June 30, 1998: Headlines: Peace Corps Directors - Gearan: Common Ground: Mark Gearan Discusses Peace Corps Dreams and Legacies

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Directors of the Peace Corps: Mark Gearan: June 30, 1998: Headlines: Peace Corps Directors - Gearan: Common Ground: Mark Gearan Discusses Peace Corps Dreams and Legacies

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Mark Gearan Discusses Peace Corps Dreams and Legacies

Mark Gearan Discusses Peace Corps Dreams and Legacies

Air Date: June 30, 1998 Program 9826

Mark Gearan, Peace Corps Director
Jose Navarro, Peace Corps volunteer
Sherry Sposeep, Peace Corps volunteer

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

MARK GEARAN: When I receive ambassadors and ministers here to the Peace Corps, it's striking to me how many will say, "The first American I ever met was a Peace Corps Volunteer," or "My first teacher of English." Now they're a minister or ambassador or in some cases a head of state. That's a very powerful testament to the difference the Peace Corps has made now over 37 years.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, the legacies and dreams inspired by the Peace Corps.

GEARAN: Most Americans won't become a Peace Corps volunteer. We understand that. Although we're always recruiting. But every American can be proud that so many of our fellow citizens are doing the kind of important service, important work, important development work, that our volunteers are doing all in the cause of peace and friendship.

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Keith Porter.

JOSE NAVARRO: I fought fire to pay my way through college. And I was in a fire in Colorado and a lot of my friends died. And I was able to escape. And that was, when I got down to the river it was really like the breaking point in my life. I really just said, "Okay, I've always wanted to help people. There may not be a tomorrow. I have to do it now." So right when I finished my degree I went to join the Peace Corps.

PORTER: This is Jose Navarro. A Los Angeles native, Navarro now works in agri-forestry as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay.

NAVARRO: I help Paraguayans with soil conservation, resource management. I think everyone's heard of the problems with the rain forests, sub-tropical rain forests. And just a figure, they have 10 percent of their forest left. And we're just trying to help people. Until farmers—you know, small farmers, you give them an alternative, the environmental degradation is going to continue. And that's what Peace Corps—Peace Corps is really actually the only grass roots extension effort in Paraguay. It's a crisis but the really, the only way to approach it is the way Peace Corps is doing it; one person at a time.

SHERRY SPOSEEP: I'm an ESP volunteer, which means that I teach English to doctors in hospitals. I teach medical English.

PORTER: Sherry Sposeep left Houston, Texas to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan.

SPOSEEP: The second thing I do is work within the community. And currently I'm working on creating a crisis intervention center, with my doctors. They've come to me and asked to have this put in place in the city. And they feel there's a need for it. So we're working right now to find a place to have this center. And to find resources in order to have it function.

PORTER: What made you join the Peace Corps?

SPOSEEP: I joined the Peace Corps, I began thinking about the Peace Corps when I was in college. And I was working at a refugee shelter. And I met many people from different countries and really decided that instead of—I enjoyed helping, I wanted to help them living in the United States but I also felt that I wanted to travel and to be a part of a community and help them in a different way.


SPOSEEP: So that's why I joined.

PORTER: And I'm sure a lot of people wonder where Turkmenistan is. Did you know?

SPOSEEP: I also wondered. Turkmenistan is in Central Asia. It's a former Soviet Republic. It's bordered by Afghanistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan.

PORTER: What prepared you in your life to be Peace Corps Director?

GEARAN: Well, I think I like to tell friends and family, I think I have the best job in Washington. Because it's such an enormously interesting place with a great history, a great legacy that's been left to us. Now 150,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers, so first and foremost I'm very grateful to have this position and very honored to have this position.

PORTER: Mark Gearan, a former White House official, has served as Director of the U.S. Peace Corps since 1995.

GEARAN: I think my best preparation is having worked in public service my whole life and understanding the importance of the government and to work to prepare the Peace Corps for the 21st Century. I've worked hard here to try to listen to our volunteers. To travel. To meet with them. To learn from them. That's, I think in many ways the best preparation for the job is to listen to the volunteers who are out there doing the important work. Our job as staff is to assist them, to support them, to recruit and train the best and brightest Americans. And then to provide the organizational staff support to allow them to do their job and then to get out of the way. Because really the secret of the success of the Peace Corps is in the field with our volunteers.

PORTER: For people, especially people of a certain age, I think, the Peace Corps has a certain amount of nostalgia and it evokes a lot of idealism. There's a picture behind you of President Kennedy and Sargent Shriver and even the picture itself evokes a certain image. How well does the reality of the Peace Corps match up with that image of the Peace Corps?

