A conversation with Mark Gearan and Keri Lowry see more
From Peace Corps to AmeriCorps to envisioning a quantum leap: 1 million people in the U.S. serving every year — and changing the culture and ethos of service. So how do we get there?
A conversation with Mark Gearan and Keri Lowry.
By Steven Boyd Saum
In 2017, the U.S. government undertook the first-ever comprehensive and holistic review of all forms of service to the nation, and Congress wrote into law the creation of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Over many months, this 11-member bipartisan commission embarked on visits to 42 cities in 22 states, to listen and learn. One area they were charged with examining: military selective service. Then, more broadly: how to expand all kinds of service — domestically and internationally.
The commission issued its final report, including a raft of recommendations, in March 2020 — as a pandemic swept the country. Media attention was minimal — which was both understandable and ironic, given that the crisis underscored the need for service, such as “a Peace Corps for contact tracers.” Even so, recommendations in the report began shaping proposed legislation. And, as this year has shown, there are much bigger changes afoot.
As for selective service: The commission recommended that all citizens, regardless of gender, be registered. That is reflected in next year’s Defense Authorization Act, currently making its way through Congress.
MARK GEARAN served as vice chair for the commission. He was director of the Peace Corps 1995–99 and president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges 1999–2017. Since 2018 he has led the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.
KERI LOWRY served as director of government affairs and public engagement for the commission. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso 2000–02. She has gone on to serve on the National Security Council; as regional director for the Peace Corps for Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa; and as deputy assistant secretary of state. She is currently in the National Security Segment of Guidehouse.
Steven Saum: Let’s start with the big question behind this whole endeavor: If we’re talking about it on a national stage, why does service matter?
Mark Gearan: It goes to the very fabric of our life and civil society. The work can make a real and meaningful difference in communities, in terms of actual outcomes, both domestically and globally. It’s also a powerful statement about our society: about people giving back and caring about others, to share skills and work for the public good. There’s an individual and a collective dimension. And at a time when our nation has these deep divisions, service can be a uniter. It can allow people to work across the whole spectrum of differences that may separate us. Common purpose for the public good is vital for our society’s health and well-being, and for our nation’s security.
Saum: Talk about where we were as a country when this project began — your sense of what was at stake. And how has that changed since the report came out last year?
Gearan: What Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jack Reed (D-RI) did was really unprecedented: bring together military, national, and public service. It offered a different look, because it affected the very structure of the commission; those appointed by congressional leadership and the president reflected a diversity of experience — military backgrounds, congressional staff, people who had held elected office, some of us directly associated with national service. I liken some of the work we did to de Tocqueville’s tour of our country in his great book: We traveled, did extensive listening sessions.
There is so much good work going on around the country — that’s the good news. But the potential is largely untapped. That led to recommendations that, at the beginning, I would not have imagined. Civic education, for instance, came up through the listening. The report gives a comprehensive road map — and it offers an expansive vision that strengthens all forms of service to meet the needs that we have, and in so doing, strengthens our democracy.
Keri Lowry: The listening sessions helped us understand different facets, the actors in various spaces, how much overlap there was, and ways they could work together to start to bridge divides. The report does a great job of helping put those pieces together. The question is, what is the right ignition to get it going?
Illustration by James Steinberg
Gearan: Service is a fundamental part of who we are as Americans, and how we meet our challenges. But we’re a big country, 330 million people. By igniting the extraordinary potential for service, our recommendations will address critical security and domestic needs, expand economic and educational opportunities, strengthen the civic fabric — and establish a robust culture and ethos of service. Legislatively, part of this effort is in the American Rescue Plan, passed in March 2021; there’s $1 billion for AmeriCorps. That doubles AmeriCorps funding. There is growing support for bipartisan efforts, like the CORPS Act, introduced by Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) and Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS). Hopefully, the broader point will extend to Peace Corps and other streams of service.
Lowry: One great example of where the commitment to service comes together: In 2020, evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers were able to pivot their service when they came back and help domestically, based on what they learned overseas. A lot of them integrated with AmeriCorps efforts. It was very organic.
Gearan: When I served as Peace Corps director, we had 10,000 applications for 3,500 slots every year. I can’t attest that all 6,500 who were not invited would be qualified. But Americans, confronted with those facts, would say something’s fundamentally lacking—that you have thousands raising their hands to serve, and we would not support them. We saw that domestically as well, on our tour, this untapped potential.
We’ve had 235,000 Americans who’ve served in the Peace Corps and over a million in AmeriCorps. There’s growing interest. We can, by 2031 — the 70th anniversary of President Kennedy’s call — envision a million Americans will begin to serve in military, national, or public service every year. That’s a significant scaling up. When I was director, we had the campaign to get to 10,000 Volunteers by 2000. We got authorizing legislation done. The appropriations weren’t there.
The long-term goal is to cultivate a culture and ethos of service, in which individuals of all backgrounds expect, aspire, and have access to serve. This comes with bipartisan support. The chair of the commission was a former Republican congressman. We had folks appointed by Senator Mitch McConnell, Speaker Paul Ryan; I was appointed by Senator Reed—so the commission did represent a broad ideological spectrum. At the end, we were united in our recommendations.
Lowry: One thing that became clear fairly quickly in the listening sessions is how little people knew about opportunities to serve — or the variety of venues. They might know about one component of service, but not others.
Gearan: One recommendation is the creation of a White House Council to coordinate service efforts across the federal government, to make service more focused and effective — and draw a brighter spotlight on it. Another is to have an online platform providing a one-stop shop for individuals to explore service opportunities. Low awareness and lack of access are real obstacles preventing many Americans from serving. That would also help service organizations — certainly the Peace Corps — find those with the interests or skills they need to achieve their mission. President Kennedy’s vision with the Peace Corps, continuing domestically with AmeriCorps, supported by present bipartisan administrations and Congress over the years, seems a good foundation to build on. Senator Coons’ work with Senator Wicker and other Republicans to advance the CORPS Act is another recent example of bipartisan support. In terms of AmeriCorps, there are real needs being met — and a documented return on investment. A good body of research shows that for every dollar you put in, there’s $17 returned.
With the tragedies of the pandemic, inequities have been laid bare — unequal access to healthcare, education. That has a motivating impact for many lawmakers: How could service meet some of these needs? The past year has put a sense of urgency on answering that.
Saum: The report was released in March 2020 as the country was going into real crisis with the pandemic — a tough time, yet the need for service was even more relevant.
Gearan: Our target date, March 25, was planned months in advance because of necessary deadlines — including printing. It fell at the height of the pandemic and lockdowns. Having said that, we also included, in addition to some 64 recommendations, legislative language — which was helpful to the Hill for operationalizing quickly. Some recommendations helped shape legislation introduced last year, and more this year — such as with Congressman Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), and his caucus’s efforts; and the efforts that Senator Coons and others have picked up in the Senate.
I have seen more momentum and energy associated with thinking about service in an expansive way than I have for many years. It’s almost always been somewhat of a defensive posture: Save AmeriCorps, advance the Peace Corps budget. Along with the legislative tactical piece, this really brought it to a broader level of conversation. It’s a unique moment.
Significantly, it’s also clear that with the tragedies of the pandemic, inequities have been laid bare — unequal access to healthcare, education. That has a motivating impact for many lawmakers: How could service meet some of these needs? The past year has put a sense of urgency on answering that.
We traveled to 22 states and consulted with hundreds of stakeholders, hearing thousands of public comments. It was three years of work charged by the Congress. The initial focus was the selective service and whether there would be a requirement for all Americans to register; that always has news focus. But there’s been a much more fulsome look at our recommendations.
Saum: One common refrain I hear again and again is: “We need a Peace Corps for this, we need a Peace Corps for that.” There’s a recognition that service, and harnessing the energies of more Americans, might be a way to deepen understanding, address problems, and weave the fabric of the country more strongly.
Gearan: There’s the deep respect that the Peace Corps enjoys — deservedly so, thanks to the work of Volunteers, which has laid out this path in many ways.
AmeriCorps has added to it, certainly. Peace Corps was born in another political time, with a vision and energy that has marked six decades of making a difference; that informs so much of what this broad movement is about. When I would travel and listen to different stakeholders, there was frequently more than just a nod to the Peace Corps; there was a foundational element of understanding the importance of service through people’s understanding of the Peace Corps.
So there are many reasons to be grateful to Peace Corps Volunteers and what they have done. It’s also allowed for this moment — as when President Clinton started AmeriCorps, and people understood the shorthand for it was “the domestic Peace Corps.”
Saum: So where do you see the ignition coming from?
Lowry: Look at the meetings that National Peace Corps Association began convening last year, for Peace Corps Connect to the Future. As came up in discussion there, the private sector has a potentially big role here.
The Employers of National Service, and getting more employers to join — that could be an igniter. Show more benefits to young people — or even not young people: You’re learning skills and capabilities that can help you get a job. My company makes efforts to hire candidates that have military, public, and/or national service on their resumes.
To usher in this new era of service, we need the infrastructure to support a million Americans in national service.
Gearan: To support a million Americans serving by 2031, you have to remove some barriers. We know from our travels that AmeriCorps, YouthBuild, Peace Corps can make a difference, meet challenges. The demand is there. To usher in this new era of service, we need the infrastructure to support a million Americans in national service. Part of it is expanding existing programs. Part of it is creating new models — such as a new fellowship program to allow Americans to choose where they want to serve from a list of certified organizations. We made recommendations for funding demonstration projects to pilot innovative approaches, and to increase private sector and interagency partnerships. You’re not going to get to a million without that.
Look at recent numbers for national service: 7,300 Peace Corps Volunteers, 75,000 AmeriCorps volunteers. We’re a long way from a million. But if we really committed ourselves, it’s achievable. Then it would lead to the next level, as Harris Wofford used to say. It won’t be atypical to ask, “Where have you served?”
Lowry: We want to change that conversation, but also start to change the culture.
Saum: For the Peace Corps community, what’s important for them to keep in mind in terms of national service — and making that quantum leap?
Gearan: First, gratitude. I would hope the Peace Corps community and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, in particular, would feel proud that their service has ushered in a moment for us to significantly enhance the ethos of service in our country, because their work from the early years through today has prepared a pathway for significant expansion.
Secondly, I hope they would be a part of this movement. Their voice is unique, it is appreciated — and they can speak from experience as we work with legislators to advance this expanded national service movement. I’d hope their attentiveness to legislative work and all the good work of NPCA on advocacy would continue. We’re at a real pivotal moment for expanded opportunities for service.
Lowry: Peace Corps gave me opportunities that I never envisioned. For national service to expand and meet the needs of a broader swath of the American population, we need those voices of returned Volunteers to help make national service meet the needs of individuals today. Just because my Peace Corps service included X-Y-Z, that doesn’t mean that the Peace Corps service of someone tomorrow might not have elements that we haven’t been considering to date, or it just hasn’t gotten over the finish line. Their understanding and their voices can help make national service the best that it can be going forward — for their children and their children’s children.
