The other day I went down to D.C. to interview Aaron Williams, the new Peace Corps Director, a former Volunteer in the DR in 1967-70. Aaron told me that when he flew off to Training it was the first time this southside Chicago kid had ever been on a plane. He had never been out of Chicago before joining the Peace Corps, earning his college degree locally, in Education and Geography from Chicago State University, not Harvard or Yale.
After his tour, he worked for the Peace Corps in Chicago as a Recruiter, and all these years later, that gang of RPCV Recruiters who worked together in the early Seventies are still close friends. For another year, and this was 1970-71, he worked in Peace Corps Washington as the Coordinator of Minority Recruitment, and then he returned to school and earned an MBA in Marketing and International Business. He worked in Minneapolis with General Mills for awhile before beginning a long USAID career with various positions and stationed in Honduras, Haiti, Costa Rica, Barbados and South Africa. In 1998, he went to Baltimore as the Executive Vice President of the International Youth Foundation. By 2002, he was working for RTI International.
The international development side of RTI that is (according to their website) “dedicated to improving the human condition in developing countries. With more than 200 international development staff members based around the world, we deliver advisory and training services at the national, sub-national, and local government levels, providing institutional development through the transfer of analytical tools and methods. We often work in multidisciplinary teams that cut across traditional sector boundaries.”
Their clients are: are (of course) the United States Agency for International Development, Asian Development Bank, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and several agencies of the United Nations, as well as foundations and other regional and international organizations.
None of this litany of achievements came up when I talked Aaron. Tall, lanky, and laid back, he doesn’t talk about himself. Like most PCVs the first thing he wants to do is tell you a story of someone else, a funny tale from overseas, something that happened decades before when he was a PCV. In fact, my guess, if he was left alone by his staff, and was hanging with RPCVs, he’d be telling stories all day long.
The other first impression I had of him was that he was awed, not by himself, but of the responsibility of his new position. He was awed, for example, by the recent reception he got traveling to four Peace Corps countries that took him around the world shortly after he was appointed director by President Obama. Now here is a guy, if you look at his resume, who has been almost everything, but this time, as the Peace Corps Director, he came in contact with the RPCVs who are living and working around the world, in the Embassy and AID, but also private business. “RPCVs are everything,” he remarked, impressed at how pervasive we all are.
He was also awed by the lasting influence of the Peace Corps. In South Africa, they met by chance with the President of Malawi, and managed to meet him on the spur of the moment because the chief-of-staff for the Malawi President had been educated by PCVs and would do anything for the Peace Corps. This man quickly arranged the meeting, and the President of Malawi then changed his plans so he could go to a swearing-in of new Volunteers. (If you were a teacher in the Peace Corps and you think you did not have a lasting influence on your students, think again.)
I asked Williams immediately the question any former Ethie PCV would want to know: When are we going to send teachers back into Ethiopia?
We’re working on it, he said. Clearly getting teachers in Ethiopia made sense to him. He also said there were 3 new countries waiting now for PCVs and the $400 million in the budget that has just been passed by Congress is going to make opening these countries a lot easier. Vietnam, by the way, is on the top of that list. (Another friend in the foreign service told me while I was in D.C. that Senator John Kerry is pushing for PCVs to go to Vietnam. Kerry sees it as his last ‘act’ for the country where he went to war.)
But what is Williams grand plan for the Peace Corps agency? Everyone–from Congress to the kid on the street shining shoes–thinks the agency should be overhauled, reworked, goosed up, ‘reinvented’ into something else, something better.
Aaron has three basic ideas in mind.
First: Slow growth of the agency. He is not going to start loading up planes (not even the new Boeing Dreamliner) and sending PCVs into the field. What he wants to do is look at overseas NGOs and see about placement of Volunteers into existing slots in the developing world. For example (Aaron did not tell me this), when the Peace Corps got a ‘ton’ of money from the Bush Administration to do AIDS work in Africa, most of these countries weren’t ready. In Ethiopia, for example, the first Volunteers back into the country spent most of a year wandering around looking for ways to do their jobs. Williams comes out of a long history of development and sees placement of PCVs into real jobs as key. He is not going to start ‘dumping’ Volunteers into the Third World just to raise the number of PCVs in the Peace Corps.
Second: Using technology in the field. This is long overdue, Aaron said, and I jumped on this issue, giving him my pet project idea of a laptop for all PCVs, the obvious replacement of Shriver’s old book lockers for the early Volunteers. Williams believes in being innovative in the world, and we’ll lots of changes. He didn’t say yes to my laptop idea, but we’re early in our relationship and I’ll work on him.
Third: This new direction by Aaron was the most surprising, and it has taken nearly 50 years, and an RPCV, to realize that the Third Goal of the agency has never been funded. As Aaron says, “sharing Volunteer experiences through a variety of venues and initiatives will not only benefit American communities and classrooms but will strengthen the agency by increasing awareness of the work and the value of our Volunteers and their projects. Nearly 200,000 Americans have served with the Peace Corps since 1961. Their voice is significant, thoughtful and experienced. They are among our best recruiters. They are leaders here at home in academia, diplomacy, journalism, public health, law and entrepreneurship. Our dialogue with our Returned Peace Corps Volunteers is critical in capturing the imagination of the next generation of Volunteers.”
This, as we know, is long overdue. My own regret is that Aaron didn’t mention the Peace Corps books that have been written by many of you, the vast library of information and experiences that you have all recorded, and in so doing educated America, and the world about the developing world. For example, just this morning, I found a reference on my google search of “all thing Peace Corps” that the Central European University is now using in their history curriculum, a travel essay by Jeff Taylor (Hungary 1990-92), that I published in my 1994 collection, Going Up Country: Travel Essays by Peace Corps Writers. The writings by PCVs are being read, even in places that surprise us.
Aaron is now the fourth RPCV to be the director. He has a good shot at really making a difference in the agency (we have waited long enough!) as he has the development background. He has also surrounded himself with RPCVs, and gravitates to them. His chief-of-staff is an RPCV, as is the new deputy (once she is conformed). He is committed to making the 50th Anniversary a real event, and will run the reunion out of his office. He wants to connect with country-of-service groups, seeing that they are the strength of the RPCV community.
He is not flashy; he is not ego driven; he is not a glad-hander, he does not give a great speech; he is not Obama. But he has a solid development background, great connections in Washington, the easy manner of someone who knows who he is and what there is to be done for the agency, and most importantly, and best of all, he is an RPCV.
We wish him the best. I think we have a winner in this director of the Peace Corps.