GEARAN: I think it's even better. I think 'cause the reality of the Peace Corps is while every American I think is proud that we have a Peace Corps, that there are so many of our fellow citizens who are all working in some of the poorest places on the face of the earth to promote peace and friendship and understanding, I think many Americans' sense of understanding of the Peace Corps might just end there. That it's a nice thing to do. What I think is underrealized and undervalued perhaps is that the important development work that our volunteers do. The very real, tangible difference that the volunteers make in the lives of people in communities and villages all across the world. In my position I get to receive ambassadors or ministers; in some cases heads of state, who come to the Peace Corps to thank the Peace Corps for the difference that volunteers have made in their countries. And it's very moving. It's very impressive in terms of the thousands of people that are educated; in many countries in Africa the eradication of Guinea Worm disease; important environmental projects and forestry projects; important health projects.

So I think what many Americans might underrealize is the very important development work that goes along with it. Of course the extraordinary sense of altruism and service and voluntarism that's so much a part of the Peace Corps' legacy.

PORTER: You certainly get a lot from that image don't you? I mean, from the, from pictures like that one of Sargent Shriver?

GEARAN: Right. And certainly, you know, sort of the name "Peace Corps" is I think singular. And that's the legacy that we've been left with. But it's interesting. I think ultimately, again, all of that good will that's been built up, both in the United States and around the world for the Peace Corps is again a testament to the volunteers.


GEARAN: Now 150,00, as I said over 37 years. They've, their hard work and their sense of service has allowed for this kind of good will to develop that now the Peace Corps is so well regarded internationally. And I think volunteers, when they come back to the United States, other American citizens prize their service. And appreciate it. Many Americans, well indeed most Americans won't become a Peace Corps volunteer. We understand that. Although we're always recruiting. But every American can be proud that so many of our fellow citizens are doing the kind of important service, important work, important development work, that our volunteers are doing all in the cause of peace and friendship. And really representing the best sense of, as you said, altruistic spirit of service around the world.

PORTER: There are about 6,500 volunteers out right now?

GEARAN: That's right. In 84 countries.

PORTER: What do they do? When you send Peace Corps volunteers somewhere, who decides what a Peace Corps volunteer does?

GEARAN: Well, it's interesting. The genius of the Peace Corps I think, indeed the brilliance of the Peace Corps, is that the work of our volunteers and the assignments of our volunteers is decided in the field. We don't decide here in Washington, DC, sitting at the corner of 20th and K Street, what's best for Paraguay or what's best for Turkmenistan. It's decided there, locally. And in so doing, it's very important because the actual assignment and the actual job of our volunteer, is valued and prized. So anyone going into the Peace Corps can expect when they sign on to the "toughest job you'll ever love," that they will arrive in a country to an assignment, to a job, that's been locally valued and prized. So it's not make work. This is not just "Junior Year Abroad," it's not an opportunity to do anything but important, valuable work that's been locally identified. And secondly, after the two years of service, the chances are that the development can be better sustained because it's been locally valued by the volunteers' counterparts. Because the volunteers will return to the United States in two years we want to make sure that their environmental projects or health projects or forestry projects, continue long after their return to the United States. And having it field driven, having it, the assignments organized in the field, makes for much more impressive and long-term, sustainable development.

SPOSEEP: The best part has really been getting to know people. And forming strong relationships with my colleagues, people that, doctors, my students, and my host family. I live with a 70-year-old woman, a widow, and being able to come home every day and have conversations with her and really getting to know her has been an amazing part of my experience. And just becoming a part of the community, the neighborhood that I live in has really made a difference.

PORTER: In your day in Turkmenistan, do you run things? Do people give you assignments? What's, how does that work? In your day-to-day life there?

SPOSEEP: It's really a wonderful job because I have no supervisor. I have no direct supervisor at least. I have a schedule of classes and of projects and you have to be self-motivated to go out every day and just do the work that you have to do, whether it's teaching or whether it's organizing a conference or a group of people. Basically I'm on my own to do that.

PORTER: And Jose, what's been the best part of your experience in Paraguay?

NAVARRO: This sounds so cliché-ish, but making a difference. I'm an agri-forester, so a lot of other countries call it just environmental resource volunteers. I can look out my door—I live in a natural reserve, it's a beautiful area, one of the few places with forest left—and I can look out right across, right out my front door and I can see people adapting some of the agricultural practices, soil conservation. I can see the trees growing. And then I could see people owning their work. Before, when fatalism was basically their, their front belief, the philosophy they lived by, and now they're realizing they actually have a hand in what they're doing. They actually have, that they can make a difference. That they're owning their work. That's incredibly gratifying.