National Peace Corps Association did a phenomenal job of teeing that conversation up last year. It would be wonderful if there’s a way that we can continue that conversation to make national service even better.
We sit atop 60 years of demonstrated efforts by Americans making a difference. That’s a proud legacy. I would say the best way to honor it is by saying, OK, what is the next chapter?
Gearan: In so many ways, the Peace Corps is kind of the crown jewel of so much great service work. Its roots and foundational ethos, thanks to Sargent Shriver and his contemporaries, so informed the broader movement. And if anyone would be calling for innovation and creativity and expanded slots for the Peace Corps’ next chapter, it would be Sargent Shriver.
We’re in this moment, formed and complicated by a pandemic, with challenges and needs that have been exposed for decades as well. But congressional and state leadership see how service is making a difference. We sit atop 60 years of demonstrated efforts by Americans making a difference. That’s a proud legacy. I would say the best way to honor it is by saying, OK, what is the next chapter?
Saum: What does it mean to serve now?
Gearan: As Peace Corps director, when I was visiting Volunteers or meeting RPCVs, the commonality of experience was striking—whether one had served in the ’60s in Ethiopia, in Poland in the ’90s, or South Africa in the 2000s. The shared experience of making a difference was the through line. And that brilliant Third Goal—the domestic dividend—is one of the underappreciated pieces of the Peace Corps.
We have now 235,000 Americans who have served — many in top-level government, business, education, industry, commerce, law, across the spectrum.
Lowry: Go back to that sense of being innovative and looking forward: Peace Corps’ true roots are in building peace and friendship. This is why we’re serving in communities, not just for a short but for a longer duration of time — to really build and seek to understand.
Read the Report
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView.
Steven Saum posted an articlePhotographs from the city of Arak and central Iran from 1967–69 see more
A selection from Dennis Briskin’s photos from Iran in the late 1960s. His book was recognized with the Rowland Scherman Award for Best Photography Book by Peace Corps Writers.
By NPCA Staff
Dennis Briskin has published a collection of 60 photographs from the city of Arak and central Iran, where he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer 1967–69. Briskin writes that he calls the collection The Face of Iran Before… because these photographs were taken before “the Islamic Revolution took the country back to oppressive intolerance and brutality. Before oil wealth brought engines and electric motors to replace mule, camel and horsepower, sometimes even human power, for pushing, pulling, lifting and carrying. Before towns spread out to become cities, and the capital spread up and out to become a dense, polluted metropolis.”
This is a companion to a 2019 collection of Briskin’s photos, Iran Before. Here, in The Face of Iran Before…, the photos focus on the faces of people he saw. “How much you see and understand depends on what you bring to the seeing,” Briskin writes. “We see and respond through our personal filters: what we love, what we want, what we fear and who we think we are. If you see below the surface in these 60 photographs, you may know the people of Iran better than the 22-year-old man behind the camera. I saw more than I understood. I understood more than I can say.”
A selection of Briskin’s photos also appears in the print edition of the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. Read more from Dennis Briskin here.
Smoke and shadow.
Cover photo: A woman smiles as she adjusts her chador.
A young boy who was the sixth child after five girls and much beloved. He died young.
A woman in conversation in Hamedan. She and her male companion had parked a Mercedes sedan on the main street.
Fine silversmithing takes intense concentration, steady hands, sharp vision. Visitors to Esfahan love the metal craftwork.
“I love the pure contrast of light and dark,” Briskin writes. “Her smile touches my heart.”
Story updated May 3, 2022.
A guide to sharing people's stories consciously and with respect see more
A video and workbook to help Volunteers — and those who served years ago — think about storytelling. That includes intercultural dialogue and awareness of whose voices are at the center of a story.
By NPCA Staff
Image courtesy Peace Corps video
Shortly before the first Volunteers began returning to service overseas in March 2022, the Peace Corps agency published an Ethical Storytelling Toolkit. How we tell our stories — and the voices at the center of these stories — have informed discussions inside and outside the Peace Corps in recent years. A focus on ethical storytelling was also an important part of the conversations that shaped the “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” town halls and global ideas summit convened by NPCA in 2020.
A focus on ethical storytelling was also an important part of the conversations that shaped the “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” town halls and global ideas summit convened by NPCA in 2020.
The new toolkit includes a workbook and video; links for how returned Volunteers can get involved in the Global Connections program (formerly known as Speakers Match) to share their Peace Corps experience with audiences in the U.S.; and a range of tools, video resources, and useful facts and figures.
In terms of substance, “Ethical storytelling is a practice of sharing stories in a way that is conscious of power dynamics and grounded in mutual respect,” the toolkit notes. Intercultural dialogue is at the heart of the Peace Corps’ mission. So it makes sense for there to be an intentional and thoughtful commitment to storytelling shaped by that awareness. For Peace Corps, that means an approach “rooted in building and celebrating person-to-person relationships, and tied to our approach to intercultural competency, diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
Read more and download the kit here.
This story appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. Story updated May 2, 2022.
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.
Bill Novelli’s lessons in life and leadership see more
The Talk, Fight, Win Way to Change the World
By Bill Novelli
Johns Hopkins University Press
Reviewed by Steven Boyd Saum
Bill Novelli’s career includes serving as CEO of AARP, founding the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, leading the humanitarian organization CARE, and establishing global PR agency Porter Novelli. He teaches in the MBA program at McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. In Good Business, he offers lessons on life and leadership.
He got his start in the corporate world with Unilever, selling soap. Next stop: a New York ad agency, where he sensed a kind of social relevance to the work — sometimes. “The turning point came the day I returned from a client meeting with two test products in plastic bags, one a new kids’ cereal and the other a new soft, extruded dog food. A young copywriter came into my office, announced that he was working on ad concepts for the cereal and asked to see the product. As a joke, I pulled out the dog food and tossed it to him. Without much of a glance, he caught it and said, ‘Yeah, we can sell that.’”
Novelli took on a new client: the Public Broadcasting Service, seeking to build viewership. A while later he saw an ad in The New York Times that the Peace Corps, about a decade after its founding, was looking to reposition itself and seeking marketing expertise. Host countries “wanted more older and experienced Volunteers (nurses, agriculturalists, MBAs) and more people who looked like the citizens of the countries in which Peace Corps Volunteers served,” he writes. A headhunter whom Novelli called tried to steer him to a gig with Avon; no, Novelli said — Peace Corps.
“The other side of the equation is to be bigger than ourselves and go beyond our own personal interests and needs — to care about our communities, our country, and future generations.”
“Today there are nearly 250,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and former staff, many of them, like me, members of the National Peace Corps Association, acting in support of the organization and its work,” he writes. (Hear! Hear!) While working on PR for the agency, Novelli conducted a survey of returned Volunteers. He notes that when he asks current Georgetown students (some RPCVs) “what they think returning Volunteers’ main concern was, they often guess it was about getting a job or fitting back into American society. But the biggest concern back then, and I feel certain it remains so today, was the fear that the sand would blow over their tracks and that all their hard work in the country where they had served would disappear. This fear was well founded, as I learned later in my work for CARE.”
In 1995 Bill Novelli left CARE to found and lead the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Images courtesy Bill Novelli
Novelli chronicles two ethical lapses in his own career — not coincidentally, after he moved from the Peace Corps to Pennsylvania Avenue and the November Group, an ad agency formed in 1972 with one client and one purpose: Keep Richard Nixon in the White House. “We were housed in the same space as the Committee to Re-elect the President, which became known as CREEP. A lesson here: watch what names spell out in acronyms.”
Novelli serves his tale with dashes of humor. He also asks some big questions — about society, the environment, and more — particularly in the last chapter, “What Do We Owe Our Grandchildren?” Personal responsibility is part of it, he notes. “But the other side of the equation is to be bigger than ourselves and go beyond our own personal interests and needs — to care about our communities, our country, and future generations.”
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
In the mountains near Oaxaca, tales of El Norte: among weavers and migrant workers who returned see more
In the mountains near Oaxaca, tales of El Norte: among weavers and migrant workers who left family and home for work across the border — and returned. Conversations from a time before COVID.
By Paul Theroux
On a sojourn in pursuit of understanding, writer Paul Theroux set out five years ago to travel the length of the U.S.–Mexico border. Then he drove his old Buick south, visiting villages along the back roads of Chiapas and, here, a mountain town near Oaxaca. An excerpt from On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey.
In the small Zapotec-speaking town of San Baltazar Guelavila, I asked Felipe, a local man, the meaning of “Guelavila.”
“It means Night of Hell, sir,” Felipe said.
“And this river?”
“It is the River of Red Ants, sir.”
“That hill is impressive.”
“It is the Hill of the Nine Points, sir,” Felipe said, indicating the separate small peaks of the ridge with a dabbing finger. “Our soul goes there when we die.”
“The maize in the market is colorful.”
“Our maize has four colors,” he said with pride. “Red, white, purple, and blue. It is from ancient times.”
“That big snake painted on the side of the house,” I said, “it’s unusual.”
We were in the center of town, near the plaza and the market. The town itself was off the main road south of Oaxaca, at the end of a potholed track three miles into the mountains. A mural painted on the flat, high end-side of an adobe building near us depicted the blue archway entrance of the town, a man plowing a field, a woman making tortillas, and another man digging a chopped agave plant to cook in an oven for mezcal.
But the largest image in the mural was a sensuous snake, coiled around one upright of the blue archway. The snake’s singular feature was a rose blossom attached to — apparently growing from — the top of its greenish head.
“The snake is a symbol of our town,” Felipe said. “We believe that local people hunted this snake with the rose on its head day and night, because capturing it would bring us good luck.”
“Wouldn’t it be dangerous to capture a snake that size?” It was thick, with a darting tongue, and in the mural about thirty feet long.
“No danger, sir. Because no one ever caught the snake, and as a result they never had good luck.”
Felipe was a cotton weaver who made scarves and caps, his looms located in a two-story building at the edge of San Baltazar. Making adobe and distilling mezcal were the town’s other industries. Felipe had been to the States. He gave me the most succinct version of a border crossing.
“I crossed the border. Everyone was kind. My bosses were good to me. The thing I missed most was eating with my family. It’s very lonely in the United States. So I came home.”
All this time, whenever I arrived in a town like this, I was under the influence of my memories of the people I’d met — many Oaxacans — on the border. Many of the men in San Baltazar had been to the States, including a certain man who Felipe, clearing his throat with an awkward cough, warned me had a superior attitude as a result of having spent a lot of time over the border. That sometimes happened. A person went across, spent years in the States, then returned presumido (stuck-up).
