A tribute to decades of work by children’s author Mildred D. Taylor. see more
A tribute to decades of work by children’s author Mildred D. Taylor. This year, Peace Corps Writers recognized her with the Writer of the Year Award.
By John Coyne
Illustration by Montse Bernal
Mildred Delois Taylor is a critically acclaimed author of children’s novels. In 1977, she won the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature, for her historical novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It was the second book in a series of ten novels focusing on the Logan family, and portraying the effects of racism counterbalanced with courage and love. Her latest book, All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, published last year, is the final novel in the series.
Since receiving the Newbery Medal, she has won four Coretta Scott King Awards, a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN Award for Children’s Literature. In 2021 she received the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, honoring an author whose books have made a significant and lasting contribution to literature for children. In presenting the award, Dr. Junko Yokota said of Taylor’s storytelling, “It shows how courage, dignity, and family love endure amidst racial injustice and continues to enlighten hearts and minds of readers through the decades.”
Mildred Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1943. Her paternal great-grandfather, the son of a white Alabama plantation owner and a Black woman forced to serve him as a slave, became a successful farmer in Mississippi. His large extended family thrived despite the racism they encountered.
Her parents, Wilbert and Deletha, wanted their daughters to grow up in a less racist society. Mildred was only four months old when they, like thousands of other African American families, boarded a segregated train bound for the North.
Arriving in Toledo, Ohio, the Taylors stayed with friends until they earned enough money to buy a large duplex on a busy commercial street. This house soon became home to aunts, uncles, and cousins, all moving away from Mississippi in search of a better life.
“I learned a history not then written in books but passed from generation to generation on moonlit porches and beside dying fires in one-room houses, a history of great-grandparents and of slavery and the days following slavery; of those who lived still not free, yet who would not let their spirits be enslaved.”
Mildred stored in her memory the tales she heard as a child at family gatherings. Many of these stories would later become plots in her novels. In her author’s note to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Taylor acknowledged her debt to this family who generously shared stories of their history, and to her father in particular. “By the fireside in our northern home and in the South where I was born, I learned a history not then written in books but one passed from generation to generation on the steps of moonlit porches and beside dying fires in one-room houses, a history of great-grandparents and of slavery and of the days following slavery; of those who lived still not free, yet who would not let their spirits be enslaved. From my father the storyteller I learned to respect the past, to respect my own heritage and myself.”
Illustration by Montse Bernal. Originally commissioned for O The Oprah Magazine
In addition to the oral stories, books also played an important role in Taylor’s life from an early age.
“I can’t remember when I received the very first book of my own,” she says today, “but reading, at times, caused trouble. At night I would sit in the closet when I was supposed to have long been asleep. And I got into trouble during the daytime, too, when I would be reading in hiding when I was supposed to be doing my chores.”
In 1965, Mildred Taylor applied to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Milly, as she was always known in-country, was sent to teach secondary school in the town of Yirgalem in southern Ethiopia. She was one of a large group of new PCVs to that rural location 260 kilometers south of Addis Ababa. She lived with another Volunteer; a woman older than herself who had previously taught overseas at a U.S. Army base. The two women became the best of friends.
“Reading, at times, caused trouble. At night I would sit in the closet when I was supposed to have long been asleep. And I got into trouble during the daytime, too, when I would be reading in hiding when I was supposed to be doing my chores.”
It was in Yirgalem that I first met Milly, when I was serving as associate Peace Corps director for Ethiopia. I remember her as someone who caused no trouble, made no demands, and was a silent observer of other Volunteers, some of whom in her town were real “characters” — but she never wrote about them in her novels.
What none of us knew was that Milly was already an accomplished writer. By the time she arrived in Ethiopia, she had completed her first novel. At the age of 19, she wrote Dark People, Dark World, the story of a blind white man in Chicago’s Black ghetto, told in the first person. Publishers were interested in the book, but Milly disagreed with the revisions they wanted, and the novel was never published.
Returning home from Ethiopia, she worked as a Peace Corps recruiter, and she also trained new Volunteers for Ethiopia. She then enrolled at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and earned a master of arts. While a graduate student, she worked with university officials and fellow students and structured a Black Studies program at the university.
In 1971, she moved to Los Angeles to write full time, and she supported herself by doing temporary editing and proofreading. She also married and gave birth to a little girl. Her life and career, however, were about to change. When she was offered a position to work as a reporter for CBS, she declined it, knowing her future was in writing novels, not reporting news. In 1973, she entered a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Her book, Song of the Trees, won first prize in the contest’s African American category and was published by Dial Books in 1975. The New York Times listed it as an outstanding book of the year.
