader turn toward “I.” They were certainly intertwined. It became possible for politicians to exploit white backlash to create a subtly racialized politics with a hyper-individualistic focus. Politicians began to tell Americans it was okay to just look out for number one.
And this translated into an economic mindset that it’s a zero-sum game between growth and equality: You can have equality or you can have growth, but you can’t have both. But look at the first two-thirds of the 20th century: We had high growth and growing equality. Look at material equality between the races and chart that as a ratio: Black Americans were actually doing better at a faster rate than white Americans during this period of high growth. So that idea that you can’t grow the pie and share the pie at the same time is simply false. The opposite was true during 60-odd years of the upswing.
FROM “I” TO “WE” TO “I” IN AMERICAN BOOKS, 1875–2008. First-person pronouns over the years, as tracked through Ngram. Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
If we needed a crisis to unify us, seems like that’s here.
One of the ways in which the 20th century often gets misinterpreted is the idea that we didn’t come together as a nation until the Great Depression and World War II. The Upswing provides a data-based story that shows quite clearly that America’s move toward solidarity did not begin with the Great Depression. It didn’t begin with the New Deal. Or World War II. It began decades earlier, and continued for decades after those acute crises.
What you actually see in the data is a dip, a pause in progress toward “we” during the Roaring Twenties and the 1930s. Then we pull ourselves back into it. Do we need a Great Depression crisis to motivate us? No, we don’t. The Progressives didn’t need it. The crises that motivated them were personal: moral moments of watching terrible things happen to their fellow Americans and feeling appalled at the realization that they had been a part of the systems that made them happen.
That being said, when you look at the American Recovery Plan passed in the spring — that wouldn’t have been possible without the pandemic. The question is whether it’s durable. Many of the policies put in place are historic in addressing the opportunity gap across lines of class and race. But many of those things are set to expire within years. And so the true test is going to be, does that policy change actually represent the manifestation of an underlying cultural and moral change? Or does that policy change represent just a panic in response to this economic crisis? Because 2008 was its own crisis. Did it prompt a new upswing? Absolutely not. We haven’t learned. And so I think a lot of the learning has to happen in our hearts, has to happen in our own sense of morality, and in our own sense of whether we really believe we’re all in this together, or whether that’s just a nice catchphrase that gets us through the crisis and back to business as usual.
INCOME EQUALITY IN THE UNITED STATES, 1913–2014. An important and clearly measurable indicator. But research for The Upswing shows it followed, not led, the other metrics. Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Digital connections are not enough.
One of the reasons that I was motivated to stay in the Middle East after finishing my Peace Corps service, and to continue to build youth programming, was because we were in Jordan when the Arab Spring unfolded. The Arab Spring is a quintessential example of using Twitter to form a modern social movement — but one that’s extremely fragile. There was no organizing underneath to create something new to replace what was torn down. So in many countries, you have a resurgence of autocracy or militarization. That does hark back to: “What are the lessons from the upswing? How do we do it again today?” The biggest thing is that we can’t skip over the power of face-to-face relationship building and grassroots solution building. What I always used to say when I taught youth in Jordan was that we don’t need more revolutionaries, we need more solutionaries. That was what the American Progressives who drove the upswing believed.
We live in a moment where, particularly because of the influence of technology — specifically social media — we have this idea that new ideas for society can scale extremely fast. But unfortunately that skips over the hard work of building local capacity, connections, and relationships — social capital. Look at the Progressive Era: People didn’t just go out into the street and demand that the robber barons be stripped of their posts at these exploitive companies. They did the work of building support for regulations that would hold exploitation in check: trust-busting and consumer protection agencies. And they also put in place a new infrastructure for an economy that had a different underlying moral logic: publicly owned utilities and unionized workplaces and a progressive income tax.
My co-author and I often get asked: “Are we in the upswing yet? When can we expect the upswing to happen?” The hard answer to that is: It depends on us. If we think we’re going to engineer another upswing just by voicing outrage on social media, we’re wrong. We have to use our agency as citizens to build.