I asked Felipe whether he could round up some returnees from the States and meet me under a tree near the weaving operation, the building with the looms. It was a lovely morning in San Baltazar, finches flitting in the boughs of the big shade tree. We sat on folding chairs, the men, young and old, sitting or standing, and the dog of one of the older men lay snoring at his feet. The sun streaming through the boughs gave them shadow-carved faces.
From his tone, I was sure the first man to speak was the stuck-up one. He was not conceited, but he was the loudest, the most reckless, and in a society where modesty was valued and boasting frowned upon, he might have seemed intimidating. But he was funny in the way of a person wishing to take charge, so humor took the sting out of his bluster.
“My name is Nilo,” he said. “Like the river.”
A big man in a dirty red T-shirt, he reclined on the thick up-raised roots of the tree, wagging a sandal on one foot, and rather than facing me, he shouted his answers to the fifteen others gathered there.
“It’s an adventure!” he shouted. “You leave your family — you don’t know whether you’ll live or die!”
This dramatic opening seized the attention of the others, and hearing the shout in his sleep, the dog twitched one of his ears.
“Where did you cross?” I asked.
“Tecate — I walked across,” he said. “It was easy then. I was with twenty-six people, four from this town, the rest from Mexico City. I paid 450 pesos, which is nothing, really” — about $25 that morning. “Now they charge 15,000” — $830. “But you can always get someone to pay, and then you pay them back. Listen, if you work hard, you can pay it all off in a year.”
“I flew to Tijuana and tried to cross in a car. I was sent back that time, but the second time I made it. I was there a year and a half, working in construction and doing other things. I never made much money, so I came home.”
Nilo’s confidence and his casual way with sums of money impressed the younger men. And they must have noticed, as I did, that Nilo was the grubbiest man in the group, with squashed sandals and dusty trousers, now and then lifting his T-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face, exposing his rounded belly.
“Doing what sort of work?” I asked.
“Construction. I was in roofing.”
“How do you get hired?”
“Not a problem!” he yelled, enlightening me. “The guys doing the hiring are from here! Oaxacans. My brother’s in Utah — he’s been there twenty-seven years. I was in the States for fifteen.” He nodded with authority.
“I would have stayed, but my mother was getting old.”
As though to puncture Nilo’s bluster and give it a sense of reality, Felipe said, “It’s dangerous. All sorts of bad things can happen if you go with a stranger to the border. They might kidnap you and force you to get money from your family. You say, ‘I can’t pay.’ So they make you take drugs across.”
Nilo shrugged and made a face, as if to convey the thought, Hey, bad things happen everywhere.
“My brother,” Felipe went on, “the coyote dropped him at a house near the border. The people at the house robbed my brother of everything he had. It was obvious they were in cahoots with the coyote.”
“The polleros come here all the time,” the old man with the dog said, using the variant word for coyote. “They look for people who want to cross. I went with one — it was ’93. I flew to Tijuana and tried to cross in a car. I was sent back that time, but the second time I made it. I was there a year and a half, working in construction and doing other things. I never made much money, so I came home.”
I said, “Given the fact that there are dangers, and it costs money to go across, is it worth it?”
“Yes,” Felipe said. “If all you’ve got is a roof and nothing else, you go there. I was twenty-three when I went. I didn’t even have a roof. And there’s more work now than before. I went across, worked in construction and tree trimming, then got a job in a Chinese restaurant — doing dishes, then I was an assistant chef.”
“The snake is a symbol of our town,” Felipe said. The mural of San Baltazar Guelavila, near Oaxaca. Photo of mural by Thomas F. Aleto
“Why did you come back?”
“I couldn’t save enough money,” Felipe said. “Even after eight years I was still struggling.”
Nilo tugged at his grubby shirt and howled in contradiction, saying, “If you know how to save, you can save 8,000 in six months.” I took this to mean pesos, about $440.
“At the Chinese restaurant I was making $150 every two weeks,” Felipe said, and raising his voice, added, “I got into debt. I ate Chinese food for a year and a half. I never want to eat Chinese food ever again.”
I asked him the name of the restaurant.
“Chow Mein House,” he said. “In Azusa.”
Azusa is just off the 210 Freeway of Pasadena, on the way to Rancho Cucamonga, though Felipe lived in a house with other migrants in Covina, and took the bus to Citrus Avenue and Chow Mein House.
“How about you?” I asked a young man who’d been listening in silence.
He said his name was Isaac. “Have you been to the States?”
“No. But I’d like to see another place. To see how they live there. To know it.”
Another man piped up, “I’d like to leave here and find markets for my work.”
“What is your work?”
“Weaving,” he said, and explained, “Making rebozos and ponchos and shawls.”
“You should go. It’s amazing,” Nilo said, talking over the man. “It’s like being a goat in a green valley! You see it and you want to eat it all! You drink and eat and spend money!”
The old man with the dog said, “The work is hard. The pay is low. And sometimes there’s no work.”
I asked, “Did you see anything in California that you wanted to bring back here?”
“A community well,” he said. “We need more water here.”
“You can’t say there’s no work!” Nilo said. “There’s always this” — and he began gesturing — “you go into a department store, pick up some things, rip off the security tags, steal the things, and sell them on the street.”
Encouraged by the men’s laughter, he went on, “Or go to a grocery store, fill your shirt with shrimp” — he lifted his shirt and bunched it with his fists, the imaginary shrimp, to make his point — “and you walk out and sell the shrimp.”
I said, “By the way, that’s against the law. You can go to jail.”
“He’s joking,” one of the men said, in case I got the wrong idea about Nilo.
“Here in San Baltazar I was a rebellious young man,” Nilo said. “My father was gone. I broke windows. My mother was useless. Mothers can be weak! I was always drunk and getting into trouble. I needed my father.”
“Where was your father?”
“In California! He went when I was nine,” Nilo said. “It was the most beautiful time of my life.”
“I had no free time,” Felipe said, protesting. “I worked. I was tired. I slept. Then I worked again.”
I asked, “Did you see anything in California that you wanted to bring back here?”
“A community well,” he said. “We need more water here.”
Two women and two young girls walked from behind a one-story adobe building, the women carrying pitchers on their shoulders, the girls carrying clay bowls, a sudden biblical glimpse — attending women in long skirts, bearing drinks.
Men with stories to tell: Men of the town of San Baltazar Guelavila flank writer Paul Theroux. Photo courtesy Paul Theroux
“Tejate,” Isaac said. “It tastes good.”
The liquid poured into the bowls was gray, with a grainy texture and a scum of bubbles on the surface, and it tasted sweetish, a thick soup of — so they explained — maize, flor de cacao, peanuts, coconut, and roasted mamey seeds, or pixtle in Zapotec. Because of the extensive grinding, kneading, roasting, and toasting of ingredients, this pre-Hispanic concoction is called one of the most labor-intensive drinks on earth.
“Important people used to drink this,” Felipe said, and by important people, he was harking back six hundred years, because (in the long memory of Mexico) he meant Zapotec royalty, for whom tejate was reserved.
“Drink, Don Pablo! You are welcome here!”
Except for Nilo, the rest of the men were weavers, spending all day at a loom. Nilo explained that he had diabetes and was no longer strong. “Because of my diabetes they wanted to cut my leg off!” But he had refused, and stubbornly, defiantly still walked, though he had no work.
Felipe guided me into the nearby building and upstairs to the weaving room, where there were seven head-high wooden looms, some of the weavers sitting, thrusting the shuttles at right angles through the tight threads, pulling the beams down, working the treadles, and in all that effort — the rattle of skeletal frames and the stamping of treadles — lengthening the cloth by one thread.
(Recalling that, it seems a fit image for what I am doing now, fussing with my fingers and hesitating, then tightening the line and starting again, minutes passing, this memory of weaving enlarged by one sentence.) Some of the men who had been seated under the tree, talking to me, took their places on benches at looms and resumed weaving. With the clacking and chattering of the wooden machinery in this upstairs workshop, it was hard to hold a conversation, yet I noticed that the men were speaking in a language that was not Spanish.
I beckoned Isaac to a balcony and said, “Are you speaking Zapotec?”
“Yes,” he said. “We speak Zapotec among ourselves.”
A man listening said, “It’s like having a secret language! You can talk about someone who doesn’t speak it and say anything you want while in their presence.”
The town of San Baltazar was completely bilingual, the school taught in both Spanish and Zapotec. But Isaac’s son Alejandro, who was fourteen and said he was a student, was not in school that day, though school was in session. Alejandro was sitting at a loom, weaving lengths of black cloth.
“How’s business?” I asked Isaac.
“Demand is unstable,” he said.
“Yet we keep working,” Felipe said. “We work twelve hours a day. It’s hard. It’s like working in the States.”
This excerpt appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. Story updated April 30, 2022.
Paul Theroux began teaching English as a second language in Nyasaland as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1963. During the nation’s transition to independence as Malawi, Prime Minister Hastings Banda accused Theroux of supporting one of Banda’s political opponents. Theroux was expelled from Malawi and was early terminated from the Peace Corps in 1965. He is the author of more than 30 books of fiction and 18 travel books including The Great Railway Bazaar, Riding the Iron Rooster, Dark Star Safari, and Figures in a Landscape. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Peace Corps Week 2022: Events to mark the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps — and to renew a commitment to the work of building peace and friendshipMarking the 61st anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps see more
Celebrate Peace Corps Week February 27 – March 5. Events are taking place across the country and throughout the world. Here are a few highlights, including a special forum hosted by the Peace Corps Agency and a kickoff for National Days of Advocacy in Support of the Peace Corps.
By NPCA Staff
As we mark Peace Corps week in 2022, it is with a sense of both hope and fear. The Peace Corps Agency has announced that the first groups of Volunteers are preparing to return to service overseas in March. The first groups are set to begin service in Zambia and the Dominican Republic. Invitations are out for Volunteers to return to service in 24 countries in 2022.
At the same time, a war of aggression in Europe like we haven’t seen in generations puts tens of millions of Ukrainians in harm’s way. That, along with other violence and conflict in the world, underscores the importance of a commitment to building peace and friendship across boundaries — around the world and here at home.
We've included a few highlights below. The Peace Corps Agency has a list of more events around the country here.
Tuesday, March 1, 2022
7:00 – 8:30 PM EST: Celebrating Anne Baker’s 25 Years with NPCA
For 25 years, most recently as vice president of National Peace Corps Association, Anne Baker (Fiji 1985–87) has led with grace and inspired each of us to seek what we can do to make our community and our world a better place. Now she’s making the shift to a well-deserved retirement. Join in celebrating Anne’s retirement and honoring her lifelong commitment to Peace Corps ideals at 7 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, March 1 — fittingly, Peace Corps Day!