This book, about the Logan family, was to be the first in a series of ten novels based on stories from Milly’s own family history. One of her best-known books, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, was nominated for the 1982 National Book Award and received the Coretta Scott King Award in 1983.
Having grown up immersed in family stories, Milly often revisited her great-grandfather’s house, built at the turn of the past century and without running water or electricity. Memories of those visits found their way into her Logan family stories, most notably Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the 1977 Newbery Medal winner. Taylor’s stories reveal struggles, racial tension, and tragedy, as well as triumph, pride, and family honor.
In an interview published in Book Links, Milly talks about her family and the novels she has written about growing up in a Black family in the South.
“All of my books are based on something that happened to a family member or a story told by a family member, or they are based on something that happened to me when I was growing up,” she says.
“I write about history because I was very affected by it as a child. When I was in school, many people did not know about the true history of Black people in America. I wanted to tell the truth about what life was like before the civil rights movement.”
Milly Taylor is an example of someone who has made a difference overseas as a Peace Corps Volunteer and also here at home as a novelist.
Recently she wrote me that it was an honor to be included with so many fine writers who are former Peace Corps Volunteers. “Being in the Peace Corps was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I cherish the memories of my days in Ethiopia. So many times now I find myself wishing I could relive it all.”
Don’t we all, Milly. Don’t we all.
Mildred Taylor’s honest depictions of racial injustice have inspired many readers over the years. Some who lived through the eras she writes of extol how the stories echoed their firsthand experience; others comment on how the books opened their eyes for the first time to the horrors of racism. Not surprisingly, that honesty has also brought a different kind of scrutiny. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry made the American Library Association’s top 100 list of banned and challenged books for 2000–2009. It came in at No. 66, a few below Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and a few above Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
This essay appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine.
John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64) is the author of more than 25 fiction and nonfiction books and is the co-founder of Peace Corps Worldwide.
Orrin Luc posted an articleAsian American and Pacific Islander leaders have a conversation on Peace Corps, race, and more. see more
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Leading in a Time of Adversity. A conversation convened as Part of Peace Corps Connect 2021.
Image by Shutterstock
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are currently the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S., but the story of the U.S. AAPI population dates back decades — and is often overlooked. As the community faces an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and the widening income gap between the wealthiest and poorest, their role in politics and social justice is increasingly important.
The AAPI story is also complex — 22 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, each with unique histories, cultures, languages, and other characteristics. Their unique perspectives and experiences have also played critical roles in American diplomacy across the globe.
For Peace Corps Connect 2021, we brought together three women who have served or are serving as political leaders to talk with returned Volunteer Mary Owen-Thomas. Below are edited excerpts from their conversation on September 23, 2021. Watch the entire conversation here.
Rep. Grace Meng
Member, U.S. House of Representatives, representing New York’s sixth district — the first Asian American to represent her state in Congress.
Julia Chang Bloch
Former U.S. ambassador to Nepal — the first Asian American to serve as a U.S. ambassador to any country. Founder and president of U.S.-China Education Trust. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia (1964–66).
Former Director of the Peace Corps (1991–92). Former Secretary of Labor — the first Asian American to hold a cabinet-level post. Former Secretary of Transportation.
Moderated by Mary Owen-Thomas
Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines (2005–06) and secretary of the NPCA Board of Directors.
Mary Owen-Thomas: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing racial and ethnic group in the United States. This is not a recent story — and it’s often overlooked. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines, and I happen to be Filipino American.
During my service, people would say, “Oh, we didn’t get a real American.” I used to think, I’m from Detroit! I’m curious if you’ve ever encountered this in your international work.
Julia Chang Bloch: With the Peace Corps, I was sent to Borneo, in Sabah, Malaysia. I was a teacher at a Chinese middle school that had been a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The day I arrived on campus, there was a hush in the audience. I don’t speak Cantonese, but I could understand a bit, and I heard: “Why did they send us a Japanese?” I did not know the school had been a prisoner of war camp. They introduced me. I said a few words in English, then a few words in Mandarin. And they said, “Oh, she’s Chinese.”
I heard a little girl say to her father, “You promised me I could meet the American ambassador. I don’t see him.”
In Nepal, where I was ambassador, when I arrived and met the Chinese ambassador, he said, “Ah, China now has two of us.” I said, “There’s a twist, however. I am a Chinese American.” He laughed, and we became friends thereafter. On one of my trips into the western regions, where there were a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers and very poor villages, I was welcomed lavishly by one village. I heard a little girl say to her father, “You promised I could meet the American ambassador. I don’t see him.” He said to her, “There she is.” “Oh, no,” she said. “She is not the American ambassador. She’s Nepali.”
