*The views expressed in this post are my own and are not reflective or written on behalf of Peace Corps or any other U.S. government entity or the family or estate of John F. Kennedy.
John F. Kennedy had a Presidency cut short by tragedy. On May 29, 2017, had he lived, he would be 100-years old. That seems hard for me to believe when I see photos of his young and handsome face. While it is fun to think about what he could have done, I am interested in looking at one particular thing that he did do: he established the Peace Corps. He is immortalized in the youthful photos we have of him, but for me, he is immortalized in a much more meaningful way, and I am proud to be a part of his legacy as a returned Peace Corps volunteer.
I want to share a bit about the history of Peace Corps, what it has done, what it does, and what I did as a volunteer in the hopes that you will see its value. I am hoping you will want to preserve Kennedy’s lasting legacy.
In October of 1960, Kennedy stood in front of students at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and gave an impromptu speech. It was during this speech that he asked the students gathered if they would be willing to give their time and skills, and spend two years in a developing country. He asked how many would be willing to serve their country longer in the Foreign Service. He was not president at this time, but was campaigning for the job. Interesting that already as he was campaigning, he was envisioning a world where America could lead by peaceful example; this positive rhetoric won him an election during a tumultuous time in our history.
He delivered on his promises.
His inauguration speech (one of the greatest ever), was where he famously asked Americans to,
“Ask not what your country can do for you–
ask what you can do for your country.”
And then on 1 March of 1961, notably during his first 100 days in office, he signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. R. Sargent Shriver was appointed the Director, and THAT VERY YEAR volunteers began service in five countries. There has been a lot of talk of Executive Orders…and undoing Executive Orders of late. This was one of the most impactful ever. (And it is in danger of being undone.)
When the Peace Corps was established, it had three goals, and those goals have never changed
- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
The importance and brilliance of these goals cannot be overstated. He was so far
ahead of his time in terms of international development. While the traditional “aid” packages at that time were mostly food parcels and other unsustainable actions, which created dependence of foreign aid and a cycle of poverty, Kennedy envisioned a community-based approach. He saw American volunteers as change agents working alongside their community members imparting skills and wisdom for sustainable development.
“They will live at the same level of the citizens of the country they are sent to…
doing the same work, eating the same food, speaking the same language.”
This is such an important point. He never saw volunteers as sitting in the capital city handing down projects; he saw them as integrated in their communities, and understanding truly how they could best serve the people of those communities. I cannot recommend enough that you watch his 90-second PSA encouraging people to join the Peace Corps.
“Peace Corps gives us a chance to show a side of our country that is too often submerged: our desire to live in peace, our desire to help…They are serving a large cause: the cause of freedom and the cause of a peaceful world.”
People often see volunteers as “young,” but it is not now, nor has it ever been limited to young people. Again, Kennedy envisioned both younger and “older Americans” heeding the call. The average age of volunteers is 28 and 7% of volunteers are over 50. When I served, we had one volunteer who was 80, I believe, and she was not the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in the world at that point!
Unlike religious missionaries who, while doing service, also tried (and often succeeded) to change the culture of people, US Peace Corps volunteers were there to teach science, math and English. They were there to help create health infrastructure, and to teach medical professionals how to deliver quality health services in less than ideal settings. They were there to help farmers use modern methods in agriculture to allow them to feed their families without bags of rice sent from overseas. Today, Peace Corps volunteers still serve in Health, Education and Agriculture, but program areas also now include Environment, Youth Development and Community Economic Development.
I served in Botswana. I lived in a tiny village at the far western side of the country, and I was there to teach about HIV prevention. I was part of a large group of volunteers globally that were, and are still, funded by PEPFAR. PEPFAR, or the
President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, was, in my mind, one of the best things President George W. Bush ever did. He wrote an op-ed piece recently in the Post reminding us of its importance. PEPFAR is working. The work of PEPFAR, which is not solely used for funding volunteers, is helping to curb the spread of HIV. The most recent Fact Sheet gives a great snap-shot of the progress we have made.
Volunteers are given 12 weeks of training when they arrive in-country. Training includes language, where needed, and job skills. During this time, all volunteers globally, with few exceptions, live with host families. This can be difficult, and not all volunteers love it, but it is invaluable. Our host families expect us to make faux pas, and it is better to do it to them than later in our villages. They very often give us a local name. Mine was ‘Lesedi’, which means ‘light,’ and that is how I was known. (Few people in my village ever knew my ‘English’ name unless we were close, and they thought to ask.) Our host mothers taught us to wash our clothes by hand and what the local foods were and how to cook them. Most host moms are very maternal and take their role seriously even if their adopted child is actually younger than them!
And then we went to our new homes. Mine was one of the most remote in Botswana.
To help the people of interested countries
in meeting their need for trained men and women.