Wednesday, March 2, 2022
7:00 EST: Women of Peace Corps Legacy: Continuing Connection Through Virtual Service
Join Women of Peace Corps Legacy on Wednesday, March 2 at 7 p.m. Eastern for an event featuring the Peace Corps Virtual Service Pilot. Learn more about the incredible women behind the pilot, and the innovation that enables Peace Corps to fulfill its mission and continue connections with communities overseas.
Wendesday, March 2 and Thursday, March 3, 2022
7:00 PM EST: A Virtual Peace Corps Museum Share and Tell
Join Northern Virginia Returned Peace Corps Volunteers President Lisa Martin (Estonia 1996–98), special guest host Patricia Wand (Colombia 1963–65), and the Museum of the Peace Corps Experience for a two-day, virtual event celebrating Peace Corps Week! Participants will learn more about the Museum of the Peace Corps Experience and its mission to collect and preserve Peace Corps stories and objects donated by Volunteers.
RPCVs are invited to share an item and a 3- to 5-minute story about it from their Peace Corps country of service. Sign up in advance with a photo of your item and brief description as well as your name, country, and years of service. These are two separate events on Zoom. Attend one or both.
Wednesday, March 2 at 7 p.m. Eastern | Presented by Silver Spring Town Center Inc. | RSVP
Thursday, March 3 at 7 p.m. Eastern | Presented by NOVA RPCVs | RSVP
Thursday, March 3, 2022
2:00 PM EST | The Peace Corps Reimagined: A Keynote Address and Forum
The Peace Corps agency hosts Peace Corps Reimagined: A Keynote Address and Forum on Thursday, March 3 at 2 p.m. Eastern. As part of Peace Corps Week 2022, Peace Corps’ Chief Executive Officer Carol Spahn will share how the Peace Corps has met this historic moment and the agency’s vision for the future. After the keynote address, attend interactive forum sessions for an overview of the Peace Corps’ efforts to reimagine service, advance equity, and deliver quality.
8:00 – 9:30 PM EST: National Days of Advocacy Kickoff
Join us for our 18th annual Days of Advocacy kickoff as we gear up for nation wide activities in March and April. We will be joined by special guest speakers, who will help kickoff our activities. We will be holding this event virtually and are looking forward to seeing you there. Questions? Email us.
Story correctex Feb. 28, 2022 at 19:30.
Bill Josephson reflects on two key members of the Peace Corps see more
Kindred spirits who they helped shape the early years of the Peace Corps
By Bill Josephson
Pictured: Dr. Mahmud Hussain, vice chancellor of Dacca University — one of the host institutions for Peace Corps Volunteers serving in East Pakistan since October 1961 — chats with Peace Corps Representative to Pakistan F. Kingston Berlew of Washington, DC. Photo courtesy Peace Corps
F. Kingston Berlew, a distinguished lawyer, walked into my Peace Corps General Counsel’s office unannounced in 1961 and said that he wanted to join the Peace Corps. He had a wife and children; service as a Volunteer was out.
King sailed through the talent search with flying colors and went to Pakistan — East and West at that time — as the first Peace Corps director there. We were kindred spirits, and at his request, I conducted the close of service conferences for Pakistan I in both Dhaka and Lahore.
King then became associate Peace Corps director in charge of selection, training, and overseas support. He later led a career in international business and law and founded the World Law Group, today a network of 21,000 lawyers representing firms in 89 nations. He died in February 2021 at age 90. His brother, David Berlew, was the third Peace Corps director in Ethiopia.
Murray Frank was also a kindred spirit. In the early days of the Peace Corps, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted full-field investigations of all staff, domestic and foreign. Sarge decided that the Peace Corps should not have an identifiable security office. The task of reviewing investigations that raised issues fell to the general counsel’s office, as did liaison with other intelligence and law enforcement agencies. In Murray’s field, the identified “red flags” were numerous, generally unintended and inconsequential.
Murray began serving as a field associate Peace Corps director beginning with Nigeria I and was there for three years. He often said it was the most exciting time of his life. He distinguished himself by his concern for and rapport with the Volunteers.
He was born in 1927 and served in the Pacific during World War II; he went to New York University on the GI Bill. In 1965 he joined the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. His long and distinguished career included serving as dean of the College of Public and Community Service and as a fellow of the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. We remained close throughout his life, talking on the telephone just a few weeks before he died in January at age 93.
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
Bill Josephson is the Founding Counsel for the Peace Corps and is co-author of the memorandum “The Towering Task,” which laid out the architecture of the Peace Corps. Read his conversation with Bill Moyers, Joe Kennedy III, and Marieme Foote about the establishment of the Peace Corps in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine as well.
A wreath-laying ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery see more
A wreath-laying ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery on September 22, 2021
Photography by Eli Wittum
Pictured: Honoring a legacy: Three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Colombia. From left, they are Museum of the Peace Corps Experience co-founder Patricia Wand (1963–65), former Congressman Sam Farr (1964–66), and journalist Maureen Orth (1964–66).
On the afternoon of September 22, Northern Virginia Returned Peace Corps Volunteers hosted a wreath-laying ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. It was an in-person event paying tribute to the idea and ideals of the Peace Corps, and the president who ensured they took flight.
From left: Pat Wand, Clintandra Thompson, and Carol Spahn. Photo by Eli Wittum
Offering remarks were Acting Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn, Rep. John Garamendi, former Congressman Sam Farr, NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst, and Adopt a Black Peace Corps Volunteer founder Clintandra Thompson.
They spoke on the legacy of the Peace Corps and honored President Kennedy. Following speeches, attendees walked together to Kennedy’s gravesite to place a wreath and flowers.
Flowers and cake. Photography by Eli Wittum
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
Letters: Readers Respond to the Summer 2021 edition of WorldView and Snapshots of Peace Corps HistoryBudget advocacy. JFK at the Cow Palace. Loan forgiveness fail. Inspirational Sarge. see more
Peace Corps Response at 25. Sarge leads the first Volunteers. Budget advocacy. Remembering 9/11 two decades later. JFK at the Cow Palace in ’60.
Letters, emails, LinkedIn and Instagram comments, Facebook posts, tweets, and other missives: Readers respond to the stories in words and images in the Summer 2021 edition of WorldView, special digital features, and the conversation on social media.
We’re happy to hear from you there and here: firstname.lastname@example.org
An anniversary. A pandemic. Peace Corps Response.
Great magazine — I always read it cover to cover. Congratulations!
Big Picture: Sarge Leads
Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum
As a returned Volunteer who served in Iran, I can’t express how deeply Sargent Shriver’s work continues to affect my life, starting with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer teacher from the first days of Peace Corps in junior high school to numerous friendships with a Peace Corps connection that continue to this day. This sort of service opportunity is the best of what our country has to offer our citizens and the world.
N. Bruce Nelson
In Mashraqi High School in Kandahar, Afghanistan, three Peace Corps teachers taught us English in 1971. I still know one Peace Corps member. My thanks to them.
The House of Representatives has voted to back $430.5 million in funding. They still need to bring the Senate around to backing more than flat funding for the seventh year in a row. — Ed.
Wonderful news. A lot of credit for this passage should go to the dedicated returned Volunteers who spent endless hours advocating on the Hill. After this unfortunate pause in service due to the pandemic, it is the perfect time to have adequate funding to resume Peace Corps service in countries requesting it.
Judy B. Smith
Niger 2010–11, Armenia 2011–13
I contacted Senator Feinstein’s office and Congressman Jared Huffman in regard to enhanced Peace Corps funding. We need Peace Corps more than ever now. Please don’t let JFK’s legacy fade with time. Keep up your good work. Your friend in peace.
El Salvador 1976–80
I hope the Senate, too, approves this increased budget for the Peace Corps — and the Peace Corps finds meaningful ways to provide effective service in this COVID-impacted new world.
Kul Chandra Gautam
Former Deputy Director of UNICEF; recipient of 2018 Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award
I was a month into training in Mali when it happened. The event altered our training but we continued through, and it brought everyone closer together, including our host country nationals.
Peace Corps Connect 2021
The 60th anniversary conference took place September 23–25.
I found the conference so easy to navigate, and the content throughout was excellent! Kudos for a worthwhile and memorable 60th anniversary event.
Thanks to everyone who worked to make this happen. The Asian American Pacific Islander discussion was outstanding. Thanks to the guest speakers for sharing some of their personal journeys and experiences.
Liberia 1982–84; President, San Diego World Affairs Council
Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso changed my life in many great ways. Met my wife! Professional direction toward medicine and public health! My time there taught me so much.
Jonathan Schultz, M.D., MPH
Burkina Faso 2006–09
Having served in Guatemala, and my wife in Thailand, we are proud to be among the 240,000 who have experienced “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” It was my professor of international business at University of Washington — who had been a Volunteer in Chile — who planted the seed. Though I served during politically turbulent times in Guatemala, it was the experience of my lifetime. Plus I met my wife the year I was leading the returned Volunteer group in Seattle.
J. David Snow
JFK at the Cow Palace
On November 2, we marked the anniversary of JFK’s 1960 campaign speech at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, where he used the term “Peace Corps” for the fist time and declared, “I am convinced that the pool of people in this country of ours anxious to respond to the public service is greater than it has ever been in our history.”
Photo courtesy OpenSFHistory.org
Love how he lights up the foreign service language skills (or lack thereof) in his full speech. Definitely resulted in our robust pre-service language training.
A life-changing experience for myself and hopefully for the lives I touched during my service in Malaysia. Hope to be of further service to the Peace Corps once I retire.
The Peace Corps, together with the Fulbright program and USAID, are great initiatives and success stories.
Sami Jamil Jadallah
These letters appear in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
WRITE US: email@example.com
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.
Steven Saum posted an articleSome moments that have defined the Peace Corps from 1960 to today see more
Some moments that have defined the Peace Corps from 1960 to today. Plus a year-by-year look at countries where Peace Corps programs began.
Researched by Ellery Pollard, Emi Krishnamurthy, Sarah Steindl, Nathalie Vadnais, and Orrin Luc
At right: the 10th-anniversary Peace Corps stamp, issued in 1972. Image courtesy Peace Corps
As part of the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps in 2021, WorldView magazine has published a series of timelines tracking Peace Corps’ beginnings — and we’ve traced the 25-year history of Peace Corps Response. Explore more here:
Annotation: Changing World | The Globe in 1961, the year the Peace Corps was founded
1961: Towering Task Edition | A look at the year in which the Peace Corps was founded with great aspirations — and the troubled world into which it emerged
Peace Corps Response: Snapshots from the First Quarter Century | In 2021 Peace Corps Response marked a quarter century since its founding. Some moments that have defined it.
“Dove of Peace” by Howard Jessor, on the cover of Foreign Service Journal, December 1963 edition. The publication is literally on press, in November 1963, when news breaks that President John F. Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. Courtesy American Foreign Service Association
In Greensboro, North Carolina, four Black college students sit down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and are denied service. A six-month protest results in desegregation of the lunch counter by summer.
