Where are we going? Where have we gone? Some answers lie within the pages of this magazine. see more
Sixty years of Peace Corps. Volunteers returning to service. And a first for this magazine.
Illustration by Tim O’Brien
By Steven Boyd Saum
A year ago the cover of WorldView bore the image of a dove encaged by a COVID-like molecule and asked: “What’s the role of Peace Corps now?” It’s a question we’re still seeking to answer. There were then, as now, no Volunteers in the field — though staff in posts across the globe were sustaining connections with communities. And tens of thousands of returned Volunteers, whether they had been abruptly evacuated because of the pandemic or had served decades before in countries where Peace Corps programs no longer existed, were working as best they knew how to nurture the flame of peace and friendship in a dark time.
A snapshot — from an ad that ran four decades ago: Statue of Liberty, arm pointed toward an exit stage right, and a suggestion for how to make America a better place: Leave the country. Only part of the journey, that. “Maybe it’s not just what you do in the Peace Corps that counts. But what you do when you get back.”
If you return stateside, that is. Get back. Because, of course, central to the imperative for launching this audacious Peace Corps mission 60 years ago was the fact that this nation needed to do better when it came to understanding people and communities around the world: speaking languages, listening, and grasping on a truly human level how the best of intentions — not to mention policies conceived in cynicism or indifference to suffering — might exact a terrible cost. And that understanding should inform the work of diplomats and those who serve as hands-on workers and leaders alike in diplomacy and education, alleviating poverty and bolstering public health, and so much more.
GET BACK. A phrase zipping around the zeitgeist these days, and not only thanks to an epic Beatles documentary. Get back to a sense of common purpose, a sense that service might unite us and enable us to better address the most daunting problems facing our planet. That’s one of the conversations taking place in this edition.
Get back to a sense of common purpose, a sense that service might unite us and enable us to better address the most daunting problems facing our planet.
So is this: Peace Corps Volunteers are about to get back into service in countries around the world. Whatever title they carry, related to education or the environment or public health, all will have a role to play when it comes to fighting COVID-19. After the unprecedented evacuation, everything will be different. But the work of Volunteers and Peace Corps staff in battling smallpox and Ebola and HIV/AIDS over the decades means this is not entirely uncharted territory. And the person-to-person connections that define the Peace Corps experience couldn’t be more important.
Which is one more reason we’re heartened that this fall, WorldView brought home top honors in the FOLIO Awards, honoring magazine editorial and design excellence. The aforementioned cover of the Fall 2020 edition, illustrated by David Plunkert, earned an OZZIE design award for best cover. And, in an award that recognizes the work of dozens of contributors, WorldView earned an EDDIE award for editorial excellence for a series of articles in the Summer 2020 edition. Telling the stories of Peace Corps Volunteers who were evacuated from around the world in 2020, the series captures the experiences of Volunteers and the communities in which they were serving, and the unfinished business left behind.
These awards mark the first time that this magazine — published for the Peace Corps community for more than three decades — has earned such recognition. The awards, presented on October 14 at the FOLIO gala in New York City, have honored top work in publishing for more than a quarter century and draw competition from across the United States and internationally. It’s rewarding to see outstanding work recognized. Even more important is amplifying the voices of the Peace Corps community in this unprecedented time.
SO HERE WE ARE, with this special 60th anniversary edition. Even before the pandemic hit, it hardly seemed appropriate to serve up a self-congratulatory feast of nostalgia. Too much is happening, and too much on the line.
Let’s end, then, with beginnings: the cover of this magazine. An iconic portrait of John F. Kennedy from illustrator Tim O’Brien. Six decades after this Peace Corps endeavor took flight, we ask: Where are we going? Where have we gone?
Some answers lie within the print and digital pages of this magazine. So many more have yet to be written.
This note appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96. Write him.
Diversity is only a demographic concept, with an emphasis on numbers see more
Part of the discussion on “Building a Community of Black RPCVs: Recruitment Challenges and Opportunities”
Photo courtesy Hermence Matsotsa-Cross
By Hermence Matsotsa-Cross
Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo 1999–2001 | Founder and CEO of Ubuntu Speaks
Below are edited excerpts. Watch the full program here.
My father was a Volunteer in Gabon in the early ’70s, where he met my mother, a Gabonese woman from one village he worked in. So I’m very much the product of Peace Corps. Growing up, I always heard Peace Corps stories; more important was the idea of volunteerism, how important that was, and working with other people to achieve goals.
I wanted to do Peace Corps after high school. My father reminded me that I had to go to college first. When I got to college, I realized that as a kinesthetic learner, four years of sitting in class was too painful. I took a year off to work with an international development organization as a reforestation volunteer in Ecuador.
My senior year I put in my application. They told me I would be going to Uzbekistan. After speaking to my father and the Peace Corps, I said, “Is there a way that I can go back to Africa?” They sent me to Togo, where I became a girl’s education empowerment Volunteer — one of only three African American volunteers in a group of 40-plus.
Training was painful; I knew I stood out because I was Black. I wanted to stand out because I was passionate about the work and being willing to learn from others. Oftentimes, it was, “You can’t be a Volunteer — you’re Black … You’re African, so you can’t go with them.” On a daily basis, I felt excluded. I felt as though Peace Corps was not supporting me. When one of the three Black Americans decided to leave during training, I was heartbroken.
Peace Corps is very much about bringing Americans to a place where they will be challenged, forced to shed misconceptions and acquire a level of cultural intelligence and cultural communication to work with people who are different.
Black Volunteers and Volunteers who are people of color are forced — to a level that white Peace Corps Volunteers may not feel — to describe the diversity that exists in the United States. Not only Volunteers but also staff did not know the history, diversity, and richness that exists within our country that makes us all Americans; therefore it was difficult for them to support us.
I realized that inclusion was essential for me to be able to do my work. I was embraced for being honest about what I didn’t know, about what I wanted to learn. Peace Corps is very much about bringing Americans to a place where they will be challenged, forced to shed misconceptions and acquire a level of cultural intelligence and cultural communication to work with people who are different.
Some ways Peace Corps can help facilitate that understanding is to be honest about what the experience may be, pre-departure: difficulties, challenges — the fact that Peace Corps staff often don’t know how to treat you or communicate with you. There needs to be mentorship for Volunteers, pre-departure and throughout service. The goal is for you to finish your experience and not come home bitter, but feeling this experience is like no other — and that you left footprints in this world to make it a better place.
Diversity is only a demographic concept — this idea that, the more numbers you have, you can say, “We’re diverse.” The effort starts at belonging.
Peace Corps can be a great model for other international organizations seeking to implement the sense of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging — and showcase to the world that we can be one in the sense that “one” means being able to see each other for who we are, and to love and respect each other for that. Diversity is only a demographic concept — this idea that, the more numbers you have, you can say, “We’re diverse.” The effort starts at belonging. There will be more people of color, more African Americans, willing to be part of Peace Corps, or any institution, if they feel they belong.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine. Story updated January 19, 2022.