While my main aim and my training was primarily in HIV prevention, what I ended up doing over the two years was:
- Teaching computer skills at the secondary school because the headmaster asked me to
- Teaching reproductive health at the primary school because the teachers asked me to
- Running a GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Club for young teen girls to empower them to be strong women
- Taking girls and guys to a GLOW (Girls and Guys Leading our World) camp
- Working with the out-of -school youth to put on a series of plays in neighboring villages on preventing HIV and reducing stigma
- Running a Valentine’s Day workshop for out-of-school youth to talk about prevention of, testing for and living with HIV
- Holding a poster competition for all school-aged kids on anything to do with HIV
- Conducting condom demonstrations anytime I was asked, which included for women’s groups, at workshops, at the police station, etc.
- Participating in a workshop and holding a session for male prisoners at the prison, which was actually one of the best sessions I ever gave.
My experience was not uncommon. Many volunteers had girls’ or guys’ GLOW clubs, and many used youth soccer as a way of reaching teens. Mural projects were common. Libraries got built and more. Each volunteer is at liberty to use his or her own skills and to match them to the needs of their community. These needs are discovered not by reports issued from the capital city or from Washington, but through ‘appreciative inquiry.’
Volunteers are encouraged and, in fact, required to stay IN THEIR SITE for the first three months. They are not to travel or go visit other volunteers. Aside from overnight shopping trips, which people like me had to make, volunteers must stay home. Why? So they can meet people. So they can get involved in the soccer team or a church. So they can be invited to weddings and funerals. So they can learn how to cook the food they have available. So they can learn to maybe plant a garden or get a couple of chickens.
At work, volunteers are told not to start any projects in those first three months. They are told to ask questions, and to listen to the answers. They are encouraged to talk to leaders such as the headmasters, the matron (in my case) at the clinic, the local government (chiefs or dikgosi in my case). They are also told to talk to the mothers, the children, the teachers, the nurses and the youth. They are discouraged, although not forbidden, to drink alcohol. In my case, I didn’t go to the bars in the first 3-6 months, but after that, I found it helped me build relationships to go have one or two beers with the locals on a Saturday night.
And that is where Goals two and three come in.
To help promote a better understanding of Americans
on the part of the peoples served.
I made friends. I had a boyfriend at one point, which is not uncommon. Some volunteers ultimately marry host-country nationals. I showed them photos of my family and told them what it was like growing up in Virginia. I tried to dispel myths that we all live like those on the Young and the Restless, a popular show there. I tried (and failed) to make them understand that WWF is not real. I assured them that I did not have a maid growing up, and that America is not cold everywhere all the time. I kept art supplies and games that people had sent me from the US in my house, and young kids knew they could come by if my door was open and use them.
I kept condoms at my house, and everyone knew that the only question I would ask when I gave them to them was, “Do you know how to use this or shall I show you?” I tried to be a good American, so that those I came in contact with, if they never met another American, would think that we are a kind, wise, caring, non-judgmental people. Peace Corps volunteers do not always achieve this, for sure, but the hope is that they leave their community even better than they found it and that they have helped to dispel the ‘ugly American’ rumor.
I gathered around a television and watched with pride as they watched with tears in their eyes when a child of their continent was sworn into office. I shared in their
joy at the weddings, and I shared in their sorrow at the funerals. I went begrudgingly to baby showers and with joy to brais (barbeques). I mourned with them when Ghana, Africa’s last hope, was defeated in the World Cup.
I can remember running through the village followed by a gaggle of giggling children usually, and being hollered at from a yard as I passed. This was not unusual. Sometimes people shouted simply, “Dumela!” (Hello!) Other times, they would add my name, Lesedi. Sometimes it would be “Dumela lekgoa!” (white person). But one night, I heard “Dumela, lekgoa lame!” Translation: “Hello MY white person!” I cracked up, but was pleased too. They had accepted me.
When I left, I said good-bye to the school children at the primary school. The headmaster gathered them all and told them to wish me farewell.
I had a party for my GLOW girls who all cried. And I had the mother of all parties at my house that involved killing a goat, live music, all the adult members of the
village and dancing in my yard until dawn. I left the next day. Sadly, I
haven’t been back since.
After two years, I decided, as some do, to extend my service. I moved to the capital and was placed for one year at PSI . I LOVED my time in Gaborone. I made such incredible friends with whom I am still friends today. I loved my work, I had a small, but adorable apartment, I managed to survive on my stipend and I had a great time in the city. I can remember towards the end of my service being shown a picture of me with a group of my girlfriends. I started to laugh, my friend asked why I was laughing. I said, “In my head, I really fit in, but I look at this photo and I am reminded that I look like a giraffe amongst a herd of gemsbok!” (As tan as the African sun had made me, I was still noticeably paler in complexion than them, and I was also a head taller than the next tallest!) She laughed, “No,” she assured me, “You are one of us. You are a Motswana.” Typing that brings tears to my eyes even now. I felt so loved, so welcomed.
Peace Corps is challenging for many reasons, but one of the hardest aspects is not knowing what you are really achieving. The results are rarely tangible or measurable. At our ‘swearing-in’ ceremony the Minister of Health spoke. She told us that when she was a young girl, there was a Peace Corps volunteer in her school. This teacher introduced her to biology, and she fell in love with it. She went on to become a doctor, and she stood before me as the Minister of Health. She had never seen him again, and he likely had no idea what had become of her or his other students. There was an expression painted on the wall in the Peace Corps office where I later served in Guyana:
“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
Peace Corps volunteers must keep those words in their hearts as they leave because most times, they do leave. Another volunteer may follow them, but the hope is that
in two years, they have built capacity and their projects will be sustained by
the nurses, teachers and others they have said goodbye to.
