February 22, 2001 - The Commonwealth Club: The Peace Corps at 40

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The Peace Corps at 40

The Peace Corps at 40


Priscilla Wrubel, Co-founder, The Nature Company
Mike Honda, Rep (D-CA)
Gordon Radley, President, Lucasfilm
Carl Pope, Executive Director, Sierra Club
Dane Smith, President, National Peace Corps Association (Moderator)

On the campaign train in Michigan in 1960, John F. Kennedy proposed the idea of a corps of young idealistic Americans serving their country through work in developing countries. He signed the executive order in March 1961, and that August the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers headed off to begin their service.

In the past four decades, the work of the Peace Corps around the world has become well known. But what about the impact of the Peace Corps here at home? Will the dot-com bust lead to a new interest in service abroad, as a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle suggests? We invited a panel of distinguished returned Volunteers to discuss the domestic dividend.

Dane Smith: Over the past four decades, Peace Corps Volunteers have been America's premier grassroots development agents in Africa, Asia, Latin America and, more recently, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. They have been working at the local level to promote education, health, agriculture, environmental protection and small business.

The National Peace Corps Association is the national alumni association of the more than 161,000 Americans who have served in the Peace Corps over the past 40 years. We mount programs which we believe represent the values and aspirations of the returned Peace Corps movement. We have a number of national programs - global education, service and peace-building.

We also dialogue with members of Congress and policy-makers through our advocacy program. We focus on a few key issues, such as sufficient funding for Peace Corps to grow to its congressionally approved objective of 10,000 Volunteers, and we also advocate for expanding funding for health and education in developing countries.

We are also engaged in service. Through the Emergency Response Network, we have developed a database of Returned Volunteers available for short-term service overseas. We have sent them to places like Angola for refugee relief, or to Bosnia to monitor elections, or for hurricane relief in the Caribbean.

Carl Pope: I was a Volunteer in India in what was then the state of Bihar (it is now split off as the state of Jharkhand) from 1967-69 in family planning. I learned just how confused Americans are as a people when we look at the rest of the world.

We are, in particular, confused about the difference between giving and receiving. Most people who go into the Peace Corps go with the belief that they are going to give, and I think almost all of us have the experience that we end up receiving.

To have 161,000 people who at least understand that there is another way of looking at giving and receiving is a very valuable domestic dividend. Those in my organization might think that my second dividend is less of a dividend: before I went to Bihar, I was an extremely prompt person. I have never recovered that trait.

I went to India in 1967 very skeptical in the midst of the Vietnam War of "Gun Boat" diplomacy, and of the power of force to accomplish good things in the world. I returned from India equally skeptical of checkbook diplomacy, and of the power of money lavished to do good things in the world. I had a recent reinforcement of that lesson.

Our board of directors met for the first time on the U.S.-Mexican border last week in Brownsville, Texas to try to understand what has actually happened to both sides of the border since NAFTA.

We spent a day in Metamoros, Mexico across the border, and I visited one of the facilities which is part of the environmental dividend of NAFTA. This North American Development (NAD) Bank-funded landfill was built as a state-of-the-art, modern, American-style, 40-acre, ten-year capacity solution to the serious solid waste problem in rapidly growing Metamoros.

We found that the 40 acres had, in the way of these things, shrunk to 17; that the ten-year capacity which it had been designed for was already overstretched three years after the facility was finished; that while something state-of-the-art may have been built with NAD Bank money, it had not been built at the location of the landfill.

There may indeed be some state-of-the-art hacienda somewhere, but there wasn't anything state-of-the-art at the landfill. In fact, it had been on fire for three months and had hundreds of people living on it.

We also visited some colonias, things constructed without any loans from NAD Bank; in fact, things that were organized by what the local people call invasions. These were very organized takeovers of land from willing landowners who wished to turn their soybean fields into neighborhoods, but couldn't get permits from city government to do so.

These, by contrast, while suffering from a complete lack of public services, were a demonstration of the kind of ingenuity and self-organization that we all experienced in the countries where we learned. Nice, neat, tidy plots, 60-by-90 each; neighborhood associations with streets, although not paved - evidence that, more than anything else, it is community connection which enables people to survive under difficult circumstances. That community connection is something which most of the countries where we served may have in greater abundance than the U.S. will enjoy in the 21st century.

So as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps, we need to examine what's been happening in this country to our volunteer tradition. Why has it been withering? Unless I miss my guess, in the next century, we as a people will need those powers of community and self-organization just as badly as the people who are organizing colonias in Metamoros.

