We need diverse and experienced leadership at Peace Corps — and a commitment to reimagine the agency see more
With our allies in Congress, we’re working to ensure that the administration understands this is no time to return to the status quo. We need diverse and experienced leadership at Peace Corps — and a commitment to reimagine, reshape, and retool for a changed world.
By Glenn Blumhorst
Many of us in the Peace Corps community took note of the pledge in President Biden’s inaugural address to “engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. And, we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
Those words resonate with the Peace Corps mission, not with a sense of “be like us!” but with a sense of solidarity and commitment to working and learning alongside one another, wherever we serve. One of the messages we’re driving home to members of Congress and the Executive Branch: If we’re reengaging with the world, let’s do it with ideals that are supposed to represent what’s best about this country — even as we work in our communities and at the national level to build a more perfect union.
That said, if we value the role of the Peace Corps, we have to be serious about reimagining, retooling, and reshaping the agency for a changed world. As the administration appoints new leadership for the agency, it is critical that it brings on board not only a director but top staff who reflect a commitment to equity and racial justice, and that these leaders come equipped with global experience and a deep understanding of — and commitment to — the Peace Corps community.
Equity, experience, and community
At the Peace Corps agency, January 20 marked the departure of Director Jody Olsen, who led the agency during unprecedented times, including the global evacuation of Volunteers in spring 2020. Last fall she was optimistic about Volunteers returning to the field as early as January 2021. But by December it was clear that was no longer a possibility. Plans are now for Volunteers to return in the second half of 2021. The health and safety of communities and Volunteers is paramount.
Carol Spahn has been named Acting Director of the Peace Corps. The Biden Administration has also begun to announce new political appointments. We’re meeting with Spahn and the leadership team as it takes form to ensure that we keep moving forward with the big ideas the Peace Corps community has outlined to meet the needs of a world as it is, not as it was. For Peace Corps, as with so much in this country, now is not the time to return to the status quo. Now is the time for historic changes.
When many hundreds of members of the Peace Corps community came together in summer 2020 for a series of town hall meetings and a global ideas summit, it was with a sense of an agency, a nation, and a world facing multiple crises. From those meetings came “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” a community-driven report that brings together big ideas and targeted, actionable recommendations for the agency and the Executive Branch, Congress, and the wider Peace Corps community — particularly NPCA.
Past directors of the Peace Corps who served under Democratic and Republican administrations alike have underscored to us that the big ideas put forward here are absolutely essential.
Past directors of the Peace Corps who served under Democratic and Republican administrations alike have underscored to us that the big ideas put forward here are absolutely essential: that many of them address longstanding issues and sorely needed changes, but there never had been the opportunity to undertake them on a major scale. Now is that time.
Whom the Biden Administration appoints to top posts at the agency sends a powerful signal to the community. Will the leaders reflect a commitment to equity and racial justice — and a serious commitment to the quarter million strong Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community? Members of Congress who have been champions for Peace Corps funding are watching as well.
A roadmap for change
The report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” provides a roadmap for change. While the report is far-ranging in point-by-point recommendations that are grouped into eight separate chapters, here are three overriding themes that emerged. We’re working to ensure that the administration and new staff at the agency take these to heart:
1. The Peace Corps community must be a leader in addressing systemic racism.
The Peace Corps agency, like American society as a whole, is grappling with how to evolve so that its work fulfills the promise of our ideals. This means tackling agency hiring and recruitment, and greater support for Volunteers who are people of color, to ensure an equitable Peace Corps experience. It also means ensuring that perceptions of a “white savior complex” and neocolonialism are not reinforced. These are criticisms leveled at much work in international development, where not all actors are bound by the kinds of ideals that are meant to guide the Peace Corps. Conversely, many in the U.S. bristle when hearing these terms; but it’s important to both recognize the context and address them head-on to enable a more effective and welcome return for Volunteers.
2. The Peace Corps agency needs to stand by its community — and leverage it for impact.
The agency’s work is only as good as the contributions of the people who make it run. This does not mean only staff but includes, in particular, the broader community of Volunteers and returned Volunteers. In programs around the world, it absolutely includes the colleagues and communities that host Volunteers. NPCA has demonstrated that it is both possible and beneficial to become community-driven to promote the goals of the Peace Corps. Community-driven programming will keep the work both current and relevant to the world around us, ensuring that the agency succeeds in its mission in a changed world.
3. Now is the moment for the Peace Corps agency to make dramatic change.
The opportunity for a reimagined and re-booted Peace Corps now exists and it should be taken.
Who is there to lead the change matters. From the Peace Corps community, this message came through clearly: When it comes to the permanent director, they should be an individual of national stature, preferably a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who is committed to transformational change at the agency. They must have the gravitas to advance the Peace Corps’ interests with both Congress and the White House while also making the case to the American people about the value of a renewed Peace Corps for the United States — and communities throughout the world.
In an unprecedented time, the Peace Corps community has come together with an unparalleled response. With the new administration, there are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers with years of experience already taking on key roles in the U.S. Department of State, Department of Labor, and National Security Council. These appointments show a value placed on experience and racial equity — and a commitment to leading with the best. Let’s ensure that commitment carries over to Peace Corps as well.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association
A perspective from Guatemala — at the NPCA global ideas summit July 18, 2020 see more
A host country perspective from Guatemala. Remarks from the July 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future.
By Luis Argueta
On July 18, 2020, National Peace Corps Association hosted Peace Corps Connect to the Future, a global ideas summit. NPCA invited three winners of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award to share their perspectives. Here are remarks delivered by Luis Argueta — film director and producer whose work helps audiences better understand people on the margins — including “The Silence of Neto,” Guatemala’s first Oscar submission.
Below is an edited version of his remarks.
We are at an unprecedented situation worldwide because of this pandemic. It is a perfect time to ask some very basic questions about humanity in general and about the Peace Corps in particular.
From what I have seen here in Guatemala, the pandemic has revealed the vast differences between a small group of people who have a lot and the large majority who have very little. It has also revealed in its stark nakedness the structural deficiencies of states like Guatemala, where the economic disparities are tremendous. But also where the neglect of the large population for many, many years has caused the current critical situation where, for over 50 years, people's basic needs like education — and today, it's obvious health — have been not addressed.
Watch: Luis Argueta’s remarks at Peace Corps Connect to the Future
The response in Guatemala has been to create hospitals and to augment the number of beds that can be occupied by people who are ill with the COVID-19. That looks like a great solution. But in a system where we don't have basic access to minimal healthcare, this is not the solution.
By addressing this particular need, and by the Peace Corps focusing on the basic health needs of rural communities, we can start focusing on the future. Because when you need to go to a hospital to treat a minor illness that could be treated by a local health post — when there’s not even a clinic in the rural areas — I think we would be serving the communities in a very different way.
The same way that in the streets of the U.S. and in other countries — but especially in the U.S. — people are protesting racial inequality and people are coming to terms with our own privileges, it is a time for the Peace Corps to realize that every Volunteer who comes to a host country comes with great privilege.
Something that I have been particularly focusing my work on for the past 12-plus years is migration. And these structural deficiencies — these major differences in the country — have provoked what, to me, is one of the most crucial issues of our times: forced displacement, forced migration and asylum seeking.
The current situation is not making those things better. And even if borders today are closed, once they open — and we hope that will be sooner than later — people will be forced again to leave their homes. So, again, what is the Peace Corps to do at a time like this? I think it is to go and work at the very basic community level and helping better these conditions that are making it impossible for people to stay at home and be with their family and prosper and be healthy.
I don't think that this is a time to be shy about our common links and our historical connections. The same way that in the streets of the U.S. and in other countries — but especially in the U.S. — people are protesting racial inequality and people are coming to terms with our own privileges, it is a time for the Peace Corps to realize that every Volunteer who comes to a host country comes with great privilege. And it is to the betterment of everybody we self-reflect on our position in these communities.
At the same time that we self-reflect on our role and our privileges, and the privileges of Volunteers, we should look at the historical ties between the host countries and the U.S. It is a time of many contradictions.
Guatemalan immigrants, and immigrants from many other countries, are today in the U.S. working — and are considered, in many instances, essential workers. However, they also are risking being detained and deported. They're also suffering the effects of the pandemic in larger numbers, as are other minorities and more vulnerable populations in the U.S. We must recognize this.
We must recognize that the Peace Corps does not operate in a vacuum. It operates as part of a larger government structure — and that, yes, it represents the best America can offer. But it also has to be very conscious of the current image of the U.S. around the world.
We must recognize that the Peace Corps does not operate in a vacuum. It operates as part of a larger government structure — and that, yes, it represents the best America can offer. But it also has to be very conscious of the current image of the U.S. around the world, because of very unfortunate isolationist policies.
So at the same time that we're reaching out to host countries — and hopefully, we will be receiving many more Peace Corps volunteers in the future — they're not issuing visas for my fellow Guatemalans to travel to the U.S. There is the threat of cutting visas even for exchange students who pay full tuition at U.S. universities, let alone temporary workers who go pick the crops in the fields of the U.S. So we must be conscious of these contradictions. And we must relearn the history between our countries.
One of the privileges that we should look at is the fact that, as the pandemic was declared, Peace Corps Volunteers were sent home. Fortunately, they were able to go home and are now with their families. However, this took them away from a place where they had committed to work — and where people without that privilege, that choice, had to remain in a more vulnerable position.
Definitely to me, this is a time of meditation, of self-reflection, and self-analysis — and, as hard as it might seem, to look forward to the future with hope. I wish everybody the best now and in the days to come.
Luis Argueta of Guatemala is a film director and producer whose work helps audiences better understand people on the margins — including “The Silence of Neto,” Guatemala’s first Oscar submission. He is the 2019 recipient of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award.
Communications Intern 2 posted an articleA perspective from Kenya. July 18, 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future. see more
A host country perspective from Kenya. Remarks from the July 18, 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future.
By Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said
On July 18, 2020, National Peace Corps Association hosted Peace Corps Connect to the Future, a global ideas summit. NPCA invited three winners of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award to share their perspectives. Here are remarks delivered by Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said — volunteer, philanthropist, and humanitarian engaged in a wide range of medical service and human rights activities on the local, national, and international levels.
Below is an edited version of his remarks.
Hi everybody, I’m happy to be given this chance to share with you some experiences. I’ll talk about three episodes regarding the Peace Corps. Peace Corps came at the correct time when many countries just gained their independence; the young people who came as Volunteers were disciplined and they really interacted with the community.
People in Kenya knew very little about the United States. With the coming of the Peace Corps Volunteers, who worked mainly in rural areas, people came to know more. And that was during during the Cold War. Discussions took place, and people felt at home with the Volunteers — and the Volunteers themselves felt at home. Thus that aim of the Peace Corps was achieved immediately.
The majority of the Volunteers were teachers, and I'm happy to say that most of the people who went through those schools — special high schools — and because of the Peace Corps, they did well in school and they have really served the community. That's the main aim of the Peace Corps: to empower the people.