Hermence Matsotsa-Cross leads work incorporating the South African philosophy of Ubuntu human interconnectedness. Her organization has led projects with private and nonprofit organizations, global health and federal, state and community development programs, including the Peace Corps, CDC, and World Health Organization.
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.
Mark your calendars for March 3, 2022. And watch for news in January. see more
National Peace Corps Association hopes to host in-person meetings as part of Capitol Hill Advocacy Day on March 3, 2022.
This is an opportunity to meet with members of Congress and staff. The last in-person meetings were in March 2020, just days before the Capitol shut down. Health and safety concerns mean we can’t yet confirm in-person meetings in 2022, but NPCA hopes to announce definitive plans in January.
Check back with the NPCA website for updates — or head to our homepage and scroll down to sign up for the NPCA Newsletter.
Diversity in the Peace Corps: It’s over 50 years and we haven’t moved the needle very far. see more
Part of the discussion on “Building a Community of Black RPCVs: Recruitment Challenges and Opportunities”
Photo courtesy Howard Dodson
By Howard Dodson
Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador 1964–67 | Director, Howard University Libraries
I wanted to join the Peace Corps the day Kennedy announced it was going to happen. I was a junior in undergraduate school — first on both sides of my family on the verge of graduating from college. I took the idea home to my parents. My father’s response was: “Let me see if I understand this. You’re going to finish a college degree, go away overseas for $125 a month for two years. What?” I got talked out of it the first time. The second time I decided that’s what I was going to do.
I had read The Ugly American by Lederer and Burdick, about foreign service people working overseas who were, frankly, embarrassing representations of what Americans should be. I knew I could do a better job of representing America than that.
I was offered a job teaching, and I coached a basketball team. I was the only African American in my training group — and one of about three with Peace Corps in Ecuador. But I managed to travel around South America, getting to know people of African descent. It led to my professional training and study of the African diaspora in the world. I hope that there will be opportunities for more African Americans to have meaningful, substantive experiences with peoples of African descent and others around the world, especially in this time when America’s reputation has been somewhat tarnished by our public presence in other parts of the world.
Diversity in the Peace Corps: We haven’t moved the needle very far, both at the level of staffing and Volunteers. So what is wrong with our approach? We continue to do the same things.
Diversity in the Peace Corps: It’s over 50 years that we’ve been in this conversation. We haven’t moved the needle very far, both at the level of staffing and Volunteers. So what is wrong with our approach? We continue to do the same things. I know, from my period as a Volunteer, recruiting officer, director of minority recruitment, and training officer: What we call structural racism was present in Peace Corps from day one. The solution was find three or four more people so we don’t look bad. That doesn’t solve the problem. Because of the transient nature of people’s engagement with Peace Corps as an institution, you spend two years and what you’ve gained is gone; whatever was working has not been re-created in the structure.
There were assumptions about who made good Volunteers, what you look for — and they don’t have anything to do with Black people. The diversity and inclusion framework is at the center of public conversations now. I think it gets in the way of finding real answers, because nine times out of ten they’re looking for racial representation rather than a systemic problem solver. Simply putting some Black faces in places does not change any damn thing.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Howard Dodson is the director emeritus of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which he led for 27 years.
Diversity is only a demographic concept. The effort starts at belonging. see more
Part of the discussion on “Building a Community of Black RPCVs: Recruitment Challenges and Opportunities”
Photo courtesy Sia Barbara Kamara
By Sia Barbara Kamara
Peace Corps Volunteer Liberia 1963–65 | Educational Consultant
I live in Washington, D.C. But I grew up in what would be considered public housing in North Carolina. I graduated from Johnson C. Smith University, a historically Black college. The Peace Corps recruiter came to campus just before graduation. I said, Yes, if I can go to Africa. I graduated with a degree in mathematics and physics, and a minor in economics. My goal was to be a scientist.
When I went to Liberia, my parents were very supportive. They always had African students at my college come home and visit. During my time in Peace Corps, when so many African countries obtained independence, every time a country changed its name, they got a new atlas. They sent Ebony magazines to me. I was way up-country, and there were four African American Volunteers in my group; by the time that magazine reached me, it was all dog-eared, because people along the way would read it.
I was a teacher and worked with young women; we created a track team, and they went on to be national champions. As a Volunteer, I had been treated like an African queen; people welcomed the Black American. But they said, “We don’t let foreigners teach below third grade.” That’s when children learn about their own culture, and they learn it from people around them. Eventually they did allow me to do it.
A life of learning: Sia Barbara Kamara with a student in Liberia, where she served with the Peace Corps. She now advises the Ministry of Education of Liberia. Photo courtesy Friends of Liberia
When I returned to the States, I served as a Peace Corps recruiter in the Northeast. Sargent Shriver would have me lead sometimes, because he thought that it was important for people of color to be seen in leadership positions. Then I served on the team recruiting at historically Black colleges. I left to become an intern in a program organized by the wife of a former Peace Corps country director in Nigeria, helping historically Black colleges obtain resources. I wrote grants to expand an early childhood program. I knew little about what I was doing, but Peace Corps gave me the courage to do almost anything. I worked with a superintendent of schools and helped organize a master’s program for African Americans to obtain degrees in early childhood education. I had the opportunity to visit early childhood programs in every Southern state and document what they were doing. I presented a paper and met the president and dean of Bank Street College in New York. They asked, “Where did you get your master’s in early childhood?” I said, “I don’t have one.” They said, “You’re enrolled.”
The president and dean of Bank Street College in New York asked, “Where did you get your master’s in early childhood?” I said, “I don’t have one.” They said, “You’re enrolled.”
I went on to work in North Carolina, responsible for an eight-state Head Start training program. Then I went to work for the governor of North Carolina. President Carter asked me to come work as an associate commissioner in the Department of Health and Human Services, responsible for the national Head Start program, the Appalachian Regional Commission child development programs, childcare regulations, and research and demonstration programs. Then I worked for four mayors in Washington, D.C., to help transform the early childhood system. For the last 10 years, I have been a consultant in early childhood to the Ministry of Education in Liberia. I’ve returned to that place where I got my start, working in Africa.
Early childhood educational center: Sia Barbara Kamara, right, and a sign announcing the work of a center named for her. Photo courtesy Sia Barbara Kamara
When I think about current and returned Volunteers, many need support — networking opportunities, validation, mentoring. It’s important that we continue to provide these during training and reentry, and as people are in service.
People in Liberia have the skill, knowledge, will, and commitment to do for their own country. We can help identify funding opportunities, and be a mentor and coach.
I’m very active in our Friends of Liberia group. However, I’m the only African American in our education work group. We have been able to focus on building human capacity to help groups obtain the resources and background and know-how they need to sustain programs. People there have the skill, knowledge, will, and commitment to do for their own country. We can help identify funding opportunities, and be a mentor and coach.
Going forward, Peace Corps needs to understand what Volunteers are experiencing during training or when they go out. I had spent four years going to jail as part of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. When we were undergoing Peace Corps training in Syracuse, New York, they didn’t want us to go and participate in a march. That was a part of my DNA. It went all the way to Washington for Sargent Shriver to have to make a decision. We marched together.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
Sia Barbara Ferguson Kamara received the Peace Corps Franklin H. Williams Award for Distinguished Service in 2012. At Head Start, she managed a budget of approximately $1 billion. When she started, there were 100,000 children in the program; it grew to serve 122 million under her watch.
