We must stand with Black Americans and acknowledge the role racism plays in our institutions. see more
From someone who has worked in international development: We must stand with Black Americans and acknowledge the role racism plays in our institutions — and the work itself.
By Tasha Prados
Photo of Stockholm protests by Frankie Fouganthin / CC
As the granddaughter of immigrants, I grew up knowing how privileged I was simply by the sheer luck of having been born in the United States. Being multicultural and Latinx, I spent most of my formative years between two worlds, never quite fitting in either, eager to connect more deeply with my Latin American roots.
I went to El Salvador with a nonprofit organization for the first time when I was 16 years old to build schools and water systems. It was life-changing, though not entirely in a way I might have expected. On one hand, I recognized that my presence and very unskilled labor were wholly unneeded. Yet I felt that by bringing money to fulfill locally-expressed needs, managed by local leaders, we were useful; the connections I made with Salvadorans felt genuine, valuable, and educational on both sides.
In college I realized the world was much bigger than Latin America, and I wanted to know all of it. I took Arabic and learned about Islam. I did a fellowship in the Maldives and took courses on Africa and Asia. I studied abroad in Spain. These experiences reaffirmed my commitment to working to alleviate poverty and inequality.
So I joined the Peace Corps — because I wanted to “help people” and “make a difference.” I also wanted to atone for the sins of my country: the U.S. legacy of slavery, colonialism, looting other countries, interfering in their politics, and pillaging their people and resources.
People sometimes asked why I didn’t want to work on solving the problems we have here at home. I thought, well, it’s a big world with a lot of problems that need to be solved. We all have issues we are passionate about — there’s room for each of us to do what calls to us.
At the same time, it’s been clear to me for a long time that racism is alive and well in America. But I thought that the big battles were behind us. That most Americans believed we are all created equal and that all human lives have equal value. That we had largely won the civil rights movement.
I was mistaken.
Photo of protests in Washington, D.C., on June 2 by Yash Mori
George Floyd’s murder was the spark that ignited protests across our nation — again. But this is about far more than one murder or the many before it — of Black men, women, and children. These lynchings, police brutality so startlingly displayed, are just the most visible element of structural and systemic racism and oppression that Black Americans have been fighting against and dying from for centuries. Now is the time for all of us — especially those of us engaged in international work — to stand with Black Americans.
The truth is, I no longer work in international development. I saw too many cases of failed foreign aid projects that didn’t treat locals as leaders and partners, took jobs from locals, reduced the accountability of local governments, contributed to a lack of local ownership, and weren’t sustainable. In other words, I saw an imperialistic power dynamic at play. But the problem isn’t just projects or systems. It’s us — the people who do the work.
Racism is deeply embedded in our society. And international development is deeply intertwined with race, socioeconomic, and power dynamics that fuel what has been defined as the white savior industrial complex. We need a paradigm shift in international development work. As Aaron Williams, former director of the Peace Corps, said: “U.S. international and foreign affairs organizations should rise to this challenge, and seize this moment to demonstrate leadership in pursuing broad-based policies and programs that will promote diversity and social justice in both their U.S. and overseas offices.”
What I’d like to see change in Peace Corps
When Americans work abroad, we bring our biases with us — as well as our privilege and entitlement. Peace Corps Volunteers are no exception. Volunteers of Color face additional and unique challenges during service — much as they do every day in America. But abroad they are more isolated and have less support than at home.
I run the Instagram account @peopleofpeacecorps, where many returned Volunteers have shared stories of dealing with subtle and blatant racism from fellow Volunteers, Peace Corps staff, and host country nationals: everything from a Volunteer being called the N-word by fellow Volunteers, to staff placing the burden on Volunteers of Color to conduct diversity trainings that their fellow Volunteers complained about.