Nations gaining independence from Britain and France include Nigeria, Cameroon, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Madagascar, Benin, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Togo, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, and Mauritania.
“How many of you are willing?” JFK’s campaign speech at the University of Michigan presents the idea of the Peace Corps.
In a speech at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, John F. Kennedy uses the term “Peace Corps” and calls for revitalizing U.S. global engagement.
JFK at the Cow Palace. Photo courtesy OpenSFHistory.org
John F. Kennedy inaugurated as president. He declares, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Sargent Shriver outlines steps to forming the Peace Corps in a memo to JFK. Central are ideas put forth in “The Towering Task,” a memo by William Josephson and Warren Wiggins.
Executive Order 10924 establishes the Peace Corps. Sargent Shriver is appointed its first director on March 4.
Bay of Pigs invasion
First Peace Corps Volunteers begin training for Colombia, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and Ghana.
Amnesty International founded in the United Kingdom.
Berlin Wall erected overnight.
Sargent Shriver leads the first groups of Peace Corps Volunteers to the Rose Garden for a send-off by President Kennedy.
The first group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrives at Accra Airport in Ghana.
Peace Corps Act signed into law by President Kennedy, creating the Peace Corps as an independent agency with a mission to “promote world peace and friendship.”
Newsweek magazine cover: “Peace Corps in Action: Ira Gwin”
In Colombia, a plane crash in the jungle kills more than 30 people — including Larry Radley and David Crozier, the first Peace Corps Volunteers to die during service.
There are 2,816 Volunteers in the field.
Nations gaining independence from Britain, France, and Belgium: Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Algeria, Burundi, Rwanda
Cuban Missile Crisis
Sargent Shriver and the Peace Corps appear on the cover of Time.
At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. delivers “I Have a Dream” speech.
President Kennedy assassinated in Dallas.
Kenya gains independence from Great Britain.
In State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson announces a “War on Poverty” in the U.S.
Mr. Ed the talking horse wants to join the Peace Corps.
Freedom Summer voter registration drive
While still directing the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver begins serving as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Establishes Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA, Foster Grandparents, and Legal Services for the Poor.
Malcolm X assassinated in New York.
The Selma to Montgomery march for civil rights begins — is met with brutal force by police.
LBJ signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah overthrown by a military coup.
Sargent Shriver steps down as Peace Corps director. LBJ appoints Jack Vaughn director.
15,000+ Peace Corps Volunteers are serving — the highest number yet. That record still holds.
Guyana, Botswana, and Lesotho gain independence from Great Britain.
Lillian Carter, mother of future president Jimmy Carter, departs for Peace Corps service at the age of 68 as a public health Volunteer in India.
“Volunteers to America” Peace Corps initiative brings people from other countries — including Argentina, Ghana, Nepal, the Philippines, Iran, and Israel — to serve in impoverished areas in the United States. The program lasts until 1971, when it is defunded by Congress.
Tet Offensive begins in Vietnam.
Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis.
Robert F. Kennedy assassinated in Los Angeles.
Soviet Union leads Warsaw Pact troops in an invasion of Czechoslovakia to crack down on reformist trends and end the “Prague Spring.”
Joseph Blatchford appointed Peace Corps director by President Nixon.
June 28–July 3
Apollo 11 moon landing
Now we are ten: Released in 1972, this poster by artist Patrick Koeller wins a competition for a design marking the first decade of the Peace Corps. Courtesy West Michigan Graphic Design Archives
First Earth Day
President Nixon orders U.S. ground troops to invade Cambodia.
Members of Ohio National Guard fire into crowd of demonstrators at Kent State University; four are killed, nine wounded.
Twelve members of a group calling themselves the Committee of Returned Volunteers enter the fourth-floor offices of the Peace Corps and seal off a wing. They occupy offices for several days and hang a Viet Cong flag through the window.
Greenpeace founded in Canada.
The Pentagon Papers, a study by the U.S. Department of Defense about the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, are published in The New York Times.
Executive Order 11603: President Nixon folds the Peace Corps into a new federal volunteer agency, ACTION. Kevin O’Donnell is appointed Peace Corps director.
The first Peace Corps stamp is issued in the U.S.
Police arrest burglars in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Evidence will link the break-in to Nixon’s reelection campaign.
Donald Hess appointed Peace Corps director by President Nixon.
U.S. Supreme Court issues 7–2 decision in Roe v. Wade, ruling that states cannot completely bar a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.
Nick Craw appointed Peace Corps director by President Nixon.
Endangered Species Act signed into law.
President Nixon resigns.
Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie deposed following a Marxist military coup.
First Returned Peace Corps Volunteers elected to U.S. House of Representatives: Christopher Dodd of Connecticut (Dominican Republic 1966–68) and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts (Ethiopia 1962–64).
John Dellenback appointed Peace Corps director by President Ford.
Saigon falls to communist troops from North Vietnam. Mozambique and Comoros gain independence from Portugal and France.
The Concorde takes flight — first supersonic commercial air travel.
The United States celebrates its bicentennial.
Apple II computer, Commodore PET, and Radio Shack TRS-80 introduced, beginning the personal computer craze.
South African activist Steve Biko dies after suffering a massive head injury in police custody.
Carolyn Robertson Payton appointed Peace Corps director by President Carter. She is the first woman and first Black American to serve in that role.
Iranian Revolution begins. The U.S. Embassy in Tehran will be stormed in November 1979.
Rainbow (Gay Pride) flag created by Gilbert Baker.
Peace Corps closes its post in Afghanistan. In December, Soviet troops invade the country.
National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (NCRPCV) founded. It will evolve into National Peace Corps Association.
Richard F. Celeste appointed Peace Corps director by President Carter.
Executive Order 12137: President Carter grants the Peace Corps full autonomy.
The dove at 25: In 1987, this Peace Corps logo adorns a budget presentation to Congress. Volunteers partner with communities to address problems that include “hunger and malnutrition, infant mortality, poverty, illiteracy and limited educational opportunities, inadequate health care, and declining natural resources.” Image courtesy Peace Corps
World Health Assembly declares that smallpox has been eradicated from the planet.
As Peace Corps marks its 20th anniversary, the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers hosts the first national Peace Corps conference in Washington, D.C.
Loret Miller Ruppe appointed Peace Corps director by President Reagan. She serves eight years, more than any other director before or since.
First case of AIDS identified. In U.S. it is initially called “gay-related immune deficiency (GRID).”
Belize gains independence from Great Britain.
Legislation grants Peace Corps its independence as an agency.
Mexico tells the U.S. it can no longer service its $80 billion debt. Brazil, Argentina, and virtually every other country in Latin America is unable to pay back loans, triggering a regional economic crisis.
The Internet is born when the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) adopts the standard TCP/IP protocol of the World Wide Web.
Peace Corps establishes the Small Project Assistance (SPA) program.
Apple Computer introduces the Macintosh.
In Bhopal, India, 30 tons of methylisocyanate, an industrial gas used to make pesticide, are released at a Union Carbide plant, killing some 15,000 people.
Loret Miller Ruppe signs a letter of agreement establishing the Coverdell Fellows Program with founder Dr. Beryl Levinger (Colombia 1967–69).
For the first time in Peace Corps history, more women than men begin service as Volunteers.
Letter home: In 1986, Tuvalu commemorates the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps. Volunteers began serving in the Pacific island nation in 1977. Courtesy PeaceCorpsOnline.org
Lillian Carter Award established to honor those over the age of 50 who have served and advanced the Third Goal of the Peace Corps. Lillian’s son, President Jimmy Carter, calls the award “a wonderful celebration of what is best about the Peace Corps — offering up some of America’s best to the world, and bringing the world home to other Americans.”
Reactor 4 at Chernobyl explodes in Ukrainian S.S.R. — worst nuclear disaster ever in terms of casualties and cost.
Wole Soyinka of Nigeria becomes the first African to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.
The number of Peace Corps Volunteers serving drops to new low: 5,219. Government mistrust and aftermath of the Vietnam War take their toll.
The Peace Corps and its 120,000 current and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are honored with the Beyond War Award for their commitment to nonviolence.
Black Monday on the U.S. stock market. Dow plummets 508 points, more than 22 percent.
Barbara Jo White (Dominican Republic 1987–89) creates the World Map Project, which has been replicated by Peace Corps Volunteers in countries around the world.
Coffee bearing the Fair Trade label is introduced.
Paul D. Coverdell appointed Peace Corps director by President George H.W. Bush.
Coverdell establishes World Wise Schools program (WWS) to connect American educators in classrooms with Peace Corps Volunteers.
Berlin Wall falls. On November 17, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia leads to end of communism there. That same date, in El Salvador, a military hit squad murders six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her daughter.
Civil war begins in Liberia, pitting Charles M. Taylor against former subordinate Prince Johnson. Fighting lasts until 1996.
You’ve got mail: In 1993, Fiji celebrates the 25th anniversary of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in communities there. Courtesy David Downes
Poland’s ruling communist party votes to dissolve. In ensuing elections, Lech Wałęsa, leader of the Solidarity Movement and 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, wins the presidency.
Nelson Mandela freed from prison in South Africa after 27 years.
First Peace Corps Volunteers begin serving in Central and Eastern Europe: Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.
Iraq invades Kuwait.
LGBT RPCV formed in Washington, D.C.
First Gulf War begins, with a U.S.-led coalition driving invading Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
First website appears on World Wide Web.
Elaine Chao appointed Peace Corps director by President George H.W. Bush.
Soviet Union dissolves.
Former Peace Corps medical officer Mae Jemison travels into space on Shuttle Endeavor. She is first Black American woman in space.
Terrorists detonate a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center, killing 6, wounding more than 100, and causing more than 50,000 people to evacuate.
Following a referendum, Eritrea breaks away from Ethiopia to become an independent nation.
AmeriCorps established by the National and Community Service Trust Act, creating a “domestic Peace Corps.”
Carol Bellamy (Guatemala 1963–65) sworn in as Peace Corps director. She is the first Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to hold the post.
European Union becomes reality.
A new constitution takes effect in South Africa, officially ending the apartheid system.
Domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols park a truck bomb beneath the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. At least 168 people are killed in the explosion, including 19 children in a childcare center located in the building.
Peace Corps Volunteers in Romania create Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World).
Mark D. Gearan appointed Peace Corps director by President Clinton.
Peace Corps sends three Volunteers to Antigua to rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Luis — a step toward creation of Crisis Corps.
Crisis Corps officially launched at a Rose Garden ceremony to send Returned Peace Corps Volunteers on short-term, high-impact assignments.
Scientists in Scotland clone Dolly the Sheep — the first cloning of a mammal.
Kofi A. Annan becomes Secretary General of the U.N. He is the first sub-Saharan African to hold the post.