A Life-Altering Detour — And a Summer Camp Project That Became Part of National Educational Curriculum in JordanThey wanted to understand the world through action, and to serve. It changed their lives. see more
We wanted to understand the world through action, and we wanted to serve. That changed the path of my life.
By Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Photo: Students in Jordan work with Shaylyn Romney Garrett on critical thinking skills and activities — a summer project they launched that turned into a national initiative. Courtesy Shaylyn Romney Garrett
My husband, James, and I had been married for a little over a year. We were on track to create careers as academics — he in psychology, me sociology, anthropology. We love to study the world, but we also wanted to be in the world to try and understand it through action. We had wanted to do service together. And we had lived through the Bush years, which for us were really hard, especially watching the destructive influence the U.S. was having in the world.
In thinking about how to serve, we deliberately chose a program sponsored by the U.S. government — to participate in something our government was doing that we really believed in. So we joined the Peace Corps. Anybody who has joined the Peace Corps knows it’s an arduous application process. That gave us a lot of time to sit with that decision!
Brain Camp: Girls in Jordan undertake projects in critical and creative thinking, whyle Shaylyn Romney Garrett and her husband, James, look on. Photo courtesy Shaylyn Romney Garrett
We were ultimately placed in Jordan. I was a TEFL Volunteer, my husband a youth development Volunteer. I taught in a government girls’ school, he in a boys’ youth center. As part of our program, we were required to create a summer camp. We created a camp around critical and creative thinking; that was something that the Ministry of Education was really buzzing about. Particularly Queen Rania, a champion of efforts to transform rote-memorization learning into education for critical thinking. We built an experiential game-and-activity-based critical thinking program called Brain Camp.
It sort of caught fire. We ended up training other Volunteers to do it all over Jordan. By coincidence, we met Queen Rania, because she showed up at a community center where we were putting on a summer camp. She loved what she saw and invited us to partner with her foundation to bring the program to more students.
Power and skill: What started as a project to help students develop critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills also changed the path of Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s life. Photo courtesy Shaylyn Romney Garrett
After our Peace Corps service, we came back to the U.S., founded a 501(c)3 called Think Unlimited, raised enough money to get back to Jordan, and then worked with Queen Rania and the foundation for a year to get the program into public schools and to train local teachers to implement it as an after-school program. Ultimately, we transitioned into working directly with private universities. We ran a two-semester credit-bearing course in multiple universities that was marketed as a critical thinking and social entrepreneurship curriculum. The first semester was a kind of self-exploration journey. In the Middle East, kids aren’t given a lot of opportunity to think about Who am I? What’s my contribution? What am I passionate about? The second semester was all about applying that learning in the world, and how to be a citizen and an active builder of society.
That ended up being a six-year journey — a couple of years in Peace Corps, four more years as private citizens in Jordan. What started as a desire to serve ultimately altered the path of my life, opening up incredible opportunities for service and growth.
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
READ MORE: “We Can Do It! Again!” Shaylyn Romney Garrett on the research that shaped The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again
Lessons from the past in how to become a less polarized country once again see more
The U.S. is profoundly polarized — politically, culturally, socially, and economically. That was true during the Gilded Age, too. Halfway between then and now, John F. Kennedy exhorted his fellow Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you — but what you can do for your country.” So what happened? And how do we turn things around?
From a conversation with Shaylyn Romney Garrett
We Can Do It! image courtesy the National Museum of American History
In The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett offer a sweeping overview of U.S. history from the Gilded Age to the present, tracing how the country was transformed from an “I” society to a “we” society — and then back again.
Earlier this year we caught up with Garrett to talk about this project — which would seem to have a special resonance for the Peace Corps community. The period their data pinpoints as the pinnacle of an American sense of “we are all in this together” is the early 1960s — the same moment that gave birth to the Peace Corps.
Garrett served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan 2009–11. She is a founding contributor at Weave: The Social Fabric Project, founded by David Brooks and housed at the Aspen Institute, and she writes about rebuilding community and connection in a hyper-individualistic world. Here are edited excerpts from her conversation with WorldView editor Steven Boyd Saum.
Origins of The Upswing
A lot of people ask, “How did you come to write a book with Robert Putnam?” In the year 2000, his seminal book Bowling Alone was published. I was taking his seminar on Community in America, his foray into teaching the research behind Bowling Alone. He closes that book with a look at the Progressive Era as a potential template for how to revive communities, associations, and the social capital that he documented as having been lost over the previous half century. I was captivated by the Progressive Era, particularly the settlement movement. Some people are familiar with Jane Addams and Hull House in Chicago. But there were hundreds of settlement houses across the United States. The movement itself — sort of imported from the U.K. — sought to build bridges across lines of difference and, in a sense, offer educated, college-age people a Peace Corps–type experience within the United States. Something like AmeriCorps today.
I wrote an undergraduate thesis advised by Robert Putnam. In the subsequent 20 years, he and I have worked together on multiple projects, the last of which is The Upswing. Bob brought me into the project at a point when he had discovered a remarkable statistical finding that serves as the backbone of the book.
Bowling Alone looked at one aspect of American society — social connectedness, social ties, social cohesion — and asked: What does the trend look like over time? Looking back to roughly the 1960s, Bob saw a marked decline in measures of association, community, and social capital. It was a big finding. But it was a pretty narrow picture. So over the years, Bob started to ask: What was going on with other things — economic inequality, religion?
The Upswing incorporates four different metrics. One is social capital, a measure of how connected people are to one another in society. Another is economic inequality. Another is political polarization. The final one is culture — whether we’re more oriented toward a culture of solidarity versus a culture of individualism. It looks at the last century and then some, roughly 1900 to today. When you track those four metrics over this period, they follow the exact same trajectory. For each individual metric, the century-long trends are widely known. But Bob discovered that what scholars had largely thought of as independent phenomena are actually all part of the same century-long meta-trend — a truly striking finding.
In the early 1900s, we were a very unequal, polarized, disconnected, and narcissistic America. Over time, that turned a corner dramatically — into a multifaceted upswing, where all of those measures started moving in a positive direction for six to seven decades. Then, remarkably, in roughly the same five-year period, all of those disparate metrics turned and went the other direction. All that progress we saw over the first two-thirds of the century was reversed, landing us today in a situation remarkably similar to the one in which Americans were living in the late 1800s or early 1900s; historians call it the Gilded Age.
There are different ways you can interpret that upswing/ downturn story. One is to look at the downturn and say, “We’ve had this fall from grace. We need to make America great again. Let’s turn back the clock and go back to this mid-century America that was so wonderful.” A lot of people, particularly of the generation who lived through that period, have been putting forward that narrative. To a certain extent, that narrative culminated in sort of an ugly way with Trump’s MAGA movement.