Watch: Remarks by Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said from July 18
As the years went on, especially in other fields, what Peace Corps Volunteers did was marvelous. In technical terms, whether in agriculture or in otherwise empowering people, they did a good job. The policy of the American government was seen on the ground; to see and talk to people and exchange ideas is when you learn more about the country. And it came as a cultural exchange: We learned technical fields, and we learned more about American culture and American people.
After the Cold War came another era — the era of terrorism, which really affected the work done by Volunteers in several countries. In some countries, the Volunteers couldn't go too deep in some areas. And as things change, especially in Kenya, they had to be pulled out; that was very sad. That also interfered with the work of the Peace Corps Volunteers.
And now there is a reckoning because of this pandemic. I think this a big a big blow to the Peace Corps itself — especially in Kenya, because we were just planning to bring in new Peace Corps Volunteers. We were ready to receive them, after they were pulled out about seven years ago. They were coming back. And unfortunately, all of a sudden this pandemic came.
Now is a very difficult time, especially for the work of the Peace Corps — because the Peace Corps Volunteers work with communities and interact with communities. With this pandemic, we don't know how long it will take. So unfortunately, that interaction is no longer there. Because when people are living together and working together, they learn from each other — and they learn each other's culture, even how to prepare traditional dishes. We shall miss all that.
How can the Peace Corps change and work from outside the country they're supposed to be in? How can the Volunteers work? It's a big challenge. And I think this we have to look at very critically. I don't see Volunteers coming back to the countries in the near future. So I think the best thing is to plan and see how we can interact. What we are doing now through Zoom most these days — people have learned to communicate. People are working from home; is it possible to give some technical advice from home? That's one thing we should look at.
I hope things which would have changed a long time ago should change now, and people should be respected.
How can we revive or continue with the work that Peace Corps Volunteers were doing? They have left, and I'm sure that local people that are trying to contact them to do some work; it's a continuous train which goes on.
How can we survive during this pandemic? We need to look at ourselves and bring our heads together and see how the work can be done. We have seen it at the national conference taking place. And is it possible, at least to some extent, to carry on with the work we are doing in the stations we were through Zoom?
The other issue is the American situation. Just recently people were really shocked when the [government] said that international students who are there had to come back. I'm very happy that decision was revised. Such decisions sometimes, unfortunately, affect ordinary people who have children there and who are starting their own family; they hope that they will get the education they need in America and then come back. So if all of a sudden they said that "No, because of this pandemic, you have to go back," it becomes difficult.
But also, if I can mention what has happened recently in the States — especially the brutality which is going on: That really affected so many people all over the world. I'm glad that things are being worked out, and I hope things which would have changed a long time ago should change now, and people should be respected.
People are very sensitive, especially in terms of human rights; people are saying that especially that America, this democracy, is usually the first to talk about and harass other countries when there is abuse of human rights. And here people are looking at especially the security guys and themselves doing such things. As human beings, we should all learn to live with each other and respect each other — and work together.
Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya is a volunteer, philanthropist, and humanitarian engaged in a wide range of medical service and human rights activities on the local, national, and international levels. He is the 2013 recipient of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award.
In a time of global crisis, Lex Rieffel explores new ways forward for Peace Corps. see more
COVID-19 upended systems. Now we’re focused on structural racism like never before. So how can Peace Corps help this nation live up to its ideals?
By Lex Rieffel
Illustration by Sandra Dionsi / Theispot
The COVID-19 pandemic that erupted at the beginning of this year massively disrupted behavior that has for a long time been taken for granted — between people and between nations. Then in May the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman sparked unprecedented demonstrations around the world to end systemic racial discrimination and improve social justice.
Years will pass before new patterns of home life and work life become normal and before international relations achieve new forms of openness and interaction. Policies, programs, projects, and institutions will have to be adapted to meet this new reality. It will not be easy. It will require political will not seen since World War II, and a reckoning with racism that precedes the founding of the United States.
As it prepares to celebrate in 2021 its 60th year of working to make the world a better place, the Peace Corps, too, will have to change. Even the three goals announced at its founding will need to be reconsidered:
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Perhaps the focus should be less on training and more on meeting global challenges like climate change and conflict.
MY PEACE CORPS GROUP, India XVI, served in the mid-1960s. This was the heyday of the Peace Corps. It had blossomed to become a vibrant agency in less than ten years, with almost 16,000 Volunteers serving in scores of countries. Then the Vietnam War and President Nixon crippled both the supply of volunteers and the demand from host countries, reducing the number of serving Volunteers to under 5,000 in the early 1980s.
A passionate campaign in that decade produced enough bipartisan support in the Congress to stop the decline in the number of Volunteers and begin a slow buildup. However, three successive presidents — Clinton, Bush-43, and Obama — failed to achieve their election campaign pledges to double the number of serving Volunteers from the levels they had inherited; Clinton inherited some 5,400, Obama just over 7,000 — about the number now. There was insufficient support in the Congress for a bigger Peace Corps budget to overcome the opposition of a vocal minority. Voters seemed convinced that U.S. national security depended more on putting boots on the ground overseas than sneakers on the ground.
Anti-Peace Corps sentiment in the Congress has strengthened during the Trump Presidency. A bill was introduced in the House last year to defund the Peace Corps and attracted more than 100 votes. It’s easy to imagine the Peace Corps being defunded in a second Trump Administration. But it’s also possible to imagine a stronger Peace Corps emerging under a new president.
Revolutionary and Inclusive
Wearing my economist hat, here is my best guess about the supply and demand for Peace Corps Volunteers, regardless of who is elected in November.
It seems likely that more American men and women will be interested in joining the Peace Corps in the coming years because higher education and the job market in the USA have been so greatly disrupted. Even before the pandemic arrived, the job market was being reshaped by artificial intelligence, robotics, and other factors. The “normal” pattern of getting a full-time job with benefits was no longer the default option for many graduates. The gig economy was expanding visibly.
The pandemic has delivered a body blow to higher education that will almost certainly lead to dramatic changes. Already we see far more high school graduates exploring gap year options. More fundamentally, financial constraints are likely to reduce residential enrollment substantially for several years. College dropouts and people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, regardless of their age, may find the Peace Corps and other forms of public service to be appealing options.
The biggest unknown on the supply side is how the current debate on national service will play out. Too few Americans are aware of the existence of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Mandated by the Congress in the authorizing legislation for FY2017, the Commission issued its final report in March 2020, and held its public rollout on June 25. Its recommendations represent “a revolutionary and inclusive approach to service for Americans.”
The National Commission found compelling reasons “to cultivate a widespread culture of service” in the United States. Its report states that bold action is required, not incremental change. Its recommendations begin with “comprehensive civic education and service learning starting in kindergarten” and extend to making service-year opportunities so ubiquitous that “service becomes a rite of passage for millions of young adults.” If acted upon, the result will enhance national security and strengthen our democratic system.
The Commission proposes an ambitious goal of having 5 million Americans every year begin participating in military, national, or public service by 2031.
The Commission proposes an ambitious goal of having 5 million Americans every year begin participating in military, national, or public service by 2031. Among these, it calls for one million to be supported by federal funding, ten times the number currently supported. The Peace Corps is explicitly included in this vision, though the Commission does not recommend a specific number of Peace Corps Volunteers. It does explicitly call for an expansion of Peace Corps Response, making the program more accessible to older Americans and people with disabilities, with increased opportunities for “virtual” volunteering.
The pandemic could actually accelerate the idea of creating a voluntary national service norm, for women as well as men. Bipartisan legislation has already been introduced to scale up AmeriCorps and other domestic service programs. Experts and activists have called for establishing new programs for rapid employment of contact tracers and health workers to stop the pandemic in the USA. The ongoing demonstrations against racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have brought forth proposals for new community-based service initiatives. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created in the Great Depression of the 1930s has been cited as a model for a form of service program that could emerge to reduce the highest unemployment rate the country has seen in the past 75 years: 14.7 percent at the end of April and 13.3 percent at the end of May.
The Peace Corps budget is a tiny part of the federal budget. For example, its appropriation of $410.5 million for FY2020 was less than two-tenths of one percent of the Defense Department’s budget request for weapons procurement. It shouldn’t take much political will in the Congress to double or triple the Peace Corps’ budget if there is growing voter support for national service. The crucial question will then become how many of the men and women seeking a service opportunity will be attracted to living in a foreign country. A big part of the answer will depend on evolving perceptions of the health and security risks of working outside the USA. Quite possibly, fewer Americans will want to spend two years in some remote village in a country they couldn’t find on a map, even with a promise of reliable internet access. On the other hand, some of the recently repatriated Peace Corps volunteers are continuing their service online, and forms of virtual service internationally may become more feasible and attractive.
In short, the supply could conceivably be sufficient to produce a Peace Corps with as many as 100,000 volunteers serving abroad by 2031, but that must be considered a best-case outcome.
The demand from host countries, by contrast, may be insufficient to even maintain the pre-pandemic level of 7,000 volunteers in the field. There will be an early test of this demand: how many of the 60-odd countries hosting volunteers before the pandemic erupted will welcome them back. The process of renegotiating programs with these countries will undoubtedly be challenging.
Who needs the Peace Corps?
In the 1960s, the whole world — even countries in the Communist Bloc — looked up to the USA with envy because of its high standard of living, its rich culture (movies, theaters, museums, etc.), its outstanding universities, its technological advances (putting men on the moon), its fight for civil rights, its enduring democratic political system, its international leadership. Few countries still look up to the USA in this comprehensive way. Over the past two decades or more, we have squandered our position of preeminence.
It seems extremely unlikely that the world will revert to the openness that existed a decade ago. There will be less trade, less tourism, less migration.
That’s just the beginning of the problem. The process of globalization led by the United States started slowing down with the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001 and halted with the Global Financial Crisis emanating from the USA in 2007–08. By 2015, globalization was unwinding. That was the year the refugee exodus from the Middle East quickly led most European countries to restrict immigration severely. Another big setback came with the Brexit vote in June 2016, followed a few months later by the election of President Trump on an anti-globalization platform. It seems extremely unlikely that the world will revert to the openness that existed a decade ago. There will be less trade, less tourism, less migration. Climate change is likely to produce more border closing than border opening.
In short, in a world where most governments are preoccupied with addressing internal problems and in which internet access is penetrating into the far corners of the globe, few countries are likely to need Peace Corps volunteers or want them.
At the same time, the rise of China and other countries forces us to reconsider our national security in a world where the U.S. population of 330 million represents barely 4 percent of Earth’s total population of 7.7 billion. Military power cannot possibly be enough to maintain the respect of the rest of the world. To some extent, this power seems to have made the rest fear the USA more than admire it. In this case, America’s national security may depend greatly on how well the rest of the world understands the positive features of our country. Promoting that understanding just happens to be the second goal of the Peace Corps.
FROM A DEEPER DIVE into the risk of border-related conflict in the coming decades emerges an argument that a “whole world peace corps” is needed more than lots of separate national Peace Corps-like programs. Thus, the most ambitious approach to reinventing the Peace Corps might be to transform the existing UN Volunteer program into a World Peace Corps, with every country establishing an affiliate. The U.S. Peace Corps, for example, would be rebranded as “World Peace Corps - USA.”