PORTER: Do you have a sense that when you leave in, what, six months, seven months?

NAVARRO: Seven months.

PORTER: ...Seven months. That your work will continue? That things will go on?

NAVARRO: Absolutely. Myself and eight other volunteers just, I'm the only one who is still a Peace Corps volunteer but we secured a land deal to start an experimental farm in Paraguay, close to where my site is, and we're going to be training Paraguayans to do what we do. So it's going to be Paraguayans teaching Paraguayans. And I'm going to be, when my service is finished I'm going to be in charge of the experimental farm. And it's, I'm absolutely positive. I mean, once people, once they see that it can be changed around, that they actually can reap higher yields, things like that, and they've done it themselves, they're the ones who've done it; it wasn't a gift, it's incredible. It's incredible.

PORTER: Sherry, you have the same sense, that your programs will continue after you're gone in what, six months?

SPOSEEP: I believe that one of the projects I'm working on, the crisis center, is going to continue, because the need is there and the people, the situation, Turkmenistan is ripe for that kind of, well, for that kind of system, in the health care. So I do believe that is going to happen and it's interesting to be at the roots of it, to see it from, development from the beginning. But I see that if I go back in five or ten years the center is going to be big.

PORTER: We're talking in this edition of Common Ground with the Director of the Peace Corps, Mark Gearan, and two current Peace Corps volunteers, Sherry Sposeep and Jose Navarro. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: Mark, as you look out around the world where are the places you see the biggest difference being made by Peace Corps volunteers?

GEARAN: Well, I think literally in all 84 countries, both in terms of the individual accomplishments like Jose's work in agri-forestry or Sherry's work in terms of the crisis center that she's working on, specific tangible things.

PORTER: Again, this is Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan.

GEARAN: But then the amazing thing to me about the Peace Corps is the intangible. The friendships made, the associations made. Sherry's housemate, the, I suspect she's the first Westerner that she ever knew. The first American that they ever knew, from a former Soviet state. That is a very powerful testament to me. And when I receive ambassadors and ministers here to the Peace Corps, it's striking to me how many will say, "The first American I ever met was a Peace Corps Volunteer," or "My first teacher of English." Now they're a minister or ambassador or in some cases a head of state. That's a very powerful testament to the difference the Peace Corps has made now over 37 years. So I think the contributions are significant overseas, but I also think there as significant here in the United States. There is a very large domestic dividend to the Peace Corps. Volunteers come back; they go into all walks of life in the United States. They tend to volunteer more in our communities, become involved more. There are six members of the Congress, a member of the President's Cabinet, educators, teachers. And indeed all of us become better and learn more about the world as a result of Peace Corps volunteers coming back to the United States. And in our global economy, in our increasingly multicultural society, that's good for the United States, to have so many Americans coming back who understand a different culture, have lived overseas, perhaps learned a new language. That's a very broadening aspect of the Peace Corps, and what I like to call the domestic dividend of the Peace Corps.

PORTER: There is the organization called the "Returned Peace Corps Volunteers." Do they have any sort of official role in the agency? And do you have contact with them?

GEARAN: They're wonderfully helpful. They're organized as a separate non-governmental organization. But it's very impressive. The alumni if you will of the Peace Corps, the returned Peace Corps volunteers, are very loyal, very interested in the agency, very helpful to us recruiting, very helpful to us about literally bringing the world back home, which is one of the goals of the Peace Corps: to bring the world back home to the rest of the United States. And they're an excellent group, organized regionally, by different countries, and then nationally.

PORTER: Well, let's ask our volunteers. Sherry, what kind of work do you think you'll continue doing after the Peace Corps, and will your Peace Corps experience play a role in your future?

SPOSEEP: Absolutely! In fact I'm already considering doing another Peace Corps service, probably in the next ten years, to Africa.

PORTER: Sherry Sposeep, now serving in Turkmenistan, is a graduate of Antioch College.

SPOSEEP: And coming back I absolutely believe that being in Peace Corps has, is going to change the jobs that I look for and the experience that it's given me has been really amazing as well.

PORTER: Jose? You?

NAVARRO: It's definitely, definitely affected—I'm, I plan on coming back and being a teacher.

PORTER: Jose Navarro, a graduate of Western Oregon University, serves in Paraguay.