“If we’ve been in a situation that is, by hard data, measurably identical to the one that we’re living in today — a multifaceted, deep crisis, in all sorts of areas of our society — if we’ve been here before, but we pulled up and out of it, what lessons can we learn from that period that was a downturn that turned into an upswing?”
That’s not really the story Bob or I wanted to tell about these trends. Much more powerful was to ask: “If we’ve been in a situation that is, by hard data, measurably identical to the one that we’re living in today — a multifaceted, deep crisis, in all sorts of areas of our society — if we’ve been here before, but we pulled up and out of it, what lessons can we learn from that period that was a downturn that turned into an upswing?” That becomes a story of when the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era and set us on this upward course that lasted decades. The book looks at the Progressive Era as an instructive period where we can gain inspiration, ideas, and lessons about what to do and what not to do to bring about another upswing.
ECONOMIC, POLITICAL, SOCIAL, AND CULTURAL TRENDS, 1895–2015. Through the early 1960s, all four metrics swing upward: toward equality, bipartisanship, and a greater sense of the common good. The question: How do we move the metrics in that direction again? Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
I-We-I and the origins of the Peace Corps
We needed a bit of a shorthand to describe this curve — an inverted U curve: Things were bad, then they went up and got better, then they got bad again. Bob was looking for a way to track cultural trends over time — culture is a notoriously difficult thing to measure statistically — and he discovered Ngram, a database of digitized books in the English language that Google has put together. You can put in different words to track their frequency of use over time. If you put in the word “the” over this 125-year period, it would be a flat line. The incidence of the use of “the” has not changed, which makes sense. However, more culturally tied words are used more or less frequently over time, which gives us a clue about what our culture was more or less focused on during different time periods.
When we track the ratio of the first-person pronoun versus the plural pronoun — “I” and “we” — the curve looks exactly like the curve for economic inequality and polarization. Society was very “I” focused; then “we” as a pronoun became much more common during those first two-thirds of the 20th century. Then it flipped at almost the same time as all of these other curves did, to where “I” became a much more common pronoun. We’re talking about pronouns in all kinds of books, not just academic books: gardening books, cooking books, books about traveling. Mainstream culture books. It’s shocking that it really does look like that, I-we-I.
One interesting point about that moment when the Peace Corps was founded: When we look back to the ’60s we can see two more or less simultaneous phenomena. One was very communalistic, very “we” — the founding of the Peace Corps and the Great Society programs, for example. Then there’s the countercultural movement, which was much more focused on personal rights and freedoms. What’s fascinating about the historical narrative underneath the statistical findings of The Upswing is that you see clearly in the ’60s this moment when the “we” gives way to the “I.”
When John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” we often think it was like reveille for a new era. People at the time really felt it that way … like this was a call for the new and greater heights of “we” that America could move toward, including a more global “we,” which the Peace Corps is part of. However, in retrospect, what felt like reveille for a new era actually ended up being more like “Taps” sounding for an era that was closing.
When John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” we often think it was like reveille for a new era. People at the time really felt it that way. Bob Putnam was physically present at that speech and says he felt it zing throughout his entire body — like this was a call for the new and greater heights of “we” that America could move toward, including a more global “we,” which the Peace Corps is part of.
However, in retrospect, what felt like reveille for a new era actually ended up being more like “Taps” sounding for an era that was closing. We went into the ’60s with all of this energy moving toward “we,” but then there were a number of things that turned that energy into a downward trend toward “I” — such that in the 1970s, you get the “Me” Decade, as Tom Wolfe famously called it, on the heels of this president calling not only for a greater sense of “we” in the sense of civil rights, but also that global sense of what kind of influence America could have in a world that was becoming increasingly connected.
In some ways, that was the heyday of something that is now lost. But that heyday was itself the culmination of something that had been building for 60 to 70 years. Often it’s that first piece of the century that we miss. We don’t realize that America wasn’t always that “we”-focused. Quite the contrary. It took quite a while for us to build up to that apogee in American thinking that spawned things like the Peace Corps.
Only the strong survive.
How did an idea like the Peace Corps get into the atmosphere? What were the decades of work and change, and thinking — and change in language — that got us to that point? That story, again, begins back in the Gilded Age — a time, culturally speaking, that was characterized by social Darwinism. Darwin had articulated a theory about the laws that govern the natural world. Much to his chagrin, people in the social sphere began to take those ideas and say, “Survival of the fittest — this is a great way to organize society.” Essentially, society is one giant competition, there are winners and losers, and the devil take the hindmost. It’s the philosophy that spawned the robber barons and horribly exploitative situations that so many Americans — particularly immigrants and women — found themselves in during the Industrial Revolution.
Onto that scene came reformers who began to question the morality of that as an organizing principle. Jane Addams was one moral voice saying, “Something is not right about the exploitative way that we have organized our society. It’s a betrayal of our founding ideals as Americans. It’s also a betrayal of Christian ideals.”
So we began to ask whether we were really being called upon to take care of our most vulnerable, and not just work for the good of the self. That cultural transformation began to take hold. Moral outrage became the reigning narrative; people began to translate outrage into action. It wasn’t just outrage where we wanted to identify all the bad apples and expel them from society. Jane Addams realized that she had become complicit in systems that were exploitative, so she began to work in innovative ways — at the level of the neighborhood, at the level of the tenement — to try and create change. She was working at the level of individual lives, individual families, trying to help them get out of poverty and exploitative employment relationships. Ultimately, her vision became one of changing policies so that it would become illegal for these things to take place, and more social safety nets would be in place.
A lot of the reformers of the Progressive Era created narratives that we describe as “we” narratives. Over time, these really took hold: in policy, politics, economically, culturally, and socially. But there were also ways these didn’t take hold, particularly around issues of race. The “we” that was being built by Progressives was a very racialized “we.” But at the same time, Black Americans were themselves engaged in a very deep effort to build their own “we,” especially as they moved out of the South during the Great Migration — to build a deeply enmeshed society of mutual aid and care that propelled them forward despite the inequality and exclusion that persisted during the 20th century.
Looking back to this period, you might think, “This was this horribly dark moment. How could people have let it get this bad?” But look around; then you say, “Oh no, this same thing is happening again today.” During the Texas power crisis earlier this year, the mayor of one city literally said to his constituents that they were on their own, that “only the strong will survive.” This is the epitome of the “I” moment we’re living in once again as a nation. As extreme as it sounds to talk about the social Darwinism of the Gilded Age, I think that we are living through an absolute and very clear revival of that cultural mindset today.
COMMUNITY VS. INDIVIDUALISM IN AMERICA, 1890–2017. “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Were those words spoken by JFK in 1961 reveille for a new era — or “Taps” for one that was ending? Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Ends and means
Not only was there a cultural self-centeredness in the Gilded Age, but there was also a deep sense of isolation and social fragmentation. So Progressives started all of these association-building initiatives to invent new ways of bringing people together. Paul Harris, founder of the Rotary Club, had moved from a small town in the Northeast to Chicago, and described himself as feeling desperately lonely as a result. So he invited a few other professionals to start getting together for lunch to create community. For him, that was an end — to satisfy his own need for connection.