First cohort of Peace Corps Volunteers arrives in South Africa.
In Menlo Park, California, grad students Larry Page and Sergey Brin launch search engine Google.
NATO airstrikes begin against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, aimed at halting actions by Slobodan Milošević’s government against ethnic Albanians, and forcing it to withdraw from Kosovo.
First commercial camera phone introduced.
Mark L. Schneider (El Salvador 1966–68) appointed Peace Corps director by President Clinton.
“A Common Mission: Peace Corps and Foreign Service” is the theme of the October 2008 edition of Foreign Service Journal, with cover illustration by Philippe Béha /i2iart.com. Courtesy American Foreign Service Association
International Space Station opens.
It is estimated that some 36 million people worldwide are infected with the HIV virus.
High Atlas Foundation established in Morocco by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to further sustainable development.
Terrorists attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Peace Corps recruiting office in Building 6 of WTC is destroyed when the Twin Towers collapse. Volunteers will be evacuated from Kyrgyz Republic, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
A U.S.-led coalition begins a bombing campaign against Afghanistan and later begins a ground offensive.
Gaddi H. Vasquez appointed Peace Corps director by President George W. Bush. He is the first Hispanic American to serve as director.
The Peace Corps and National Peace Corps Association are nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
U.S. invades Iraq; second Gulf War begins.
Sequence mapping of the human genome is completed.
The Peace Corps commits an additional 1,000 Volunteers to fight HIV/AIDS.
The Museum of the Peace Corps Experience project is introduced at the National Peace Corps Association Group Leaders annual meeting in Portland, Oregon.
Disputed parliamentary elections in nation of Georgia lead to the Rose Revolution.
Disputed presidential elections in Ukraine lead to the Orange Revolution.
A massive earthquake under the Indian Ocean triggers a tsunami, killing more than 200,000. Peace Corps Response Volunteers assist with relief efforts in several nations.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. In the aftermath, Peace Corps Response Volunteers are deployed domestically for the first time to assist with relief efforts.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf becomes the first African woman to lead an African nation when she is elected president of Liberia.
Atlas Corps founded to bring individuals on service fellowships to the U.S., earning reputation as a “reverse Peace Corps.”
The International Astronomical Union demotes Pluto to the status of dwarf planet.
Ronald A. Tschetter (India 1966–68) sworn in as Peace Corps director.
Apple debuts the iPhone.
Peace Corps Prep program inaugurated at select U.S. colleges.
Crisis Corps is renamed Peace Corps Response — a name that better captures the broad range of assignments Volunteers are undertaking.
Peace Corps returns to Liberia after an absence of nearly two decades.
Barack Obama inaugurated president. National Peace Corps Association leads returned Volunteers in the inaugural parade.
After leaving Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, Peace Corps Volunteers return to begin working in secondary education and HIV/AIDS education and prevention.
Kate Puzey, a Volunteer in Benin, is murdered after reporting the sexual abuse of girls within her community by a Peace Corps staff member.
Joseph Acaba (Dominican Republic 1994–96) becomes first returned Volunteer to serve as a NASA astronaut, making his first trip to space aboard Shuttle Discovery.
Aaron S. Williams (Dominican Republic 1967–70) sworn in as Peace Corps director.
Fiftieth anniversary project, launched thanks to a letter from Congressman John Garamendi (Ethiopia 1966–68) to Librarian of Congress James Billington. Among those thanked: Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962–64) of Peace Corps Writers. Courtesy Library of Congress
Total number of Peace Corps Volunteers who have served surpasses 200,000.
National Peace Corps Association introduces new logo.
A 7.0 magnitude earthquake hits Haiti, killing some 200,000.
Explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling rig kills 11 people and spills more than 3 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Peace Corps HQ begins presenting the Franklin H. Williams Award, named for an early agency leader. Established by the New York recruiting office in 1999, the award recognizes ethnically diverse returned Volunteers committed to promoting understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. The agency reopens programs in Colombia, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone.
ABC news program “20/20” airs “Peace Corps: A Trust Betrayed,” telling the story of Kate Puzey.
Peace Corps releases 50th-anniversary commemorative print by artist Shepard Fairey.
President Obama signs the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act into law.
CorpsAfrica is launched by RPCV Liz Fanning to give young Africans the opportunity to work with communities in a Peace Corps–style program.
Egypt’s first competitive presidential election. Mohamed Morsi wins. After months of protests, he is overthrown in a coup in July 2013.
RPCV and U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens killed in attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Volunteer Nick Castle dies in China after failing to receive adequate medical care; his parents call for Peace Corps reform and begin advocacy work that continues to this day.
Peace Corps approves assignments for same-sex partners.
Nelson Mandela dies.
Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. Russia seizes Crimea and then backs separatist fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Carrie Hessler-Radelet (Western Samoa 1982–83) appointed Peace Corps director by President Obama.
Ebola sweeps across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, eventually killing 11,000 people. Peace Corps evacuates Volunteers in August. Peace Corps staff in Guinea step up to play an instrumental role in contact tracing and training.
Malala Yousafzai wins Nobel Peace Prize.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama announce Let Girls Learn, an initiative to expand access to education for girls around the world. Peace Corps begins a close collaboration with the First Lady to address barriers to education for girls.
U.S. Supreme Court rules same-sex marriage is legal.
Peace Corps receives 23,000 applications during the fiscal year, breaking 40-year record.
Terror attacks in Paris kill 130, wound 494. ISIS claims responsibility.
Peace Corps logo gets a makeover, alongside a refreshed brand platform and new website.
#MeToo movement gains prominence after widespread sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
Volunteer Bernice Heiderman, serving in Comoros, dies due to undiagnosed malaria. As her story is told, it raises hard questions about how Volunteer illness is handled during service.
Dr. Josephine (Jody) K. Olsen (Tunisia 1966–68) is sworn in as Peace Corps director.
President Trump signs the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act into law. Key provisions: strengthening criteria for hiring overseas medical officers, and supporting Volunteers victimized by sexual assault or other forms of violence.
National Peace Corps Association marks its 40th anniversary.
“A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps” documentary premieres at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Peace Corps announces the “graduation” of the program in China.
World Health Organization declares COVID-19 pandemic.
In an unprecedented decision, all Peace Corps Volunteers are evacuated from around the world because of COVID-19.
Killing of George Floyd sparks national and then global protests against racial injustice.
Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen announces Peace Corps program to launch in Viet Nam in 2022.
National Peace Corps Association hosts town halls and ideas summit as part of Peace Corps Connect to the Future. This results in a report on how to reimagine, retool, and reshape the Peace Corps for a changed world.
Peace Corps launches Virtual Service Pilot program for evacuated Volunteers to continue working with countries where they were serving.
A violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol attempts to stop the certification of the presidential election.
Carol Spahn (Romania 1994–96) assumes responsibilities as acting director of the Peace Corps.
Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021 introduced by Rep. John Garamendi (Ethiopia 1966–68). It’s the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in decades.
Peace Corps deploys Response Volunteers with FEMA at community vaccination centers to fight COVID-19 — only the second time they have served domestically. Staff who continue to serve at posts around the world also partner in efforts to fight COVID-19.
Last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, after two decades of fighting.
NPCA hosts 60th-anniversary Peace Corps Connect. The theme: “Mobilizing for a Lifetime of Service and Impact.”
Volunteers are invited to return to service in five countries.
Peace Corps Place, new headquarters for National Peace Corps Association, to open in Truxton Circle neighborhood in Washington, D.C., providing a home for the Peace Corps community with a café and event space.
PEACE CORPS BEGINNINGS: COUNTRY BY COUNTRY
And year by year — beginning in August 1961, and looking toward plans in 2022.
1961 | Chile, Colombia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, St. Lucia, Tanganyika (now Tanzania)
1962 | Afghanistan, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Iran, Jamaica, Liberia, Malaysia, Nepal, Niger, Peru, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Venezuela
1963 | Costa Rica, Gabon, Guatemala, Guinea, Indonesia, Malawi, Morocco, Panama, Uruguay
1964 | Kenya, Uganda
1966 | Botswana, Chad, Grenada, Guyana, Republic of Korea, Libya, Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of Palau, Paraguay, St. Kitts and Nevis
1967 | Antigua and Barbuda, Burkina Faso, Dominica, The Gambia, Lesotho, Mauritania, Samoa, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tonga
1968 | Barbados, Benin, Fiji, Nicaragua
1969 | Mauritius, Swaziland (now Eswatini)
1970 | Malta, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo)
1971 | Mali, Solomon Islands
1972 | Central African Republic (CAR)
1973 | Oman, Yemen
1974 | Bahrain, Kiribati, Montserrat, Seychelles
1975 | Rwanda
1977 | Tuvalu
1980 | Anguilla, Turks and Caicos
1981 | Papua New Guinea
1982 | Cook Islands, Haiti
1983 | Burundi
1984 | Sudan
1986 | Marshall Islands
1988 | Cape Verde, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau
1990 | Czechoslovakia (now Czechia and Slovakia), Hungary, Namibia, Poland, São Tomé and Príncipe, Vanuatu
1991 | Bulgaria, Republic of the Congo, Mongolia, Romania, Zimbabwe
1992 | Albania, Argentina, Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan
1993 | China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Madagascar, Moldova, Turkmenistan
1994 | Niue, Zambia
1995 | Eritrea, Suriname
1996 | Macedonia (now North Macedonia)
1997 | Jordan, South Africa
1998 | Bangladesh, Mozambique
2000 | Bosnia and Herzegovina
2001 | Georgia
2002 | Timor-Leste
2003 | Azerbaijan
2004 | Mexico
2007 | Cambodia
2014 | Kosovo
2016 | Myanmar
2020 | Montenegro
2022 | Viet Nam
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 12, 2022 at 8:45 a.m. to correct spelling.
Comments or suggestions? Write us. | Story updated December 29, 2021 at 5:10 PM.
Peace Corps beginnings — with Bill Josephson, Bill Moyers, Joe Kennedy III, and Marieme Foote see more
When President John F. Kennedy signed the Peace Corps Act into law, it permanently established the Peace Corps as an independent agency. But forging the legislation and getting it through Congress didn’t happen on their own. We take a look at those beginnings and share some stories few have heard. And we look ahead to what the Peace Corps must become.
A conversation with Bill Josephson, Bill Moyers, Joe Kennedy III, and Marieme Foote
The legislation that established the Peace Corps on a permanent basis, the Peace Corps Act, was signed by President John F. Kennedy in an Oval Office ceremony at 9:45 a.m. on September 22, 1961. On the day JFK signed the act, three groups of Volunteers were already in their countries of service: Colombia, Ghana, and St. Lucia.