By contrast, the least ambitious vision for the post-pandemic Peace Corps would be to re-establish its recent level of 7,000 serving volunteers, making the adjustments necessary to restore programs with previous host countries and find some new ones. This should be doable — though it’s important not to underestimate the complexities that will arise.
So, what is the most impactful and politically feasible approach that the large “Peace Corps family” should pursue? A time of crisis like today’s provides an ideal opportunity to assess and debate alternatives. For this reason, the National Peace Corps Association is convening a summit on July 18 to explore the future of Peace Corps — and the broader Peace Corps community.
Among options worth considering: programs that bring to the USA as many volunteers from countries hosting Peace Corps volunteers as we send to them.
There are a number of options worth considering between a World Peace Corps and reverting to the barely visible program of the past 40 years. Most important among them may be two-way service programs: programs that bring to the USA as many volunteers from countries hosting Peace Corps volunteers as we send to them. This was part of Sargent Shriver’s vision back in the 1960s, but it was a nonstarter with the U.S. Congress. Now we have to ask ourselves why any country negotiating with the Peace Corps would fail to insist on a two-way program.
The resistance, sadly, will be within the USA, despite the fact that there is an abundance of service work that men and women from foreign countries could usefully do here. Disaster relief is just one obvious area. Few Americans know that thousands of individuals in Ireland raised more than $3 million for the Navajo nation to help fight the pandemic. Firefighters have come from as far away as Australia to battle wildfires in California and other states.
Teaching is probably the most interesting area for two-way service. Think of the benefits of having at least one foreign teacher in every middle school and high school in the USA. They could teach foreign languages, geography, music, sports, and more. Their counterparts, Americans serving as volunteer teachers abroad, would do the same.
This could be the easiest way to build on the Third Goal of the Peace Corps in the post-pandemic world: helping Americans to better understand people in the rest of the world. It would also represent a strong step to counter allegations that the Peace Corps is a manifestation of “white saviorism.”
Such a two-way teaching program could be established within the State Department (like the Fulbright and the Humphrey programs) or under the Corporation for National and Community Service. But there is one glaring problem here.
Anti-Peace Corps sentiment in the Congress won’t go away in a post-Trump administration. A bigger, better, bolder Peace Corps in its current form as a federal agency may well be a political nonstarter even under a Democratic administration. If so, converting the Peace Corps from a U.S. government agency to an independent, private sector NGO might represent the best chance to build an international service program that continues to be “the best face of America overseas.”
With a nonpartisan board of trustees composed of eminent personalities, this NGO could be generously funded by individual donors, foundations, and corporations, as well as receiving core grants from the federal budget. Largely freed from government fetters, it could iterate toward an array of programs of international service that contribute materially to a more peaceful and prosperous world. Operating within this organization, the Peace Corps could remain the gold standard of international service.
Yet now we have a fresh challenge — which is also coming to terms with a very old problem. To remain the gold standard, the Peace Corps will have to become more diverse, more inclusive. The report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service has noted that our existing federal service programs have primarily benefited people from better educated and higher income families. This is true about the Peace Corps as much as other programs.
I hope readers will not simply “stay tuned” for a report from the National Peace Corps Association following the July 18 summit. I hope they will weigh in with constructive comments. For sure, there will be no consensus on how the Peace Corps should evolve, but I believe that the members of the Peace Corps family — more than 200,000 strong — are in the best position to understand the challenges and find a sensible way forward.
Lex Rieffel (India 1965–67) is a nonresident fellow with the Stimson Center. He served two years of active duty in the U.S. Navy before joining the Peace Corps. He has been an economist with the Treasury Department and USAID, a senior advisor for the Institute of International Finance, and a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Brian Sekelsky posted an articleThis Must Stop: After months of witnessing escalating violence against Asian Americans, we must raise our voices and call for an end to the words and actions of hate.An open letter to the Peace Corps community. see more
The pandemic underscored that we need to foster global solidarity and understanding. But it led to a rising tide of violence against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. An open letter to the Peace Corps community.
By Glenn Blumhorst
The pandemic has underscored that we need to foster global solidarity and understanding. Ominously, it also sparked an uptick in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. In the past year alone, some 3,800 incidents have been reported, with most of the violence directed against women.
For months, some have used hateful rhetoric to exploit the virus and stoke the flames of hate, resentment, and fear. This is unconscionable but undeniable — and, if we’re honest, unsurprising.
This week brought a new dimension of horror: On Tuesday, a series of shootings at spas in Atlanta and nearby Cherokee County. Eight people were killed by a white male. Six of those murdered are women of Asian descent. Another person was injured.
We condemn this violence unequivocally. It has caused revulsion throughout the Peace Corps community, and rightly so. But not only that: This unchecked violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders telegraphs to those in the Peace Corps community who are of Asian descent that they, too, could be a target. I have heard from returned Volunteers who are truly shaken.
After more than a year of witnessing escalating violence against Asian Americans, we must raise our voices and call for an end to this violence — and to the rhetoric that has fueled it. These incidents have taken place across the country, and communities have rung alarm bells again and again.
As I write this, we know four of the names of the victims of the shooting: Xiaojie Tan, who owned Young’s Asian Massage in Acworth, Georgia. She would have celebrated her 50th birthday yesterday. Daoyou Feng, who was 44 and had just begun working in the spa a few months before. Delaina Ashley Yaun, who was 33, and had come to the spa with her husband for a couples’ massage. She was killed; he survived. Paul Andre Michels, an Army veteran who lived in Tucker, Georgia, and was 54; he had recently begun working as a handyman at Young’s Massage. Yong Ae Yue was a licensed massage therapist and was laid off in 2020 when the pandemic hit; she had recently begun working again. She was 63 years old. Hyun Jung Grant was 51 years old and a single mother and worked at Gold Spa in Atlanta; in South Korea, she had been an elementary school teacher. Soon Chung Park had moved to the Atlanta area several years ago and helped manage a spa. She had lived most of her life in the New York area and was planning to move back to New Jersey when the pandemic was over. She was 74 years old. Suncha Kim worked at one of the spas and was 69 years old. She was a grandmother and, according to family, had been married more than 50 years. Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz of Acworth, who was making his way to a money exchange next door; he moved from Guatemala to the United States a decade ago and was critically injured in the attack.
What does that have to do with the Peace Corps? Everything.
The statistics of the past year are frightening — but the thousands of reported incidents are only that — reported incidents. More broadly, the FBI reported a 20 percent increase in hate crimes over the past four years. And, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported, early on in the pandemic the FBI specifically warned of a surge of anti-Asian violence.
One more disturbing truth is, just a few days later, this is no longer the latest incident of violence against Asian Americans.
What does that have to do with the Peace Corps? Everything. If we are committed to a lifetime of Peace Corps ideals, we must stand against hate. As we noted early in this pandemic, our nation finds itself faced once more with a brutal truth articulated years ago by Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps: “We must also treat the disease of racism itself.”
A California-based coalition, Stop AAPI Hate, began chronicling incidents and gathering resources last year. The New York City Peace Corps Association has shared this toolkit put together by a coalition of anti-hate crime groups. We encourage members of the Peace Corps community to share additional ideas and resources.
Lawmakers have begun calling for March 26 as a day to speak out against hate speech directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We fully endorse this effort, and we ask all members of the Peace Corps community to join us in marking March 26 as a National Day of Action and Healing. And join us in participating in a worldwide vigil to remember the victims of the Atlanta shooting at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. The vigil will be livestreamed at 326vigil.org.
Let me also say this: It should not escape us that this day of action comes almost exactly three years after the first March for Our Lives event, in March 2018, speaking out against gun violence in the United States. The women and men killed and injured on Tuesday were slain with a gun purchased just before the murders.
Nor should it escape us that a volunteer coalition in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which last year set out the document and stem the rising tide of violence against Asian Americans, formed under the name United Peace Corps.
We need to hold ourselves accountable to the ideals that have inspired us — and others.
And we’ve got tremendous work to do here at home when it comes building peace and friendship.
Story updated March 26, 2021, at 12:30 p.m.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association.
Communities and Volunteers still feel the trauma. An open letter to the Peace Corps community. see more
Communities and Volunteers feel the trauma of this disruption. But the pandemic has underscored even more profoundly that we need to foster global solidarity and understanding. An open letter to the Peace Corps community.
By Glenn Blumhorst
Nepal farewell: Training to become Volunteers, Rachel Ramsey, left, and Elyse Paré had to evacuate instead. Photo by Eddie De La Fuente
Around the world in recent days, we have been marking a truly somber anniversary: It was just over a year ago that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. For the Peace Corps community, the burgeoning health crisis led to something unprecedented as well: On March 15, 2020, the decision to evacuate all Peace Corps Volunteers from across the globe.
All told, some 7,300 Volunteers were evacuated from more than 60 countries. Sometimes with just hours’ notice, they were told they needed to pack and leave.
Communities were bereft; Volunteers were heartbroken, stunned. At the same time, so many rose to the occasion — communities and returned Volunteers alike, reaching out in solidarity in a time of need. Here at National Peace Corps Association, we quickly brought online the Global Reentry Program to assist this surge of Volunteers — who were coming home to a country hit by pandemic and economic turmoil. And soon, too, it was a country wracked by protests against racial injustice.
It’s important to pause and acknowledge the enormity of this disruption.
On this day, it’s important to pause and acknowledge the enormity of this disruption. For those who are part of the Peace Corps community, I would encourage you to reach out to evacuated Volunteers and communities where they were serving. As the 240,000 of us who have served realize, the Peace Corps is profoundly about personal interactions and connections, built up over weeks and months and years. Rupturing those connections because of a crisis is deeply traumatic.
Over the past year, many of the evacuated Volunteers have kept in touch with people in the communities where they were serving. At the same time, many evacuated Volunteers have moved on to jobs or graduate school, many with fellowships provided to returned Volunteers. Some are hoping to return to Peace Corps service as soon as possible. And in fact, on their own, a few have returned to the countries where they were serving, though not with the Peace Corps. Scores more have taken part in the first two rounds of virtual volunteering, through a program the Peace Corps launched in the fall, supporting projects in communities where evacuated Volunteers had lived.
NPCA’s Global Reentry program continues to work with many evacuated Volunteers, and it is envisioned to become a truly robust resource for the entire Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, providing guidance, advice, and support in tumultuous times. It’s one more way to build connections at a time we so desperately need them.
Amid pandemic: celebration, legislation, and a road map for the future
At the beginning of March, people and organizations around the world celebrated the establishment of the Peace Corps by an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961. We heard congratulations from U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the Ambassador of Colombia to the United States. We heard from the State of Colorado and the city of Madison, Wisconsin. We heard from governors and senators and representatives across the country. We heard congratulations from Ghana and Germany, Fiji and Korea. The anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps is a time to recognize the powerful impact of service in communities — and how that has been felt across countries and generations.
Even more important, it’s a time to look to the future and to ask: How will the Peace Corps work in a changed world? And, as the United States reengages with communities and nations outside its borders, how can the Peace Corps help lead the way?
The report and the team at NPCA have also helped inform the most important piece of Peace Corps legislation in years.