So it’s understandable that Volunteers felt betrayed by the Peace Corps’ initial statement — it was so vague, we could not even be sure it was about the murder of George Floyd. Returned Volunteers were not quiet in our criticism. Sixteen days later, the Peace Corps issued a new statement in which the agency committed to addressing racial injustice and outlined some steps for putting people and groups in place to examine the issue and educate leadership. That’s a start. But the proof will be in the actions that follow.
As someone who advises purpose-driven organizations on strategic shifts, there are three broad areas I would advise the Peace Corps to focus reform efforts.
Address racism within the Peace Corps. Racism is prevalent in America and around the world. Volunteers and staff bring implicit biases with them, as do locals where the Peace Corps works.
Address the race and power dynamics inherent in international development. Ensure that host country nationals and governments are given the space to lead and own anything implemented by outsiders. Ensure that Volunteers are qualified for the positions they are filling, that they are not taking jobs away from locals, and that they are not causing unintentional harm.
Reduce barriers to entry and access to serving in (and staying in) the Peace Corps and working for the agency. Ensure all staff and Volunteers are adequately supported.
If the Peace Corps is serious about reform, we’ll see a roadmap laying out concrete actions and specific goals with measurable results toward progress. For us who are part of the Peace Corps community, if we care about the future of the agency and the ideals that it purports to uphold, we’ll insist on this.
It’s important that National Peace Corps Association is cosponsoring a conversation on racial equity in international service on June 30 and, on July 18, hosting a summit on the future of Peace Corps. Ideas and concrete, specific recommendations will come from these conversations. We’re very aware that with no Volunteers in the field, the future of the Peace Corps is very much in doubt. But with no Volunteers in the field, this is also a unique opportunity to make profound and systemic changes.
Peace Corps is supposed to represent what’s best about America. If we as individuals cannot stand up against systemic racism and oppression at home, we are not qualified to work alongside nonwhite people anywhere in the world. And if we don’t demand that same commitment from Peace Corps, what future will it have?
This story was updated June 30 1:30 pm.
TASHA PRADOS is the founder of Duraca Strategic, which helps purpose-driven organizations maximize their impact through branding, business, and marketing strategy consulting. She has 10 years of project management and communications experience with the world's leading brands, agencies, and organizations. Prados is also a freelance writer, digital nomad, and returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Peru 2011–13, and was featured on the National Peace Corps Association’s inaugural “40 Under 40” list. Keep up with her on Instagram at @t.prad.
Ana Victoria Cruz posted an articleWe are listening, and we stand in solidarity with all who are actively driving efforts for change. see more
Ideas and actions — and the principles that guide us
By Maricarmen Smith-Martinez and Glenn Blumhorst
As Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, current and former staff, host country nationals, family, and friends, we uphold a commitment to creating a better world, one that promotes world peace and friendship. In this spirit, National Peace Corps Association envisions a united and vibrant Peace Corps community. We Stand Against Racial Injustice and affirm our commitment to empathy and justice — around the world, and here at home.
Yet in the midst of national unrest ignited by systemic injustice, a vision of unity and vibrance is not enough. We must take more concrete steps to ensure a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture for all RPCVs and members of our community.
Evidence of racial inequity exists in many forms, and the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed deep systemic problems in our country. Continued violence and police brutality against the Black community has ignited protests from coast to coast — and in scores of other countries. Economic insecurity, impacting tens of millions of Americans, disproportionately impacts people of color. Black Americans are dying at higher rates due to health disparities rooted in a problematic healthcare system. And while the ongoing struggle for racial equity and social justice resonates strongly with core Peace Corps values, Volunteers of color continue to share challenges of racism, bias, and exclusivity, describing experiences during recruitment, in service, and after returning home.
