Finding the “Peace” in the Peace Corps

[Editor’s Note: The mission of the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute is to inspire commitment, action, and social innovation, following the example of Sargent Shriver. We are answering Sarge’s call: “Break your mirrors!” We invite others to do the same, and to share their stories about learning, in Sarge’s words, “more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own”.This post is by filmmaker and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Alana DeJoseph. She is breaking her mirrors by creating an ambitious documentary about the Peace Corps: A Towering Task: A Peace Corps Documentary.]

I am a returned Peace Corps volunteer (Mali, 1992-1994), and like every RPCV, I have many very personal and transformative stories to tell about my own service. The story I’m seeking to tell, though, is one where the hero is a US government agency that reaches across the globe, and its themes reach far beyond myself.

Developing a documentary about the Peace Corps, you might say, is itself a towering task. With over 55 years of history, experiences of more than 220,000 returned volunteers working in 141 countries, plus the effects of the organization on the United States itself, there is much ground to cover. With all of the material to review and given the scale on which the Peace Corps has worked, telling this story is no small feat and, while it must be made up of many personal tales, it cannot be limited only to the recounting of individual experiences.

The story of the Peace Corps is one that affects us all. As citizens of the United States and of the world, we care, or ought to care, about how America comes across, and how it participates in the world. We don’t often hear about the Peace Corps in the news – and that is probably a good thing, considering that, by convention, today’s news coverage typically signals something going wrong. However, without being able to see the importance of the Peace Corps over the course of its history, asking important questions regarding its future as a peacebuilding and diplomatic tool is nearly impossible. Where, therefore, does a sweeping story about the Peace Corps fit? How should it be told? And why should it be told?

I’d like to start by addressing the question of “why”. “Peace” has become an unpopular concept in today’s national discourse. While we seem to be more than comfortable with war terminology, using it for every vague notion of conflict, peace has become an elusive, often denigrated idea. And when you talk about peace, you had better be armed with economic statistics, facts and figures about development and political relations, lest you be accused of idealism, naiveté, or irrelevance.

The Peace Corps has a long and proud tradition of exploring its goals of technical assistance and cultural exchange. Speaking about the Peace Corps on its 25th anniversary, Sargent Shriver, the organization’s architect and first director, said:

“The cause of peace, seeking peace, is more important than any other challenge facing our country, including the military challenge. We have showered money on the Pentagon to strengthen our capacity to wage war. We have exponentially increased our power to kill. We must now increase our capacities -- moral, intellectual, and political -- to wage peace.”
(From the Address Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Peace Corps)

However, waging peace is not an easy proposition. It is easier to talk about development or cultural exchange than to tackle a topic as complex and all-encompassing as peace, particularly on a global scale. Back in the 1960s, world peace was a topic of utmost importance and serious analysis. Memories from World War II were fresh, and the Cold War, while pushing some towards more aggressive plans, inspired others to think big about world peace and the world community. Thus the mission of the Peace Corps had a true anchor in the culture of the time. Today, 55 years after its founding, there are parallels we can draw between the 1950s generation and our “millennials.” More than once has it been said that the new generation is a “do-nothing” generation. Interestingly, the same was said about Sargent Shriver’s peers in the 50s. And just as his generation stunned the world with powerful social and environmental justice action, so are the millennials reclaiming world peace. In his exploration of contemporary activism “Blessed Unrest,” for example, Paul Hawken highlights how “the largest social movement in history is restoring grace, justice, and beauty to the world.” If this social movement is going to be fully realized, I believe that telling a comprehensive story about the Peace Corps is important, and I believe that it will find a welcoming audience.

Regarding the questions of “how” and “where”: It is nearly impossible to quantify the peace outcomes of the Peace Corps. There are some examples of the Peace Corps having significant impact on the stability of a host country. South Korea, for instance, hosted 2,068 volunteers between the years of 1966 and 1981 before “graduating” from the Peace Corps by achieving high levels of development. Not only that, but in 1991, South Korea created its own volunteer organization, KOICA, and when President Lee Myung Bak visited the US in 2008, he invited Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who had served in Korea to join him on his return trip as guests of the Korean government. We can see another example in 1999 in Ethiopia and Eritrea, when a group of RPCVs participated in local peace negotiations. The heads of state of both countries, the foreign ministers, and the ambassadors, were all former students of Peace Corps volunteers. And this transformative legacy helped connections to be made, bridges to be built, and communication channels to open. Despite inspiring anecdotes like these, the lasting peacemaking effects of the Peace Corps are difficult to measure. And so today the Peace Corps is identified more with its three goals, centered on development and community exchange, than with its mission, to promote world peace and friendship.

I am reminded of environmentalist writer Rebecca Solnit’s quote[1]: “The answer to the tyranny of the quantifiable is storytelling.” I know that on a national level peace must be measured and studied. However, when we view our role in the world community through a long lens, all of us who have had the direct contact, the lasting relationships with people from another culture, the face-to-face, people-to-people interactions that shake us to the core and humbly remind us of our responsibility towards the other, we understand that the fabric of the world community rests on our compassion and empathy. And compassion and empathy cannot be found in numbers. They come from stories, from personal experiences, from remembering and sharing one’s passion with others. That’s why I believe that by telling the story of the Peace Corps through the voices that lived it, that studied it, that were transformed by it over the agency’s entire history, and presenting that story through the medium of film, we can make a compelling case for the power of peacebuilding and diplomacy that will impact generations to come.

And thus we are developing a documentary about the Peace Corps’ past, present, and future. Over the years, the story of the Peace Corps has faded from the national discourse, and consequently, America’s passion for the Peace Corps has also faded. Just as with the 50s generation, however, our own desire for peace and social justice is simmering just below the surface. There is a palpable feeling in the air that we do want to talk about peace. We do want to feel good about being Americans and about being members, not dominators, of the world community. I believe that the story of the Peace Corps, warts and all, can ignite a spark that can turn into a brilliant flame that will shed light for future generations. If we succeed, we can have a role in reclaiming humility, empathy, and peace for now and for the future.

To learn more about A Towering Task: A Peace Corps Documentary, click here.

[1] Remarks given at the 2015 Geography of Hope Conference in Point Reyes, CA, and also quoted in Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things to Me”.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
Get the Quote of the Week in Your Inbox