Community Voices: An improved Peace Corps for the next generation
by David Schaad (Iran 1971-73)
The United States is on the verge of sending our most valued treasure — our people — overseas to serve as Peace Corps volunteers once again. For the past two years, the Peace Corps, like much of the world, has been grounded by COVID-19, with no volunteers currently serving abroad. This is about to change, and as the Peace Corps gets ready to relaunch, it’s my hope, as a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in Iran from 1971 to 1973, that it does so even better than before.
The good news is that this is possible. While nearly 7,000 Americans serving in some 60 countries came home in 2020, the 240,000 Americans who served since the agency’s founding in 1961 didn’t sit still. We organized, drew on the knowledge and experience of the community, and produced a comprehensive set of recommendations for how the Peace Corps could return to the field to meet the needs of a changed world.
Our community’s voices were organized by our returned volunteer membership organization — National Peace Corps Association — to ensure that America’s most iconic service agency lives up to President Kennedy’s grand vision of bringing the world together in peace. This vision is more urgent today due to global threats we all face, from the pandemic to climate change to the retreat of democracy around the world.
As March 1 marks the anniversary of President Kennedy’s 1961 executive order establishing the Peace Corps, volunteers will soon return to service overseas. At least 24 countries have met revised health, safety and security standards for volunteers to return, while more nations are close to meeting those standards.
We have also seen Washington take to heart the views of the Peace Corps community. Reforms to programs are being adopted. New ideas about incorporating racial justice and equity into agency activities are being advanced.
As volunteers return to the field, battling COVID will be a significant part of their work. In October 2021 testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Acting Director Carol Spahn said: “The Peace Corps is committed to playing a critical role in global COVID-19 response and recovery by returning Volunteers to work in partnership with underserved communities around the world.”
Climate change is also a priority. Countries where volunteers serve are feeling some of the most damaging effects of climate change, and Peace Corps will be partnering with communities across sectors.
While it’s been more than 20 years since Congress reauthorized the original Peace Corps Act, last September Democrats and Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee came together and passed H.R. 1456 by a vote of 44 to 4. The rest of the Congress should follow their lead.
Now is the time for action, as volunteers again prepare for service. Urge Rep. Kevin McCarthy to pass the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1456) in the House as soon as possible. Please also urge Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla to actively join the House in supporting bipartisan passage of this legislation, an important step toward deepening our nation’s commitment to service and our nation’s highest ideals.