This Friday morning, this morning before the big RPCV rally in Washington, D.C. at 2 p.m. in Freedom Plaza (14th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW) to support “Obama’s Peace Corps Vision” the question– which we have never answered–remains: What Has The Peace Corps Done For America?
In 2011, the Peace Corps will be fifty years old. This agency is generally seen as the shining achievement of Kennedy’s brief presidency. But what is the legacy of those Volunteers? What lessons can America, and the rest of the world, learn from Volunteers who have served overseas over the past five decades?
In the first days of creating the Peace Corps, John F. Kennedy remarked to Harris Wofford that he saw the real benefit of the agency to be in how these former Volunteers would vote on foreign affair issues once they returned home. Kennedy envisioned hundreds of thousands of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers contributing to American society, not only in how they voted, but how they lived their lives.
Sargant Shriver always believed RPCVs would have their greatest contribution in the way they raised their children. It would be the children of RPCVs who would change the world because of how intelligently they were raised.
Since the summer of 1961, perhaps 210,000 Americans (more or less) have been Peace Corps Volunteers. Now, at the agency approaches Senior Citizenship, it is time to make an assessment of an agency that many (but not all) Americans think is the best foreign aid venture America has ever done. From these Volunteers, and from their experiences, there is much that Americans can learn about the world.
But how has two years in the developing world changed America? How has it changed the way Americans view other countries? Has the Peace Corps provided a new vision for our neighbor down the street?
My guess is not very much.
The way Americans joined the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq shows that RPCVs–and what they learned overseas–did not have much influence with that neighbor down the street. RPCVs have not been a political or social power in the United States.
Back in the 1960s I believed in time most congressmen and women, and most Senators, would be RPCVs. I was wrong. (Of course, it is painfully true that those people serving in Congress aren’t army vets either. They are simply politicians! Hey, it’s a job.)
The fact is that most Peace Corps Volunteers serve overseas and then come home and put away the experience, all those photos from the developing world, and only think about the Peace Corps when they tell their kids good night stories. “There was the time I was riding through the jungle and a spitting cobra….!”
You can put a lot of children to sleep on Peace Corps stories.
But you can also do more.
When Marian Beil and I started our Peace Corps Writers newsletter back in the late 1980s it was our hope that we would encourage, promote and enlarge the number of stories written by PCVs and RPCVs about the Peace Corps, and that these stories would educate Americans about what it meant to be a PCVs, what it meant to live in cultures vastly different than our own, and what we could learn from other societies.
There are perhaps a 1000 books written about the experience. It is too few, of course, but some of these tales have moved beyond the Peace Corps. They have found a place on the shelf of contemporary American literature. They have become part of the legacy of letters in our culture. Why, Peace Corps books are being read in local book clubs. Now, that’s progress!
For those Americans who still read, whether it is a paperback novel or on a Kindle, we have a lot to say. And Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975-76) perhaps said it best: “We are torchbearers of a vital tradition, that of shedding light in the mythical heart of darkness. We are descendants of Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other men and women, expatriates and travel writers and wanderers, who have enriched our domestic literature with the spices of Cathay, who have tried to communicate the ‘exotic’ as a relative, rather than an absolute, quality of humanity.”
So, go to the rally tomorrow in D.C. and cheer on the MorePeaceCorps campaign, and then go home and do yourself, and all of us, a favor and write down your tales from your Peace Corps years. Educate someone, even if it is just the neighbor down the street.