It isn’t until you lose something that you realize how important it was. For several years now, I have appreciated John Coyne and Marian Beil’s amazing website on so many levels. I have used it for research, to keep up-to-date on everything Peace Corps, for historical information, to fritter away many an hour, and to learn of the next great Peace Corps book. It made me feel good to know this incredible body of work was at my fingertips anytime I needed a dose of Peace Corps in my life.
And then the website went down. To be revamped, John assured me. It would be back up soon, he said. Days went by without John’s familiar emails in my inbox, enticing me to spend another few educational minutes on one of the great articles at peacecorpsworldwide.org. When just weeks before I had filed away several of John’s updates, knowing that I would have to read them later, I now found myself yearning for one more article, for the comfort of this connection to the larger Peace Corps community. I simply had not realized how much I had become dependent on this lifeline, on the important archive John and Marian have built.
The Peace Corps itself, in many respects, is befallen by a similar fate. As Americans it makes us feel good to know that there is a Peace Corps. As Peace Corps Volunteers and Peace Corps staff we feel reassured knowing that what had such a transformative effect in our lives continues to transform. However, with the exception of a core of truly dedicated people, we don’t tend to do much about it. Our loyalties lie with our countries of service, our time is swept up in our busy lives, and when we do receive an email from the National Peace Corps Association encouraging us to “Ask Congress to Support Increased Funding for the Peace Corps and Healthcare Legislation for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers” we barely have the energy to make it through the title of the request.
So what if the Peace Corps went away? Would that shake us awake and make us take a stake in this unique organization? And would it be able to come back as quickly as John and Marian’s website, forgiving us our inaction, our waiting in the wings?
I believe that we don’t know enough about the Peace Corps to care deeply enough. Yes, we care about our own experience – we know all about that. We care deeply about the host country nationals we bonded with. But when we talk about the Peace Corps to friends and neighbors who aren’t familiar with the organization, we often find ourselves tongue-tied: Do you want the 1-minute version of the story? Or can I actually tell you about my 2 years? I wish I could tell you a story that would bridge the gap of you knowing only that JFK started the Peace Corps, and of my intimate memories of having stepped outside of this world and truly grown.
As many of you know, I have embarked on a towering task of a project: a landmark documentary about the Peace Corps intended for public television. Its name: A Towering Task. And I believe most of you agree with me that this project is long overdue, incredibly urgent, and truly important. Much of this narrative has never been told because we are entranced with the beginnings of our story. Scholars of the Peace Corps focus on the 60s or current day issues. Scholars of peace, development, diplomacy, and sociology largely ignore the Peace Corps. And so it is now more than ever that we need to thoughtfully and lovingly tell the whole story of the Peace Corps, past, present, and future, to bring it back into the public discourse. Not a PR piece, nor an exposé, but rather an in-depth documentary that takes us through six decades of the Peace Corps’ history, so we can ask the important questions regarding its future.
And to produce this documentary, we have launched a bold (shriverized?) crowdfunding campaign in partnership with the National Peace Corps Association. Our theory is that the Peace Corps community – 220,000 strong – has never effectively come together to put its stake in the ground. But if we can ignite this community, then there are few limits to what it can do. If every RPCV gave $5, we would easily exceed our goal of $1 million. And telling our story in the form of A Towering Task would only be the beginning. Once we are re-awakened to the potential of this amazing community, we will have the constituency to demand a better Peace Corps, a stronger NPCA, and a more informed national discourse about how America shows up in the world.
And then last night, there it was in my inbox, an email from John that said “We’re baaaack!” And with the click of a mouse I was back home – a newer, slicker, better home, but home nonetheless. Thank you, John and Marian, for all you do! You are pillars in our community, and though you go unappreciated far too often, what you do has ripple effects far beyond what any of us can imagine.
To donate to the crowdfunding campaign and help us tell the story of the Peace Corps to America, please, click here: generosity.com/community-fundraising/a-towering-task-documentary-ignitepeacecorps
Alana DeJoseph’s (Mali 1992-94)