While driving for my job as a courier delivering prescription medications to nursing homes I listen to books on CD. Last night while working third shift I was listening to “The Times of Our Lives. A Conversation About America” read by the author Tom Brokaw. Not sure if it is the best choice for listening while driving at night as Brokaw’s deep mellifluous voice kind of made me a bit drowsy, doing exactly the opposite of why I listen to something while driving. However it is informative and helps make me feel like my driving time is a bit more productive.
In one of the chapters Brokaw speaks about the need for a renewal of a call to service for Americans. I very much agree on the larger points Brokaw made and was pleased that he included Peace Corps in the conversation. However I found certain aspects of the conversation frustrating. Brokaw brought Peace Corps as an example of what Americans can do for their country outside of military service. He first framed military service as the way Americans traditionally have served.
Brokaw explained that now with the all-volunteer military the demographics of the burden of who serves has shifted to the middle and lower class, which is true. He also pointed out that the military is now over-taxed with the duties of not only defending the country through fighting conflicts, but the military has taken on the new task of “winning the hearts and minds” of civilians in war zones. This task, Brokaw points out, is a difficult one to switch to by people who come in carrying weapons and are dressed in body armor. I agree on this point and have always thought that “winning hearts and minds” goes contrary to the role of combat soldiers.
Having served as the first Peace Corps volunteer in a isolated rural plantation community in the heart of Jamaica - a community that had a long history of distrust and grievance towards the white man - I can attest to the difficulties of gaining trust, even with the best of intentions. Doing development work is difficult, takes time, and is not done by gun point. Peace Corps volunteers learn that it takes learning the language and culture and fully immersing yourself. Things that I doubt that combat soldiers do.
I was nodding in agreement as Brokaw spoke about Peace Corps. He started out stating the statistics of the time of writing the book that there were 17,000 applicants (this was during the recession) and at that time 8,000 volunteers serving or in training. Brokaw framed the conversation in talking about the need for “soft power” versus the use of military might. He talked about how Hillary Clinton in her role as Secretary of State has been a champion for that view as she has increased the numbers of diplomats and worked to restore the state department. Brokaw also spoke about USAID projects that are key in the United State’s work in the developing world.
Brokaw said that this was all good and needed, but that the United States should and can do more. I agree with him. This is when Brokaw spoke of his proposal of a new Peace Corps plus. Over the years I have come to the view that Peace Corps in its original conception by Kennedy, Shriver and everyone else responsible for willing it into being, that whenever someone is trying to come up to a solution to some huge world difficulty they always make a proposal saying “we need something like Peace Corps”. Also I have noticed Peace Corps is always talked about like it is something that does not exist or is no longer fulfilling its original mission. This I disagree with. I travelled the world photographing Peace Corps volunteers doing inspiring work and continuing to fulfill the three original goals of Peace Corps.
Hearing Brokaw talk about the need for increased influence by the United States through soft power as opposed to military power and the call for Americans to serve in this capacity I was thinking about how this is not a new idea at all. Brokaw spoke about how a “Peace Corps” like agency could help in places like Afghanistan - a Peace Corps Plus as he proposed. I wanted to shout at him that we do not need to make a new Peace Corps Plus, we just need to fund and deploy the Peace Corps we have. It makes me realize that many do not realize that Peace Corps continues to fulfill its mission in providing skilled volunteers to transfer their skills to developing countries. In every point Brokaw made in his book he gave detailed examples and personal anecdotes, except when talking about Peace Corps. He did not interview any Peace Corps staff members, or speak of currently serving volunteers. He he had he would have found out that Peace Corps already doing much of what he is proposing. Not only that, but Peace Corps has returned to countries that were only recently seen as places of conflict, such as Columbia and Rwanda. There is a desire for Peace Corps to do more, both from Peace Corps itself and countries that request volunteers, and because of this Peace Corps Response was formed.
What really struck me in listening to Brokaw speak about how a Peace Corps Plus concept could benefit a country like Afghanistan, I was recalling how back in August of 2004 at a National Peace Corps Convention in Chicago I listened during the closing ceremonies to Hedayat Amin-Arsal, then Vice President of the Transitional government of Afghanistan, call for the return of Peace Corps to Afghanistan. Amin-Arsal was well acquainted with Peace Corps as he worked for Peace Corps in the early years as a trainer. He outlined much of the same points that I was now hearing Brokaw repeat about how Afghanistan would benefit from the transfer of skills and the help introduction of democratic policies by Peace Corps volunteers fully trained in cross-cultural skills and language.