To mark the 60th anniversary of the signing, National Peace Corps Association hosted a conversation with two key figures in the establishment of the Peace Corps — and one Volunteer who was evacuated in 2020, and whose commitment to the ideas and ideals of the organization points to the Peace Corps of the future. The conversation was moderated by Joe Kennedy III — JFK’s great-nephew and himself a returned Volunteer who, while he served in Congress, championed the creation of the Peace Corps Commemorative, which will establish a place in the heart of the nation’s capital to symbolize what the Peace Corps represents.
Here are edited excerpts. You can also listen to the conversation on Spotify.
Co-architect of the Peace Corps and Founding Counsel for the agency
Photo by Rowland Scherman
Journalist and first Associate Director of the Peace Corps
Photo by Yoichi Okamoto / LBJ Library
Joe Kennedy III
Former Congressman and Peace Corps Volunteer in Dominican Republic 2004–06
Photo courtesy Joe Kennedy III
Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin 2018–20; Donald Payne Fellow at Georgetown University
Photo courtesy Marieme Foote
“The Towering Task”
Joe Kennedy III: Walk us through those early days — taking an idea, translating that into legislation, getting members of Congress around it.
Bill Josephson: My colleague Warren W. Wiggins said that we needed to make an impact with this administration. The Peace Corps was what everyone asked us for our opinion about. The result was the writing over Christmas and New Year’s of 1960–61 the memo “The Towering Task,” and the distribution of it to as many people as we could find who would read it, including Harris Wofford. Harris describes walking into Sargent Shriver’s office, carrying “The Towering Task” and saying to Sarge this is something he ought to read — only to find Sarge was already reading it.
Joe Kennedy III: There’s a story I’ve heard about getting the bill signed into law that involves you and a number of senators in a cloakroom, some chicken scratch on a piece of paper, a clerk to type something up, a couple of taxicabs … And lo and behold, the Peace Corps was born.
Bill Josephson: Roger Kuhn was principal draftsperson of the Peace Corps Act. I was an important kibitzer and the upfront person in House and Senate hearings. The bill went to the Hill without a lot of changes from the White House or the budget division, and was introduced by Hubert Humphrey in the Senate and the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Doc Morgan of Pennsylvania. This was a genuine bipartisan effort. We enjoyed strong support from Republicans. Two women on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Marguerite Stitt Church of Illinois and Elizabeth Bolton of Ohio — strong, traditional Republicans — were amazingly persuasive supporters of the Peace Corps.
This was a genuine bipartisan effort … Two women on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Marguerite Stitt Church of Illinois and Elizabeth Bolton of Ohio — strong, traditional Republicans — were amazingly persuasive supporters of the Peace Corps.
Joe Kennedy III: Tell us how you were able to get such a big idea through Congress. At the moment, ideas are difficult to get through, to put it mildly.
Bill Moyers: There remains to this day, 60 years later, a certain vibrancy among people who were involved in the Peace Corps. It has really been a marvelous moment in American history. Lord knows so many people had talked about something like this from the beginning!
In 1950, Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers, proposed a kind of tech corps of young people who would go abroad. Maurice Albertson, who had done pioneering work in mechanics and hydraulics, wrote a draft of a Point Four youth program. Hubert Humphrey introduced the first bill in 1957. He said he got no enthusiasm. Reverend James Robinson of Crossroads Africa founded that program with an eye that could have well been on a future Peace Corps. This was an American idea that rose among the ranks of people who did not hesitate to call themselves idealists but knew how to pass bills in Congress; that made a big difference.
Sarge gave me the job of associate director for public affairs. I had three portfolios: one, Congressional relations; two, public affairs — news, press, and advertising; and three, recruiting. When Bill Josephson and Warren Wiggins and those who helped them drafted the legislation, they sent Sarge and me up to the Hill to sell it. We had to persuade a Congress that contained many advocates for the Peace Corps — but also some real opponents.
We first called on a handful of friends: Hubert Humphrey and Congressman Henry Reuss from Wisconsin, who had proposed a Peace Corps along with Humphrey. We wanted our friends to stand and fight for us. As Sarge and I prowled Capitol Hill, we decided to call on every member of Congress. I think we made it, with the exception of one.
He was literally known as “Otto the Terrible” because he was so opposed to any foreign aid, except that which took a brickbat and tried to hit a communist over the head. He called the Peace Corps a “kiddie corps.”
We went to known adversaries of the Peace Corps — those who had declared opposition before they knew what it was. One was a congressman born in 1916, Otto Passman. He was literally known as “Otto the Terrible” because he was so opposed to any foreign aid, except that which took a brickbat and tried to hit a communist over the head. He called the Peace Corps a “kiddie corps.” He got Congressman H.R. Gross, an influential conservative from Iowa, on his side, and he called it a utopian playground.
I went first to see Otto Passman, because I was from the South. He was from a deeply Southern and segregationist district in Louisiana, not far from my hometown across the Texas border. I got my congressman, populist Wright Patman of East Texas, to call Otto the Terrible and say he was sending this kid over to see him and say, “Just listen to him.” I went over and Passman said, “What do you want to talk to me about?” I said, “I just am here to arrange a meeting with the future director of the Peace Corps.” “I don’t want to see any future director of the Peace Corps. I just want to veto the thing when it comes to my desk.” I said, “Don’t you want to sit down with the president’s brother-in-law and talk about this?” There was silence. He said, “The president’s brother-in-law?” I said, “Yes, Sargent Shriver, who is John Kennedy’s brother-in-law, married to Eunice, is going to head the Peace Corps, and he would like to come see you.”
That was an appeal to Otto the Terrible. He saw Shriver, and Shriver knew instantly what to talk about, because we had done our homework. While he didn’t want to hear about the Peace Corps, we wanted to talk to him about what it meant to be an entrepreneur. Sarge walked in and started talking to the Congressman about how he had started a business during the Depression selling refrigerators and other hotel and business equipment. Passman said, “How did you know that?” Sarge said, “I used to run the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, and we saw a lot of refrigerators and other things like that pass through. I was just wondering how you managed to do that in the Depression.”
Otto melted a little. He gave us a long visit that day. We probably paid more visits to Otto Passman, chairman of the influential Foreign Relations Funding Committee in the House, than any other Congressman. We never brought him around. But word spread quickly that Sarge had been given the courtesy of extended and frequent visits to Passman, and that turned into a lot of goodwill. When the legislation passed, we got some 90 Republican votes in the House; very few who had stood up and condemned it before they knew anything about it, protested. They didn’t vote for us, but they didn’t fight us tooth and nail. The legislation sailed through the Senate.
There was never a better salesman, never a better idealist at explaining what an ideal is, than Sargent Shriver.
There was never a better salesman, never a better idealist at explaining what an ideal is, than Sargent Shriver. He could adjust very quickly to the mood, interest, and concerns of a member of Congress. We sat down with the member of Congress, and their staff asked questions. By the time it was over, I don’t think there was a program in Washington that had a better aura around it. And we had the young, dynamic president behind us.
The moment: September 22, 1961, President John F. Kennedy (laughing) signs HR 7500, the Peace Corps Bill, in the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C. Looking on (from left): Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island (in back); Director of the Peace Corps, R. Sargent Shriver; Senator Philip A. Hart of Michigan (in back); Representative Edna Kelly of New York; Representative Chester Merrow of New Hampshire; Representative Thomas F. Johnson of Maryland (in back); Representative Clement Zablocki of Wisconsin; Representative Wayne L. Hays of Ohio (partially hidden behind Representative Zablocki); Representative Leslie C. Arends of Illinois (in back, facing right); Representative Roman C. Pucinski of Illinois; Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota; Representative Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts (in back); Representative Thomas E. Morgan of Pennsylvania; Representative Cornelius E. Gallagher of New Jersey; Representative Sidney R. Yates of Illinois. Photo by Abbie Rowe / White House, courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
An important factor: We asked President Kennedy to ask Vice President Lyndon Johnson — for whom I had worked — to be chairman of the Peace Corps Advisory Committee. Johnson had been director of Franklin Roosevelt’s National Youth Program in Texas 1935–37. He had done the best job in the country of all the state directors. Johnson gave us the time we needed when the State Department and the Agency for International Development tried to take over the Peace Corps and turn it into just another box on the bureaucratic chart. Johnson explained patiently to Sarge and me how the bureaucracy worked. He had seen it for 30-some years. “Here’s what you have to watch out for. Here’s how you have to turn the corner without running into somebody.” Two and a half hours later, we knew what to do. We went and talked about preserving the independence of the Peace Corps, which Josephson and Wiggins had said was so essential. Every time we needed help on the Hill, the vice president came through.
During the campaign of 1960, I had served as the liaison between the traveling teams. For Johnson, my job was to coordinate logistics, prepare speeches, answer questions to keep us on track. Every day I was in touch with some member of the traveling Kennedy campaign — most often Kenny O’Donnell, his closest political advisor. When it came time for me to want to go to the Peace Corps after the election, both Kennedy and Johnson said no, because then who would interpret Austin to Boston? I persuaded Ken O’Donnell to persuade President Kennedy to let me go. It’s the best move of my life, and to this day I am deeply indebted to JFK and LBJ.
Bill Josephson: A little known fact: Bill Moyers is the drafter of the first public speech favoring the founding of the Peace Corps, even before the Michigan speech of Kennedy. Johnson gave a speech advocating the creation of the Peace Corps in Lincoln, Nebraska, two weeks before the Michigan moment. The speech was drafted by Bill Moyers. My wife is Nebraskan; she knows about that event.
When Lyndon Johnson read the speech that had been drafted for him he said, “I can’t deliver this stuff. It’s crap.” He said, “Write something stirring.”
Bill Moyers: There was a speech we had received by wire from headquarters in Washington. We were on the plane and had just taken off from Hampton, New York, headed for Lincoln, Nebraska. Johnson said, “I can’t deliver this stuff. It’s crap.” He said, “Write something stirring.” The proposal he made, based on that speech, was called a Youth Corps. I wish I’d used the phrase “Peace Corps,” but that hadn’t occurred to me. But it was a great event — and promptly lost to history.
“You wanted to be independent, you’re independent.”
Joe Kennedy III: I’ve often said there wasn’t a single day when I was serving in Congress that I didn’t draw on my experience as a Volunteer. It wasn’t so much the language skills, speaking Spanish; it was understanding that if you want to bring people together to achieve a common goal, they need to be active participants in that process, and you need to help create the circumstances to allow people to buy in and hear them out. You mentioned trying to keep the agency independent. That issue came up when I was serving in Congress, an effort to try to subsume the Peace Corps within the State Department.
Bill Josephson: One of the arguments was that the State Department and the to-be-transformed International Cooperation Administration — which would become USAID — regarded the Peace Corps as a gem, as opposed to what they did, which did not enjoy anything like broad support, either in Congress or in the nation. Foreign aid was — and to some extent, still is — the stepchild. They coveted the Peace Corps. Sarge and Warren and Bill and I felt that the Peace Corps, to succeed, had not to be any part of the foreign affairs bureaucracy or Cold War programs of the United States. Legislation was the vehicle for independence.