Those are examples of why AAPI representation in foreign affairs is important. We should look like America, abroad, in our embassies. We can show the world that we are in fact diverse and rich culturally.
Mary Owen-Thomas: Secretary Chao, at the Labor Department you launched the annual Asian Pacific American Federal Career Advancement Summit, and the annual Opportunity Conference. The department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting the employment data on Asians in America as a distinct category — a first. You ensured that labor law materials were translated into multiple languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean. Talk about how those came about.
Elaine Chao: Many of us have commented about the lack of diversity in top management, even in the federal government. There seems to be a bamboo ceiling — Asian Americans not breaking into the executive suite. I started the Asian Pacific American Federal Advancement Forum to equip, train, prepare Asian Americans to go into senior ranks of the federal government.
The Opportunity Conference was for communities of color, people who have traditionally been underserved in the federal government, in the federal procurement areas. Thirdly, in 2003 we finally broke out Asians and Asian American unemployment numbers for the first time. That’s how we know Asian Americans have the lowest unemployment rate. Labor laws are complicated, so we started a process translating labor laws into Asian, East Asian, and South Asian languages, so that people would understand their obligations to protect the workforce.
We are often seen as invisible. In Congress, there are many times I’ll be in a room — and this is bipartisan, unfortunately — where people will be talking about different communities, and they literally leave AAPIs out. We are not mentioned, acknowledged, or recognized.
Grace Meng: I am not a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I am honored to be here. My former legislative director, Helen Beaudreau (Georgia 2004–06, The Philippines 2010–11), is a twice-Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I am incredibly grateful for all of your service to our country, and literally representing America at every corner of the globe.
I was born and raised here. This past year and a half has been a wake-up call for our community. Asian Americans have been discriminated against long before — starting with legislation that Congress passed, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, to Japanese American citizens being put in internment camps. We have too often been viewed as outsiders or foreigners.
I live in Queens, New York, one of the most diverse counties in the country, and still have experiences where people ask where I learned to speak English so well, or where am I really from. When I was elected to the state legislature, some of us were watching the news — a group of people fighting. One colleague turned to me and said, “Well, Grace knows karate, I’m sure she can save us.”
By the way, I don’t know karate.
We are often seen as invisible. In Congress, there are many times I’ll be in a room — and this is bipartisan, unfortunately — where people will be talking about different communities, and they literally leave AAPIs out. We are not mentioned, acknowledged, or recognized. I didn’t necessarily come to Congress just to represent the AAPI community. But there are many tables we’re sitting at, where if we did not speak up for the AAPI community, no one else would.
At the root of hate
Julia Chang Bloch: I believe at the root of this anti-Asian hate is ignorance about the AAPI community. It’s a consequence of the exclusion, erasure, and invisibility of Asian Americans in K–12 school curricula. We need to increase education about the history of anti-Asian racism, as well as contributions of Asian Americans to society. Representative Meng, you should talk about your legislation.
Grace Meng: My first legislation, when I was in the state legislature, was to work on getting Lunar New Year and Eid on public school holidays in New York City. When I was in elementary school, we got off for Rosh Hashanah; don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to have two days off. But I had to go to school on Lunar New Year. I thought that was incredibly unfair in a city like New York. Ultimately, it changed through our mayor.
In textbooks, maybe there was a paragraph or two about how Asian Americans fit into our American history. There wasn’t much. One of my goals is to ensure that Asian American students recognize in ways that I didn’t that they are just as American as anyone else. I used to be embarrassed about my parents working in a restaurant, or that they didn’t dress like the other parents.
Data is empowering. We can’t administer government programs without understanding where they go, who receives them, how many resources are devoted to what groups.
Julia Chang Bloch: I wonder about data collection. We’re categorized as AAPI — all lumped together. And data, I believe, is collected that way at the national, state, and local levels. Is there some way to disaggregate this data collection and recognize the differences?
Elaine Chao: A very good question. Data is empowering. We can’t administer government programs without understanding where they go, who receives them, how many resources are devoted to what groups.
Two obstacles stand in the way. One is resources. Unless there is thinking about how to do this in a systemic, long-term fashion, getting resources is difficult; these are expensive undertakings. Two, there’s sometimes political resistance. Pew Charitable Trust, in 2012, did an excellent job: the first major demographic study on the Asian American population in the United States. But we’re coming up on 10 years. That needs to be revisited.