So I was not so much frustrated by Brokaw’s views on this subject, but I was frustrated that it is nothing new, and that Peace Corps continues to suffer from lack of recognition to what volunteers continue to do and are capable of doing. I feel that in my own experience that my Peace Corps service is not recognized for its accomplishment back here in the states. I am currently job hunting, seeking a job more in line with my education, experience and abilities. I am only driving as a courier as a temporary job to pay my bills. Unfortunately, that has been the only job I’ve been able to get since returning from a Peace Corps Response service last November. I have applied for many jobs starting in last August and have yet to even get an interview. It seems to me that Peace Corps service on my resume is not giving me a boost at all. Maybe it is a result of the economy or the field in which I am applying or my age.
Whatever the case I do believe that Peace Corps is seriously lacking in positive public relations. This needs to change not only to help Peace Corps continue to receive funding (Peace Corps has to continually fight for funding on capital hill), but also if Peace Corps is to continue to attract qualified candidates. To fulfill the three original goals of Peace Corps and to continue to do the work of transferring skills to those in the ever-changing developing world Peace Corps needs to attract the best and the brightest. Peace Corps also needs to find the will to continue to do what it has always done while not getting bogged down in the politics.
I believe that one of the biggest obstacles to Peace Corps doing the things that Brokaw proposes is that many have lost the appetite for risk. I discovered during my most recent Peace Corps Response service that much of my work was hampered by increased safety and security policies enacted from Washington D.C. as a result of lobbying by families of RPCVs who were victims of assault and other incidents. I fully agree that Peace Corps needs to do whatever is possible to keep volunteers safe, but I also believe that much of it is the responsibility of the individual volunteer once they have been fully trained. The world is not a safe place, and risks are inherent. No one protects the host countries nationals where volunteers serve from the dangers. Volunteers can not expect to be kept in a cocoon of safety solely enacted by the micro-managing from the Peace Corps office. Volunteers need to learn how to be responsible for their own safety by doing what volunteers have always done … fully immerse themselves in their communities. Yes, Peace Corps has a big responsibility in laying the groundwork for safety and security an responding appropriately when incidents occur, because no matter what policies are in place incidents will unfortunately still occur. Safety and Security should not preclude volunteers from being able to do the work they were brought to the country to do, and that was my experience. To bring volunteers into countries like Afghanistan potential volunteers will have to be selected who are willing to accept the risks and take the responsibility for their own safety and security with the full support of Peace Corps, of course.
Peace Corps is needed now more than ever, both for the sake of countries served, and also for the sake of the third goal. There is a lack of perspective today when it comes to global concerns. I feel a lot of this can be blamed on the media. Every major metro newspaper used to have foreign bureaus. Now with the newspapers and media outlets being taken over by bean counting corporate hacks most of these bureaus have been closed and there is much less in the reporting of international issues. JFK envisioned a much larger Peace Corps and viewed it as a way to help make Americans responsible citizens of the world. With the global economy it is even more important than ever for Americans not to turn their backs on the world in isolation and having a large number of the populace serve in Peace Corps and return to serve in public life in the United States will benefit all of society.
For Peace Corps to grow and evolve to meet the challenges the best and brightest need to be attracted to Peace Corps service. To do so Peace Corps needs to make a better case for itself as to what a great institution it is and how Peace Corps volunteers develop skills and overcome challenges that are unique . Peace Corps also needs to improve its benefits to those who have served. I have successfully served in Peace Corps for my two years and plus I served in Crisis Corps and as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. Unfortunately, I have to say I have very little to show for it. I am underemployed and lacking health insurance. I live paycheck to paycheck. Fortunately, my service as a volunteer prepared me for living with less, so I do have that! Most importantly Peace Corps needs to stand up and shout we are hear and we continue to be viable, so that instead of having people like Tom Brokaw proposing a new “Peace Corps Plus” in his writings, he would merely propose that the United States fully fund, enlarge and deploy the Peace Corps we already have.