It is humbling to acknowledge shortcomings, and it is difficult to change a system — but we will not succeed if we do not try. Inherent in this effort is the need for change within NPCA itself. Our staff and Board of Directors must consistently reflect the diversity we champion. Our programming must proactively incorporate values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Roadmap for the Future
To that end, the NPCA Board of Directors is charting a course for progress toward a more diverse and inclusive culture within our Board of Directors, our staff, and our Peace Corps community. We are developing a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Framework with cross-cutting priorities across our strategic plan, addressing the need for systemic change not only within our organization but also within Peace Corps, in our membership and Affiliate Group Network, and in our global social impact.
As a starting point, the policy will serve to:
Ensure diversity and inclusion within the NPCA staff and Board.
Ensure training to improve the organization and the workplace, such as training to better understand unconscious bias.
Support efforts to help the Peace Corps be the best it can be and address racism and inequity within the institution.
Support efforts to empower members and affiliate groups to thrive by ensuring opportunity for diversity and inclusion at NPCA events such as Peace Corps Connect; enhancing outreach efforts to RPCVs and affiliate groups of color; and building capacity for the Affiliate Group Network to facilitate conversations about social justice and to mobilize members to take action.
Support efforts to amplify the Peace Corps community’s global social impact by proactively seeking applications for projects that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion — bolstering work with minority-owned startup enterprises and leveraging our new home at Peace Corps Place in the Truxton Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to engage in activities that address systemic racism.
Join Us in this Work
Our board and staff have taken the first steps to demonstrate NPCA’s proactive and deliberate leadership reflected on our new We Stand Together For Change web page. NPCA has also adapted existing tools to contact Congressional representatives, leveraging opportunities for RPCVs to advocate for racial equity and social justice legislation. We facilitated a Group Leaders Discussion: Affiliate Group Stand for Racial Justice. Our staff has formed a DEI Working Group with dedicated hours and budget. And we have more work to undertake together.
We understand that RPCVs are ready to support this cause. We recognize the difficulty of sharing experiences with racism and bias — from decades past or just last week. And we applaud those who are able to speak out and voice their experiences. We also acknowledge the discomfort of approaching conversations about race from a point of privilege. We commend the RPCVs and affiliate groups that have facilitated events, such as the RPCV/W Town Hall for Racial Justice, to not only advance the conversation but also take action.
We are listening, and we stand in solidarity with all who are actively driving efforts for change. On behalf of the NPCA Board and leadership, we seek your feedback, encourage your recommendations, and invite your ideas. And we welcome your shared commitment to this crucial work now — and for the long haul.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez is Chair of the Board of Directors for National Peace Corps Association. She served as a Volunteer in Costa Rica 2006–08.
Glenn Blumhorst is President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Guatemala 1988–91.
Communications Intern posted an articleAnd a conversation on Peace Corps ideals in today’s world see more
Williams issues a clarion call for building a more inclusive network for global development. And he explores the arc of Peace Corps history in an interview about the documentary A Towering Task.
By Del Wood and Steven Boyd Saum
We are in an historic moment. The protests against racial injustice that have swept the United States and scores of other countries since the end of May were sparked by the killing of George Floyd — one of so many Black women and men killed by police. The protests erupted with anger and frustration — and not only among Blacks. They have also ushered in the possibility of the United States coming to terms with systemic racism. That transformation needs to be carried over into global development work, writes former Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams.
“The diversity of the demonstrators gives me great hope that this could be the pivotal moment in our nation,” Williams observes in an essay published by Devex in June. “They are demanding that we live up to the American dream, and the ideals of democracy, civil rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality that the country was founded on two centuries ago.”
Williams also argues that international organizations have a responsibility to transform how they do their work:
“U.S. international and foreign affairs organizations should rise to this challenge, and seize this moment to demonstrate leadership in pursuing broad-based policies and programs that will promote diversity and social justice in both their U.S. and overseas offices. They play a prominent role — as principal partners with the U.S. government — in the country’s global leadership, and thus should invest in the diverse human capital of the future that will mirror the true face of our country.”
Williams served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1967 to 1970 and as Director of the Peace Corps from 2009 to 2012. Read the full essay here.