Role models vs. stereotypes
Elaine Chao: Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch and Pauline Tsui started the organization Chinese American Women. I remember coming to Washington as a young pup and seeing these fantastic, empowering women. They blazed so many trails. They gave voice to Asian American women.
I come from a family of six daughters. I credit my parents for empowering their daughters from an early age. They told us that if you work hard, you can do whatever you want to do. We’ve got to offer more inspiration and be more supportive.
Julia Chang Bloch: Pauline Tsui has unfortunately passed away. She had a foundation, which gave us support to establish a series on Asian women trailblazers. Our inaugural program featured Secretary Chao and Representative Judy Chu, because it was about government and service. Our next one is focused on higher education. Our third will be on journalism.
I want, however, to leave you with this thought. The Page Act of 1875 barred women from China, Japan, and all other Asian countries from entering the United States. Why? Because the thought was they brought prostitution. The stereotyping of Asian women has been insidious and harmful to our achieving positions of authority and leadership. That’s led also to horrible stereotypes that have exoticized and sexualized Asian women. Think about the women who were killed in Atlanta.
That intersection of racism and misogyny that has existed for way too long is something we need to continue to combat.
Grace Meng: There was the automatic assumption, in the beginning, that they were sex workers — these stereotypes were being circulated. I had the opportunity with some of my colleagues to go to Atlanta and meet some of the victims’ families, to hear their stories. That really gave me a wake-up call. I talked about my own upbringing for the first time.
I remember when my parents, who worked in a restaurant, came to school, and they were dressed like they worked in a restaurant. I was too embarrassed to say hello. Being in Atlanta, talking to those families, made me realize the sacrifices that Asian American women at all levels have faced so that we could have the opportunity to be educated here, to get jobs, to serve our country. And that intersection of racism and misogyny that has existed for way too long is something that we need to continue to combat.
Julia Chang Bloch: We’ve talked about the sexualized, exoticized, and objectified stereotype — the Suzie Wongs and the Madame Butterflys. However, those of us here today, I think would fall into another category: the “dragon lady” stereotype. Any Asian woman of authority is classified as a dragon lady — a derogatory stereotype. Women who are powerful, but also deceitful and manipulating and cruel. Today it’s women who are authoritative and powerful.
Mary Owen-Thomas: Growing up, I was sort of embarrassed of my mom’s thick Filipino accent; she was embarrassed of it, too. I was embarrassed of the food she would send me to school with — rice, mung beans, egg rolls, and fish sauce. And people would ask, “What is that?” Talk about how your self-identity has evolved — and how you view family.
You do not need to have a fancy title to improve the lives of people around you. I became stronger myself and realized that it was my duty, my responsibility, as a daughter of immigrants, to give back to this country and to give back to this community.
Grace Meng: I don’t know if it’s related to being Asian, but I was super shy as a child. And there weren’t a lot of Asians around me. I was the type who would tremble if a teacher called on me; I would try to disappear into the walls. When I meet people who knew me in school, they say, “I cannot believe you’re in politics.”
What gave me strength was getting involved in the community, seeing as a student in high school, college, and law school that I could help people around me. After law school I started a nonprofit with some friends. We had senior citizens come in with their mail once a week, and we would help them read it. It wasn’t rocket science at all.
I tell that story to young people, because you do not need to have a fancy title to improve the lives of people around you. I became stronger myself and realized that it was my duty, my responsibility, as a daughter of immigrants, to give back to this country and to give back to this community.
Julia Chang Bloch: At some point, in most Asian American young people’s lives, you ask yourself whether you are Chinese or American — or, Mary, in your case, whether you’re Filipino or American.
I asked myself that question one year after I arrived in San Francisco from China. I was 10. I entered a forensic contest to speak on being a marginalized citizen. I won the contest, but I didn’t have the answer. At university, I found Chinese student associations I thought would be my answer to my identity. But I did not find myself fitting into the American-born Chinese groups — ABCs — or those fresh off the boat, FOBs. Increasingly, my circle of friends became predominantly white. I perceived the powerlessness of the Chinese in America. I realized that only mainstreaming would make me be able to make a difference in America.
After graduation, I joined the Peace Corps, to pursue my roots and to make a difference in the world. Teaching English at a Chinese middle school gave me the opportunity to find out once and for all whether I was Chinese or American. I think you know the answer.
My ambassadorship made me a Chinese American who straddles the East and the West. And having been a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have always believed that it was my obligation to bring China home to America, and vice versa. And that’s what I’ve been doing with the U.S.-China Education Trust since 1998.