One of my heroines is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She was influenced by the work of people like Jane Addams. Day taught that we need to build a new society within the shell of the old. That’s very inspiring as a method. Instead of focusing our energy on tearing down the old, we need to focus on building up the new — ready to step in when the old eats itself alive. It’s certainly possible that our hyper-individualism and eroding social trust will create a collapse of institutions. We’ve seen some of that with the pandemic. What’s going to rise up to replace those defunct institutions? Answering that question with action is where the work of the upswing really happens.
The pandemic has taught us that digital connections are not enough — for either our own human needs or the needs of society. For a long time, we’ve allowed ourselves to believe the fiction that it was okay that we were letting our social fabric fall apart in the face-to-face world, because there was this other online world that was sort of going to magically replace that. But then due to the pandemic we all had to do Zoom Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we realized we need other people in the flesh, not just on a screen. It actually gives me hope that we’re starting to realize it is time to reinvest in face-to-face connection.
There are a lot of really good social innovators out there working to bring people together in physical spaces to work together on projects. That’s the other piece of this in the Peace Corps: One thing you learn quickly as a Volunteer is that the best way to build bridges is co-creating, working together on a project that everyone cares about. Folks who are pursuing initiatives like that in the United States give me a lot of hope.
I am often asked what would be my policy prescription for the administration that would help move us toward an upswing. National service is my absolute go-to answer.
Shaylyn Romney Garrett. Photo courtesy the author
But what keeps me up at night is the fact that there are a lot of countervailing forces working against this positive change. For every good green shoot that we see, there’s a lot of shadow and darkness. I think it happened with the contested election, and on January 6. It keeps happening with debates about masks and vaccines.
Whether things tip or not is really about critical mass. How do you get all the people who are sitting on the sidelines to get in there and work toward pushing us back toward the light? I think that was the story of the Progressive Era. People always ask, “What was the moment that the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era?” There was no clear historical moment. There were all these forces working for good and all these countervailing forces working to tear that down. Ultimately the good won out because people put in enough energy to push it up and over.
I am often asked what would be my policy prescription for the administration that would help move us toward an upswing. National service is my absolute go-to answer. As both a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a proponent of learning the lessons of history, I am deeply supportive of the idea that creating incentives and opportunities for millions of young people to work together for the good of our nation should be a top priority. This could help us address not only economic inequality, but also polarization, cultural narcissism, and social fragmentation — all the aspects of our current multifaceted crisis. And I think the Peace Corps in particular has a lot to say about how national service could help Americans turn a corner by rediscovering a sense of solidarity — a “we” — as well as find purpose and a sense of American identity that could lead us in a new direction.
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
READ MORE: “A Life-Altering Detour” — Shaylyn Romney Garrett tells the story of how serving in the Peace Corps led her to work on a national education project in Jordan.
The program you may not know about that inspired JFK. see more
The program you may not know about that inspired JFK. And that has been sending U.S. volunteers abroad since 1958.
By Reverend Dr. Jonathan Weaver
The man who was the visionary behind Crossroads Africa, Dr. James Robinson, in many ways has not gotten the recognition he deserves. Dr. Robinson first traveled to Africa in 1954 on behalf of the Presbyterian Foreign Missions Board and saw sweeping changes taking place throughout the continent. He went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he was introduced to several giants in African history: Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who later served as the first president of Nigeria; and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who led the Gold Coast to independence from Great Britain and served as first president and prime minister of Ghana.
After his 1954 trip, Dr. Robinson started talking to students at colleges across the United States. In 1957, talking to students at Occidental College in California, he shared his vision of young people who would engage in experiences with counterparts. The students said, We’re ready to go. Operation Crossroads Africa was established in 1958. Volunteers went to Ghana and Liberia.
Dr. James Robinson, center, envisioned a program of young people “building bridges of friendship to Africa.” Photo courtesy Operation Crossroads Africa
In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, he learned about the work of Operation Crossroads Africa. He also had an opportunity to meet Haskell Ward, who first went to Africa with Operation Crossroads in 1962. Ward went on to serve as a Volunteer with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia 1963–65 and as director of recruitment and selection for Operation Crossroads Africa 1967–69. He later worked for the Ford Foundation and became deputy mayor of New York City.
James Robinson said that the darkest thing about Africa is America’s ignorance of it.
