Visionary Women Championed During Women’s History Month
Published March 28, 2019
A Distinguished Career of Furthering Peace Throughout the World
“Just say peacemaker,” responded Patti Garamendi when she was asked how she would like to be introduced for an event recognizing National Women’s History Month at the Census Bureau. Clearly, the returned Peace Corps volunteer (Ethiopia, 1966–68), former associate director of the Peace Corps, and former vice chair of the Committee on World Food Security for the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, sees “peacemaker” as one of the most important roles in her dynamic, impactful career.
On March 5 to an audience of employees—some returned Peace Corps volunteers themselves—eager to hear her stories and advice. The event was sponsored by the Census Women Count Chapter of Federally Employed Women and the Equal Employment Opportunity Office. This year’s theme for National Women’s History Month, “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Nonviolence,” was a fitting topic for Garamendi, as her innovative and strategic international work has helped revitalize communities ravaged by war and famine.
Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham noted at the beginning of the event that when the Peace Corps began in the early 1960s, women made up about a third of the volunteers. Today, they make up about two-thirds. “Women have made and continue to make increasingly important and frequent contributions to peace and nonviolence both domestically and internationally,” he said. Dillingham listed highlights showing women’s positive influence on peace, nonviolence, and prosperity. For instance, according to the Council of Foreign Relations, the participation of women’s organizations and civil society groups in peace negotiations makes agreements more likely and the results of those agreements to be more lasting.
Garamendi’s own passion for delivering peace, relief, and hope began when she was a junior in high school and happened to be in the front row when a charismatic, reddish-haired leader gave a speech in Berkeley, California, calling on people to serve the country and the world. Inspired right then and there by the words straight from John F. Kennedy, she said, “That was the moment. I knew I was going into the Peace Corps.”
Volunteering a few years later with her husband John, who said “pass” to a likely career playing football to join the Peace Corps with his new wife, Garamendi served as a teacher in Ethiopia between 1966 and 1968. She recalled her students’ commitment to learning and the projects they all worked on together. She also remembered how the people in the village expressed their care and concern about the turbulent times in America with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.
After some time back in the United States, Garamendi became associate director of the Peace Corps in 1993. She worked in that positon for 5 years, and led the charge to recruit 24,000 Peace Corps volunteers in 94 countries and to hire women as country directors overseas for the agency.
Following decades of international collaboration work at several organizations, she felt a strong need to revisit the Ethiopian village where she had served. She and her husband took the long trip back and were thrilled to see several of her former students—many now holding the hands of their grandchildren who were going to the village school. “Our students had become the teachers of the school,” she said. “They stayed to protect the school and continue to educate.” Young school children, dressed in blue uniforms and waving flowers, lined the street approaching the school to greet the former Peace Corps volunteers. “We danced, we celebrated, we cried,” Garamendi said.
When the current teachers were asked what the school needed, “computers” was their answer. Since then, Garamendi has raised money and sent about 80 to the place that was her one-time home. Some of her former students, now computer professionals, came back to the village and set up a computer lab that has become a showcase for the whole area.
Garamendi concluded by saying she had recently read about the civil service being a peacemaking endeavor. “Those of you who have dedicated your life to civil service should know that in your daily work you are supporting the stability and the peace of our nation,” she recalled. Her reading cited the census as being the nation’s bedrock of stability and the peaceful exercise of democracy. “And I honor you for that. You are peacemakers in your own way, and I want you to think about that every single morning when you come in to work.”