‘Transformed my life’: Aaron Williams on Peace Corps history and A Towering Task
With the screening of A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps in Florida recently, Aaron Williams sat down for a conversation about the film. He supplements the sweeping history of the Peace Corps in the documentary with personal stories. How he, as a young Black man from the South Side of Chicago, headed into Peace Corps with a nearly all-white cohort of Volunteers. Of the powerful impact Peace Corps had in Ghana — teaching a young man and inspiring him to become a scientist, then later vice president and president. And he makes the case for Peace Corps ideals as offering a way forward: with understanding what it means to be engaged with the world, and to live out those ideals at home.
Here are clips from the conversation with film exhibitor Nat Chediak.
“My entire career … whether I've been in business, I’ve been in government, I’ve been in the nonprofit world — Peace Corps was the trigger for that.”
WILLIAMS: Well, first of all, so I grew up in a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and people expected me to settle down, become a teacher and, you know, have a normal life. Well, I had become intrigued by the Peace Corps by listening to Sargent Shriver’s speeches. And I heard a couple of Kennedy’s speeches. I was still pretty young when Kennedy was president. But I decided, this is something that I should look into. It sounded like something that would be structured, would give me a chance to learn something about outside of the United States, and it turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime. I mean, truly, truly transformed my life. Everything that I’ve done, Nat, has emanated from the Peace Corps. My entire career … whether I've been in business, I’ve been in government, I’ve been in the nonprofit world — Peace Corps was the trigger for that.The other thing about the Peace Corps is that when I arrived out in California, the San Diego State College where I was trained, I was in a group of about 80 or 90 people. I was the only Black person in the group. And I was wondering to myself, those first couple of days, what have I parachuted myself into? I quickly found out, within a week or two weeks there, that I was in the presence of some very special people. People who had self-selected to join in this wonderful enterprise called the Peace Corps, who were interested in making the world a better place, and were open to ideas, to people, to thoughts, and philosophies. That was just amazing. So it was an amazing time. And I trained with some amazing people. Part of our group went to El Salvador, part went to Honduras, the other part went to the Dominican Republic, and we were teacher trainers. So that's how it all emanated. That’s how I ended up in the Peace Corps.
“And that’s when this young man who became vice president, and ultimately president of Ghana, decided he wanted to become a scientist.”
WILLIAMS: There’s also a great commonality. And that’s what you really learn in the Peace Corps, right? You learn about the commonality and things that we worry about: our children, the future, good healthcare, aspirations for our children and our family. And you learn that those are the basic common elements that we all share, no matter where you might be born or live on the globe.
Let me tell you a story. I was in Ghana to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. And I went to an event with the then-vice president of Ghana. He had been taught by a Peace Corps Volunteer when he was a young man in elementary school in a remote part of Ghana. Ghana was one of the first countries where Sargent Shriver established the Peace Corps in 1961. So when we arrived at this event, it was to celebrate the Year of the Teacher in Ghana. And a Peace Corps Volunteer was one of the ten top teachers that was being honored, as a matter of fact. And that Peace Corps Volunteer, by the way, her parents had served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Latin America, you know, years before — so what a marvelous confluence of events. As I was waiting in the government house in this regional city to go out to the event with the vice president, I had a couple of talking points I wanted to share with him about the future of the Peace Corps in Ghana and some things that the ambassador had asked me to share with the vice president. And instead, he wanted to tell me a story about how he met this Peace Corps Volunteer.
So he’s a young man in this classroom. They had never seen a white person before in the village, and they were worried about this new teacher they had heard about. They wondered, would this man even speak English? Could they understand him? What was this gonna be all about? He comes in and he says: How many people here in this room know how far the sun is from the Earth? And they’re thinking, why is he asking us this? Who knows the answer to this question? Everybody put their heads down, nobody answered. He went up to the board and he wrote on the board: “93.” Then he went around this one-room classroom — with these chalk balls — and he kept circling with chalk until he came back around to the front. He says, “Ninety-three million miles. Don’t you ever forget that.”