What struck me about Dr. Robinson was his passion for wanting to connect people from the United States with the people of Africa. Several things that he said have stayed with me from the time that I served as a volunteer in 1971. He said that the darkest thing about Africa is America’s ignorance of it. Tragically, I believe that most of us would have to agree that statement still has a great deal of relevance today. He also said: While you may leave Africa, Africa will never leave you. Certainly that’s true for those of us who have been Crossroaders — about 13,000 since 1958.
There is no doubt Dr. Robinson had a tremendous influence on the creation of the Peace Corps. In June 1962, President Kennedy hosted the Crossroaders on the South Lawn at the White House. Talking about some of the many difficulties facing emerging nations in Africa — and the greatest concerns among the leaders of a dozen new nations he had met — Kennedy said, “The problems they face today, in every case, they have told me, were far more difficult than the problems they faced in the fight for independence. Now that problem is to maintain that national sovereignty and independence and make it worthwhile, because disillusionment is the second wave that comes after the wave of enthusiasm.” Kennedy paid particular tribute to Crossroads by saying the volunteers in this effort really were “the progenitors of the Peace Corps.”
White House meeting, 1962: Before a gathering of volunteers for Operation Crossroads Africa, James Robinson talks with John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Photo courtesy Operation Crossroads Africa
WHAT CROSSROADS HAS BEEN DOING for a number of years led to the establishment of what I consider to be the most encouraging indication of the desire for service — not only in this country, but all around the world — that we have seen in recent years. Dr. Robinson became an advisor for the Peace Corps. And many other people have been directly influenced by that Crossroads experience.
I’ve spent my life ever since volunteering — now 50 years — very much involved in Africa because of Dr. Robinson. Crossroads is still in existence and working to promote understanding of Africa and the African diaspora. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, no volunteer groups went out last year or this year. My hope and my prayer is that there will be teams going out in 2022. Dr. James A. Robinson transitioned in 1972. But his vision, his legacy, lives on.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 2021 Anniversary Edition of WorldView magazine.
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Weaver is pastor of the Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church in Bowie, Maryland. Reverend Weaver previously served as director of development for Operations Crossroads Africa. He is the founder and president of the Pan African Collective, whose mission is to build bridges of understanding, forge diverse partnerships, and promote economic and social development in Africa and other places.
We need a Peace Corps and a diplomatic corps that truly represents all of America. see more
Our public service institutions, whether it’s Peace Corps or the Department of State, must do better. And your work is how we change that.
Photo by Freddie Everett / State Department
By Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley
Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, U.S. Department of State
I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Oman nearly four decades ago, and Peace Corps is where I met my husband. Like many of you, Peace Corps changed the trajectory of my life. For me and many colleagues at the Department of State, Peace Corps also launched my career in diplomacy. When I joined the Peace Corps in Oman, I was the only African American in my cohort of about 15 people. Four decades later, I am still one of the only African American women at policymaking tables. I was one of a handful of African American women to rise to the level of ambassador in the Department of State.
My story is backed up by the data. These racial disparities are deep and go back decades. The Government Accountability Office released data that in 2002 the number of African American women in the foreign service was a shockingly low 2 percent. Almost 20 years later, that only went up to 3 percent. Our public service institutions, whether it’s Peace Corps or the Department of State, must do better. I am tired of being alone. And your work is how we change that.
The Peace Corps is a critical pipeline to the civil and foreign service. An African American colleague in my office said she had no idea that Peace Corps was for people who looked like her. She assumed it was a leisure activity for people who come from privilege. Another RPCV in my office, also a woman of color, said of the 50 members of her cohort in Jordan, fewer than 10 were people of color; almost all the other people of color left within a year. She and another PCV of color were the only two to stay the full two years. Another colleague who works at the U.S. mission in the United Nations said that her dream was to join the Peace Corps. But because she was in a wheelchair, she was denied entry. When the Peace Corps said no, she took the foreign service exam; she passed with flying colors, both the oral and written exams. Yet once again, she was barred from joining because of worldwide availability.
My road map for building a State Department that looks more like America is grounded in three core values: intentionality, transparency, and accountability. And past practice has shown any organization focused on these three will be able to make systemic change.