Last year the Peace Corps community came together in a series of town halls and a Global Ideas Summit to reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps. The fruits of those intensive discussions were the community-driven report, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” which provides a roadmap for change. As the Peace Corps agency continues to assemble its new leadership team and tackles strategic planning, that report provides guidance.
The report and the team at NPCA have also helped inform the most important piece of Peace Corps legislation in years. Two weeks ago, on Monday, March 1, Rep. John Garamendi, who served as a Volunteer in Ethiopia, introduced the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021 in the House of Representatives. National Peace Corps Association worked with Rep. Garamendi’s office to help understand and address key priorities expressed by the Peace Corps community.The legislation calls for important reforms, including issues addressing better healthcare and protection for whistleblowers in the Peace Corps. And it takes seriously an increase in funding that will be necessary for the Peace Corps to help lead the way in reengaging with a world profoundly changed by COVID-19.
Let’s approach the work ahead with a sense of solidarity, not charity — and an awareness of both the privilege we have and the responsibility we share.
Along with the celebratory news stories from around the world, there have been a couple of opinion pieces that have raised the question as to whether the Peace Corps should continue to exist — including one in the Chicago Tribune, to which we responded. In fact, we asked the Peace Corps community that very question last summer, as we convened town halls and our Global Ideas Summit. We took as a touchstone words we heard from people in countries including Nepal, Guatemala, and Kenya: the work of Peace Corps is more important than ever, with a clear sense of solidarity, not charity; with an awareness of the privilege we have and the responsibility we share to our fellow citizens of the world; and the understanding that we can empower communities by working together. That holds true in whatever community we call home.
Unfinished Business: Read the stories from dozens of Volunteers who were evacuated in March 2020 — what they left behind in their communities, and the unfinished business they have — and Peace Corps has — around the world.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association. Write him at email@example.com.
Jonathan Pearson posted an articleA Call for Proposals: Work with National Peace Corps Association on Training for Diversity, Equity, and InclusionAddressing systemic racism begins with us see more
Work with NPCA on this crucial issue — and have an impact on the wider Peace Corps community.
In our work to lead a vibrant Peace Corps community, National Peace Corps Association is looking for a partner with expertise in providing training on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our society needs to tackle systemic racism as it has shaped institutions and communities — including the Peace Corps community. And addressing systemic racism begins with us.
Here is a request for proposals to work with NPCA in this crucial area — and, through the work we do with the broader Peace Corps community, make a valuable contribution in this area more broadly.
Those specializing in building an anti-racism environment within member-based nonprofit organizations are particularly encouraged to submit proposals. For questions please contact NPCA by email.
Please review our Frequently Asked Questions regarding this request for proposals.
Submissions will be accepted through Friday, February 26, 2021 at 6 p.m. EST.
SPECIAL NOTE: Submission deadline has been extended to Friday, March 5, 2021 at 6 p.m. EST.
President's Letter for the Winter 2021 Edition of WorldView magazine see more
An Unprecedented Year. And Insurrection at the Capitol.
By Glenn Blumhorst
Photo: Makeshift Fence Memorials to Capitol Police Officers Brian D. Sicknick and Howard Liebengood. By Elvert Barnes
For so many of us, the year 2020 seemed the challenge of a lifetime. But if anyone was built to persevere through the crises these months presented, it’s Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Having endured a tumultuous year marked by a global health pandemic, racial disarray and instability, and the first-ever global evacuation of Volunteers, we could use skills we learned and experiences that have shaped us to take on many roles, including working professional, volunteer in communities at home, teacher, caregiver, colleague, and more. And we would turn the page.
Then came January 6 — a horrific day for our country. A violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, smashing windows and looting offices. We condemn these acts of violence and chaos in the strongest possible terms. The Peace Corps community is committed to building peace and friendship. When we are sworn in as Volunteers, we take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Symbolically and literally, democracy itself was under assault. What do we take from this moment? It’s profoundly clear that the work of building peace needs to start here at home. And as many in the Peace Corps community have observed, the extremists who took part in the attack were not met with the kind of show of force that has met Black protesters. It underscores once more that we need to address racial justice as a root issue in society.
We must be unequivocal: Violence and hatred have no place in the Peace Corps community.
We stand in solidarity with the public servants who were terrorized by these acts of violence. That includes not just members of Congress but the many staff who work behind the scenes — especially those who are people of color. Dozens of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers serve as congressional staff. Their lives were at risk. Our hearts go out to them. But that is not enough.
We must be unequivocal: Violence and hatred have no place in the Peace Corps community. Those who took part in these violent acts — and those who incited them — must be held accountable.
It is reprehensible that among the mob that stormed the Capitol is one man who served in the Peace Corps, Thomas Baranyi, who began basic training in the Marine Corps before being discharged. A CBS affiliate interviewed him; he gave his name and home state of New Jersey. “We tore through the scaffolding and flash-bangs,” he said, and blitzed into the chambers. He described witnessing the death of Ashli Babbitt, shot as she and others tried to breach a barricaded door. He clearly believed actions by the violent extremists were justified.
What We Must Do
I believe that the Peace Corps community can and will play a pivotal role in the United States reengaging with the world. During months of crisis, we’ve seen many take inspiration from the model of the Peace Corps in looking for solutions to big domestic problems. This moment also underscores once more that, as we undertake the work we do, we must do it with a sense of humility and solidarity — and a sense of what’s at stake.
I believe that the Peace Corps community can and will play a pivotal role in the United States reengaging with the world.
I want to give a special thanks to those who have given their support to work for the Peace Corps community in recent months. With your time and commitment, we will ensure that the Peace Corps and the values it is meant to nurture can play an important role in the great unfinished task ahead of us.
When we set out the tasks for the Peace Corps community, Congress, and the Executive Branch in the report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” — included in this edition of WorldView — we didn’t fully fathom the enormity of the rebuilding ahead. But here we are. To the community-driven recommendations outlined in the report, let us add: To best serve our robust intergenerational and diverse community, we need a Peace Corps Director equal to these times: a committed, well-known leader in international development who plans for innovation and transformation of the Peace Corps as we know it. There must be a strong emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion in recruitment and retention of Volunteers and staff. We must work with members of Congress to pass legislation to expand Peace Corps funding. And the agency must help lead the way alongside others in peace, diplomacy, and foreign affairs.
This year’s challenges have revealed enduring resilience and purpose for moving forward and staying true to our mission. I remain humbled by this awareness, and I am committed to working towards the transformation we have undertaken.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He welcomes your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
First African American to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice see more
First African American to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice — and the first Black man to lead any division at Justice, period.
Photo Courtesy Yale Law School
Drew S. Days III was appointed to the Department of Justince in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter. He later served as solicitor general of the United States under President Bill Clinton. Gentle, courageous, and kind, he devoted much of his career to striving for racial equality. Born in Atlanta in 1941, he grew up in Tampa, Florida, and at the age of 30 won a lawsuit that desegregated the schools where he was educated.
“I rode segregated buses, and I was from the era with the segregated lunch counters and water fountains,” he recalled. Early work as a lawyer also included fighting housing discrimination.
He studied English literature at Hamilton College and law at Yale. And he sang. It was at Yale Russian Chorus rehearsals that he met Ann Langdon. They wed and joined the Peace Corps and served in Honduras 1967–69 and were married for 54 years.
After Peace Corps service, Drew Days worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City. Tapped for his role in the Justice Department, he tackled racism in blatant forms in school districts and sought to ensure more effective discipline for police who abused their authority.
He joined the faculty of Yale Law School in 1981 and was founding director of the Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights. Days argued 17 cases before the Supreme Court and supervised nearly 200 more. He died on November 15 at the age of 79. Our hearts go out to Ann and the family he loved dearly.
A pioneer in Peace Corps, law, and social justice see more
Civil rights attorney Elaine Jones talks with Jalina Porter
Photo: Elaine Jones. Courtesy Elaine Jones
Elaine Jones has led a landmark career that has included being the first woman to direct the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the first African American woman to attend law school at the University of Virginia. Where she learned the lessons in diplomacy that prepared her for that: Peace Corps in Turkey.
The daughter of a Pullman porter and a schoolteacher, Elaine Ruth Jones was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and was raised in the Jim Crow South. She has spoken of the importance of understanding “the realities of racism and the importance of idealism.” In 1972 she was the counsel of record for the case Furman v. Georgia, in which Jones represented a Black man on death row who had been accused of raping a white woman. The Supreme Court ruling on that case found that the death penalty as practiced by all U.S. states was cruel and unusual punishment.
Jones as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ankara, Turkey, where she taught at Hacettepe Science Centre. Photo courtesy Elaine Jones
Jones served in the Ford and Clinton administrations. She was instrumental in the passage of legislation bolstering voting rights, fair housing, and civil rights. She is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, and in December 2000 President Clinton presented her with the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award.
She spoke with Jalina Porter, a graduate of Howard University who served with the Peace Corps in Cambodia 2009–11; was a communications director in the U.S. Congress; in 2020 was honored with the Franklin H. Williams Award by the Peace Corps; and in January 2021 was named deputy spokesperson for the Department of State.
You either give in to it or you decide that you are going to do something to defeat it.
Jalina Porter: You served in the Peace Corps 1965–67. After graduating from Howard University, what made you want to join the Peace Corps, especially during that time?
Elaine Jones: I came from a completely segregated environment, born in the South in the ’40s. You had your separate water fountains, sitting in the back of the bus — we had all of that down in Virginia. That molds you — you either give in to it or you decide that you are going to do something to defeat it. I decided that this is not the way the world should be, as a little Black girl in the South. I decided that one day I would be able to do something to change it. And my parents always encouraged me.
I had come through elementary in public schools using secondhand, hand-me-down books. When I went to Howard, I got a scholarship. Stokely Carmichael was in my class, and folks would come back from the Freedom Rides. I was not down in Mississippi doing the Freedom Rides, but many others were. President Lyndon Johnson gave the “Great Society” speech at Howard during my graduation in 1965. And that is when I realized that I wanted to do law. Thurgood Marshall had come out of Howard. And I mean, they were my heroes — the lawyers. But I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t know anything about the world. I really had only been exposed to my own culture. I knew I needed more exposure and to be able to travel and meet other people. So I said, “My answer is the Peace Corps.” All I had to do was get in, because I knew I didn’t want to go to law school right away.
I applied to the Peace Corps, and they decided I would go to Turkey. We trained at Princeton; it was a special program, TEFL — teaching English as a foreign language. I was in Turkey Eight. There were nearly 200 of us in Turkey Eight, which was the biggest class that they’d had. And then we trained in-country. And guess who was studying there that summer? James Baldwin! You’re meant to go where you’re meant to go.
Folks in the street would look at me and spit on the sidewalk when I walked by, not because of an anti-Americanism, but because they thought I was Arabic.
Porter: What was it like being an African American woman volunteering in Turkey?