We should say representation matters. Peace Corps matters, too.
WATCH THE ENTIRE CONVERSATION here: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Leading in a Time of Adversity
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.
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
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.
Communications Intern 2 posted an articleA letter from the President of the National Peace Corps Association see more
By Glenn Blumhorst
DO YOU REMEMBER WHERE YOU WERE when you heard the news? That the U.S. Peace Corps had made the difficult and unprecedented decision to suspend programs indefinitely, evacuating 7,300 volunteers serving in more than 60 countries due to coronavirus, and informing them that their service had ended. That more than 100,000 Americans had died from COVID-19.
That more than 40 million had applied for unemployment. That George Floyd had died after a policeman in Minneapolis pressed a knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. But George Floyd’s name is only one of a terrible litany of Black men, women, and children who have died at the hands of police.
Our nation is reeling. How could it not be?
HERE AT HOME, the toll of coronavirus has hit Black and Brown communities particularly hard. So have job losses. 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.”
Systemic racism is an issue much bigger than our community. But we need to do what we can. Because both within the Peace Corps community and outside of it, Black Lives Matter. We have a moral obligation to use our stature as a community — and the credible voice, when it comes to speaking for peace and understanding — to lead by example in proactively fighting against unjust and unequal treatment of people of color.
Evidence of racial inequity exists in many forms. 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 coast to coast — and internationally. 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. That is true of Volunteers who served decades ago — and those who just evacuated.
As part of a vibrant and engaged community, we’ve listened to and been inspired by voices calling on Peace Corps to do and be better. We know that we at NPCA need to hold ourselves accountable as well. We’ve heard questions from RPCVs wanting to know historical data: How many Black Volunteers have served? More than that, we’ve heard from Black Volunteers asking: Will you stand with us? Will you support us? Will you lead to help make the changes we need to make?
We’ve heard from Black Volunteers asking: Will you stand with us? Will you support us? Will you lead to help make the changes we need to make?
We must. We are. And we will. For those of you who receive our email newsletter, you’ve already seen the statements and action plans NPCA leadership has put in place. We’ve launched a digital hub for news, events, stories, and resources focused on racial justice in the Peace Corps community. In June we co-sponsored a panel on “A Moment to Lean In: Courageous Conversations on Racial Equity in International Service.” But this is only the beginning of the work we have before us.
We’ve already heard from some Volunteers who served across the decades that they are heartened to see that we are grappling with the fact that the agency and our community need to take a stand against systemic racism. It’s long overdue. They note that the sense of cause and purpose that comes with this effort is what inspired them to join the Peace Corps in the first place. Motivated by equity and justice, this kind of commitment can and does change lives and communities, institutions and systems.
BACK IN MARCH, when Peace Corps brought Volunteers home, the agency’s top priority was ensuring Volunteers’ safety and security. But many returning volunteers felt like they had been fired and left with no benefits and little support as they arrived home.
To its credit, over the past several months the agency focused squarely on the complex process of seeking to ensure that the evacuated Volunteers had some safety net. Meanwhile, the broader Peace Corps community, which includes some 250,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers over the past 59 years, rallied to welcome and support the evacuated Volunteers. NPCA ramped up a number of programs to help.
Having left my rural Missouri home to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 1988 to 1991, I felt a visceral connection with the 169 volunteers preparing to leave Guatemala. I spoke with them on video chat. They shared personal stories and photos on social media, trying to come to grips with what it means to be evacuated from the schools and host families and wider communities they were part of. As they said their goodbyes, I imagined many of them pledged to return. One day they will — as Volunteers once more, or as their life journeys wind back there in years to come.
But some big questions loom. One role that Volunteers play time and again, in building their relationships with communities, is helping those communities better understand the diversity and complexity of the United States and its people. How well will this country be living up to its ideals when Volunteers do return?
I often say that we seek to make Peace Corps be the best that it can be. That includes bearing witness to inequity in our work around the world — and bringing that understanding back home.
THIS MOMENT on the eve of the 60th anniversary of Peace Corps, must be transformed: from a sad chapter in our history to an unparalleled opportunity to shape a Peace Corps around the world’s changing needs. And, crucially, to shape a Peace Corps community that truly reflects our nation as it should be.