NAVARRO: This whole day before the interview, I spent at a local high school. I was with an RPCV, who is a teacher there now, who went through the Peace Corps Fellowship to get his degree, and he asked me to come speak to some of his classes. And it wasn't, what was, the questions asked about Paraguay were interesting, but what really was interesting to me was the questions they asked about me, the way I view America coming back. And it was incredible, the questions, how dynamic. And there were some children actually sleeping when I walked into the class, and those same two guys, I mean without a joke, it really affected me, because I said something—I don't know what it was—but they came up to me after the class and they stood there and they were late for the next class asking questions about the Peace Corps. I don't know what it was. But they, I touched them somehow. Or maybe it was when I hit them when I woke them up. [laughter] But they were very interested and you could see there was interest there. And I don't know if that would have been there had it not, had a returned Peace Corps volunteer not talked to them.

PORTER: Mark, what kind of people volunteer to be in the Peace Corps?

GEARAN: All walks of life, from every state in the country. We have no upper age limit to the Peace Corps. Indeed there's a 78-year-old Peace Corps volunteer working.

PORTER: Now, we think about young people though. I mean we think about this....

GEARAN: We do.

PORTER: ...as a young man's, a young person's game, but you do, do you actively recruit older people?

GEARAN: We do. And this wonderful volunteer is working in Madagascar. About six or seven percent of our volunteers are over the age of 50. But you're right. The bulk of our volunteers are in their 20s, like Jose and Sherry and others who work around the world. Demographically it's slightly more women today in the Peace Corps than men. And diversity to represent our own country's strength of diversity, that's respectable. So the Peace Corps is extending a welcome mat to all parts of the country and we're working hard to expand the numbers of our volunteers. Because it provides such an important life-sharing experience, as our colleagues have remarked upon here. You know, we, Keith we recently did a survey of all the volunteers and asked a variety of questions including two which are I think relevant here. We said, "Would you do it again?" and "Would you recommend it to others?" Now, these surveys were filled out in the field, not when they come back and they're in their comfortable places in Muscatine, Iowa, but in the field. And nine out of ten said they would volunteer again; nine out of ten said they would recommend it to others. That's a rather extraordinary statistic I think for any kind of life endeavor that one could imagine answering so affirmatively to. So it really does make the slogan of the Peace Corps, the motto of the Peace Corps, "the toughest job you'll every love," a very apt one. 'Cause there's high volunteer satisfaction with a very difficult assignment.

PORTER: There must be places where the Peace Corps sends volunteers, tries as hard as it can, but it just doesn't work. Are there failures like that in the system?

GEARAN: Well, you know, after 37 or so years, the Peace Corps has become quite proficient about programming. What programming works, what doesn't work. There are 4 or 5 general areas that we work in that we know we can do it well: in education, in health, the environment, agriculture, and business. We know we do those kinds of things well. So I think over the course of the years the Peace Corps has built up its training well, its site selection, what the volunteers are going to be working on. But as with every human endeavor that is fraught with some errors and frailties along the way, but again when nine out of ten said they would do it again that gives me a very affirming statistic. That for all of the travails that exist and for the hardship of their service and the modest circumstances that they live and work under, they feel like they are making that kind of difference that should be commensurate with giving up two years of their life.

PORTER: When the U.S. has a dispute with another country, I know recently we withdrew our ambassador from India and cut off U.S. aid, is the Peace Corps affected at all? Are Peace Corps volunteers withdrawn in situations like that?

GEARAN: Well, we, historically yes. If there's any issue of safety or security, that's a paramount concern with out volunteers. It stars with whether we go into a country or not. If the circumstances aren't appropriate or what we would feel is safe and secure enough for our volunteers to live and work and make the kind of difference they want to, then we do not have a Peace Corps program there. And similarly, if the circumstances change in a country, where political circumstances deteriorate such that there is any kind of compromising of the safety and security of our volunteers, we leave. I've just asked the volunteers to evacuate from Chad and Sri Lanka. Last year we evacuated our volunteers in Albania and the Congo. So the Peace Corps is I think, wisely, very mindful of the paramount importance of safety and security. We remind volunteers during training about issues like that. Because while it is a very complex and complicated world, we take these issues very seriously.

PORTER: Sherry, you feel safe in your post?

SPOSEEP: I do feel safe in my post. We have a very close connection, a network between all the volunteers within each city, and between each village, and we know that we can count on each other. Even though we may only see each other once every three months or even less, we know that we're there for each other. And we have support.

PORTER: Jose, I heard you talking earlier about the elections in Paraguay and things were a little edgy for a while there. Did you feel safe in your post?