Jones: I was the only African American in that group. About 35 or 40 percent were women — white women — and then me. I had never been around their culture — whiteness, it’s a culture. For me, it was trying to respond and understand how to take them wanting to feel my hair. They focused on different things, too, and obviously had not been around people of color. So it was then that I understood I’m the experiment, you see? But the Peace Corps taught me patience. It taught me that if you adopt an attitude or something rubs you the wrong way, every time it happens that’s what you’re going to have the whole time you’re here. What you have to do is give people the benefit of the doubt. A lot of it is ignorance — just like you are ignorant about them, they’re also ignorant about you. And so I viewed it as an opportunity. I embraced it and made these two years in which I could grow, develop, and learn, which is what happened. I also made some great friends in the Peace Corps.
But I was still so different, because my students would not believe that I was American. A lot of them thought I was Arabic. There was no love lost between the Turks and the Arabs. But my students knew me and eventually accepted that I was American; I didn’t feel any antipathy from them. But folks in the street would look at me and spit on the sidewalk when I walked by, not because of an anti-Americanism, but because they thought I was Arabic. And the white volunteers got their share of stuff. Because it was a tough time when we got to Turkey in August of 1965. There had been a big slap in Cyprus; the Greeks and the Turks had been fighting over Cyprus for decades, and the U.S. had taken a position that was not palatable to Turkey. Feelings were running high, and the fact that we were American did not help the white volunteers. The Turkish people got angry with them because of the situation in Cyprus and the position that the U.S. had taken, which the Turks interpreted as being pro-Greek.
Even so, the Turks opened their hearts to us, on an individual level. When you take the institutions or nationalities out of it, and on a people-to-people level, Peace Corps worked because of the humanity of people.
Martin Luther King was assassinated when I was in law school. Nobody in the law school said one word, and some of them were gleeful.
Porter: Tell me about when you came back to the United States, and you already knew you wanted to be a lawyer. How did being in the Peace Corps and what you learned in Turkey help you when you became a lawyer, and eventually in your longtime role as president at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund?
Jones: I took the LSAT in Turkey. I was admitted to two law schools to which I applied. One was Howard and the other was the University of Virginia. When I came back from the Peace Corps, I decided that I had been to Howard, and it had been a rich experience. I learned a great deal. But I needed to do something different. It’s always easy to go to what’s comfortable. And the Mecca was comfortable. And I said, “Elaine, just like you went into Peace Corps, let’s do something different.” I showed up in Charlottesville in mid-August, and I didn’t know I would be the first African American woman to come through that law school. But I learned it fast though. I had learned diplomacy in the Peace Corps. And like Thurgood Marshall always said about the cases, “Lose your temper, lose your case.”
When I left law school, I had a job offer with President Nixon’s law firm on Wall Street — Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander. And he was president at the time when I graduated, which was in 1970. But then I thought about it and told myself, “You didn’t go to law school to go to Wall Street. You went to law school because of the work of Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall and all those lawyers who litigated all those landmark cases.” My dean sent me to his friend in New York, Jack Greenberg, and Jack hired me on the spot.
The Peace Corps also helped me in Charlottesville. That, too, was alien territory. I had to apply the lessons of patience I learned. For example, try not to get an ulcer but keep your anger to yourself, and also try to give people the benefit of the doubt when there’s some benefit there to give them. Martin Luther King was assassinated when I was in law school. Nobody in the law school said one word, and some of them were gleeful.
Porter: What are your thoughts on the next chapter of Peace Corps — and what we should do to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Jones: The Peace Corps is a good idea. It only works, though, if our hosts fully embrace us. In other words, if our hosts give us the benefit of the doubt. It shouldn’t be what we want; they have to want us, as well. It’s very difficult to plop anybody down in a different culture and not have somebody in that culture that they can relate to, who looks like them. It’s also important that we have the right attitude, that we understand that it’s a partnership, and that we have things we want to give. But in order to give they have to be received.
Peace Corps has to have someone who really believes in its mission, who will be an advocate, have presence among her or his colleagues and influence within the administration.
Porter: What advice do you have for anybody who’s thinking about joining the Peace Corps, especially in light of the new administration coming into office?
Jones: Peace Corps has to have someone who really believes in its mission, who will be an advocate, have presence among her or his colleagues and influence within the administration toward the funding in a budget.
I think the heart of the Peace Corps is two things: the relationship in choosing carefully the nations that we’re going to; and the outlook and disposition of the putative Volunteers. How they view the world is very important. We cannot have people who anger quickly, jump to conclusions, or who are judgmental. Volunteers should also believe in the mission. If someone has had some positive experiences or negative experiences with the host country, they should have the ability to talk it through diplomatically.
In Memoriam: Drew S. Days III, first African American to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of JusticeHe fought for racial equality and served as Solicitor General of the United States see more
He also served as Solicitor General of the United States. He was a man of principle and devoted much of his life’s work to racial equality.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Photo courtesy Yale University Law School
The Peace Corps community mourns the loss of a pioneer for our nation: Drew S. Days III, the first African American to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice — and the first Black man to lead any division at Justice. He was appointed in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter. Later, under President Bill Clinton he also served as Solicitor General of the United States — a position often referred to as the “tenth justice” of the Supreme Court.
He was gentle and courageous and kind and a man of principle. So much of his career was committed to striving for racial equality. He was born in Atlanta in 1941 and grew up in Tampa, Florida — and at the age of 30 won a lawsuit that desegregated the schools where he was educated. He studied English literature at Hamilton College and law at Yale.
He sang — and it was at Yale Russian Chorus rehearsals that he met Ann Langdon. They wed and joined the Peace Corps and served in Honduras 1967–69 and were married for 54 years.
After Peace Corps service, Drew Days worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Education Fund in New York City. Tapped for his role with the justice department, he tackled racism in blatant forms in school districts and sought to ensure more effective discipline for police who abused their authority.
He joined the faculty of Yale Law School in 1981 and took a leave of absence to serve as solicitor general of the United States. He argued 17 cases before the Supreme Court and supervised nearly 200 more. He was founding director of the Orville Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights Law at Yale.
He died Sunday, Nov. 15 at the age of 79. Our hearts go out to Ann, their children, and the family who meant so much to Drew.
Unprecedented Times. Powerful stuff. Stories that brought tears. see more
I’m writing to congratulate and thank you for the current issue of WorldView. It’s the most powerful thing in print I’ve seen from Peace Corps since I received my acceptance letter in 1969. Congrats to everyone involved on a mammoth job so very well done.
Most remarkable WorldView ever, both the quality of the product and the effort it took to gather and edit the stories. What we may have is the substance for a book, proceeds from which would fund NPCA services and support to returning Volunteers. Two quotes (both from the stories from China): “A lot of my students had never seen or interacted with a foreigner. For them, the experience is transformational” and, “To assume that the Chinese government and people are the same is a fallacy.”
I wept my way through reading WorldView. The evacuation stories both broke my heart and raised my spirit. I could not help but imagine myself being torn away from my community, friends, counterparts, programs, and much more, had I had to leave Paraguay (where I served) within 24 hours. Unbearable thought for me and yet excruciatingly real for 6,892 Volunteers. Their stories were beautiful and so painful. I was buoyed up with an affirmation that Peace Corps is still making its unique contributions worldwide. Not just in the countries where Volunteers serve, but also in the Volunteers themselves. Peace Corps must survive this global pandemic. We need it now more than ever.
Congratulations on the rapid launching of your Global Reentry program. NPCA has risen to the challenges of today in so many fabulous ways. Thank you for your leadership.
Engaging, thoughtful, and truly remarkable — I’ve read it in print cover to cover, and will read it again online. This one’s a keeper.
Peter de Groot
PCV Benin 1980–82
Peace Corps Trainer, Africa, 1983–92
Amazing with the stories from the country directors closing their sites. These stories bring a world of hurt thinking about what each had to go through to plan their departures, and the Volunteers having to say “goodbye.”
On behalf of our RPCV Gulf Coast Florida group: We were touched to read the heartrending stories of so many evacuated PCVs, and especially Missi Smith’s eloquent lament, “I’m Tired.”
For our signature project, we have dedicated ourselves to fundraising for and assisting the African American community in the heart of Sarasota called Newtown, through its grassroots organization, Newtown Alive. African American residents played a major role in the development of Sarasota. Black labor cleared snake-infested land for real estate developers, laid railroad ties, harvested celery, helped plant golf courses, and labored in the homes of Sarasota’s power brokers — cooking, cleaning, and rearing children. The men and women fought for equal rights, triumphed over Jim Crow segregation, KKK intimidation, and vigilante violence. Today, a diverse group of historians, community scholars, and others have united to present the dramatic history of strivers who refused to give up. More: rpcvgcf.peacecorpsconnect.org
Leita Kaldi Davis
Lillian Carter Award Recipient 2017
We need to find ways to make the Peace Corps in its current form “bigger, better, bolder” and give the Third Goal more explicit attention.
Terrific — packed with timely, important news that helps put unprecedented issues impacting the Peace Corps into perspective. I hope all past and future Volunteers and staff will go through the magazine cover-to-cover. I especially like“Our Unprecedented Times,” tracing momentous events and decisions which have changed not only Peace Corps but also our nation and the entire world. And Lex Rieffel’s “The Peace Corps in the Post-Pandemic World,” while controversial, is worth pondering. I disagree with proposals to convert the Peace Corps into something other than an independent federal agency, but I agree we need to find ways to make the Peace Corps in its current form “bigger, better, bolder” and give the Third Goal more explicit attention. We must have more conversations about the ideals, relevance, and mission of the Peace Corps in a rapidly-changing world and make sure the Peace Corps truly reflects America’s diversity and has the resources it needs to get Volunteers back into the field as soon as it is safe to do so.
Michael H. Anderson
Board Member, Friends of Malaysia
Well written and edited — a pleasure to read, though my eyes fill with tears as I learn Volunteers’ stories of their emergency evacuations. That many returned Volunteers can continue to communicate with their colleagues and friends living in remote places is one benefit not afforded earlier Volunteers. Nevertheless, the bonds are immutable; after 40 years, I and a fellow RPCV returned to the sites where we trained and supervised healthcare providers and located many of them because of their long, successful careers. We only had to ask a few strangers who recognized faces in old photos. (See WorldView Spring 2018.)
I hope evacuated Volunteers are able to return to their work, if they so choose.
You managed to convey the urgency of the moment and the vast disappointment of so many.
As a longtime journalist, allow me to say that you’ve done a great job. The coverage of the withdrawal of Peace Corps from its posts was absolutely terrific. The text cover, a brilliant graphic touch, was only the beginning of a fascinating issue. You managed to convey the urgency of the moment and the vast disappointment of so many. These are terribly difficult times for us all, particularly painful for Peace Corps and the many new, reluctantly-made, RPCVs.
Fabulous edition! I’m sending my copy off to my granddaughter, who was considering joining. Here’s hoping she has the chance!!
Greetings from the Solomons. I am missing my WorldView mags due to no mail from the States for months. Glad to know there is an online edition. COVID19 has held up the reopening of the Peace Corps office for the Solomons this year and the bringing in of new PCVs in 2021.
Solomon Islands 1974–78
Reading stories of the evacuated Volunteers brought back memories of my service 50 years ago in the Philippines. The agricultural school where I was assigned is now a full-fledged university. Some current students are likely to be the grandchildren of students I taught while there. Best wishes for continuing Peace Corps ideals in the future.
