Robert S. Kenison (Colombia 1963-65)
Monday, November 21
WHAT THE PEACE CORPS DID for me was to change my life. That’s all.
I was a member of Colombia Group XVI, Urban Community Development. We were in training at the Columbia University School of Social Work in New York City when President Kennedy was killed. Midway through our training, this wrenching event unsettled us all, but in a real way firmed the resolve to move forward in the host country.
In 1963, I had just graduated from law school, an experience which had not done much to chisel an uncompromising New Hampshire political philosophy. Steven Vincent Benet has Daniel Webster describe the state of the nation in traditional Granite State terms: “rock-ribbed, firm, and indivisible.” That kind of stern, individualistic thinking underlay my thinking about political and social problems taking care of themselves through individual effort, just as hard-working tillage will produce fruit and blossom through flinty New England soil.
But, as I say, all that Peace Corps did was change my life. I was assigned to Barrio Pio XII in the City of Manizales. At that time at least, the Urban Community Development program was far from a Peace Corps lodestar, tending to lead in categories like pregnancies, early returns, and disciplinary problems. Like some other community development Volunteers, we had tangible projects (like an alcantarillado, or sewage system) but hardly turned our barrio around. It is not fair, or within my ability, to describe in brief terms my industrious, winning neighbors in Barrio Pio XII so I will say only that our friendships have endured till even now.
I met my wife, an educational TV Peace Corps Volunteer, in Manizales. We were married within a year of my return. Our marriage and our daughter in a very real way flow from the Peace Corps.
I have been doing urban community development ever since. An Ivy League law school degree generally is highly marketable, but I thought I would try domestic government service. I took a job in the counsel’s office at the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development for what I thought would be about four months. That was over 22 years and four month ago. During all that time I have worked on poor people’s programs of urban community development, including assisted housing. I think I am getting the hang of it.
Throughout those years, my vision of what is important in life has been radically informed by the two years of Peace Corps service where I learned that while people must help themselves, sometimes they need other resources – people, money, other support – to help them help themselves. For me (like my neighbors of Barrio Pop XII, I expect) Edgar’s exhortation to Gloucester in “King Lear” that “ripeness is all” is not an affirmation of stoicism; it is a credo of joy.
For all that, I owe the Peace Corps.
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