Priscilla Wrubel: The other night, we went to see the movie Traffic. In one scene Michael Douglas, who has just been appointed as the new U.S. drug czar, takes his closest advisors out West to survey the DEA offices along the Mexican border.

They are shocked by the overwhelming task of trying stop the inflow of drugs into our country. When they reboard their executive jet for the trip home, Douglas gives an impassioned plea for ideas on how to change policies that clearly are not working. He demands that his aides think outside the box.

There is a dead silence, because nobody knows what to do. I firmly believe that had he had 30 Peace Corps Volunteers on that airplane with him, he would have had many, many ideas - everybody scrambling to try to get to the floor to be heard.

That, to me, is one of the great values of a Peace Corps education: taking young people out of our culture and setting them in different lands with all the different cultural and environmental stimuli surrounding them day to day can't help but encourage them to think outside the comfortable boxes they've grown up in.

Coming from a small town in Illinois, I grew up surrounded by a large, Swedish-American family with strong ethnic-backed traditions. Once in the Peace Corps, I was whisked away to a small village in Liberia in the middle of the West African rainforest, teaching English to first-graders. Every day was filled with adventures and chances to make up the rules as I went along.

I could go on and on about the hundreds of ways that my daily life was changed and how I came to adapt and how I became quite comfortable with "thinking out of the box" almost on a daily basis. My life, my effectiveness and my happiness depended on it.

Coming back to the States, I married, had babies, and our family went back to Liberia for three more years with the Fulbright Foundation. Our goal after that was to return to Berkeley, where Tom was headed for a Ph.D. and a teaching career. Berkeley, in 1970, was another cultural shift. We were certainly not ready for the bureaucracy of the university, which seemed to closely reflect corporate America. We were looking for a simpler life.

The idea of opening a little shop that focused on nature grew out of my love of natural history and the curiosity of our two little boys, who loved tromping through the East Bay hills, and discovering birds and insects and flowers. We realized that finding books and games to satisfy their curiosity was not all that easy.

So an idea was born at our kitchen table. Business? We knew nothing about it. Bookkeeping? I knew how to balance our family checkbook. Design and graphics? Tom had been in art history and architecture at Yale. Marketing? Zilch. Capital? Zilch. But none of that seemed to be a problem for us. We could figure it out. Just take one day at a time, and as the problems came up, we'd be able to solve them. We were bright, we were Peace Corps.

So we dreamed up this store. It was a bit of a hardware store with birdfeeders and thermometers; part clothing store with T-shirts and scarves and ties; part bookstore with field guides, maps and posters; camera store with binoculars and telescopes; and a department store with china and paperweights and jewelry - all with a nature theme.

It turned out to be one of the first new specialty stores in contemporary U.S. retail. We brought our same idealism that drew us into the Peace Corps into the business world. We would only sell quality products. We would not sell any living creatures in cages, or animals that had been killed for trophy purposes, like seashells or Monarch Butterflies. We would be honest and fair and ethical with our venders and our employees, and treat them as we would wish to be treated.

We would not set up traditional business hierarchies. There would have to be complete respect among our staff for each other's roles. Our mission statement was to increase people's observation, understanding and appreciation of the natural world. And it worked.

Gordon Radley: Is Peace Corps more than the individual experiences that collectively add up to a greater truth? Throughout history writers and poets have used the pastoral metaphor to explain a certain journey that people will go on. In this metaphor, people leave civilization and go out into nature; they reach some understanding. They take that understanding, return to civilization, as it were, with that greater awareness.

Transcendentalists of the 19th century like Thoreau and Emerson felt that the American environment represented an opportunity to understand what life was all about. To experience nature, untouched by man and civilization, would be to be one step closer to the Creator.

In many ways, I feel the Peace Corps experience is the 20th century American transcendental experience. We're going out from the refinement and civilized aspects of America all over the world, to places of greater simplicity. In many ways, we've achieved an epiphany there that's left us different from the way we were before.

I went to Central Africa - a country called Malawi. I had the privilege of being alone, without other Volunteers in an area where no white people had ever lived before. I had the experience of living with traditional people who had had almost zero contact with our world. It was quite a dramatic change from the urban south side of Chicago where I grew up. I was in rural health working in childcare.