But over time, a lot of reformers begin to realize that there’s real power in associations. They could do more things together than they could do alone. And as they were able to bring people together from disparate worldviews or across class lines, they built bridges and started weaving a stronger social fabric.
That same phenomenon goes on with the Peace Corps: Association is an end, in the sense of wanting to go out and meet people in another culture, have an experience that’s connected. It becomes a means because Volunteers are able to take what they learn, and those relationships, and bring them back to educate people and knit together a more cohesive world. All the research shows the power of social capital as something that’s not only good in and of itself, but also has all these positive externalities that it brings with it: in terms of the health of democracy, the mental and physical health of the people engaging in relationship. That was something that the Progressives discovered that we could look to today and emulate.
We need new ways of bringing people together to solve our problems. We have to center our efforts on that idea of relationship and connection once again.
What causes the shift?
Can we identify the main culprit behind what’s driving these massive — positive or negative — shifts? That’s the million-dollar question — both in the sense of what caused the upswing and what caused the downturn. But that’s hard to do because we’re looking at scores of data sets. It’s a little bit like looking at a flock of birds in flight: They’re all going one direction, then suddenly they change to a different direction. Which one turned first? Which was the leading edge of that change?
It’s a little easier to do with the upturn. It’s harder with the downturn. However, we do know that economics was a lagging indicator; we didn’t fix the economic inequality first. We actually fixed it last, which is very counterintuitive, particularly to people on the Left; there’s a sense that if we could just fix inequality, then we would love each other again. I think there’s a little of that mindset even in the Peace Corps: If we could just help improve the material lot of people in the developing world, that would bring all these other good things. Of course material well-being is critically important, but what’s fascinating is, the other stuff shifted first — particularly culture, both in the upswing and in the downturn.
Of course material well-being is critically important, but what’s fascinating is, the other stuff shifted first — particularly culture, both in the upswing and in the downturn.
During the upswing, those first two-thirds of the 20th century, we were not very careful in creating a “we” that was welcoming to all different kinds of Americans. It was a “we” that was heavily white, male, upper middle class. And there was a lot of pressure to conform to that ideal. So in the 1950s — a decade before you see this big pivot — you see cultural harbingers, people saying, “I don’t like this conformity that’s coming along with intensifying community.” You see Rebel Without a Cause, The Catcher in the Rye, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — cultural narratives saying there’s a cost to this hyper “we” mentality. That counter-pressure culminated in a kind of “be yourself, don’t worry about any commitments.” The response to hyper-communitarianism became hyper-individualism.
Another harbinger that we can’t fail to mention is race. This highly racialized “we” being built during the first two-thirds of the 20th century essentially meant that the upswing, as great as it was for creating positive change, had knit into it the seeds of its own demise — in the sense that the Progressives were largely racist. They created great programs to address inequality, poverty, and polarization. But they did so while kicking the racial question down the road. As a result, we’ve never really done the work of racial reconciliation. We sort of skipped over that. The New Deal very clearly sacrificed the needs of people of color in the name of progress.
At the peak of this moment — the 1960s, when the Peace Corps was founded and we passed the civil rights legislation — America was ready. Vast majorities of Americans supported the Civil Rights Acts. But the minute racial equality became about more than just laws and regulations, when it became about desegregating neighborhoods and schools, sharing resources with people whom we didn’t have to share them with before, there was a huge white backlash: a very clear “not in my backyard” phenomenon, which to me indicates that we didn’t do the hard work underneath what we were doing legally and politically. It’s hard to say whether the broader societal turn toward “I” precipitated the white backlash, or whether the white backlash fueled the broader turn toward “I.” They were certainly intertwined. It became possible for politicians to exploit white backlash to create a subtly racialized politics with a hyper-individualistic focus. Politicians began to tell Americans it was okay to just look out for number one.
And this translated into an economic mindset that it’s a zero-sum game between growth and equality: You can have equality or you can have growth, but you can’t have both. But look at the first two-thirds of the 20th century: We had high growth and growing equality. Look at material equality between the races and chart that as a ratio: Black Americans were actually doing better at a faster rate than white Americans during this period of high growth. So that idea that you can’t grow the pie and share the pie at the same time is simply false. The opposite was true during 60-odd years of the upswing.
FROM “I” TO “WE” TO “I” IN AMERICAN BOOKS, 1875–2008. First-person pronouns over the years, as tracked through Ngram. Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
If we needed a crisis to unify us, seems like that’s here.
One of the ways in which the 20th century often gets misinterpreted is the idea that we didn’t come together as a nation until the Great Depression and World War II. The Upswing provides a data-based story that shows quite clearly that America’s move toward solidarity did not begin with the Great Depression. It didn’t begin with the New Deal. Or World War II. It began decades earlier, and continued for decades after those acute crises.
What you actually see in the data is a dip, a pause in progress toward “we” during the Roaring Twenties and the 1930s. Then we pull ourselves back into it. Do we need a Great Depression crisis to motivate us? No, we don’t. The Progressives didn’t need it. The crises that motivated them were personal: moral moments of watching terrible things happen to their fellow Americans and feeling appalled at the realization that they had been a part of the systems that made them happen.
That being said, when you look at the American Recovery Plan passed in the spring — that wouldn’t have been possible without the pandemic. The question is whether it’s durable. Many of the policies put in place are historic in addressing the opportunity gap across lines of class and race. But many of those things are set to expire within years. And so the true test is going to be, does that policy change actually represent the manifestation of an underlying cultural and moral change? Or does that policy change represent just a panic in response to this economic crisis? Because 2008 was its own crisis. Did it prompt a new upswing? Absolutely not. We haven’t learned. And so I think a lot of the learning has to happen in our hearts, has to happen in our own sense of morality, and in our own sense of whether we really believe we’re all in this together, or whether that’s just a nice catchphrase that gets us through the crisis and back to business as usual.
INCOME EQUALITY IN THE UNITED STATES, 1913–2014. An important and clearly measurable indicator. But research for The Upswing shows it followed, not led, the other metrics. Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Digital connections are not enough.
One of the reasons that I was motivated to stay in the Middle East after finishing my Peace Corps service, and to continue to build youth programming, was because we were in Jordan when the Arab Spring unfolded. The Arab Spring is a quintessential example of using Twitter to form a modern social movement — but one that’s extremely fragile. There was no organizing underneath to create something new to replace what was torn down. So in many countries, you have a resurgence of autocracy or militarization. That does hark back to: “What are the lessons from the upswing? How do we do it again today?” The biggest thing is that we can’t skip over the power of face-to-face relationship building and grassroots solution building. What I always used to say when I taught youth in Jordan was that we don’t need more revolutionaries, we need more solutionaries. That was what the American Progressives who drove the upswing believed.
We live in a moment where, particularly because of the influence of technology — specifically social media — we have this idea that new ideas for society can scale extremely fast. But unfortunately that skips over the hard work of building local capacity, connections, and relationships — social capital. Look at the Progressive Era: People didn’t just go out into the street and demand that the robber barons be stripped of their posts at these exploitive companies. They did the work of building support for regulations that would hold exploitation in check: trust-busting and consumer protection agencies. And they also put in place a new infrastructure for an economy that had a different underlying moral logic: publicly owned utilities and unionized workplaces and a progressive income tax.