“And that’s when this young man who became vice president, and ultimately president of Ghana, decided he wanted to become a scientist.”
WILLIAMS: He could have told me anything that day, but that’s the story that he shared with me, which I have never forgotten. It was such a stunning, amazing — and it tells you a lot about the impact of the Peace Corps. Now, lastly, when I got back to the States I did everything I could see if we could find this volunteer who had taught him. And we did!
CHEDIAK: No kidding!
WILLIAMS: When he came over for a summit of African nations with President Obama, we arranged a reunion with the then-vice president and the Peace Corps Volunteer who taught him in Ghana in that rural school.
CHEDIAK: You're kidding. Were you there? Was it very emotional?
WILLIAMS: No, I was not there.
CHEDIAK: Ah, okay. Okay, but I can imagine now I'm, you know, what a beautiful moment that must have been for both of them.
CHEDIAK: Oh, my gosh, that’s incredible. That’s a beautiful story.
WILLIAMS: It’s a miracle they tracked him down. This is 50 years later.
“That’s what we bring to the rich tapestry of America when we return home."
CHEDIAK: Even in these difficult, nationalistic days — and I’m not talking simply about the U.S. — you know, but it’s something that we have seen in other countries that is a troubling concern. You still feel that the goodwill of men will prevail?
WILLIAMS: I think so, and I think the Peace Corps is really my foundation for believing that. Because I’ve seen people prevail against really tough situations — horrendous conditions, right? Fighting disease, fighting poverty, political unrest, civil war, and they come out the other side, in most cases, better than they were in the beginning. Not in all cases, right — but it happens. So, that’s the reason I continue to be optimistic about the future of the world and mankind. And I’m so proud of Peace Corps Volunteers who have served for almost 60 years in countries around the world, who represent the true face of America and who really understand what it means to be engaged with the rest of the world and to become effective and optimistic global citizens. That’s what we bring to the rich tapestry of America when we return home and what we do in our future careers here at home.
Our commitment to empathy and justice — around the world, and here at home see more
Our commitment to empathy and justice — around the world, and here at home
By Glenn Blumhorst
Our nation is reeling. How could it not be? More than 100,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19. More than 40 million have filed for unemployment since mid-March. And last week we witnessed the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a white police officer.
These are not unrelated tragedies. And George Floyd’s death is only the latest in a terrible litany of unarmed Black men and women who have been killed. We condemn the actions that led to his death, just as we condemn discrimination and violence against all Black people — including members of the Peace Corps community.
The toll of coronavirus has hit black and brown communities particularly hard. So have job losses. And in a time of global pandemic, we’re 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.”
How do we do that? Fundamentally, those of us in the Peace Corps community embark on service as Volunteers to promote world peace and understanding. This is our world, right here. One where empathy and justice must guide us — as we head out into the world, as we bring it back home. Our commitment to that doesn’t stop at the border. As National Peace Corps Association Board Director Corey Griffin has often put it, “By living out Peace Corps values here at home, we’ll have a better society, one that honors and celebrates our differences.”
A moral issue
Friday marked the birth of John F. Kennedy, who famously offered the challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” A crucial time to ask that question again.
And it happens that on May 30, 1964, Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, spoke of the challenge he saw facing America then: “Although poverty and injustice remain, we have today, for the first time, the legal and material resources to end them.”
So have we? No. But those words ring true in another respect. Put together Kennedy’s challenge and Shriver’s assessment all those decades ago. One thing we can do for our country now is seek — once and for all — to end racism. We need concerted and peaceful action. And, make no mistake, we need courage and hope in these dark times.
Shriver understood the challenge and the stakes. “Today’s central issue is a moral issue: the issue of commitment,” he said. “If we fail, it will be a failure of commitment.” We can eliminate unemployment and poverty, he said, and we can ensure security against the ravages of disease and old age, use science to benefit all people, and ensure that Black Americans can be “fully American.”