The real question we’re grappling with today is how do we both recruit and retain diverse cohorts, as well as make our respective institutions more equitable, inclusive, and accessible? When Secretary Blinken appointed me as chief diversity officer, he made clear that my mandate is to change the part of the State Department’s culture — the norms and behaviors and biases — that stifle diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). My road map for building a State Department that looks more like America is grounded in three core values: intentionality, transparency, and accountability. And past practice has shown any organization focused on these three will be able to make systemic change.
First, we need to be intentional. This means changing the culture of the State Department so that every single employee feels invested in advancing the DEIA work. Secretary Blinken has stated many times that an inclusive workforce is not just a “nice to have,” it is a national security imperative. This goes for Peace Corps exactly the same way as it does for the State Department. The United States is the most diverse and powerful nation in the world. Other countries are watching us, and when we fail to live up to our ideals, our adversaries are standing in wait to exploit our shortcomings. That is why it’s critical that we integrate the DEIA work as a lens not only to reform our institutions on the inside, but to guide how we conduct our foreign policy. Our team is also finalizing the department’s five-year diversity and inclusion strategic plan. My office will oversee the implementation of it. We have had countless listening sessions over the last few years; some who have worked on it would say endless listening sessions. But we need concrete action. And we need to accelerate movement on issues that have been ignored for far too long.
Secondly, we need to be transparent. If we are serious about addressing systemic inequities, then we need to be transparent about what we are dismantling. This means collecting disaggregated demographic data on hiring, assignments, promotions, attrition, and other key milestones in one’s professional career. This will help us better understand who is at the table and why we see fewer underrepresented groups rising through the ranks. When we have access to analyze disaggregated diversity data, we are better equipped to make the case for resources and policies we need to make our institutions more equitable, inclusive, and accessible for all.
Lastly — and perhaps most importantly, from my view — we need to be accountable. While the State Department and many institutions have excellent accountability policies on paper, there is sometimes an informal culture that hardwires many of us — including from underrepresented groups — to keep our heads down, to not rock the boat. I’m intent on changing this dynamic by strengthening accountability mechanisms that we have in place and activating the courage that is inside of all of us. We all need to do our part. Speak up, even when it’s uncomfortable. This is how we will retain and increase the presence and promotion of underrepresented groups.
To address the challenges of the 21st century, we need a Peace Corps and a diplomatic corps that truly represents all of America.
The fact that we’re talking about diversity isn’t new. There have been, for many decades, many efforts to diversify the Department of State. What is new is that we are now taking action, speaking forthrightly and honestly about where we have failed and where we need to go. We are in a moment of historic alignment. It’s not just the State Department or Peace Corps that is committed to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. It is at all levels of government, including the White House and our partners on Capitol Hill. We are living in extraordinarily complex times: a once-in-a-generation pandemic to a reckoning on race and daily threats to democracy at home and abroad. To address the challenges of the 21st century, we need a Peace Corps and a diplomatic corps that truly represents all of America. And if we’re going to succeed in doing this, it is going to take all of us. And we can do this. We can get it done.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 2021 Anniversary Edition of WorldView magazine.
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley is the first person to serve as chief diversity and inclusion officer in the history of the U.S. State Department. She 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.
We need to have a diverse and talented corps of professionals in our foreign affairs agencies see more
We need to have a diverse and talented corps of professionals in our foreign affairs agencies — and in the wider development community. That matters when it comes to leadership and credibility alike.
By Aaron Williams
Peace Corps Director 2009–12
The beauty and inherent value of the Peace Corps is that it provides a different approach to America’s overseas engagement. Volunteers live in local communities, speak the national and local languages, and have great respect for the culture of the host country. Working at the grassroots level for two or more years, Peace Corps Volunteers have a unique platform for acquiring cultural agility. They have the opportunity to build relationships, to understand the priorities of the communities and organizations where they work, and to play a role in assisting these communities in reaching their goals. This connection to the people they serve is the essence of Peace Corps service, where mutual learning and understanding occurs. And the Volunteer gains the ability to be engaged in a hands-on development process.