To help promote a better understanding of other peoples
on the part of Americans.
I wrote emails to share my stories with friends from home. I am writing this. In the past, volunteers wrote mostly letters. Now a days, they write blogs. When A United Kingdom came out, I used it as an opportunity to share what I knew about the history of Botswana’s first president, and to tell people where it is on the map. Crucially, when someone says something disparaging about “Africa,” I gently tell them that Africa is a continent, not a country. I also use that moment as an opportunity to perhaps shed light on WHY HIV has been such an issue in Africa. I talk about the history of colonialism and missionaries and foreign ‘aid.’ I tell them what I did as a Peace Corps volunteer is very similar to what volunteers do all over, and that it matters; it makes a difference.
Volunteers are not soldiers, and I never want to disrespect our military service men and women, but Peace Corps volunteers also serve their own country as well as another country. They live an uncomfortable existence on next to nothing. They live in harsh, and often more dangerous environments than they would otherwise. They do put their lives in danger, although Peace Corps works VERY hard to keep their volunteers healthy and safe. Cholera happens. Malaria happens. Side-effects of Malaria medicine happens. Violence happens. Car accidents happen. The death of Peace Corps volunteers is rare, but it is not non-existent, and I believe those volunteers are American heroes just as much as those that gave their lives on the battlefield.
Volunteers are representatives of America, but they are not diplomats. They aren’t given drivers and posh homes. They don’t make enough money to spend lots of time traveling. They aren’t given access to an ex-pat social life. They are on the ground, in the community worlds away from the Foreign Service officers.
Volunteers don’t get bumped to first class or access to the Club Lounge at the airport. Volunteers don’t get special passports to zip through immigration. Volunteers don’t get education grants and don’t get government employee status or benefits. Family members can’t send volunteers care packages for free in the M-bag. Volunteers serve for very little. The reward IS the service.
There is not a fourth goal of Peace Corps, but if there were, I would say it is:
To help Americans become better citizens by allowing them to break out of their comfort zone, explore their creativity, develop cultural sensitivity and meet challenges head on.
There are many notable Peace Corps volunteers, who have gone on to achieve greatness. Many others work as diplomats, teachers, social workers, nurses, doctors, non-profit professionals, etc.
Kennedy started Peace Corps. Nixon cut its budget. Carter expanded it. Reagan fought it. Clinton, not only embraced Peace Corps, but expanded on the defunct VISTA volunteer program and created AmeriCorps and Senior Corps for those who wanted to serve on US soil. George W. proposed DOUBLING Peace Corps budget and efforts. His call to action inspired thousands to apply. Obama continued the work of his most immediate predecessors, and expanded Peace Corps. During his presidency, he wanted more volunteers, so the application process became smoother; PEPFAR restrictions were modified allowing volunteers to be more effective; and the Response program was enhanced and expanded. He and Michelle endorsed Let Girls Learn to work in the development, education and empowerment of girls
around the world. He issued a PSA much like Kennedy’s 50 years before.
Kennedy, Clinton, Bush, Obama– Republican and Democrats who recognized the power soft diplomacy. They recognized that the service volunteers provide is important, but what is VITAL is the impact they have on creating goodwill towards Americans by foreign peoples. Diplomacy crosses party lines. In February of this year, Mark Rubio, said,
“This is never going to be 100% for sure, but I promise you it’s going to be a lot harder to recruit someone to anti-American and anti-American terrorism if the United States of America was the reason why they are even alive today.”
In February, 120 generals wrote a letter to congress imploring them NOT to cut the budget of foreign policy initiatives They, more than anyone, believe in the military, but as seasoned veterans who have served around the world, they also know the importance of diplomacy . In their letter, they say:
“As you and your colleagues address the federal budget for Fiscal Year 2018, we write as retired three and four star flag and general officers from all branches of the armed services to share our strong conviction that elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe. We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone…The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way. As Secretary James Mattis said while Commander of U.S. Central Command, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism… We urge you to ensure that resources for the International Affairs Budget keep pace with the growing global threats and opportunities we face. Now is not the time to retreat.”
If their words were not enough to urge our President NOT to cut Peace Corps, I don’t know what would be.
In 2016, while he was campaigning, he had this to say on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” when asked with whom he talks consistently about foreign policy:
“I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things…I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are,” Trump said. “But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”
American people on the ground in foreign countries benefits the country in which they serve and, crucially, benefits the United States. Do not allow Kennedy’s 56-year old legacy die as we celebrate his centennial. Because Peace Corps Volunteers are a small population (only about 225,000 have ever served), it is likely that you did not serve or that you don’t know anyone other than me (if you know me) that did serve, but that doesn’t mean you cannot see its value. Peace Corps was, and is, one of the best things about our country. Trump has every right to create his own legacy, but make him create his own not just simply have his legacy be the dismantling of the work that came before him, which helped to make America great always.