|from the Peace Corps
The Peace Corps welcomes Dr. Darlene Grant to her new role as senior advisor to Director Jody Olsen. In this role, Dr. Grant will work with agency leadership to increase and champion a diverse staff and volunteer corps. She will make recommendations aimed at increasing inclusiveness, removing barriers for underrepresented groups, and creating a more just and equitable Peace Corps.
Dr. Grant’s path to the Peace Corps began after 18 years as a professor of social work at the University of Texas at Austin. There, she taught graduate and undergraduate courses in social justice, clinical practice, research methodology, and working with at-risk youth. She directed funded research projects focusing on juvenile probation, teen pregnancy prevention, and the domestic violence experiences of incarcerated women. Dr. Grant was named 2006 Social Worker of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.
In 2009, she took a leave of absence to serve in Cambodia’s 3rd Peace Corps volunteer cohort as a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher and teacher trainer. Her volunteer service was just the beginning of her relationship with the agency. In 2012, she became country director in Mongolia and served in that position until 2015. Subsequently, she retired from the University of Texas and went to Kosovo to serve as a country director once more.
In the Q&A below, we ask Dr. Grant about her newest role as senior advisor to the Director.
Describe your experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cambodia.
My volunteer service in Cambodia challenged everything I had learned from living life as an African American woman whose parents were a part of the great migration of the 1950s—when they traveled from the south to northern cities for opportunities. It challenged everything from my academic pursuits to what I taught as a professor about empathy, resilience, social justice, diversity, power, privilege, and oppression.
The people-to-people work of a Peace Corps volunteer—living at the level of the community in which you serve, building relationships in the face of daily cross-cultural misunderstanding (that, in my case, included helping others overcome stereotypes related to the package that I come in) affirmed my commitment to my profession as it intersects with the mission of the Peace Corps. It solidified my passion for this work and changed my professional career trajectory!
How did your experience as a Volunteer shape how you worked with volunteers as a country director?
It is from my own personal experience as a volunteer and my professional framework that I have encouraged volunteers—when they feel their work or presence is not valued—to get back to their why. Why do you want to do meaningful work? Why did you join the Peace Corps?
It is my firm belief that if you can get back to your why, and if you use the staff and peer resources around you, you will tap into your core resilience factor. With resilience, you can succeed.
What are your primary duties as the new Senior Advisor to the Director?
My primary role is to listen to and advise Director Olsen and the agency through the filter of my experience as a clinical social work practitioner; professor-researcher focused on anti-violence, anti-poverty, anti-racism, and oppression; returned Peace Corps volunteer; and former country director.
This position offers a chance to honor the knowledge of the agency’s host country national staff, returned volunteers, and U.S. direct hires with whom I have worked. Together, we will continue to learn from each other and uphold the ethos and mission of the Peace Corps.
What do you hope to accomplish in your role?
I want to create a space where I can truly listen to people’s stories and recommendations on behalf of the agency.
I aim to collaborate with the Peace Corps’ Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion to connect the dots in terms of attitudes, policies, and practices that deliberately or inadvertently put up barriers toward attaining the richest possible diversity of applicants, volunteers, and staff from underrepresented groups.
Together, we aspire to establish an environment for everyone to achieve their fullest potential at the Peace Corps.
Why did you decide to accept this new position?
I accepted this new position because I have a very particular set of life experiences and professional skills—skills that I have acquired over a very long career. My unique skills make me sensitive to the desire everyone has to be seen, heard, and respected for who they are, their fears, what they have overcome, and their hopes and dreams.
I accepted this job because the Peace Corps changed the trajectory of my life and career to be one focused on meaningful cross-cultural work which, through an agency embedded within our U.S. government, enables me (and us) to work for a better America and a better world.
I accepted this job because I spent my whole life preparing for it—from childhood when I sat and listened to my Baptist minister maternal grandfather preach the social gospel in the fashion of Martin Luther King Jr.
I grew up in inner-city poverty, surviving for periods on food stamps and government cheese handouts. After flunking out of a predominately white private university where, as a 4.0 student my entire life, I learned the lesson that an ‘A’ in a low resourced, inner-city school is not the same as an ‘A’ from a highly resourced school with AP classes.
I accepted this job because of Ellen, Peggy, and Sarah, the white girls from the dorm room two doors down from mine who befriended me when I was in tears after receiving the letter from the university informing me that I had failed and needed to go home. They subsequently coached me in effectively navigating the university probation process so I could prove myself.
And I did. The 3.0 GPA that I earned that following semester and the friendships that started then added to my understanding of the importance of inviting people from diverse backgrounds to form cross cultural bridges.
What makes you excited about your new position?
This new job enables me to continue this work on a larger stage.
After hearing the sad news of the passing of Representative John Lewis (D-GA), I have been framing the dozens of calls for Peace Corps leadership to address organizational racial inequities in terms of his life, his fearless commitment, and his devotion to this work. The challenges and importance of anti-oppression, anti-racism, cannot be overstated.
In this moment, as I emphasize the importance of pressing on no matter how tired, no matter how skeptical that this effort will lead to real change, one quote by Rep. John Lewis particularly resonates:
“Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even fairer, more just society.”
As everyone who reads this response has undoubtedly done, I have ruminated on the meaning of the intersection of the pandemic, the evacuation, and the horrendous killings of Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and too many others. These events have catapulted our society—and this agency—to a tipping point with a feeling of real possibilities for change.
I am honored that Director Olsen asked me to be a part of her senior advisory team and energized to do this work. I am honored to have the support of so many colleagues throughout the Peace Corps and the world.