This month, on Wednesday, September 22, the United States Peace Corps marked 60 years of national commitment to peace and diplomacy. This anniversary of our common aspiration to learn about others, this united drive to share and respect others’ cultures, this work to appreciate, emulate and elevate others’ ways, compels a note in today’s Paper.
In 1960, global action was an unfamiliar notion when President Kennedy first asked 10,000 University of Michigan students at 2am, “How many of you are willing to serve overseas to expand the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries?” I imagine a pause, a silent crowd, as a few took long breaths and thought, “Me?”
This hypothesis, that Americans can advance the altruistic promise of Peace around the world, created the US Peace Corps. Hopes ignited, bags were packed and programs around the world were staffed. Over these 60 years, 240,000 plus Americans served in over 140 countries. We filled, and created, jobs both of authority and of brotherhood, teacher and student, always eager to send stories back to our families.
Limited to a two or sometimes a three-year commitment, American volunteers teach in classrooms, plant in rice fields, help build roads, create markets and more. Clean hands concepts, new methods for fish ponds, improved mother-child skills, etc.; our messages and roles have evolved over time, the original goals remain the same: help people, provide an example of American values, bring understanding of other cultures back to share with Americans.
I joined Peace Corps after receiving a BA from Pennsylvania State University. With construction experience, I was assigned to help build latrines in Sierra Leone. I remember the training manual covered building basics, language samples, first aid lessons, maps of the area and of government structures, sustainable development programs, how to get funding for projects, and more. At the end of two years, I gifted it to my counterpart – he cried. It was 1987 and most folks in my village had never seen their own language in print. He was the primary school teacher. I understand it still sits on his bookshelf, much worn and often referred to.
That was years ago, but some commitments last. Last year, with some friends, my husband and I helped sponsor a local agency in Sierra Leone (Schools for Salone) to buy soap and buckets and afford gas for a team of folks to visit schools and talk about preventing Covid infections. Sounds like a short sighted project, but I totally understand how soap, buckets and dialog were the best response. My time in Sierra Leone was short and the benefits are hard to evaluate. But, one thing stands, it was time well spent. The newest program to promote: locally made menstruation kits!!
I am one of about 2,300 New Mexicans who served in the Peace Corps. In New Mexico we are the largest Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) network in the US. There are many projects and programs both in New Mexico across the United States that RPCVs are involved with: advocacy for establishing a Department of Peace, working for public voice and inclusion, mobilizing volunteers for environmental tasks, building digital networks, raising funds and raising the flag.
On this, the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps, I call on all NM RPCVs and those who uphold their service and honor the work of building peace – stand up, cheer, consider that Peace is essential for our world. The hope and humility that President Kennedy brought to life is still growing, still evolving, embers into flames just now. Leaders across America want to see Peace Corps as an agency that joins other serious institutions in addressing global issues of environmental degradation, climate change, agricultural sustainability, improved health care, urban renewal and educational opportunities. To this end, Peace Corps agrees that they need to take a leap into the digital age.
Current legislation, The Peace Corps Re-authorization Act (HR 1456), in ‘recognition of the transformative power of internet access in developing countries’ fixes a new path to a peaceful tomorrow by building digital roadways. To echo President Kennedy’s words: “this opportunity must be seized.” Please support and promote HR 1456.
Over the last 60 years, nearly a quarter of a million PCVs have made a tremendous contribution to the individuals and communities in which they served, and to our planet. You can join in celebrating the Peace Corps’ 60th anniversary and ensure its resurgence by urging your member of Congress to co-sponsor the Peace Corps Re-authorization Act (HR 1456). Peace Corps service is needed now more than ever.
Peggy Neff was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone from 1985-1987 and worked in 7 other countries until 2002 when she returned to the United States. Peggy currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.