If an individual’s career goal is to become a global citizen, then this is precisely the type of experience that will challenge you. And the Peace Corps has historically been a pathway to a career in diplomacy and development. My career certainly is an example of that. I served in the Agency for International Development USAID as a foreign service officer for 22 years as both a mission director and a senior official at headquarters. Then during the Obama administration, I had the distinct honor of serving as the Director of the Peace Corps. And I've always considered it to be a sacred trust to lead this iconic American agency. And of course, it's always been a distinct honor to represent the United States of America.
As has been well documented in congressional hearings, through extensive media coverage, and in substantial reports by foreign policy think tanks and other organizations, one thing is crystal clear: The failure to diversify senior positions in our foreign service agencies undermines U.S. credibility abroad.
As an African American, I am a direct beneficiary of the civil rights movement and stand on the shoulders of those giants who sacrificed their blood, sweat, and tears fighting for the monumental changes that opened up opportunities for Black and brown people across our country, including in the U.S. Foreign Service. Now, as has been well documented in congressional hearings, through extensive media coverage, and in substantial reports by foreign policy think tanks and other organizations, one thing is crystal clear: The failure to diversify senior positions in our foreign service agencies undermines U.S. credibility abroad. In my view, in order to pursue a robust and effective foreign policy in this ever more challenging world, we need to have a diverse and talented corps of professionals in our foreign affairs agencies.
And that’s why diversity is so important to our nation. We need to portray the true face of America, the rich diversity of our citizens. This diversity will continue to be the foundation for our nation’s progress in all aspects of our society, and a pillar of America’s role in global leadership.
Black Americans are so unrepresented historically in terms of diplomacy and international affairs that we must build a core of leaders to present the true face of America as we interact with the rest of the globe. The more diversity you bring into the C-suite of the foreign policy halls, where the highest ranking senior executives work, the bigger the cadre of people who will have a different perspective of the world and how we should interact with it.
I’ve been involved in the pursuit of diversity from the very beginning of my career, after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I was very fortunate that my first job back in the U.S. was to serve as a minority recruiter in the first such initiative in Peace Corps history. Ever since that first job, I have been an advocate and fighter for diversity in every organization where I’ve worked. And I’ve had a career in three sectors — in government, business, and in the nonprofit world. Based on my experience, and as widely articulated by diversity and inclusion experts, the most important components for promoting diversity are to focus on several areas encompassing access, broad opportunity, retention, and career advancement.
The development community plays a prominent role as principal partners with the U.S. government in the country’s global leadership. They should invest in the diverse human capital of the future that will mirror the true face of our nation.
In my view, the principal foreign affairs agencies — the State Department, USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the Peace Corps — should focus on three areas. First, to gain a better understanding of diverse groups in our country. Second, to build effective tools and programs that include mentorships internships, sponsoring viable candidates, and the creation of a pipeline of candidates. And then thirdly, to provide opportunities for growth and promotion within these agencies.
I would hope to see, going forward, that both U.S. government agencies and, more broadly, the numerous foreign affairs organizations for the development community, as we often call it, will seize this moment to demonstrate leadership in pursuing broad-based policies and programs that will promote diversity in both the U.S. and overseas offices. The development community plays a prominent role as principal partners with the U.S. government in the country’s global leadership. And thus, they should invest in the diverse human capital of the future that will mirror the true face of our nation.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. Edited excerpts appear in the 2021 anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Aaron Williams served as a Volunteer in Dominican Republic 1967–70. He was the first African American to serve as USAID’s executive secretary, and the first African American man to direct the Peace Corps.
Communications Intern posted an articleCOVID-19 and how the Lord Baltimore Hotel served as a place of help in a time of need see more
COVID-19 and the Lord Baltimore Hotel
By Marik Moen
IN SPRING 2020, the State of Maryland, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, transformed the Baltimore Convention Center into to the 250-bed University of Maryland Medical System Baltimore Convention Center Field Hospital. I was living in Fairfax, Virginia, at the time but was looking for an opportunity to serve in the COVID response — an infectious disease disproportionately affecting populations who have experienced historic discrimination. You could say it was my gig.
I went to get oriented and do a few shifts. I heard some pejorative language being used to refer to people of Baltimore and knew just who could address this concern: Chuck Callahan, vice president for population health with the University of Maryland, who served in incident command leadership for the Convention Center Field Hospital. I reached out to him to share my concerns and see how I could further help the response. Within days the approach to orientation was amended. Also within days, Dr. Callahan called to ask if I would serve as director of nursing at the Lord Baltimore Hotel.
