Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Teaching about the Peace Corps

I had my first class on the U.S. Peace Corps at Lourdes University  last Friday. It's the first time I've done this and I was a little anxious. I arrived early and set up my displays of posters, photos, magazines and books.  I then walked down to the serenity garden, along a colorful path, to review in my head what I wanted to do.  I discovered the nun’s cemetery, a serene place to reflect, think, pray. I felt blessed to be on the lovely campus founded by the Franciscan Sisters.  I was ready for my class.

It’s a small class in the Continuing Education program so it was all discussion, learning about each other, and offering introductory thoughts on the history and purpose of Peace Corps.  We talked about Senator John F. Kennedy’s University of Michigan speech urging young Americans to go abroad, share their knowledge and learn about the world.  That was in 1960, when he was running for president.  We talked about the times. Hope filled the air. A year later president Kennedy created the Peace Corps and Congress approved it. JFK appointed Sargeant Shriver as its first director, a brilliant choice that got the program off the ground, beginning in Ghana, and developed its best advocate, which it needed.        

Did you know the Peace Corps idea had been floating around for at least 3 years before Kennedy made it a reality?   No, they didn’t.  I gave some hints: the idea began with a Senator, from Minnesota, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, a victim, you might say, of the Vietnam War and America’s growing opposition to it.  Hmm.  Okay, it’s Hubert Humphrey.  Ah yes, of course.  My brother Loren thought Humphrey was an unsung hero of American history, and he taught me all about this brilliant and compassionate man who gave so much to our country.   Humphrey was a pioneer in issues of justice, race, and peace, in introducing these ideas into the US Congress, and in putting them on the American agenda for change toward our ideals.  

And so we riffed on these notions for a while: how change takes place, how America has struggled overtime to live up to its ideals, how the pioneers often get lost after a charismatic leader takes the idea and makes it happen. 

We talked about the purpose of the Peace Corps, its three major goals, where volunteers serve, what they do.  About 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries since 1961, I said.  The Peace Corps turned 50 in 2011.  It has changed with the times.  

For instance, volunteers now have cell phones, computers, and communications technologies that did not exist in the early years.  Imagine being in a small African village in the 1960s or 1970s, miles away from a big city, with lousy roads, poor to no electricity and plumbing, uncertain mail delivery, unable to contact friends and loved ones.  It was a much more isolating experience than it is now.  

Those early volunteers were true pioneers.  Among them, I noted was recently slain Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who served in Morocco in the early 1980s.  His life and work embodied Peace Corps principles.  He would want us to remember all the early volunteers, and we did, some now elected representatives and officials, some well-known media anchors and reporters, most anonymous heroes and heroines for worldwide peace.  Today's volunteers keep the tradition alive. 

New fields of work have also emerged with the changing times, I continued.  What would these be?  Yes, the new work includes  HIV/AIDS prevention, environmental preservation, information technology, and small business entrepreneurship, building on and marketing the crafts of poor women and mothers especially.  Education and English as a foreign language remain major needs and about 36% of volunteers work in these program areas.   

“Only 200,000 volunteers in 50 years?” June asked with surprise.   That gave us pause for reflection. Really, that is NOT a big number.  We talked about the presidents and congresses who supported it, and those that did not. About the challenges of the early years.  The budget has always been small, and it's gone up and down.  It’s relatively low now, with 9,095 volunteers serving in 76 countries. 

For an agency with such a big purpose, of fostering international understanding and peace from the bottom up, the Peace Corps, an independent government agency, has never been well funded.  Compared to the military and defense budgets “we’re talking pennies, really,” Andrea noted. She is a retired 68-year old continuing education professional, thinking about joining the Peace Corps. I said I’d help, although I was careful to note that there are many other ways to serve the cause of world peace and justice.   

That was a chance to talk about senior volunteers, also a relatively recent phenomenon.  The model remains Lillian Carter, president Jimmy Carter’s mom, who served for two years in India while in her 70s. She  called it “a transforming experience.”   All volunteers would agree with that!  Now Peace Corps is actively recruiting over-50 volunteers.  They bring special wisdom to the field, as well as strong skills and experience. 

Throughout the discussion we wove in personal travel experiences.  June shared her experience with a church mission in Haiti, where the need continues to be so overwhelming, and the people resilient and joyful in spite of it. “It will be better tomorrow,” is the motto of the Haitian people, she said.

Same with the people of Ukraine, I responded, who have such strength and courage in dealing with daily life.  Volunteers in other countries around the world tell similar stories. We learn to love the people, their culture and traditions, in spite of the hardships, and to share their dreams. 

Peace Corps is a people-to-people exchange, personal interactions during which something new is created in the process.  That’s really the essence of the Peace Corps experience.  "We need more of this," the class agreed. 

Next week I’m bringing in two other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) to share their stories with us, one who served in Liberia, the other in China.  First-hand stories, on the ground, in the real world: that's  one of the best ways to learn about Peace Corps and to keep hope alive.    

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