Philippines Group 36
Some time ago, my daughter was notified that she is on a list for training for Guinea. She is diligently working on French. I hope this pandemic can be brought under control before many more months pass; she doesn’t want to miss this opportunity.
The issue of WorldView that tells the stores of the PCVs being recalled was absolutely fabulous.
Costa Rica 1964–66
What a work by dedicated individuals! I served in the first group to go to Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1963. Thank you to those who shared, captured the info, and created this issue.
Truly wonderful issue. Thanks for your hard work in writing and putting it together.
Fantastic! Thought provoking and meaningful, from the global evacuation to the pandemic to Black Lives Matter and the very future of the Peace Corps.
Powerful and well-written, this article by Missi Smith challenges us to take action, giving us a clear list of things we can actually do to move our society toward racial equality.
Ecuador 1970–74, Nicaragua 1974–75
It is fabulous, and I would like to share among family and friends, to encourage some to join the Peace Corps and others to take action. Missi Smith’s essay, “I’m Tired,” is powerful. The statements from the PCVs who were evacuated testify to the incredible importance of the Peace Corps around the world, especially as global ambassadors. I have just now made contribution to the NPCA and will add it to my annual giving list. Keep up the good work! The return of Peace Corps to the wider world is in my prayers.
It is fabulous, and I would like to share among family and friends, to encourage some to join the Peace Corps and others to take action.
I got my edition and immediately called my brother, the father of an evacuated 25-year-old volunteer from Botswana. I told him I would keep this edition as a keepsake for my nephew, saying it was historical and powerful and moving! If one can order second copies please let us know. We continue to support and pray for these Volunteers and communities!
Indeed, we’re happy to send more! Support from NPCA members and donors makes it possible for us to tell stories that matter.
A few questions: What kind of a journal has no place for readers’ responses — and simply takes current headlines and applies them to something entirely different? Do you really think there is systematic racism in this country and the Peace Corps is part of it?
James Eric Lane
Find all the stories mentioned here in the Summer 2020 edition of WorldView magazine. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:
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A conversation we’ve had again and again. Here are some ideas, insights, and hard truths. see more
Recruitment, support — and what next? It’s a conversation we’ve had again and again. Here are some ideas, insights, and hard truths.
ON SEPTEMBER 15, 2020, THE CONSTITUENCY FOR AFRICA convened a group of past, present, and future Peace Corps leaders for the annual Ronald H. Brown African Affairs series. It’s a timely and needed conversation — with all Peace Corps Volunteers evacuated from around the world because of COVID-19, and as our nation grapples with pandemics of coronavirus and systemic racism.
The conversation was moderated by educational consultant Eldridge “Skip” Gilbert, who served as a Volunteer in Sierra Leone (1967–69). Edited excerpts here. You can also watch the full video.
Melvin Foote: I served in Eritrea and Ethiopia in the early ’70s. Peace Corps is the reason I’m doing what I am today. Constituency for Africa is a policy advocacy organization; we help to educate Americans about Africa, improve cooperation and coordination between organizations, and help shape U.S. policy toward Africa.
Now Peace Corps has gone through the trauma of evacuation of Volunteers worldwide, trying to figure out when and how it will return to the field. We want to increase the number of African Americans and Americans of African descent in Peace Corps. It comes at an interesting time for our country, as Black Lives Matter and the forces of coronavirus have taken over our lives. How do we strengthen the Peace Corps going forward?
That is what this conversation is about.
Melvin Foote, Founder & CEO, Constituency for Africa (Ethiopia 1973–75)
Each One, Reach One!
Darlene Grant: I’m speaking from Birmingham, Alabama, where I am steeped in my family’s and our nation’s history — of overcoming overwhelming odds, injustice, and disparities to fulfill our ancestors’ wildest dreams. We know what it means that we’re stronger together. That it takes a village to help individuals realize their full potential. That is what we have to offer the Peace Corps. I have six points to make.
One, focus primarily on the health, safety, and security of Volunteers. Peace Corps partners with communities abroad to develop sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems and challenges. It’s critical to empower more African Americans and Black-identifying individuals to drive the narrative of who they are — Volunteers who can show the strength, resilience, ingenuity, beauty, richness of our culture in the spaces where they walk, live, and serve. It is critical that African American Volunteers work collaboratively with Latinx, white, Asian, and other identifying Volunteers, so that when they return to the United States, they are able to effectively communicate across differences. To mobilize diverse communities, form coalitions, make the U.S. — and the world — a better place.
Two, in today’s world, a college degree is not enough to impact socioeconomic mobility of oneself or one’s family. Peace Corps service pays dividends. We must better communicate those dividends so that our Black-identifying and African American sisters and brothers can communicate to their families, schools, businesses, churches, mosques the value of leaving to come back stronger, bigger, badder, leaner, meaner. Peace Corps offers a significant resume value, on-the-ground international development experience, foreign language immersion, small grant writing and implementation skills. It offers interaction with State Department, USAID, United Nations staff, and other communities — and opportunity to take the Foreign Service test. I was 50 years old at my mid-service, and I was thinking, “Man, if I had known about all of this when I was preparing to graduate from college, where would I be today?” So I’m making sure my grandkids know — and nieces, nephews.
My first leave of absence from Mongolia as country director I visited my niece’s first grade class. I was a secret reader of the day. I read a Halloween story. Then I held up a Mongolia flag, told stories of Mongolia to a bunch of first graders in a predominantly white elementary school in Birmingham, Alabama. Then I invited them to go home and tell their parents they were going to grow up to join the Peace Corps. That poor first grade teacher’s eyes got so big — she thought I was starting a ruckus she would not be able to control! But that is what we must do: Start early and often in the schools.
Three, in many African American and Black-identifying families — particularly in lower income communities — if you have earned a college degree, you are the family’s bootstraps, by which families have a chance to see a bigger world, a broader view, a hope for different tomorrow.
The role of African Americans in post-pandemic U.S. Peace Corps is to describe and design the doors for others to walk through.
Four, the role of African Americans in post-pandemic U.S. Peace Corps is to describe and design the doors for others to walk through.
Five, the pandemic has highlighted racial and socioeconomic inequities in our country. It has done so in countries abroad as well. They must see a more diverse volunteer corps to better understand and to better grow their own worlds.
Finally, this pandemic and everything else going on have high-lighted global interconnectedness — and with that an increased need for people, for African Americans, who can effectively and sensitively navigate cross-cultural difference for the purpose of building a just and equitable world and systems, a just and equitable peace.
Dr. Darlene Grant, Senior Advisor to Peace Corps Director (Cambodia 2009–11)
Skip Gilbert: I would like to add a little bit more to that. Not only do we need to reach out and “each one, reach one,” but it's wonderful that we have the opportunity of “each one teaching one.” So we can learn to not only reach out for contact purposes, but we have the responsibility to teach as well.
Dwayne Matthews: When I was in the application process, I asked, “What is Peace Corps doing to gain African Americans?” I wrote a list of things I wanted to do. I didn’t find out about Peace Corps until going to community college. I was watching an episode of “A Different World” and heard the character Whitley say, “Well, why don’t you just ship me off to the Peace Corps?” That prompted me to look into it.
When sitting in the village, I knew I wanted to target Historically Black Colleges and Universities. My first event as a diversity recruiter was doing an HBCU tour up and down the East Coast and the South coast. From there, I did the HBCU barbershop tour: 23 barbershops gave me the platform. We have to be more creative in the ways that we’re attracting folks.
I’m from Little Rock, Arkansas. Peace Corps just wasn’t a conversation. My folks didn’t travel.
I’m from Little Rock, Arkansas. Peace Corps just wasn’t a conversation. My folks didn’t travel. My dad’s a truck driver, my mother’s a housewife.
Now, in this COVID-19 pandemic and racial pandemic, I was able to speak with the Peace Corps powers that be, and we are in the process of creating an HBCU video where we’re talking to returned Volunteers who graduated from HBCUs about their experiences — how Peace Corps has set them up for their life.
Dwayne Matthews, Office of Peace Corps Diversity Recruiter (Malawi 2013–15)
Clintandra Thompson: Senegal is predominantly Muslim, predominantly Wolof speaking. My community was Catholic and Sarare. I was in my language group with one other Volunteer, a white woman from Utah. I remember her dad sending cards and letters at least twice a week. She got one for administrative professionals day, for Veterans Day, for Tuesday! Her parents were very supportive of her service.
My parents were a little lukewarm. When I saw the support white Volunteers had from their community — in the way of care packages, visits, sponsored trips to other places, social media, phone calls — I said to myself when I returned, There’s definitely something we can do to lift ourselves up. I reached out to RPCV friends and asked if they would help me send letters, care packages, make calls to Volunteers in service. I started out small on Facebook and was overwhelmed with the response; there are way more current Volunteers who wanted to be matched with a Black RPCV.
I started the Adopt a Black Peace Corps Volunteer exchange to help and encourage Black Volunteers, to allow them an opportunity to reach out to Black RPCVs who’ve been there.
I started the Adopt a Black Peace Corps Volunteer exchange to help and encourage Black Volunteers, to allow them an opportunity to reach out to Black RPCVs who’ve been there — who know what those slights and comments might sound like, what it’s like when your community kind of shuns you, what it feels like to be the only American for miles and miles and hours and hours of travel. The Adopt a BPCV exchange has been around since 2015. I usually gear up in September in anticipation for sending out a Halloween card, Thanksgiving card, Christmas card, Christmas care package.
Clintandra Thompson, Communications Professional; Creator, Adopt a Black PCV Exchange (Senegal 2012–14)
Why Peace Corps?
Harris Bostic II: After a decade of swimming in all things Peace Corps — as a Volunteer, agency employee, and NPCA board member — I stayed ashore for awhile. Now as the waters again beckon for help with diversifying this 60-year-old organization, I’m ready to dive back in.
The years I spent in Africa as an advisor to a microcredit program and local Guinean small businesses have directly impacted my career, my personal life — and, frankly, my mere being. The Peace Corps was great for me. I do admit that it is not for everyone. But it certainly should be a viable option for more Blacks than it is now.
Shortly after I concluded my service, I landed a position with the Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games. My boss chose me from a large number of applicants because of my Peace Corps experience: having a vast knowledge of the world beyond U.S. borders, the ability to embrace the unknown, push through ambiguity, work with limited direction and guidance, and continually learn about oneself and others. I became director of the 54 African Olympic National Committees, then advanced to the office of the chairman, Ambassador Andrew Young, where we were instrumental in negotiating South Africa’s return to the Olympics after a 30-year sanction due to apartheid.
At the Peace Corps agency I participated on many task forces. The “How to Quantify the Peace Corps Service” task force was incredibly important, but it lost steam due to the Peace Corps five-year rule, continual turnover, and loss of institutional knowledge. Today I challenge the agency, NPCA, and RPCVs, to come together and create crisp messages on all the salient reasons to join the Peace Corps — and benefits of service that target specific audiences: Blacks, folks from lower socioeconomic levels, people of color, etc.
Today I challenge the agency, NPCA, and RPCVs, to come together and create crisp messages on all the salient reasons to join the Peace Corps — and benefits of service that target specific audiences: Blacks, folks from lower socioeconomic levels, people of color, etc.