It was extremely hot in this country - about 130 degrees in the hot season, 100 degrees at midnight. It was so hot and humid that we couldn't sleep. So everyone would dance. Everyone would strip to the waist, and the sweat would pour off of us, and you would dance yourself to exhaustion so that you could sleep.

During those dancing hours, the drums were the only stimulus. They would get faster, and then slower, and then faster, and then slower. And all of us were together, in a circle, dancing on and on and on. Then there was no distinction between who I was and who they were. Geography and culture and language and race and ethnicity - all these separations between "us" and "the other" melted away. That something so exotic could become so familiar that I couldn't distinguish it different from myself was my Peace Corps truth.

Every day we're making decisions, especially in business. What separates the better people is the quality of their decisions. We can analyze decisions to death (and sometimes we do), or we can instinctually move ahead. There's always a leap of faith when you make a decision.

Volunteers have gained an empathic quality or tendency that allows them to be more effective as decision-makers. Having that quality and capacity that you learn as a Volunteer sets you apart and gives you an opportunity to relate to people in a different way, and more importantly, to experience life in a different way.

Wilhelm Stekel said, "It's better to live humbly for a cause than to die nobly for one." Living humbly is not about reduced circumstances or lifestyle or living in a hut. It's the sense that Volunteers intuitively take with them, even if it's unconscious - a sense of humbleness. It's not humility so much as humbleness that stays with them and infuses who they are and makes them different no matter what they do with their lives.

Mike Honda: Thirty-five years and 92 pounds ago, I went to El Salvador. I am a third-generation Japanese-American who grew up in California and in the south side of Chicago. My family was interned in a camp during the Second World War. What happened to my family made me very angry. Then the Vietnam War started. And I struggled; I wanted to serve my country, but I didn't really want to go to Vietnam, but if called I would go.

The Peace Corps came along, and it provided me an alternative service to this country. John Kennedy's statement, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country," set off a series of experiences in my life journey that brought me to this point. My experience in El Salvador taught me more about myself. I learned that I had a capability that was beyond my own understanding, and that the anger could be shifted to positive energies.

Learning the truth and teaching the truth was important, and to give back to our community was important. I learned I could stick it out anywhere; that my limits were self-imposed; that I only would learn if I met those challenges and exceeded those challenges. My self-confidence grew. My understanding and my dedication to this country grew.

When I came back from Peace Corps, I had to do something in teaching. I got involved in student movements. I dropped out of college with one unit to go. I knew I had to go beyond the campus. But when I came back, I came with a vengeance. I got my degrees.

I decided that an Asian-American who speaks fluent Spanish, born in this country, had an advantage. I created a niche for myself in the various community activity by working across cultures and language and communities. That became the groundwork for my political career.

My community was put into camps because of decades of yellow journalism. When we were taken to camp, there was no voice that said, "No." My mission was to be a voice and an advocate, and a model for other people to show that you can make a difference, you can participate; that politics is not a bad work - it's a profession that requires understanding people, listening, mediating, caring - all the qualities that I had before, but were not nurtured and cared for until I learned about that in the Peace Corps experience.

In El Salvador I learned that although their circumstances were humble, the people had compassion, pride, culture, language, family, religion. When Reagan came into power, the official reason for going into El Salvador was that we wanted to stop the "domino effect" of Communism. I instinctively knew that that was wrong because, knowing the folks there were strong
Catholics, they could never be atheists. Therefore, they could never be true communists; the fight had to be about something else.

That has driven me to participate in community activities and the political process. I urge those of you thinking about joining Peace Corps to do that; it is a Ph.D. program in life. For those who are returned, I urge you to continue to give back to our community, to take what we've learned overseas and to apply that back here. Although we're a developed country, we still have many things that need to be addressed.


Priscilla Wrubel, Co-founder, The Nature Company
Mike Honda, Rep (D-CA)
Gordon Radley, President, Lucasfilm
Carl Pope, Executive Director, Sierra Club
Dane Smith, President, National Peace Corps Association (Moderator)

Answers to Written Questions from the Floor:

Smith: What should be the domestic goal for population, and how do we achieve it? And what do you think of Mr. Bush's first act to pull funding for overseas family planning activity?

Pope: I'll take the second question first. The president has decided to cut off American assistance to organizations providing family planning services in other countries if those organizations have any connection at all with even informing women that abortions are available in that country, regardless of the legal framework of the country in question.

The administration cannot believe in any serious sense that this policy will reduce the number of abortions that take place in the world. To the extent that the policy interferes with the delivery of family planning services in other countries, it will actually increase the number of abortions which occur in the world.