NAVARRO: I was here in the United States but I had an e-mail from, a couple of volunteers e-mailed me and they told me that the, our country director asked everybody to stay in their sites, because most of us are in the countryside; very few of us are in the, around the capital. But he asked us to stay in our sites till everything, till we knew what the outcome was going to be. And then, you know, there's always memos about safety. It's, I feel, always feel very safe. Take the same precautions you would in the States. You know, you go in the city you look out for yourself. But I, I imagine it's the same for Sherry. You develop real close bonds with those you live around. They look out for you. But they're just like your family, like what I call, I have a Paraguayan dad and a Paraguayan mom, I call them Mom and Dad. And I have a brother and sister and they look out for us. And they look out for my things. Like right now I've been out of the country for a month and they're guarding my bike and my radio and you know, things like that for me. And they wouldn't let anyone touch it, as if it was theirs.

PORTER: President Clinton recently talked about increasing the budget. Tell us about that. Is that going to happen?

GEARAN: Well, we're hopeful. We've had a good response. The President is his first radio address of the year outlined a plan that we've been working on here at the Peace Corps to expand the number of volunteers to 10,000 by the year 2000. Presently we're at 6,500 volunteers so it would be a good sized jump of our volunteers over the course of a few years. But what we're seeing, if anything around the country, is a resurgent interest in the Peace Corps. Last year alone we had 10 percent more inquiries into our recruitment offices around the country. So certainly the supply is here in the United States, to field more and more Americans serving overseas as volunteers. And God knows the needs exist around the world. So the demand is clearly high for the services and talents and commitment of Peace Corps volunteers. So we've been up to the Hill. I've testified before committees on the Hill and have met with a fairly good response. This is a tall order to have a kind of request like this, but I think at this point in time, at the dawn of the new millennium, I don't think there's any better way to spend the kind of foreign assistance monies in such a time-tested, proven effort. It's really the human face of our foreign assistance. And so this request for $48 million more to our budget. But I think the commentary that you've heard here today from Sherry and Jose would affirm the kind of importance of this effort. They're representing all of us overseas.

PORTER: Sherry is in Turkmenistan and I think that President Kennedy would have been very surprised to hear the Peace Corps volunteers were going to countries of the former Soviet Union. That would surprise him right there, wouldn't it? But are we involved in other countries where we have historical animosities, I should say?

GEARAN: Yeah, well it's interesting. You know, I think if President Kennedy came the Peace Corps today he would see that our volunteers are serving in countries that didn't exist in 1961, or that an American couldn't get a passport to in 1961. But I think he would look very favorably that we are staying on the cutting edge, both in terms of the countries we're serving in and in terms of the work that our volunteers are doing. Responding to the needs from the field. Certainly the environment would not have been at the top of the development agenda 37 years ago but it is today, and appropriately so. Or business volunteers work would not have been part of the program 37 years ago. Or God knows HIV and AIDS education was absolutely unknown just until a few short years ago. So we have, I think the Peace Corps has done well to keep pace with the times in which we live, both in terms of the countries we're in and the work that our volunteers are doing. The world is not a static place. Certainly development is not a static endeavor. And the Peace Corps, by staying on the cutting edge, I think, is responsive to the field and providing an enormously interesting experience then for our volunteers, which will translate well when they come back to the United States. One of the, again, domestic dividends is when you have volunteers coming back to the United States now, like Jose was thinking about becoming a teacher. That will be a great thing for own country, to have his perspective after two years of living overseas.

PORTER: I hadn't thought about this until you mentioned sort of the cutting edge of development, but development for a long time has been controlled by organizations it seems like the World Bank. And development we think of something that's really big and there's been a real backlash now against that big style development. And we see the rise of micro-development, micro-enterprise, micro-credit, but that's where the Peace Corps has been all along.

GEARAN: It's very interesting. You know, it really shows the genius and the brilliance of the early architects of the Peace Corps Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy, Bill Moyers, and others. That they really had it right from the start. That it's people-to-people, field driven, grass roots development. What's been clear as you read and learn more about development and what other efforts are doing, is they're coming around to this kind of development, from other agencies, from other efforts, non-governmental organizations and others. That what the Peace Corps has done and the kind of way they've approached development, sustainable development, has served itself very, very well.

PORTER: That is Mark Gearan, Director of the U.S. Peace Corps. We also heard from current Peace Corps volunteers Sherry Sposeep and Jose Navarro. For Common Ground, I'm Keith Porter.

Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free. Cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, please write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Suite 500, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Be sure to refer to program No. 9826; that's program No. 9826. To order by credit card you can call us at 319-264-1500. That's 319-264-1500. Transcripts are available on our Web site. Go to commongroundradio.org. Commongroundradio is all one word. Our e-mail address is commonground@stanleyfdn.org. Again, cassettes are $5.00 and transcripts are free of charge.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © 1998, The Stanley Foundation webmaster@stanleyfdn.org

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