JFK’s program retains worthwhile purpose
During the turbulent 1960s, volunteerism sometimes came at a heavy price. Whether it was stepping forward to help register disenfranchised Black voters in the South, helping to “Keep America Beautiful” by assisting in conservation measures…or be willing to put on a uniform and leave for Southeast Asia not knowing if you would see home again.
One method of altruism displayed then by Americans came in the form of the Peace Corp. Established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps is a U.S. government-led agency organized to assist other countries in their development efforts by providing skilled workers in the fields of education, agriculture, health care, trade, technology and economic empowerment.
More than 7,000 volunteers today
Today, Peace Corps volunteers — down from a high of 16,000 in 1966 to just over 7,000 in 2022 — remain steadfast in their two-year commitment to serve as a “good neighbor” in the host country. They learn the language. They learn the customs. They learn the methods of worship and, most of all, they come away with an appreciation of just how much they have in common with the people of 77 nations in imparting an American global reach.
R. Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, was the first administrator of the Peace Corps. He was one of the more popular figures of the “New Frontier” and, after Kennedy’s assisination, would become the public face of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
For the past 62 years, Peace Corps volunteers have left a legacy in the lives of the community members they collaborate with, educate and inspire. There have been a number of famous names in the Peace Corps, among them “Miss Lillian” Carter, mother of the 39th President, who at age 68 in 1966, volunteered to serve in India.
Other notable volunteers of the time included Al Raby, the African-American civil rights activist and co-chair of the Chicago Freedom Movement. Raby persuaded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to briefly move his southern civil rights movement to the Chicago housing projects in 1966. Renowned sculptor Martin Puryear taught in a remote village in Sierra Leone for two years where he mastered his craft of woodworking which, at the time, was somewhat of a lost art in contemporary sculpture.
A level of prestige
There is a level of prestige surrounding the Peace Corps. Every five years the John F. Kennedy Service Award recognizes individuals for contributions beyond their duties to the agency and the nation. The Franklin H. Williams Award honors returned African-American volunteers who have demonstrated a commitment to community service in promoting a “better understanding of the people around the world on the part of Americans.”
The Lillian Carter Award recognizes exceptional volunteers who served at age 50 and over, while the Harris Wofford Joint Service Award serves as joint recognition from the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps programs, the latter organization highly touted by the late Gen. Colin Powell.
While joining the Peace Corps is a noble endeavor for anyone, participation by African-Americans may come with an inherent dilemma: Why go abroad [e.g. Africa] when so many Black people at home were (and remain) in need of assistance?
Over the years, many African-American volunteers would keep diaries, pen first-hand accounts of their adventures, and, of late, post their feelings online. A count taken two years ago revealed some 636 Black-identifying Peace Corps volunteers. Here is a brief account of some of the ways that the Peace Corps has attracted African-Americans and how that service would change their lives — and so many of their new friends — for the better.
Constituency for Africa
Melvin Foote of Washington, D.C. serves as the founder and CEO of Constituency for Africa, a policy advocacy organization. He worked in Ethiopia from 1973-75.
“The Peace Corps is the reason I’m doing what I am today,” Foote said. “At Constituency for Africa, we help to educate Americana about Africa, improve cooperation and coordination between organizations, and help shape U.S. policy toward Africa,” he said.
“We want to increase the number of African-Ameicans and Americans of African descent in the Peace Corps. It comes at an interesting time for our country, as Black Lives Matter and the forces of coronavirus have taken our lives. We know that education, empathy and outreach can work together to strengthen the Peace Corps going forward.”
Dr. Darlene Grant is a native of Birmingham, Ala. She is a senior advisor to the Peace Corps having volunteered in Cambodia from 2009-11.
“We realize that it ‘takes a village’ to help individuals realize their full potential. That is what we have to offer the Peace Corps,” she explained.
“Peace Corps partners with communities abroad to develop sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems and challenges. Peace Corps service pays dividends. We must better communicate those dividends so that our Black-identifying and African-American sisters and brothers can communicate to their families, schools, businesses, churches and mosques of the value of leaving to come back stronger, bigger and badder.”
lead to international work
Dwayne Matthews hails from Little Rock, Ark. During the application process, he asked “What is the Peace Corps doing to gain African-Americans?” Matthews was in Malawi from 2013-15.
“When I was a kid, Peace Corps wasn’t a conversation,” he noted. “My folks didn’t travel.” Matthews said he was watching an episode of “A Different World” when one character, Whitley, asked “Well, why don’t you just ship me off to the Peace Corps?”
“That prompted me to look into it. When sitting in a little village, I knew I wanted to target Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). I did the HBCU ‘barbershop tour’ by visiting dozens of Black barbershops for a platform. In time I was able to speak to the Peace Corps powers that be and we developed an HBCU video where we talked to returning Peace Corps volunteers who graduated from HBCUs and told about their experiences.”
Clintandra Thompson is a Howard University graduate who served in Senegal from 2012-14. She is the creator of Adopt a Black PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) exchange.
Thompson began studying international affairs following 9/11. She wanted to know why the world felt a “certain way” about America–and vice versa. Admitting that her parents were a “little lukewarm” on the Peace Corps idea, she noted that when she witnessed the support that White volunteers garnered from their respective communities, she knew that the Peace Corps was a way she could “lift herself up.”
It became her mission, of sorts, to encourage more African-Americans to take a closer look at how they can be of service overseas. Once returned from Senegal, her Adopt a Black Peace Corps Volunteer exchange became a successful and rewarding endeavor.
Adopt a Peace Corps Volunteer exchange
“I started the Adopt a Black Peace Corps Volunteer exchange to help and encourage Black volunteers, to allow them an opportunity to reach out to [returning Black volunteers] who’ve been there — what it’s like to be the only American for miles and miles and hours and hours of travel.
“I loved my service,” Thompson said. “As a Black volunteer in an African country, I had to prove myself. Just because you’re Black, it’s not as simple as people may think.That growth was really good for me.”
Dr. Anthony Pinder, a Philadelphia native, is associate vice president of Internationalization & Global Engagement at Emerson College in Boston. He served in Ecuador from 1987-1990.
“I had a wonderful Peace Corps experience. I started as a volunteer and returned to the agency as a country director in Central Africa and Equatorial Guinea,” Pinder explained. “It was during my service that I began to focus on removing barriers for underrepresented communities and creating a more just and equitable Peace Corps.”
Pinder’s work in the Office of Minority Recruitment resulted in more outreach to HBCUs in trying to foster leadership positions in the Peace Corps which, at the time, were largely absent for people of color.
“Representation is important,” Pinder said, “As is supporting diversity at the country director level. We seek to advocate for the difference a [Black] person may bring, for the ingenuity and the wonderful things that make their experiences so rich.”