His words merit quoting at length:
These are not easy problems. I have seen the face of poverty and idleness in the mines of West Virginia. I have come face to face with racial hatred on the South Side of Chicago: Catholics stoning fellow Catholics on the steps of a church because they were Black. In the last few years, I have traveled five hundred thousand miles around the world seeing at first hand the deep barriers of culture, belief, prejudice, and superstition which divide us from our fellow man.
But I have also seen the power of commitment, the individual commitment of thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers doing more than any of us can realize to refashion our relationships to the rest of the world. The Peace Corps is proof that deeply committed individuals can have a profound impact on the most difficult and intransigent of problems. Fuller proof is found in the civil rights movement.
Shriver also understood the feeling of powerlessness when faced with enormous challenges.
What can we do about it? you ask. There is much you can do. For the need is not merely for laws or Presidential action, but for the self-organization of society on a large scale to solve the problems … Our books are full of good laws and regulations, but … hypocrisy and racial hatred and the apathy of decent citizens have made a mockery of American justice and equal opportunity.
We must now show that we have the personal commitment to use our wealth and strength in the construction of a good society at home and throughout the world.
As our friends at the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute note: When Shriver spoke of the idea of “self-organization,” he was calling for a community to organize and lead from within — and recognizing that big problems could be solved by strengthening understanding and collaboration on a large scale.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers across the country are convening virtually to ask how we can act together to address racial injustice. I encourage you to join the conversation. To listen, and learn more about organizations you can work with for social justice. To raise your voice. And to help others do so.
You can help ensure underrepresented members of our communities have a vote. Here is a list of resources for those who want to help with voter registration — from HipHop Caucus to Rock the Vote. And contact your elected representatives; let them know this matters to you.
We should also take heed of these words by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Glenn Blumhorst is President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala (1988-1991). You can read Sargent Shriver’s speech in full here.
Food for thought — and life — in a time of crisis see more
Food for thought — and for life — in a time of crisis
By NPCA Staff
Photo: Ackeem Evans, left, with a volunteer for World Central Kitchen. Courtesy Ackeem Evans.
Here are two stories that inspired us in the past two days: Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who have carried their sense of community and commitment to the critical work they’re doing at a time of a global pandemic, and when people across the United States and around the world have taken to the streets to protest racial injustice.
Ackeem Evans was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Albania when an earthquake struck, killing scores and injuring thousands. In the aftermath, he worked with World Central Kitchen (WCK) to provide meals to those affected by the earthquake. When he was evacuated in March, he connected with WCK in his home town of Atlanta. He’s now leading operations for WCK in Georgia, ensuring tens of thousands of free meals get to the needy and underserved.
Thanks to Henri Hollis with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this story.
Jocelyn Jackson served as a natural resources Volunteer in Mali 2005-06. “To spend two years in a small village, with less than 500 people, in the Sahel area was all the sadness and it was all the beauty, it was all the joy and it was all the sorrow,” she writes. “And being able to hold those things simultaneously was one of the biggest gifts of that experience.”
She has written an essay for Eater of her remarkable journey to this point in time. One moment: Her parents’ families came from the South. “In my mom’s case, it was a three o’clock in the morning train escaping Mississippi in order to survive, in the face of family members and friends of the family being lynched.”
She also earned an M.S. in environmental education and cofounded People’s Kitchen Collective in Oakland, California to serve the community. And that’s what makes her story so powerful now. Amid the pandemic and protests against racial injustice she asks:
“It is so heartbreaking that in a moment of pandemic, so much racialized violence is happening that we will die in order to prevent our deaths. We will die in order to prevent our deaths. And I don’t know if that has sunk in for the broader community yet. But that is the difficult non-choice at this moment. If not now, when? Our black and brown community is risking their lives.”