Career and grad school recruiters scour resumes, applications, and essays in search of various experiences. Often they see military service, an MBA, law degree, formal sports experience — and they associate discipline, decision making, critical thinking, teamwork, striving for excellence. Recruiters should see Peace Corps and think of all the core competencies associated with it.
Another call-to-action: Consider rebuilding the Peace Corps to attract Blacks and those from lower socioeconomic levels, who often just can’t afford to join the Peace Corps. They have college loans, credit card debt, need to support families back home. Unlike the military, the Peace Corps is unreachable — and sometimes seemingly more suitable for whites and privileged individuals. Allocate budgets to support those at lower socioeconomic levels so they can see Peace Corps as not only tenable but viable. Market and package Peace Corps service in such a way to attract Blacks by lifting up the quantifiable benefits of Peace Corps service.
The goal is for Peace Corps to assemble at the same table a group of both likely and unlikely allies — to work toward identifying solid benefits of service; quantifying, or translating them to understandable competencies; then market and package them into sellable traits and attributes that recruiters value and seek, especially among people of color, and from diverse backgrounds. Imagine what a group of RPCVs — business and community leaders, media, social scientists, academics, and changemakers — could accomplish by putting their heads together and brainstorming how the agency can not only quantify what it means to serve in the Peace Corps, but also give every PCV and even parents the proof that their service mattered.
Harris Bostic II, Strategic Senior Advisor & Client Services, Tides (Guinea 1988–91)
Anthony Pinder: Peace Corps has run through the veins of my understanding of what a global citizen is. I started as a Volunteer, came back to the agency as a country director in Central Africa and Equatorial Guinea, then came back to Washington as a national director for minority recruitment.
Removing barriers for underrepresented communities and creating a more just and equitable Peace Corps — we have always been concerned with that. It’s not enough to be concerned about increasing numbers. What are we going to do when we get them in the pipeline?
Removing barriers for underrepresented communities and creating a more just and equitable Peace Corps — we have always been concerned with that.
In the Office of Minority Recruitment, the first thing was change the name to the Office of Minority and National Recruitment Initiatives. I was given some university programs as well; you got to have tools in your toolkit. I did not want to just be the diversity guy. I wanted to have more juice among my own communities as I moved around the country and helped manage 11 regional recruiting officers.
I have worked in other spaces where the robustness of the folks in leadership positions was absent. And it’s awkward to bring up questions and strategies that benefit a particular community when certain people aren’t at the table. We were able to go into the HBCUs and negotiate awesome, big events, not just for minority recruitment, but for the agency. The first group of volunteers we sent to South Africa was on my watch. We did a dramatic sendoff in Atlanta, at Morehouse College, and also at Emory at the Carter Center.
Representation is important — as is supporting diversity at the country director level. As we talk about increasing recruitment of people of color, Black folks in particular, what happens when they get in country? Will there be advocacy for the difference that they bring, for the ingenuity and the wonderful things that make their experiences so rich — also for so many people alongside them? Look at what it takes for the successful completion of the volunteer experience, as well as leadership positions within the agency. This conversation is not a new one.
We’ve talked about the awkwardness of a five-year rule. Why is it, as one of the few minority directors of Peace Corps, as a country director, I’ve never gotten a call from Peace Corps? I have leveraged the awesome experience that Peace Corps was into a career in higher ed and other areas. We should know who each other are, the strengths and resources we possess, so another person following Dr. Grant does not have to start from scratch trying to identify stakeholders.
We should not have to revisit this topic again.
Dr. Anthony L. Pinder, Associate Vice President of Internationalization & Global Engagement, Emerson College (Ecuador 1987–90)
Skip Gilbert: One historical footnote: I also had a wonderful Peace Corps experience. And from that time until now, we've only had two African American Peace Corps directors. One, Dr. Carolyn Payton. And the other person, who is on this call, is Aaron Williams. Now Aaron Williams and I worked on an Office of Minority recruitment, under the leadership of one C. Payne Lucas. He and the late Dr. Joseph Kennedy were personal mentors to myself, and certainly others — among them Aaron Williams.
Marieme Foote: Peace Corps is almost in my blood. My mother is Senegalese and grew up in Senegal, surrounded by Peace Corps Volunteers, where she learned English and then came to the U.S. to pursue her graduate degree. My father was a Volunteer. Before that, he had no understanding of Africa as a whole. His career has been shaped by it. This has transformed their lives, and other Black lives across the world, and has transformed my own.
I’m still reeling from the difficulty of being pulled suddenly from Benin. With the reality of COVID-19 in the U.S., I’ve seen Volunteers going through homelessness, unemployment, lack of health insurance. COVID exposed a wound that hadn’t really been addressed. As Volunteers, we were rapidly trying to adjust to the reality of Blackness within the U.S. Within weeks of getting back, after quarantine, I was on the streets, protesting in front of the White House.
Peace Corps does have the capacity to transform lives, which is why it’s so important that we make sure that when Black Volunteers do return, they have support they need.
African Americans are disproportionately impacted by socioeco-nomic issues in the U.S. For many Volunteers, what is provided in terms of support when returning is not enough. Evacuees are facing issues with paying for health insurance or paying for their Close of Service medical exam and not being reimbursed. If you don’t have the money in the first place, how do you even pay for it?
Peace Corps does have the capacity to transform lives, which is why it’s so important that we make sure that when Black Volunteers do return, they have support they need.
Marieme Foote, Advocacy & Administrative Support Associate, National Peace Corps Association (Benin 2018–20)
Rahama Wright: In Mali I served at a community health center. I also started working on developing cooperatives and small and medium enterprises. I was so impacted by my experience — seeing many women in my community struggling to care for themselves and their children. And I became obsessed with learning about making shea butter. When I came back to the U.S., I launched Shea Yeleen with a goal of helping women who make this amazing product bring it to the U.S. market in a way that was sustainable.
My parents met when my dad did the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso in the ’70s. I grew up in upstate New York in a family where I knew I would do Peace Corps. But I did not know the impact it would have: changing everything I thought about the continent of Africa, about people who lived in rural communities — experiencing what they were because of global social, economic, and political issues outside their control.
We have been given tools and experiences as Volunteers that we can use to make sustained, longterm impact in communities we serve. We have the knowledge and cultural competencies that a lot of Americans don’t. Most Americans don’t have a passport.
For Peace Corps, that means centering the role and contributions of Black and Brown people — not in a “we want to support diversity and inclusion by bringing more people to the table” — but really building an entirely new table.
Now, what we’re dealing with in terms of Black Lives Matter and COVID: The humanity of Black and Brown people is under attack not only here in the U.S. but globally. We have to rise to the occasion and say, “We’re not going to allow the things that we’re seeing without taking a stand.” That is so important, especially when we’re thinking about the future of Peace Corps. Everyone wants to build back better. For Peace Corps, that means centering the role and contributions of Black and Brown people — not in a “we want to support diversity and inclusion by bringing more people to the table” — but really building an entirely new table. We need to reimagine Peace Corps.
Rahama Wright, Founder & CEO of Shea Yeleen Health & Beauty Company (Mali 2002–04)
It’s About Ubuntu
C.D. Glin: For me, this conversation is about Ubuntu: “I am, because we are” — because of this community. Because of Tony Pinder leading minority and national recruitment, because of Harris Bostic in San Francisco as regional recruitment director. From being in the first Peace Corps Volunteer group that showcased diversity as a strength to a new South Africa: 32 volunteers — four African Americans, four people identified as Latinx, five people over 55, five Asian Americans. Having an African American country director, being greeted by the Mission Director to South Africa and the ambassador being African American men — Aaron Williams and James Joseph.
“Why are we still having this conversation?” We’re having this conversation again, and again. I went to South Africa in February 1997. It was a transformational time for our country but also for South Africa, with a democratically elected president who had battled back the racial oppression of apartheid. That historic moment was an opportunity to showcase the America that we all are — people of different backgrounds coming together for a cause.
That entry point into Peace Corps opens up the world. But if we as people of color, as African Americans, are not part of that, the rest doesn’t happen. Looking at foreign assistance and national security and diversity in all its forms: 189 Americans are serving as U.S. ambassadors. Seven are people of color: three African Americans, four people who identify as Latinx. Many in the State Department and foreign service, where did they start their careers? Peace Corps. We’re not in the pipeline if we’re not being recruited by people like Dwayne, supported by people like Dr. Grant.
That entry point into Peace Corps opens up the world. But if we as people of color, as African Americans, are not part of that, the rest doesn’t happen.
There was a full court press at the agency from the mid ’90s to early 2000s to recruit diverse volunteers. This was beyond race and ethnicity; this was ability, people over 50. There was a real intentionality. We lost some initiatives because they were never institutionalized.
People who are not traditional Volunteers — they’re not looking for adventure, they’re looking for a way to enhance their professional portfolio: the Foreign Service exam; universities looking for returning vol-unteers in the Peace Corps Fellows Program, in the master’s international program; a leg up in international development work. These are critical to tell people who are nontraditional recruits, predominantly African Americans, who come from places that represent and sort of look like some places where we are sending Volunteers.
When I arrived in my community in South Africa, there was a welcome: majorettes and a band at the school where I was going to serve. I had studied U.S. foreign policy toward Africa at Howard University, I’d been a Foreign Service intern in Ghana. I got to South Africa and knew this community was waiting for me. The Land Cruiser pulled up and I hopped out, and everyone was still looking around and looking over me and almost through me — because I wasn’t the American that they were waiting for. I didn’t look like the volunteer they were told they were going to get. Just by showing up, I knew I was going to transform the way that they thought about the U.S. I took it as a challenge. This is an opportunity for us as people of color, as African Americans, to show up, to represent.
I saw examples of what Peace Corps could do for careers by those who mentored me. I’m grateful to be “a success story” because of all those who’ve come before me — and to have reached back as I climbed. When I see Curtis Valentine on the chat, I remember a call from the country director in South Africa, Yvonne Hubbard, saying there’s a young brother here who’s a Morehouse man who wants to talk to you. Curtis Valentine has gone on to Harvard and become a leader in education throughout the state of Maryland.
I lead the U.S. African Development Foundation. Almost half of our staff are former Peace Corps Volunteers. The foundation, second to Peace Corps, is probably the government’s best kept secret.
It’s our duty to use our experiences to make young African Americans more aware of opportunities Peace Corps can provide. It’s incumbent upon the agency to ask us to do more.
The realities of today are not unlike the past. But what got us here, where we have so many success stories — they need to be leveraged. When I was a Peace Corps diversity recruitment specialist, it was my job to think about successful African Americans who had done Peace Corps. I got to know Ambassador Johnnie Carson, returned Volunteer, three-time ambassador, and an icon in the Foreign Service, now a mentor to me. After volunteering on the Obama campaign and leading the transition team at Peace Corps, to join the staff of Aaron Williams as the second African American, first African American male, to lead the Peace Corps—to focus on global partnerships and intergovernmental affairs — this was a true honor.