With that in mind, this summer we have hosted a series of events: Peace Corps Connect to the Future. We convened a series of eight town hall meetings on topics ranging from diversity, equity, and inclusion to Peace Corps policies for a changed world. Then, to bring together ideas from all the town halls, we hosted a half-day summit on July 18. Here’s a video of the entire summit. Building on that, we’ll be shaping policy recommendations and an action plan for the Peace Corps community. Those will carry us into the months and years ahead.
Peace Corps’ underlying mission — to promote world peace and friendship — is as vital today as it was when the program began nearly 60 years ago. But as the past few months have made painfully clear, the importance of that work here at home is more critical than ever. I often say that we seek to make Peace Corps be the best that it can be. That includes bearing witness to inequity in our work around the world — and bringing that understanding back home.
Curtis Valentine, an education policy expert, served as a Volunteer in South Africa from 2001 to 2003 — the only African American man in his cohort. His own intimidating encounters with U.S. police as a young man are documented alongside those of 99 other Black men in the book The Presumption of Guilt. A few weeks ago he was talking with WorldView editor Steven Saum. “Everyone who has served has a story about an injustice,” Valentine said, “whether it be racial, whether it be gender, whether it be socioeconomic, religious … something as Volunteers we saw and said: ‘This is unacceptable.’ I think we are uniquely qualified and prepared to respond in our own country because of our experience around the world. And in many ways, we have an obligation to do so. This is our time.”
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He welcomes your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The original version of this essay appeared in the Summer 2020 print edition of WorldView, published in July.
Reasons why. And some serious advice. It’s a matter of life and death. see more
Reasons why. And some serious advice. It’s a matter of life and death.
By Missi Smith
ON MEMORIAL DAY a Black man named George Floyd was senselessly murdered in broad daylight on a Minneapolis street corner by a now former police officer. In the immediate wake of this completely avoidable tragedy, Minneapolis was rocked by protests, looting, and riots — exacerbated by ineffective leadership from all levels of our government, including detrimental interference from the White House. Yet Floyd’s killing has also launched a global movement in some 50 countries.
I’m a Minnesota native. As a child, I attended my first preschool just blocks from where George Floyd cried out for his mother as he took his last breath. Prior to joining Peace Corps in 2017, I lived in that neighborhood. In the days following his lynching by law enforcement, I’ve had concerned and well-meaning friends (particularly white friends) calling and messaging to check on me and ask if I’m OK. They have literally been asking if they can give me some form of compensation for the educational and emotional labor I’ve done for them, in order to help them make sense of recent and past events. Now they are seeking ways to help me. Needless to say, it has been an exhausting time as a resident — particularly a Black resident — of this state.
I am tired.
If I’m being honest, I was tired long before the George Floyd murder.
George Floyd, memorialized. When Missi Smith sat down to write about him, she noted: “I was raised to respect the rule of law and order (for God’s sake, my brother is a cop in the northern suburbs of our metro area). I was also raised to suss out injustice and seek change.”
LET ME OUTLINE the ways in which I am tired, in no particular order, including, but not limited to:
I’m tired of living in a state which through education and economic policy consistently fails its most vulnerable residents. According to a 2020 report from WalletHub, Minnesota ranks 45th for racial integration. Census Bureau data from 2018 tells us that the median income for a Black family was $36,000 compared to $83,000 for a white family. What about the education achievement gap? The graduation rate for Black students is 65 percent, compared to 77.8 percent nationally. That puts us dead last in the country. If Minneapolis alone put as much effort, time, and money into the school system as they do in their nationally rated park systems, our children might have better outcomes.
In Minneapolis and in other parts of the United States, I’m tired of watching, as one friend put it, “snuff films” justifying, even glorifying ending lives of Black men and women with reckless disregard, simply because police and vigilantes “fear for their lives” — or because they didn’t do a modicum of due diligence. I’m tired of hashtagging another Black life in memoriam.
I’m tired of the fact that a majority of Minneapolis police officers vote for Police Federation head Bob Kroll, who has been, as former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recently put it, “toxic” to the police force. (Rybak was being extraordinarily charitable.)
In the face of the myriad historical and ongoing injustices Black men, women, and children face from housing to employment to education in this country, I’m tired of my anger as a Black woman (albeit righteous) being derided, ignored, and stereotyped.
I’m tired of the behavior of Amy Coopers, BBQ Beckys, and all of the Karens, injurious to Black freedom and liberty, going unchecked and unpunished.
I’m tired of having to revisit the same battles my grandparents and parents fought during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement.
I am tired of having this conversation and the added expectation the societal ills of racism and white supremacy are solely up to the Black community to fix.
