By LARA WEBER (Zambia 2000-02)
CHICAGO TRIBUNE |
FEB 28, 2021
“Why should you, a white woman, go work in Africa?”
The question was from an African American newsroom colleague, and it knocked me back. It was the late 1990s, and I had just announced that I was joining the Peace Corps, assigned to a remote public health post in Zambia, in southern Africa.
I’d applied to the Peace Corps primarily to set aside my journalist’s notebook and experience life beyond my own bubble, to better understand the world by immersing myself in hands-on work. I liked the Peace Corps’ grassroots approach to development work — that we would be working as partners with local community members, not as “experts” or advisers. My colleague caught whiffs of neocolonialism.
Neither of us used the terms “white savior” or “white privilege,” but that’s what we were talking about.
Now, the U.S. Peace Corps, which marks its 60th anniversary Monday, is at a crossroads — in part because it is figuring out how to restart its programs after pulling all of its 7,300 volunteers home when the COVID-19 pandemic hit a year ago. And in part because a growing number of recent volunteers are pushing the Peace Corps to reckon with that “white savior” problem.
One small group is calling on Congress to abolish the Peace Corps.
Efforts to dismantle this tiny agency are nothing new. From the moment President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order establishing the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, critics have sought to defund and eliminate it. Peace Corps generally has wide bipartisan support, but opponents, often from the conservative right, have argued for years that Peace Corps’ budget, about $410 million for programs in 61 countries, would be better spent on programs back home.