It strikes me as quite strange that two weeks after the president announced that it was impossible to separate activities of organizations in other countries which with one arm deliver family planning services and with the other arm may run a hospital at which abortions are performed, he announced for the U.S. his faith-based initiative whose underlying premise is that it is perfectly possible for the federal government to support the charitable activities of religious organizations without simultaneously providing impermissible support for their religious mission.

We now know a great deal more about what happens when you enable people to take control of their own lives. If we empower families, if we educate both women and men, if we provide a wide variety of health services, people choose to have very small families.

We don't really have to worry about population goals for ourselves; what we should set for ourselves are human empowerment goals. If we empower our people, and particularly if we empower women, we won't have a population problem or at least a population growth problem in 20 or 30 years.

Smith: Please tell us about the opportunities in the Peace Corps for seniors.

Pope: My aunt and uncle actually did join the Peace Corps in their fifties. The difference in their experience was that they went into the experience with considerably less faith in institutions, particularly governmental institutions. They didn't pay nearly as much attention to what the Peace Corps told them their service was going to be like, and they relied much more on their own intuition.

Life experience served them very well, because while the Peace Corps is a wonderful experience, the Peace Corps as an institution is not always such a wonderful guide to that experience. Older Volunteers may be less flummoxed by the bad advice they get from the institution.

Honda: Folks who have gone through a life of work and have retired have a wealth of personal information and experience that they can share with their counterparts in other countries. I was talking to somebody, whose wife is an administrator, about their planning background. They can go to a city and start talking about creating infrastructure, things that we couldn't do as younger folks.

Being older gives you more of a sense of understanding of life and patience and timing; whereas as a young person, I was very impatient, and during training I always wanted to be first in everything. Now that I'm 59, I just want to finish.

Smith: What challenged you most as a Volunteer?

Radley: I went into the Peace Corps right after undergraduate study. Up to that period my life was all about achievement: you do well, you get an A, you don't do well, you don't get an A. You're constantly judging the effectiveness of what you do. I had to learn quickly, when I got to this remote place one mile from Mozambique, that it wasn't what I did that this experience was all about.

The people pointed out to me in their own subtle and unsubtle ways that, "Yes, our children are dying. They've been dying for years before you got here, so because you're seeing them die doesn't change that reality." I had to learn that if I could let go of Helping, I'd become effective in what I'm doing. Peace Corps Malawi was terminated while I was there.

There were many theories, but in short it was because the president of the country was threatened by having these white people living in the villages alone with his villagers. He couldn't quite get the motivation of what Peace Corps was and why these Volunteers were living at this very basic level. But we were allowed to finish.

The villagers gave me a little party and we all, in a very Malawian way, stood up and gave speeches. The oldest guy in the village was the last one, and he stood up in a stumbling way and said, "I thought for a long time, 'Why are you here?' Before you came, the children would have run from a white person.

Now when you come, they run up to you, and you've taught our children not to fear the other." That had nothing to do with my childcare program or any of the things I was doing, but at some basic level, that was the greatest impact I had on them.

Pope: What challenged me most as a Volunteer was the ethical dilemma. I was in the bureaucracy, I could make it do things it wouldn't do for local people because I was white and a foreigner. Over the course of the two years, I came to understand that, while I could make change happen in ways that local people could not, I was not the one who was going to pay the price for that change.

In fact, as an American in Bihar in 1969, I had the dubious distinction of being a risk-free change agent. That dilemma, which at that age I did not know how to deal with, caused me to leave the Peace Corps three months early because I just couldn't take it anymore. I have always had a special sensitivity to that dilemma because of what I experienced in the Peace Corps.

Smith: Wouldn't it be better to have a few more, highly qualified and committed Volunteers rather than just big numbers to show to Congress?

Radley: The budget is still less than the wing of one B-1 bomber.

Honda: Just a quick comment about the quality of folks. If you don't deselect yourself during the training, the two years will deselect you, and so the quality is there. For anyone who can sustain themselves working in the country for two years, you've done something that you can be proud of.

Wrubel: I've got to believe that there are more than 7,000 wonderful, young, active, intelligent, bright people in our country who would love to be overseas in this capacity.

Pope: In many ways the Peace Corps is an investment in venture capital. In venture capital you understand that you don't always get the right fit and you actually can't run a venture capital firm successfully by continually choosing smaller and smaller numbers of start-ups. You have to be willing to take some risks on people.

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