My co-author and I often get asked: “Are we in the upswing yet? When can we expect the upswing to happen?” The hard answer to that is: It depends on us. If we think we’re going to engineer another upswing just by voicing outrage on social media, we’re wrong. We have to use our agency as citizens to build.
One of my heroines is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She was influenced by the work of people like Jane Addams. Day taught that we need to build a new society within the shell of the old. That’s very inspiring as a method. Instead of focusing our energy on tearing down the old, we need to focus on building up the new — ready to step in when the old eats itself alive. It’s certainly possible that our hyper-individualism and eroding social trust will create a collapse of institutions. We’ve seen some of that with the pandemic. What’s going to rise up to replace those defunct institutions? Answering that question with action is where the work of the upswing really happens.
The pandemic has taught us that digital connections are not enough — for either our own human needs or the needs of society. For a long time, we’ve allowed ourselves to believe the fiction that it was okay that we were letting our social fabric fall apart in the face-to-face world, because there was this other online world that was sort of going to magically replace that. But then due to the pandemic we all had to do Zoom Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we realized we need other people in the flesh, not just on a screen. It actually gives me hope that we’re starting to realize it is time to reinvest in face-to-face connection.
There are a lot of really good social innovators out there working to bring people together in physical spaces to work together on projects. That’s the other piece of this in the Peace Corps: One thing you learn quickly as a Volunteer is that the best way to build bridges is co-creating, working together on a project that everyone cares about. Folks who are pursuing initiatives like that in the United States give me a lot of hope.
I am often asked what would be my policy prescription for the administration that would help move us toward an upswing. National service is my absolute go-to answer.
Shaylyn Romney Garrett. Photo courtesy the author
But what keeps me up at night is the fact that there are a lot of countervailing forces working against this positive change. For every good green shoot that we see, there’s a lot of shadow and darkness. I think it happened with the contested election, and on January 6. It keeps happening with debates about masks and vaccines.
Whether things tip or not is really about critical mass. How do you get all the people who are sitting on the sidelines to get in there and work toward pushing us back toward the light? I think that was the story of the Progressive Era. People always ask, “What was the moment that the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era?” There was no clear historical moment. There were all these forces working for good and all these countervailing forces working to tear that down. Ultimately the good won out because people put in enough energy to push it up and over.
I am often asked what would be my policy prescription for the administration that would help move us toward an upswing. National service is my absolute go-to answer. As both a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a proponent of learning the lessons of history, I am deeply supportive of the idea that creating incentives and opportunities for millions of young people to work together for the good of our nation should be a top priority. This could help us address not only economic inequality, but also polarization, cultural narcissism, and social fragmentation — all the aspects of our current multifaceted crisis. And I think the Peace Corps in particular has a lot to say about how national service could help Americans turn a corner by rediscovering a sense of solidarity — a “we” — as well as find purpose and a sense of American identity that could lead us in a new direction.
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
READ MORE: “A Life-Altering Detour” — Shaylyn Romney Garrett tells the story of how serving in the Peace Corps led her to work on a national education project in Jordan.
The program you may not know about that inspired JFK. see more
The program you may not know about that inspired JFK. And that has been sending U.S. volunteers abroad since 1958.
By Reverend Dr. Jonathan Weaver
The man who was the visionary behind Crossroads Africa, Dr. James Robinson, in many ways has not gotten the recognition he deserves. Dr. Robinson first traveled to Africa in 1954 on behalf of the Presbyterian Foreign Missions Board and saw sweeping changes taking place throughout the continent. He went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he was introduced to several giants in African history: Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who later served as the first president of Nigeria; and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who led the Gold Coast to independence from Great Britain and served as first president and prime minister of Ghana.
After his 1954 trip, Dr. Robinson started talking to students at colleges across the United States. In 1957, talking to students at Occidental College in California, he shared his vision of young people who would engage in experiences with counterparts. The students said, We’re ready to go. Operation Crossroads Africa was established in 1958. Volunteers went to Ghana and Liberia.
Dr. James Robinson, center, envisioned a program of young people “building bridges of friendship to Africa.” Photo courtesy Operation Crossroads Africa
In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, he learned about the work of Operation Crossroads Africa. He also had an opportunity to meet Haskell Ward, who first went to Africa with Operation Crossroads in 1962. Ward went on to serve as a Volunteer with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia 1963–65 and as director of recruitment and selection for Operation Crossroads Africa 1967–69. He later worked for the Ford Foundation and became deputy mayor of New York City.
James Robinson said that the darkest thing about Africa is America’s ignorance of it.
What struck me about Dr. Robinson was his passion for wanting to connect people from the United States with the people of Africa. Several things that he said have stayed with me from the time that I served as a volunteer in 1971. He said that the darkest thing about Africa is America’s ignorance of it. Tragically, I believe that most of us would have to agree that statement still has a great deal of relevance today. He also said: While you may leave Africa, Africa will never leave you. Certainly that’s true for those of us who have been Crossroaders — about 13,000 since 1958.
There is no doubt Dr. Robinson had a tremendous influence on the creation of the Peace Corps. In June 1962, President Kennedy hosted the Crossroaders on the South Lawn at the White House. Talking about some of the many difficulties facing emerging nations in Africa — and the greatest concerns among the leaders of a dozen new nations he had met — Kennedy said, “The problems they face today, in every case, they have told me, were far more difficult than the problems they faced in the fight for independence. Now that problem is to maintain that national sovereignty and independence and make it worthwhile, because disillusionment is the second wave that comes after the wave of enthusiasm.” Kennedy paid particular tribute to Crossroads by saying the volunteers in this effort really were “the progenitors of the Peace Corps.”
White House meeting, 1962: Before a gathering of volunteers for Operation Crossroads Africa, James Robinson talks with John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Photo courtesy Operation Crossroads Africa
WHAT CROSSROADS HAS BEEN DOING for a number of years led to the establishment of what I consider to be the most encouraging indication of the desire for service — not only in this country, but all around the world — that we have seen in recent years. Dr. Robinson became an advisor for the Peace Corps. And many other people have been directly influenced by that Crossroads experience.
I’ve spent my life ever since volunteering — now 50 years — very much involved in Africa because of Dr. Robinson. Crossroads is still in existence and working to promote understanding of Africa and the African diaspora. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, no volunteer groups went out last year or this year. My hope and my prayer is that there will be teams going out in 2022. Dr. James A. Robinson transitioned in 1972. But his vision, his legacy, lives on.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 2021 Anniversary Edition of WorldView magazine.
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Weaver is pastor of the Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church in Bowie, Maryland. Reverend Weaver previously served as director of development for Operations Crossroads Africa. He is the founder and president of the Pan African Collective, whose mission is to build bridges of understanding, forge diverse partnerships, and promote economic and social development in Africa and other places.