It’s our duty to use our experiences to make young African Americans more aware of opportunities Peace Corps can provide. It’s incumbent upon the agency to ask us to do more — give back in new ways, such as Adopt a Black RPCV. There is a recruitment issue, a pipeline issue, a retention issue. We also want to focus on advancement and leadership. It is about the intentionality that we need to bring. Let’s be innovative — and institutionalize the initiatives — so 10 years later, we aren’t having the same conversations again.
C.D. Glin, President of US African Development Foundation (USADF) (South Africa 1997–99)
Skip Gilbert: What policies would you implement to increase African American presence in this new Peace Corps?
Dwayne Matthews: I was looking at an old Ebony magazine from 1978, with Mohammed Ali on the cover. It had Peace Corps Director Carolyn Payton inside — talking about the same thing we’re talking about today. But she had a three- or four-page ad about African Americans and the need for them in Peace Corps.
I don’t know where that money is being allocated to. I do know that if they’re trying to target us, the budget needs to be bolstered.
Skip Gilbert: We have a marvelous opportunity to engage in a new dialogue, which will allow us to help create that new Peace Corps.
Anthony Pinder: It’s not about creating safe spaces, but brave spaces. I had some really courageous supervisors; if you’re going to empower me to do something, I need you to advocate for me, even if I do something wrong.
There needs to be a holistic strategy — people empowered to be great, and hired because of their innovation, genius, courageousness. When you have directors and all levels throughout the organization empowered, so we are not in isolated roles, we don’t have to have major conferences about inclusive excellence; it’s gonna happen.
I am now at a predominantly white institution as a vice president. We are having the same kinds of conversations. This is not peculiar for Peace Corps; this is a national dialogue, some systemic things we need to fix. The agency has to be braver than it has been.
Harris Bostic: I like to ask hyperbolic questions in situations like this: What if the goal of Peace Corps was to have 90 percent of Volunteers be people of color? What would be done differently? How would recruitment and benefits be explained? How would the application process be different? Reentry?
Take it further: What if, in 1961, when they were designing the Peace Corps, they were designing it for people of color and people from the lower socioeconomic 90 percent? How would the Peace Corps have been developed?
What if, in 1961, when they were designing the Peace Corps, they were designing it for people of color and people from the lower socioeconomic 90 percent? How would the Peace Corps have been developed?
Like I said, hyperbolic questions. But think about Peace Corps in 1960–61: Who did it appeal to? A young, white, usually female, from middle or upper class. It has grown from there.
To the structure over 60 years — how do we rebuild? We can’t forget that equality is different from equity. We don’t have to treat everyone the same. If people coming in are people of color, Black, lower socioeconomic levels — they should be given different benefits and opportunities, a different return. There’d be pushback. But ask those bold questions — if we really want to get high numbers of people of color in the Peace Corps — what we have to do, or what we have to stop doing.
Melvin Foote: This is just the tip of the iceberg. Before I joined Peace Corps out of Gunnison, Colorado, I had a column in a newspaper called “The Back of the Bus.” I wrote about the experience of Black people. My audience were cowboys, folks up in the mountains. A guy wrote me a note — white guy from Michigan — and we met over coffee. He told me that he went to Ghana as a Peace Corps Volunteer, fell in love with a Ghanaian woman, and what is my opinion about interracial marriage?
“You love who you love. I can’t tell you about that. But, ”I said, “what is this Peace Corps?” I wanted to go to Africa. I put in my application.
A few months later, they wrote: You're going to Ethiopia. I thought: Ethiopia—the Middle East, because of the Bible stories. I went to the library, found an atlas — Ethiopia, right in the heart of Africa. When we flew over, I thought that Tarzan would be at the airport to take us to the village. That's the level of knowledge we had about Africa. I was shocked when I got to the airport and people were in suits and ties and carrying luggage and doing the things that people do at airports.
My message is: Don't agonize, organize. You could get mad all the time; here in Washington you’re always mad.
How far we have come — and how far we have to go. I’m an advocate. My message is: Don't agonize, organize. You could get mad all the time; here in Washington you’re always mad. Figure out what constructively you can do to shape policy.
I’ve had my hand on just about every U.S. policy toward Africa — everything from PEPFAR to the Rwanda intervention to President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative. We have to find constructive ways to add our voices, educate people about the Peace Corps, raise the issue with members of Congress who ought to be more supportive of the Peace Corps. We’re a coalition of the willing who want to help continue the legacy of the Peace Corps.
WATCH MORE: The full conversation
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Darlene Grant on her task to help shape “a more just and equitable Peace Corps” see more
Darlene Grant on her task to help shape “a more just and equitable Peace Corps”
Illustration by Edward Rooks
At a time of national reckoning with racial injustice — and the Peace Corps has heard calls from Volunteers to do better in confronting systemic racism as it affects the agency — a new top level advisor has come on board to lead work to create “a more just and equitable Peace Corps.” Darlene Grant’s official title is senior advisor to Director Jody Olsen. The excerpted Q&A below gives a sense of the scope of her work. You can read the full version on the Peace Corps website.
Some background on Dr. Grant: 18 years as a professor of social work at the University of Texas at Austin, teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in social justice, clinical practice, research methodology, and working with at-risk youth. Named 2006 Social Worker of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers. Took a leave of absence to serve in Cambodia’s third Peace Corps Volunteer cohort as a teacher and teacher trainer. Then country director in Mongolia and Kosovo.
On volunteering in Cambodia
It challenged everything I had learned from living life as an African American woman whose parents were a part of the great migration of the 1950s — when they traveled from the South to northern cities for opportunities. It challenged everything from my academic pursuits to what I taught as a professor about empathy, resilience, social justice, diversity, power, privilege, and oppression.
It challenged everything from my academic pursuits to what I taught as a professor about empathy, resilience, social justice, diversity, power, privilege, and oppression.
The people-to-people work of a Peace Corps Volunteer — living at the level of the community in which you serve, building relationships in the face of daily cross-cultural misunderstanding (that, in my case, included helping others overcome stereotypes related to the package that I come in) affirmed my commitment to my profession as it intersects with the mission of the Peace Corps. It solidified my passion for this work.
As a country director
It is from my own personal experience as a Volunteer and my professional framework that I have encouraged Volunteers — when they feel their work or presence is not valued — to get back to their why. Why do you want to do meaningful work? Why did you join the Peace Corps? It is my firm belief that if you can get back to your why, and if you use the staff and peer resources around you, you will tap into your core resilience.
As senior advisor
My primary role is to listen to and advise through the filter of my experience as a clinical social work practitioner; professor-researcher focused on anti-violence, anti-poverty, anti-racism, and oppression; Returned Peace Corps Volunteer; and former country director. I want to create a space where I can truly listen to people’s stories and recommendations on behalf of the agency. I aim to collaborate with the Peace Corps’ Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion to connect the dots in terms of attitudes, policies, and practices that deliberately or inadvertently put up barriers toward attaining the richest possible diversity of applicants, Volunteers, and staff from underrepresented groups.
Why do this?
My unique skills make me sensitive to the desire everyone has to be seen, heard, and respected for who they are, their fears, what they have overcome, and their hopes and dreams. Peace Corps changed the trajectory of my life and career to be one focused on meaningful cross-cultural work which, through an agency embedded within our U.S. government, enables me (and us) to work for a better America and a better world. After hearing the sad news of the passing of Representative John Lewis, I have been framing the dozens of calls for Peace Corps leadership to address organizational racial inequities in terms of his life, his fearless commitment, and his devotion to this work. The challenges and importance of anti-oppression, anti-racism, cannot be overstated.
Peace Corps changed the trajectory of my life and career to be one focused on meaningful cross-cultural work which, through an agency embedded within our U.S. government, enables me (and us) to work for a better America and a better world.
As I emphasize the importance of pressing on, no matter how tired, no matter how skeptical that this effort will lead to real change, one quote by Rep. John Lewis particularly resonates: “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even fairer, more just society.”
As everyone who reads this response has undoubtedly done, I have ruminated on the meaning of the intersection of the pandemic, the evacuation, and the horrendous killings of Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and too many others. These events have catapulted our society — and this agency — to a tipping point with a feeling of real possibilities for change.
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A message from NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst see more
President’s Letter: Now is a time to commit to building a legacy of inclusive peace.
By Glenn Blumhorst
Photo by Summer Gardner / Black RPCV in the DMV
What a year this has been! What began as what many of us hoped might be a year of “perfect” 20/20 vision to achieve our new year’s resolutions, business plans, and interpersonal goals turned out to be one of the most challenging years of our lifetime — profoundly so for the Peace Corps community. Though shortly after the beginning of the year, we were concerned by legislation that proposed ending the independence of Peace Corps. Pandemic led to a global evacuation of Volunteers in the spring. And by the time many of you read this message, our country will be turning yet another important page in this chapter of life we are all experiencing together. It is our goal at National Peace Corps Association that, no matter what the outcome of our 2020 elections, our leaders in the White House, House of Representatives, and U.S. Senate collectively support a better and stronger Peace Corps. So let us all lend a hand in transforming the Peace Corps so that we can once again pick up the torch and build peace and friendship abroad — and work together to do the same thing right here at home.
Civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis wrote: “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society.” While we cannot control what we face in the future, we can and should prepare for the problems we might face in this changed world. And while we certainly cannot undo the perils of the past year, I would be remiss if I did not address what we are doing at NPCA now to help heal old wounds from the past, as well as work to create new possibilities in the future that awaits us.
The skills we learned, backed by our core values, are what we need to be of service at home in the United States.
This past year has, for many of us, opened our hearts and minds to what is happening in our country like never before. When we serve as Peace Corps Volunteers, we venture into unfamiliar territory; we may witness strife or enforced gender roles that we find unsettling. While we adapt to our new environments, learn new languages, and forge new relationships, we may do so amidst wrenching change in the communities where we serve. The skills we learned, backed by our core values, are what we need to be of service at home in the United States — particularly while we have no Volunteers serving anywhere abroad.
August 28, 2020: New affiliate group Black RPCV in the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) brought together other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for the commemorative March on Washington. Photo by Summer Gardner / Black RPCV in the DMV
Peace Corps Volunteers are leaders in all walks of life. Being a leader means standing up for what is right, not just walking the walk only when it is comfortable to do so. At NPCA, we have humbly taken a stand in the fight against racial injustice after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others this year alone. We have held town halls, worked with affiliate groups, participated in marches, and advocated for legislative reform: for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act as well as police reform. And many of us have taken small steps with family members and friends to deepen an understanding of the gravity of what is happening in communities across the country. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we stand for human rights; as peacemakers we also work for justice and to ensure our valuable skill sets are being brought to bear where they are needed most.
August 28, 1963: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Photo by Warren K.Leffler / Library of Congress.
Standing up for the safety of our fellow American citizens is patriotic and exemplifies the leadership that each and every one of us gained during service. We have already done the same for the people in the communities that hosted us as Volunteers. So as this year draws to a close, let’s focus on making it a cornerstone for the good of humanity. Let us continue to have uncomfortable conversations that lead to lifelong connections and hearts that are full: of peace, justice, and understanding. We are only as good as our legacy will allow us to be years from when we all are no longer here. Let’s commit to building a legacy of inclusive peace and justice all around the world.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He welcomes your comments: email@example.com