I’m so flipping tired that I want to take a nap — but I can’t, because I’m Black in America. The best I can hope for is some semblance of self-care, but it’s hard to maintain when you’re constantly attacked from every angle simply because you exist.
I AM SO VERY TIRED. Black people all across this country are so very tired. My question: Why aren’t you?
THE AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION says that the chronic and sustained stress of racism and discrimination has a direct link to the overall health outcomes of Black people. This means Black folks put their lives on the line every day in this country, in every way possible — literally just by being Black and living in America. Why don’t you?
While Black people are not a monolith, we do have a shared experience in our diaspora, so I feel pretty safe in speaking for all of us when I say: WE. ARE. TIRED. So, my well-meaning and well-intentioned white allies and friends who keep asking if I’m OK, if you want to help, this is what you need to do. Again, in no particular order, including, but not limited to:
Stop asking us if we’re OK, because we’re not. We haven’t been for a long damned time — 400+ years since being forced here long, to be exact. (If you haven’t yet, read the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1619 Project from The New York Times.) Know that we are perpetually grieving because we are treated as less than second-class citizens in a country wherein so much of what you touch and to which you so proudly pledge allegiance was built with the literal blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors — yet, we haven’t ever been given proper credit for it. We keep watching the lives of our husbands, sons, and daughters taken from us. Our transgender brothers and sisters are dying at an astronomical rate. In the same week Floyd was lynched at the hands of law enforcement, we lost Tony McDade to police violence in Florida with barely a mention of him in the press.
Listen to us. It’s literally that easy. Stop claiming ignorance, dismissing it, or sitting on the fence. Do something about it!
Believe us when we tell you about our lived experience of racism and discrimination. Listen to us. It’s literally that easy. Stop claiming ignorance, dismissing it, or sitting on the fence. Do something about it!
If you want to learn and do better, you’re going to have to start doing some heavy lifting. Librarians and historians can show you where to get the information and answer questions. Start thinking of your Black friends like librarians or historians rather than expecting them to coddle white feelings of defensiveness, anger, and shame.
Black history is more than the 28 days of February and far deeper than Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. — who are so often quoted out of context. Learn about it and value it the same way you learn about and value the traditional historical narrative of the white male American founding fathers.
Stop co-opting Black leaders. MLK wasn’t as non-confrontational as you want to believe. He was the quintessential agitator. He was the original highway blocker.
Stop with the “I’m not racist. I don’t see color!” Seriously, it’s embarrassing and it doesn’t make you “woke.” It’s not only lazy, it’s also infuriating to people of color — and it further dehumanizes us and devalues our many-generations-long struggles. And in this day and age, not being racist isn’t good enough. You must be anti-racist! Read from Robin DiAngelo and Tim Wise. They will help you in your quest.
Earlier I alluded to reparations. Journalist Ta-Nahisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic a compelling argument for why Black folks deserve reparations. Some Black people are comfortable with receiving reparations on an individual level; personally, I am not. So, to my friends: Please, stop asking if you can compensate me or buy me stuff. (Though I will always accept Irish whiskey. That is never off the table!) I’d rather you take that money and donate it to your local NAACP chapter, a school classroom to help bridge achievement gaps, scholarship funds for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and other minority scholarship funds. Better yet, write your legislators and compel them to push an actual bill for reparations to give Black people economic parity. If the United States government can find $1.5 trillion in capital to inject into the casino of Wall Street after the 2008 financial meltdown, they can also fund long overdue payment of back wages. There are so many ways to give back to our community!
Stop passive-aggressively cringing at family get-togethers and call your racist family members out! Uncle Bob doesn’t get any mashed potatoes at this year’s holiday celebration and neither do you, until you call him out him just like you call out other public acts of racism and discrimination. This also goes for your co-workers and your bosses! (HR is there to support you with this.) Learn the difference between “micro-aggressions” and overt acts of racism. Telling Black people they’re “articulate” may not be a call to violence the way a cross burning is. But casual and veiled racism is what sustains racism on a systemic scale.
Telling Black people they’re “articulate” may not be a call to violence the way a cross burning is. But casual and veiled racism is what sustains racism on a systemic scale.
If you champion the men who threw tea into Boston Harbor to liberate us from England, don’t ever tell Black people how they should feel, protest, or otherwise process the atrocities they’re living through. It’s not cool and it’s not helpful, and it just upholds the status quo.
Check your privilege and use it for good.
Check your bias and eliminate it.
Say Black Lives Matter. Say it unequivocally. Say it with your full chest and scream it from the rooftops. Say it. Then act like it!
