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The Peace Corps is one of the boldest social and cultural transformation efforts in world history. The organization is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Like reaching any significant milestone, the organization will probably review its past, reflect on the present challenges and try to gauge its mission for the future.
My knowledge of the Peace Corps came initially as a student at Lincoln University (PA) when the distinguished attorney Franklin Robinson [shown above], a Lincoln University graduate in the class of 1941, came back to speak at the university. Mr. Franklin, a tall stately gentleman, elegantly dressed and eloquent in his speech urged students to consider service in the Peace Corps upon graduation. He explained that the Peace Corps was a vehicle created by president John Kennedy to go into the communities of the world and help improve the lives of ordinary citizens. And, he said the basic concept and model for the Peace Corps had come from another Lincoln University graduate, Dr. James F. Robinson, the founder of Operations Crossroads Africa in 1958.
Franklin Williams was then serving as assistant to Sargent Shiver, the first director of the Peace Corps, who had been appointed to that position by his brother-in-law President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had established the Peace Corps as one of his first official presidential acts in March 1961. The Peace Corps was and still is a volunteer program, an outreach program designed to assist in countries that ask for its assistance with education, agriculture, health care and local infrastructure construction like roads and wells.
Many Lincoln University students joined the Peace Corps after Williams’ visit and many others spent summers in the Operation Crossroads program that spawned one of Kennedy’s most noble contributions, in my opinion, to the world. Today nearly over 200, 000 Peace Corps volunteers have make contributions to the lives of people in need of assistance in 130 countries as far afield as the Philippines and Colombia.
How do you measure a dream? How do you gauge the impact of a people-to-people outreach assistance program of the magnitude of the Peace Corps? Undoubtedly the many members of the Peace Corps family will attempt to answer those questions when they gather in Washington the third week of September. They may also look at the allegations, met with many by skepticism, that the Peace Corps has been in some instances infiltrated by intelligence gathering agencies. The Peace Corps family may even review and make comparisons with the work of other efforts offering somewhat similar kinds of programs, such as that proffered by USAID, the World Bank, and UNDP.
The answers to the questions of “of what worth” may not be answerable in the aggregate. Perhaps they may only be answered in the way volunteers touched individual lives and individual small villages in places that still benefit from that interaction.
I asked some former Peace Corps volunteers for their informal impressions of the organization and what they thought people really did not know.
One Peace Corps volunteer, a university classmate, who had attended the university assembly where I first heard Franklin Williams speak so many decades ago, said, “Peace Corps has never been able to recruit African Americans in any sizeable numbers, even for service to Africa…. When I returned to the States in ’68, I recruited on the campuses of HBCU’s. The reluctance to join the Peace Corps varied: ‘How can I learn an African language when learning English was hard enough?’ ‘You make how much? Fifty cents an hour! Are you crazy.’ ‘Why should I take my talents to Africa when my people here are in need of them?’ There was also the issue of paying back student loans. I must confess, most of the inquiries about Peace Corps came from Sisters. I got the impression that mothers were afraid of seeing their daughters going off to the “Dark Continent.” Nonetheless, most of the African American volunteers I came across in Africa were women. If the brothers were not in Nam, or involved in The Movement, or in jail, where were they? … What a time to be in Uganda from ’66-’68–Teaching at Sebei College on the verdant slopes of Mt. Elgon, overlooking the Teso Plains, and then descending the mountain to dodge Idi Amin’s troops/thugs. I survived, and what a graduate school the experience was.”
Another Peace Corps woman volunteer who served in Asia and met her husband at her assignment post said, “People don’t know much about the Peace Corps and what an enriching experience it can be.” Her comment may have some validity. Despite the longevity of the Peace Corps, and the many friends I had that participated as volunteers, later as staff or coordinators in the field, until notices of this 50th birthday celebration, I had thought Peace Corps had faded into the past. Once there were television commercials and brochures, but I haven’t seen them in years. Perhaps, the Peace Corps’ presence today is enough to continue to recruit volunteers or there are other mechanisms for promoting interests in service.
Later Lincoln University became a Peace Corps training site. From observing the training and the trainees, I gained my first impressions of Peace Corps people. They were generally optimistic people out to help the world. They were on the Hippie fringe, cross-generational and multi-ethnic. They spoke like evangelists, and weren’t interested in the superficialities of dress or makeup. They were intelligent even though they were wide-eyed optimist about a world really too large to comprehend. I do not know if my assessments can be generalized across other Peace Corps training sites or Peace Corps itself. What does matter is the extent to which this noble experiment has been a success.
No doubt the participants in the 50th Anniversary celebration will devote some attention to who was and is Peace Corps, and what has and has not been accomplished. They will surely address that usual question, “Where do we go from here?”
Another of my respondents answered my question, “What is it about the Peace Corps you think most people don’t know?” He was a former volunteer and overseas staff member, and later a member of Washington’s senior staff. He answered “That Peace Corps still exists and provides the same unbounded and life changing opportunities as ever…”
Whatever comes during the celebration of 50 years of Peace Corps in Washington, DC the third week of September, it is certain that Peace Corps has changed many Americans worldview and how unknown numbers of people in the world view America. Peace Corps is an extraordinary experiment in humanity and sharing.
Happy 50th birthday, Peace Corps. You done got good and grown. Many happy returns.
Image Content: OCA founder James Herman Robinson and Members of the Peace Corps