We need to have a diverse and talented corps of professionals in our foreign affairs agencies see more
We need to have a diverse and talented corps of professionals in our foreign affairs agencies — and in the wider development community. That matters when it comes to leadership and credibility alike.
By Aaron Williams
Peace Corps Director 2009–12
The beauty and inherent value of the Peace Corps is that it provides a different approach to America’s overseas engagement. Volunteers live in local communities, speak the national and local languages, and have great respect for the culture of the host country. Working at the grassroots level for two or more years, Peace Corps Volunteers have a unique platform for acquiring cultural agility. They have the opportunity to build relationships, to understand the priorities of the communities and organizations where they work, and to play a role in assisting these communities in reaching their goals. This connection to the people they serve is the essence of Peace Corps service, where mutual learning and understanding occurs. And the Volunteer gains the ability to be engaged in a hands-on development process.
If an individual’s career goal is to become a global citizen, then this is precisely the type of experience that will challenge you. And the Peace Corps has historically been a pathway to a career in diplomacy and development. My career certainly is an example of that. I served in the Agency for International Development USAID as a foreign service officer for 22 years as both a mission director and a senior official at headquarters. Then during the Obama administration, I had the distinct honor of serving as the Director of the Peace Corps. And I've always considered it to be a sacred trust to lead this iconic American agency. And of course, it's always been a distinct honor to represent the United States of America.
As has been well documented in congressional hearings, through extensive media coverage, and in substantial reports by foreign policy think tanks and other organizations, one thing is crystal clear: The failure to diversify senior positions in our foreign service agencies undermines U.S. credibility abroad.
As an African American, I am a direct beneficiary of the civil rights movement and stand on the shoulders of those giants who sacrificed their blood, sweat, and tears fighting for the monumental changes that opened up opportunities for Black and brown people across our country, including in the U.S. Foreign Service. Now, as has been well documented in congressional hearings, through extensive media coverage, and in substantial reports by foreign policy think tanks and other organizations, one thing is crystal clear: The failure to diversify senior positions in our foreign service agencies undermines U.S. credibility abroad. In my view, in order to pursue a robust and effective foreign policy in this ever more challenging world, we need to have a diverse and talented corps of professionals in our foreign affairs agencies.
And that’s why diversity is so important to our nation. We need to portray the true face of America, the rich diversity of our citizens. This diversity will continue to be the foundation for our nation’s progress in all aspects of our society, and a pillar of America’s role in global leadership.
Black Americans are so unrepresented historically in terms of diplomacy and international affairs that we must build a core of leaders to present the true face of America as we interact with the rest of the globe. The more diversity you bring into the C-suite of the foreign policy halls, where the highest ranking senior executives work, the bigger the cadre of people who will have a different perspective of the world and how we should interact with it.
I’ve been involved in the pursuit of diversity from the very beginning of my career, after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I was very fortunate that my first job back in the U.S. was to serve as a minority recruiter in the first such initiative in Peace Corps history. Ever since that first job, I have been an advocate and fighter for diversity in every organization where I’ve worked. And I’ve had a career in three sectors — in government, business, and in the nonprofit world. Based on my experience, and as widely articulated by diversity and inclusion experts, the most important components for promoting diversity are to focus on several areas encompassing access, broad opportunity, retention, and career advancement.
The development community plays a prominent role as principal partners with the U.S. government in the country’s global leadership. They should invest in the diverse human capital of the future that will mirror the true face of our nation.
In my view, the principal foreign affairs agencies — the State Department, USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the Peace Corps — should focus on three areas. First, to gain a better understanding of diverse groups in our country. Second, to build effective tools and programs that include mentorships internships, sponsoring viable candidates, and the creation of a pipeline of candidates. And then thirdly, to provide opportunities for growth and promotion within these agencies.
I would hope to see, going forward, that both U.S. government agencies and, more broadly, the numerous foreign affairs organizations for the development community, as we often call it, will seize this moment to demonstrate leadership in pursuing broad-based policies and programs that will promote diversity in both the U.S. and overseas offices. The development community plays a prominent role as principal partners with the U.S. government in the country’s global leadership. And thus, they should invest in the diverse human capital of the future that will mirror the true face of our nation.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. Edited excerpts appear in the 2021 anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Aaron Williams served as a Volunteer in Dominican Republic 1967–70. He was the first African American to serve as USAID’s executive secretary, and the first African American man to direct the Peace Corps.
Taking the Peace Corps for granted is a luxury we can no longer afford. see more
The United States needs to engage with the world — but not with top-down military-first policies.
By Reed Hastings and Glenn Blumhorst
Illustration by Melinda Beck
Americans spent the past two decades trying to rebuild Afghanistan from the top down. Our military led the way, with huge sacrifice, and the American people spent more than $2 trillion on this effort. While hopes were raised, particularly for women, progress was fleeting. Our mission was not achieved.
One could be forgiven, then, for believing that American engagement overseas is a pointless task. And one could even be forgiven for thinking that Americans should choose to stop engaging the world because of what we’ve just gone through, and that instead, we should retreat, self-isolate, and give up.
Yet that would be a grievous mistake. Not only because it would undermine America’s security and prosperity, but because it simply isn’t true.
We’re writing this piece because we, as former Peace Corps Volunteers, have seen the other side of official American engagement with the rest of the world.
We’re writing this piece because we, as former Peace Corps Volunteers, have seen the other side of official American engagement with the rest of the world. We’ve experienced what it means to be welcomed by foreign counterparts and to build partnerships with them on behalf of the United States. We know that this is possible, because for six decades, it has been done.
Yet right now, because of the COVID pandemic, there are no Volunteers serving in the field. More than 240,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps since 1961, with 7,000 Volunteers serving in 61 countries up until March 2020. Now there are none. And with Afghanistan in the rearview mirror, it’s more urgent than ever for us to send American Volunteers back out to the field, better than before.
Not only is there a humanitarian interest in returning Peace Corps Volunteers to the field, but there’s a strategic imperative in doing so. Americans cannot afford to stay at home. Our global competitors, like China, are salivating at the thought of an America in retreat. Nothing would better rebut that image than civilian volunteers being sent abroad to build peace, just as they were by President Kennedy in 1961 at the height of the Cold War.
Fortunately, even though the Peace Corps hasn’t been in the field, the Peace Corps community has been preparing for this moment, organizing not only to return to the field, but to do so differently. There have been major challenges in the agency’s work for years, and this past year and a half created an opportunity for the Peace Corps community to assess what was and wasn’t working, both for Americans and our partners overseas. The result was a set of recommendations made by the grassroots of our community to make the Peace Corps better.
For example, the Peace Corps community wants the agency to rectify systemic racism, to strengthen recruitment of and support for Volunteers from communities of color, and to root out gender-based discrimination in the Peace Corps as an institution. It also wants an agency that seeks innovative solutions to shared global problems, one that’s responsive to shifting expectations in the developing world. It wants the agency both to listen and to learn from our global partners so that Volunteers can provide them with the best that America has to offer.
There’s a domestic dividend from Peace Corps Volunteers that has yet to be cashed.