Be mindful of cultural appropriation. Despite what any fashion magazine tells you, Kylie Jenner didn’t invent cornrows and head wraps aren’t a new trend. In fact, do us all a favor and look into the historical significance of these in our cultures. You’ll quickly realize it is not a fashion statement but something much deeper and meaningful.
Stop praising Black people for being “resilient” and “strong.” In the eyes of American society, we don’t have any other choice but to be. Any other reaction to acts of racism are viewed as “angry,” “uppity,” “violent,” or “having an attitude.”
THIS LIST ISN’T EXHAUSTIVE, but if you care about me or Black people or Black culture at all, you’ll show up and show out for Black folks.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m tired. I’m going to pour myself a whiskey and try to relax.
Missi Smith served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyz Republic from 2017 until she was evacuated in 2020. She taught English and developed projects with students, teachers, law enforcement, and national television. This essay originally appeared on Medium and was also published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:
STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.
STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.
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.
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.
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.
A time to honor the past — and commit to a different future see more
A time to honor the past — and commit to a different future
By Glenn Blumhorst
Illustration by Richard Borge
HERE’S A FAMILIAR CELEBRATORY REFRAIN: On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, establishing the Peace Corps with the mission of building world peace and friendship. In honor of that beginning, every spring is a time for us to recognize the ways that the Peace Corps has made an impact — in individual lives and in communities around the globe.
But this year is different. And an unprecedented time in so many ways.
One year ago, March brought the global evacuation of Volunteers from communities where they were serving. Communities were bereft, Volunteers heartbroken. Thousands in the Peace Corps community came together in an unparalleled response, assisting evacuated Volunteers in ways big and small. Some of those evacuees were able to help communities across the United States reeling from the pandemic; they began serving as contact tracers, working with food banks, making masks, or later deploying as part of NPCA’s Emergency Response Network in Washington State — and so much more. This May, many begin serving domestically as Peace Corps Response Volunteers, assisting at FEMA community vaccination centers.
Here at National Peace Corps Association, we rapidly launched the Global Reentry Program one year ago — at the outset to focus on the immediate needs of evacuated Volunteers. The program has expanded to provide broader, more robust support for returned Volunteers — such as counseling, mentorship, career advice, and more.
Last summer we convened a series of town halls and a Global Ideas Summit to ask deep and searching questions about the relevance of Peace Corps in a world profoundly altered by COVID-19—and the systemic inequities the pandemic underscored. Drawing on decades of experience and commitment, members of the community offered concrete ways we might reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world.
The report distilled from those conversations, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” has provided a road map. Recently it helped shape the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in decades: the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021, introduced by Rep. John Garamendi to the House of Representatives on March 1. Garamendi served as a Volunteer in Ethiopia. This legislation calls for important reforms, including addressing better healthcare and providing protection for whistleblowers in the Peace Corps. And it calls for the 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.
This legislation is one of the concrete ways that the report is yielding results. Several working groups focused on implementing the report—through Congress, the Peace Corps community, affiliate groups, and more — continue their efforts. And in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine, Peace Corps Acting Director Carol Spahn speaks of how the report is already informing work at the agency.
A time of reckoning
In more ways than one, last year also began a time of reckoning for our nation. And it’s far from over. COVID-19 continues to exact a terrible price, even as vaccines are deployed in the United States. Globally, more than 3 million have died. We continue to witness the crushing toll of systemic racism: in terms of healthcare and economic opportunity, and with people of color being victims of hate crimes, as well as far too often violence at the hands of police. The murder of George Floyd last May was a catalyst for protests across the country and the world. Let us hope that the conviction of his murderer is a step forward on the journey toward justice.
“Empower the people,” Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya reminded us last summer. “That’s the main aim of the Peace Corps.”
“Empower the people,” Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya reminded us last summer. “That’s the main aim of the Peace Corps.”
Here at home, as part of our commitment to service, we have asked members of the Peace Corps community to take a stand to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. We renew those calls for reform.
We know that equity and justice are works in progress. That intentionality matters. That service continues in the communities we call home. And as we look toward the future, we know that it is a sense of solidarity, not charity, that must be the compass by which we steer the Peace Corps.
In this anniversary year, thank you to all who have served. Thank you to the people and communities around the world who have undertaken this work together. And thank you for being willing to show the commitment that we all must in the ongoing work of building peace and friendship. It’s work that’s far from finished.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He welcomes your comments: email@example.com
This story appears in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine. Sign up for a print subscription by joining National Peace Corps Association. You can also download the WorldView App for free here: worldviewmagazine.org
And 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.