These were people who couldn’t safely isolate at home and who weren’t so sick they needed to be in the hospital.
Amid the pandemic, the newly-badged Lord Baltimore Triage, Respite and Isolation Center (LBTC) was being set up to serve as a temporary residence for people diagnosed with COVID or suspected of having it. These were people who couldn’t safely isolate at home and who weren’t so sick they needed to be in the hospital.
It was a big decision. Normally I teach and do research or help to manage nurse-community health worker programs for people living with HIV. I’m an assistant professor of family community health at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, School of Nursing. COVID was hitting the communities that I was most familiar with — but I wasn’t connected to those communities in Fairfax, where we had moved two years before. I was connected to those communities in Baltimore. Taking this on meant waylaying research and, for me initially, moving to Baltimore. My husband, Gregg Wilhelm, was within walking distance of work at George Mason University, and our daughters were in second and fourth grade. I would be putting us at risk and adding more turmoil to an already pandemic-changed life. I was worried.
We needed everybody: Marik Moen, third from left, served as director of nursing at the hotel transformed into the Lord Baltimore Triage, Respite and Isolation Center. Photo by Matthew P. D’Agostino / University of Maryland, Baltimore
LAST MAY, when I came to the Lord Baltimore, it was maybe five days before we transferred people in — more than 50 residents from homeless shelters or congregate settings that had COVID outbreaks. Notably, the Lord Baltimore was the only hotel in the city that would accept any residents with COVID at the time. We had to figure out a plan: field a team of nurses, set up protocols. We had to answer questions like: What is the clinical aspect of it? How do you do health checks? What do public health and clinical guidelines say? How do we keep people safe? What is the security aspect? It meant working in multidisciplinary teams: the health department, the hotel, the University of Maryland Medical System. Not exactly streamlined — but we needed everybody.
It meant working in multidisciplinary teams: the health department, the hotel, the University of Maryland Medical System. Not exactly streamlined — but we needed everybody.
Then we launched. Overall, things went smoother than anticipated in chaotic times. Our Baltimore City Health Department colleagues had amazing experience doing this work on their own and led the way. Yet we’d quickly learn, Oh, wait, that doesn’t work, so we would work late into the night to revise the process — really building the ship as it was sailing for that first month — and even now, there’s constant quality improvement. Thankfully, we developed a strong core of personnel who are still with us today and carrying it through. (Oh, and by May 2020, I had uprooted my family, first to live at the Lord Baltimore Hotel with me, and then to resettle in Baltimore permanently. My husband eloquently describes our journey in the essay “Checking Out of Hotel COVID,” in Baltimore magazine.)
At the Lord Baltimore Triage Center, as with the epidemic, there’s disproportionate representation of the African American community, the Latinx community, and people with low incomes, mental health or substance use disorders. Those are identities and conditions. Yet the reasons for this impact are social determinants: multi-generational households or substandard housing, or people serving as essential workers who are not protected and can’t safely isolate. People in congregate living can’t distance. And people in substance use treatment often don’t have a stable home to go to after they leave recovery programs. Some are survivors of domestic violence or human trafficking. Some are students or parents who don’t have an extra room to shelter in, away from other family members.
With our health department colleagues, we were very intentional about setting up the Lord Baltimore to accommodate persons with these lived experiences on the outside so that they would feel welcome, safe, and comfortable. We established harm reduction and safety protocols and trainings and worked with many partners and institutions to assure these were implemented. The LBTC team includes nurses, clinical support technicians, nurse practitioners and doctors, social workers/case managers, logistics, security, cleaning/environmental services, kitchen/nutrition, and of course, the front desk and other hotel staff who make sure the facility is running and guests’ needs are attended to. I believe it is a testament to this approach that we have been able to serve over 2,000 residents since May 2020.
In addition, with the vaccine, LBTC leadership insisted that not just the healthcare staff but all frontline workers — security, cleaning crew, everybody — would get access at the same time. I’m proud to say that University of Maryland Medical System is following through on that.