Alongside these and other reforms, the community wants the agency to create programs that train American talent to ultimately succeed in the global marketplace. And it wants the agency to mobilize the vast national network of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to more effectively implement the agency’s Third Goal of “strengthening American understanding about the world and its peoples.” There’s a domestic dividend from Peace Corps Volunteers that has yet to be cashed.
Listening to this collective wisdom from Americans who have served in the field overseas will be the antidote to the failed top-down military-first policies of the past two decades.
Fortunately, both Congress and the Biden administration have been receptive to these views. Legislation is moving in both chambers of Congress to reauthorize and renew the Peace Corps, providing it with the vision, reforms, and funding it needs to become the best arm of American global engagement that it can be.
Crucially, the legislation calls for $600 million in funding for the agency by 2025, up from the current $410 million. As Americans, we’re embarrassed by the paltry funding for the Peace Corps, especially considering how we spent roughly $300 million per day over the past two decades of war. Certainly, America can afford to increase what we invest in the Peace Corps in one full year from one and one-third of a day’s spending in Afghanistan to two.
For six decades now, the Peace Corps has been welcomed across the globe while advancing America’s self-interest. For far too long, our country has taken this tool of American power for granted. But for those of us who believe in America’s capacity to do good while advancing both our interests and values, taking the Peace Corps for granted is a luxury we can no longer afford.
We — the American people, coming in peace — are what the rest of the world wants from us. What it doesn’t want are more Afghanistans.
This essay originally appeared in The Hill in September 2021 and appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Reed Hastings is the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Netflix. He served in the Peace Corps in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) 1983–85.
Glenn Blumhorst is the President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala 1988–91. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A film chronicling the work by Response Volunteers fighting COVID-19 in the U.S. in 2021 see more
On December 2 the agency premiered a film chronicling the work by Peace Corps Response Volunteers in 2021 to help fight COVID-19 in the United States.
By NPCA Staff
In 2021, for the second time in the agency’s 60-year history, Peace Corps Response Volunteers deployed in the U.S., at the request of FEMA, to support vaccination efforts.
We shared stories from some of those Volunteers in the Summer 2021 edition of WorldView. On December 2, the Peace Corps premiered a documentary, “Peace Corps Response to COVID,” following Volunteers through their three-month journey as they used skills honed during their Peace Corps service to help communities in need here at home. “The Peace Corps network is always prepared to meet the moment,” said Acting Director Carol Spahn, “whether that’s here at home or with our partner communities around the world.”
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Invitations have been sent for Volunteers to return to five countries see more
Eight posts have met criteria for Volunteers to return. Invitations are out for five: Belize, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Zambia. And the agency is recruiting returned Volunteers for the Virtual Service Pilot.
Colombia mural: one of the countries to for which Peace Corps has sent out invitations for Volunteers to return in 2022. Photo courtesy Peace Corps
By NPCA Staff
It’s the news that thousands of us have been waiting to hear since March 2020: The Peace Corps has begun issuing invitations for Volunteers to return to service overseas. Eight posts have met the agency’s criteria when it comes to “robust health, safety, and security standards that must be met prior to Volunteers returning to countries of service.” And invitations have begun going out for Volunteers, both new and returning, to serve in Belize, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Zambia. More invitations are forthcoming.
Volunteers have been invited to serve beginning in late January to March, “so long as conditions allow,” the agency notes. “As part of the Peace Corps’ return to service, all Volunteers will be expected to contribute to COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. In addition, Volunteers will be required to accept the additional risks associated with volunteering during a pandemic and comply with agency standards for mitigating these risks, wherever possible.”
“Regardless of sector, every Volunteer will be involved in mobilizing for vaccination response, overcoming vaccine hesitancy, recovering educational gains that were lost … We are very inspired to get out and be part of the solution as we recover from the isolation and the impact of COVID-19.”
—Carol Spahn, Acting Director of the Peace Corps
In a conversation hosted by the Commonwealth Club of California on December 2 — the same day Peace Corps announced the news on its website — Acting Director Carol Spahn underscored that COVID-19 “has impacted each and every country we serve. So regardless of sector, every Volunteer will be involved in mobilizing for vaccination response, overcoming vaccine hesitancy, recovering educational gains that were lost … We are very inspired to get out and be part of the solution as we recover from the isolation and the impact of COVID-19.”
As country director for Peace Corps in Malawi, Spahn has seen “the real importance of Volunteers’ contributions at the last mile” when it comes to controlling HIV/AIDS — a scourge that has been with us 40 years now. Likewise, Spahn cited Volunteers’ historic work to help end smallpox in Ethiopia and Afghanistan, part of global efforts that led to the eradication of smallpox more than four decades ago.
Green field: flag of Zambia, one of the posts Peace Corps Volunteers have been invited to return to in 2022. The nation first hoisted this flag in 1964. Since Volunteers first arrived in 1994, more than 2,400 have served. Photo by Mykhailo Polenok/Alamy
Virtual Volunteering Positions Are Open, Too
The agency is seeking participants for a new and expanded round of the Virtual Service Pilot program as well. Partners from 28 countries and more than 230 returned Volunteers have participated since October 2020. The new round is open to any Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who is prepared to spend 5 to 15 hours per week working with a host country partner.
This story appears in the 60th anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated December 19, 2021 at 2 PM Eastern.
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
NOW LISTEN to this conversation on Spotify.
Story updated December 22, 2021 at 3 PM.
Five-term Kentucky Congressman Andy Barr spoke of his support for Peace Corps legislation. see more
Peace Corps Community Relationship Building in Kentucky
Photo: Andy Barr (R-KY), who paid tribute to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers’ work in his home state during hearings of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September
By Jonathan Pearson
Citizen advocacy isn’t easy. It sometimes takes a sustained, committed effort to engage a lawmaker and their staff over an extended period, building a relationship based on accurate information, dialogue, and respect. But that hard work can make a very big difference.
As the House Foreign Affairs Committee was considering the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021 in September, five-term Kentucky Congressman Andy Barr spoke of his support for the legislation, and then devoted his remaining time to speak about the members and leadership of Kentucky Peace Corps Association.
“In my district I’m honored to represent a robust Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community that regularly engage me on the importance of the Peace Corps, and share how impactful their service was to them and to the people that they served abroad,” he said. “This bill also includes language that would allow the use of the Peace Corps logo in death notices and on gravestones. This has been championed nationally by my constituents Jack and Angene Wilson, who play a vital role in the Kentucky Peace Corps community and are returned Volunteers themselves.
Angene and Jack Wilson, who served with the Peace Corps in Liberia
“I’m also grateful to the work of Will and Amy Glasscock in my district, who have really led the charge in Kentucky highlighting the important work the Peace Corps plays in foreign policy as well as humanitarian assistance globally. I am personally very much indebted to the Glasscocks and the Wilsons in particular for their engagement with my office and their advocacy for the Peace Corps. They are really terrific ambassadors for our United States as they promote the Peace Corps and its mission.”
Will and Amy Glasscock served as Volunteers in Indonesia 2012–14
Jonathan Pearson is Director of Advocacy for National Peace Corps Association