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Fifty Year Anniversary – What’s Next for the Peace Corps?

By Rob Mohr, RPCV Ecuador

 

fiftyyear_march2011Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.”  

—President John F Kennedy.

While the Peace Corps (PC) has meant something different to each of the 200,000 volunteers who have served in 139 countries in the developing world, it has always been an expression of the USA’s highest values which have often been at odds with US foreign policy.

The seed for the PC was planted by philosopher William James, who wrote in 1904, “Young Americans should be drafted for peace and not war.” When the League of Nations was formed in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson dreamed of a united peaceful world. Later, President Franklin Roosevelt toyed with the idea of drafting young men into an international peace brigade, but limited his action to the formation of a national Civilian Conservation Corps (1933).

Finally, in 1960, Senator Hubert Humphrey proposed a bill to establish the PC. The bill caught the attention of then-Senator John Kennedy, who, when elected President, asked Sargent Shriver to do a feasibility study. Within two months, Kennedy wrote an executive order establishing the PC with Shriver as director. Within a year, Congress passed a law formally establishing the PC.

Beyond the good will created by Americans living and working with marginalized communities throughout the developing world, most volunteers admit that the major impact has been on them. Volunteers who completed their service (two years plus two or more months of training) were usually awakened to the common bond all humans share and realized that all people deserve equal treatment, justice, and opportunity no matter their status or country. Transformed by the experience, returning Volunteers frequently went to work with nongovernmental organizations, and governmental agencies such as USAID. A significant number went on to become effective members of Congress.

Steve Moore, a RPCV wrote, “PC service in Korea had a dramatic impact on my life - I married a Korean woman, majored in Korean Studies in graduate school, and joined the US Foreign Service. My attitude toward my country and the world had changed. Even my decision to live part of the year here at Lakeside was based in large part on my tour as a PC Volunteer.” David Pierson said, “The PC opened the world for me.” Mark Sconce confessed, “The Nepalese taught me more than I taught them.” Those words resonated with our experience as PC Volunteers in Ecuador. After our service was completed, my wife Linda and I returned to South America where we began a twenty-five year career using non-formal education to enable sustainable, locally controlled, community development.

Over the last half century three goals have focused the work of PC volunteers: (1) to live and work within marginalized communities at the social and economic level of the people; (2) to generate good will while learning from the local culture and people; and (3) to share what the Volunteer learned with the people back home. Matt Brown, RPCV from Guinea, wrote, “Through this cross-cultural exchange, prejudices are toppled, boarders erased, and friendships forged.”

While Shriver and Kennedy imparted vision and a commitment to work toward a world where all countries live together in peace and prosperity, over the last fifty years this dream has become a nightmare of war. In 2010, the USA spent 700 billion dollars on two wars and defense, while spending only four hundred million on the PC. Unfortunately these expenditures make clear to the world US priorities, yet PC Volunteers continue to go out to be transformed by those they come to call friends and to return and share that magical truth back home. After fifty years of service, the PC remains one of the brightest beacons of hope in a world divided by religions, political systems and economic disparities.

*Former Volunteers and PCV working in Mexico gathered in Ajijic on March 1st to celebrate the 50th anniversary and the life of Sargent Shriver.

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