There was a climactic meeting in the White House. I was there. Also present was Ralph Dungan, an important member of the White House staff; and the director of the budget, David Bell. We waited to see the president but didn’t get in. Ralph purported to resolve the issue against the Peace Corps and in favor of the State Department and the foreign aid programs. Bill Moyers then went to the vice president. The vice president had a private meeting with President Kennedy later that day, and persuaded him — in the way that Lyndon Johnson uniquely could persuade people — to make the Peace Corps an independent agency. Ralph called me the next morning to tell me this decision. I said, “Well, I’d like to come over and smoke the pipe of peace with you. We’re going to be working together for a long time.” He said very clearly, “Uh uh. You wanted to be independent, you’re independent. Don’t come running to us when you’re in trouble!”
“Already more than 13,000 Americans have offered their services to the Peace Corps.” President John F. Kennedy delivers remarks after signing HR 7500, the Peace Corps Bill, in the Oval Office, White House, on September 22, 1961. Looking on (from left): Representative Edna Kelly of New York; Representative Clement Zablocki of Wisconsin; Senator Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma (in back); Representative Roman C. Pucinski of Illinois; Representative Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts (in back); Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota; Representative Thomas E. Morgan of Pennsylvania; Representative Cornelius E. Gallagher of New Jersey; Representative Sidney R. Yates of Illinois; Representative Harris B. McDowell of Delaware (in back, in shadow); Senator Clair Engle of California (partially hidden); Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee; unidentified man in back; Senator Jacob Javits of New York; Senator Thomas H. Kuchel of California; Representative John Brademas of Indiana; Senator John A. Carroll of Colorado; Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky; Senator Paul H. Douglas of Illinois; Representative Carl Albert of Oklahoma. Photo by Abbie Rowe / White House, courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Bill Moyers: There is another point to be made — slightly less lofty: You can hardly channel the imagination up an organization chart, nor can the imagination flow downward through an organization chart. Along the way, there are other people charged with responsibilities and duties that cause them to hack away at that passion to reduce it to their grasp. To persuade Congress to support you, go up unencumbered by other people’s mistakes and less desirable thoughts. Make your case, and stand and fall on what you can say about what I, Sargent Shriver, am going to be responsible for — and if you don’t understand this, you can count on me to keep my word to Congress.
Those powerful barons in Congress who opposed the Peace Corps considered us naive, if not harebrained. You couldn’t have sent a 25-year veteran of the bureaucracy to give a tutorial. One morning I took Sarge to have coffee with the vice president. Johnson called me later and said: “The way to sell the Peace Corps is to sell Shriver. They won’t be able to resist him.” And they weren’t. Most were dazzled to be courted by the president’s charismatic brother-in-law, not some long-standing official from the bureaucracy.
I saw jaded politicians begin to pay attention as Sarge talked about America’s revolutionary ideas and our mission to carry them out in the world as down to earth, believable: card-carrying idealists who can show how freedom is served by a teacher in a classroom, clean water from a pump in the village square.
I’m not damning the bureaucracy. It is central to the running of our government. And what turned the tide was not Sarge’s glamour but his passion. I saw jaded politicians begin to pay attention as Sarge talked about America’s revolutionary ideas and our mission to carry them out in the world as down to earth, believable: card-carrying idealists who can show how freedom is served by a teacher in a classroom, clean water from a pump in the village square.
One old unreconstructed racist, whose chairmanship of a key subcommittee could have meant life or death for our appropriation, was aghast that young Americans living and working abroad under official auspices might not only practice miscegenation but bring it home with them. Only Shriver could answer that — not a schedule C appointee in the Agency for International Development. Because when that congressman made the case that if Volunteers went abroad, they’d come back and marry interracially, Sarge never blinked. He said, “Congressman, surely you can trust young Americans to do abroad exactly what they would do back in your district in Louisiana.” That left the man scratching his head. When I returned later, for a follow-up call, his secretary told me he had confessed, “I was had.”
You can’t get that from — bless their hearts — career people who’ve had so much drained from them by compromise over the years. It took this man making the case and saying, “Believe in me, because I believe in the Peace Corps.”
John F. Kennedy’s remarks on signing the Peace Corps Act. Courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
We carry two passports.
Joe Kennedy III: I’m struck not only by the power of the idea but the relentlessness and optimism its champions demonstrated. Given your experience in the Peace Corps’ conception, implementation, and development — and looking back over these 60 years — what does the Peace Corps mean to you?
Bill Josephson: The essence of the Peace Corps is service. That’s a concept we emphasized over and over. You could see it in the reaction of the University of Michigan students to President Kennedy’s off-the-cuff speech. You could see it in the flow of applications that followed the announcement of the Peace Corps. You can see it in what more than 250,000 Volunteers did in service, and continue to do in serving those ideals after their Peace Corps service.
Relieve misery, nurture minds, inspire others, crack open a little further the gates long shut by ignorance, bigotry, or just sheer misunderstanding.
Bill Moyers: What I take away is that America must always try to put its best foot forward. We will never know the prints it leaves — but we know that we still are trying as human beings to do our best in the world as patriots and as citizens of the world.
Sarge taught me that we carry two passports: one grounded in the soil of American democracy, which he served five years in the navy to defend; another as a global citizen. He believed that seeing a person could be as important as any institution — could relieve misery, could nurture minds, inspire others, and could crack open a little further the gates long shut by ignorance, bigotry, or just sheer misunderstanding. When I was his deputy, he gave me a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Promise and highlighted this paragraph: “Human beings don’t live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value there is to human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than a blink of an eye? I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye itself is nothing. The span of life is nothing; but the man or woman who lives that span, they are something. They can fill that tiny span with memory so that its quality is immeasurable.”
I believe almost every Peace Corps Volunteer has discovered that about him or herself. And what they did was immeasurable, and unforgettable.
All those years later, he just wanted to pass along that gratitude. He never asked my name, where I was from, what I was doing. He just wanted to take a moment to credit that individual.
Joe Kennedy III: When somebody asks me what Peace Corps service is all about, I often share the story of being on an overcrowded bus on my way back into Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, when I got a tap on my shoulder. An older gentleman asked if I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was surprised and asked how he knew. He looked at me like I was crazy. Why else would I possibly be in the back of a crowded bus in the Dominican Republic? And he said, Thank you. Because when he was a little boy, there was another Volunteer sent to his village who put in a pipe to provide clean water to his community. He never got a chance, as a child, to be able to say thank you. All those years later, he just wanted to pass along that gratitude. He never asked my name, where I was from, what I was doing. He just wanted to take a moment to credit that individual. That matters.
New and enduring
Joe Kennedy III: We talked about the past and the roots of the Peace Corps. One of my mentors, Senator Chris Dodd, talked about the early days of the Peace Corps and getting dropped down in the Dominican Republic himself and picked up two years later. The world has changed now that everybody has a smartphone.
Marieme Foote: The Peace Corps was created on the heels of the civil rights movement. So much has changed in the past 60 years. My father, Mel Foote, served in Ethiopia in the 1970s. He had to drive to the village next door, hours away, to place a phone call at a post office to speak with his parents — maybe five times in his service. I had 4G in my village. I could stream Netflix. Look at the world around us — and conversations around racial justice, equity, class — and how this should affect the Peace Corps. These things are all connected. We have more Volunteers coming from diverse backgrounds, who are first generation, whose parents were served by Peace Corps Volunteers. My mother was served by Peace Corps Volunteers in Senegal. You see also a need for the Peace Corps itself to change; it can’t remain the same as it was in the ’60s. That’s a good thing. It was created as a radical, beautiful concept. National Peace Corps Association put out the report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” last year, which brought out important issues that Volunteers today are facing, and ways we can support Volunteers and better serve communities. Those are questions we need to ask.
Look at the world around us — and conversations around racial justice, equity, class — and how this should affect the Peace Corps. These things are all connected.
Joe Kennedy III: In the early 2000s, I had to get on a bus to go into town to check email and such — but I was still in more or less consistent contact with my family; they could call a cellphone that worked. That constant flow of communication creates challenges, obviously. It also creates enormous opportunities when looking at climate change and the need to make changes and investments at the hyperlocal level. There’s an opportunity to leapfrog technologies and help make a dramatic impact, whether it’s climate resiliency, access to water, electricity, connectedness. There’s a huge opportunity for the Peace Corps as an organization to start to think: How do we leverage those opportunities that come with technology? How do we think through opportunities for partnerships — when obviously with COVID, we’ve seen that impacts around global health are hugely consequential? How can we leverage people on the ground in these communities, with the backing of the people of the United States, to make a long-term, sustained impact?
Marieme Foote: In my village, a lot of people didn’t have access to electricity; solar panels and renewable energy changed that. Among Volunteers I know, everyone has WhatsApp; they’re able to continue conversations overseas from the U.S., and a lot are working on projects with their communities and raising funds — creating educational centers, building resources for communities — all through the internet.
Joe Kennedy III: I’m struck by that, particularly when we talk about the Third Goal of the Peace Corps. Peace Corps can be leveraged to make an impact in communities overseas. But this also means a Volunteer coming home, engaging in teaching or an after-school program, being able to create a connection with a community the entire world away. We’ve all run into that challenge of somebody saying, “Oh, you just came out of the Peace Corps. How was it?” As if you could sum up the last two years of your life in 20 seconds. This enables us to actually be able to show those connections and tell that story in a much more powerful way. Given your time in Benin, your commitment to the ideals that Peace Corps hopes to help ignite in people, and your future with the U.S. Foreign Service: What does the Peace Corps mean to you?
Marieme Foote: Peace Corps, at its heart — as Bill Josephson said — is about wanting to serve and be with people. The people-to-people connection is the best part of Peace Corps. I still talk to my host family; I hope they’ll be my family forever. It has built some beautiful relationships in my life. Finding new ways to make this experience something all Americans can do, that everyone around the world can partake in and celebrate, is important in bridging connections. How we can make this experience accessible to this new generation — that’s my question going forward.
For All They’ve Done: Recognition and Thanks to Bill Josephson and Bill Moyers
As part of the Mark the Moment celebration, National Peace Corps Association presented Bill Josephson and Bill Moyers with special recognition for their work. In presenting the tokens of recognition, NPCA Board Chair Maricarmen Smith-Martinez noted, “Peace Corps wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for your efforts and the collaboration of others 60 years ago. And the greatest tribute, no doubt, is the impact of the 240,000 Volunteers who have served in every part of the world, an impact that is both immeasurable and unforgettable.”
The Peace Corps Act: first page and last, with JFK’s signature. Document courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
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Story updated December 22, 2021 at 3 PM.