How many lives saved
Every person who was in leadership position at the Lord Baltimore Triage, Respite and Isolation Center had international experience — a service project or even study abroad — that they referenced as we were building this thing. That says something.
Outside the United States, I’ve worked in Rwanda and Haiti primarily, and briefly in other countries throughout Africa and the Caribbean — but my work in public health began with the Peace Corps in Gabon 1998–2001. That work was focused on community public health initiatives: increasing vaccination — which is eminently relevant — as well as educating people about diarrheal, respiratory, and sexually transmitted infections; HIV prevention; and reproductive health. With Peace Corps, you get out to your site, try to apply what you’ve learned, and you realize some of it just doesn’t fly; you have to adapt. So a little bit of the audacity of being willing to take this on — certainly I got that from the Peace Corps.
The value of these respite and isolation hotels should be recognized and remunerated. The reasons that they need to exist in the first place should be admitted and addressed; the lack of adequate housing and income security is literally deadly for some people, especially under COVID-19.
The City Health Department and the University of Maryland Medical System jumped in to meet the need of Baltimoreans and Marylanders because it was the right thing to do. While altruism is laudable, the value of these respite and isolation should be recognized and remunerated. With colleagues, I plan to describe the benefits of LBTC's interventions, including modeling the numbers of infections and hospitalizations and deaths potentially prevented by safely isolating 2,000 people, as well as estimating savings in medical costs. That said, the reasons that isolation hotels need to exist in the first place should be admitted and addressed; the lack of adequate housing and income security is literally deadly for some people, especially under COVID-19.
More important than healthcare
In September I handed off the director role to Vanessa Augustin, a new grad of the University of Maryland School of Nursing’s healthcare leadership and management master’s program — and a nurse of Haitian descent. Vanessa was present from day one at Lord Baltimore, demonstrating leadership in action. I felt a special connection with her, given my work in Haiti, and was happy to facilitate a local but global transition.
I came back to teaching and research, transitioning from a focus on HIV to how we address the social determinants of health that underlie HIV and other conditions, especially within the healthcare setting. Healthcare has finally come to realize that how people live really influences their health: income, employment, whether they have food and shelter. The evidence is established that those things have more of an impact on health than healthcare. But in terms of healthcare’s response, we are kind of throwing stuff at the wall, hoping it will stick. The way we ask questions and the interventions we take are not really evidence-based or informed from a patient perspective. I’m trying to develop the evidence around how we assess the needs and address them, with the patient perspective at the heart. My experience at LBTC influenced my commitment to this work, and the Peace Corps provided the spark that allowed me to believe I was even a little bit capable of taking it all on.
Marik Moen is an assistant professor of family and community health at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. Read more: bit.ly/triage-respite
Communications Intern posted an articleA portrait of Judy Irola see more
A portrait of Judy Irola
By Jordana Comiter
“You can be creative, and you can be managerial and spirited,” Judy Irola said of her work as a cinematographer. Photo by Douglas Kirkland
Judy Irola made history as a producer, director, cinematographer, and educator—and only the third female member of the American Society of Cinematographers. Her first feature, “Northern Lights,” won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes in 1979. At Sundance her film “An Ambush of Ghosts” won the Cinematography Award, Dramatic Competition. The Peace Corps took her to Niger in 1966. “We came home to a different world in 1968,” Irola recalled. “There were anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, Gloria Steinem had launched the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the Black Panthers were actively engaged in civil rights issues.”
She was tenacious. Her career began in the San Francisco Bay Area with KQED-TV’s documentary film unit. She shot more than 50 features and documentaries. She later earned an endowed chair, teaching at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. She returned to Niger in 2008 to make the documentary “Niger 66: A Peace Corps Diary,” to introduce audiences to the 65 Volunteers who had served with her and the communities where they worked.
From the tribute in Ms. magazine: “Some directors see cinematography as a technical rather than as an artistic job,” she said. “It’s an artistic job—any director of photography will tell you that. What’s important is my vision—how I look at the image. It’s an artistic rendering. Women can do it just as well [as men] or better.”
Judith Carol Irola was born in 1943. She died in February at age 77 of complications from COVID-19. We mourn her passing and cherish the ways she illuminated the world.