Remembering Sargent Shriver: A Vision for the Peace Corps that Matters Now More Than Ever

January 19, 2011

By Victor C Johnson

Sargent ShiverI wish to note the passing yesterday of Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. For many of us who are returned volunteers, it is our commitment to Peace Corps that led us to the international education profession, which I view as grounded in the same values of peace, collaboration, and international understanding.

In my case, these same commitments led me to my “first career” on Capitol Hill, working for more peaceful, constructive U.S. policies in Latin America, and then back to the Peace Corps, when President Clinton honored me by naming me the Peace Corps’ director for Latin America and Caribbean programs.  It was a natural and fortuitous segue to my second—dare I say final?—career in public policy advocacy for international education at NAFSA.

I was one of the early volunteers, joining in 1963 when Sarge, as he is known to all volunteers, was still director. Quite frankly, I thought the Peace Corps was a mess. Training was rudimentary at best, job placement nonexistent. But Sarge understood something I didn’t:  He was implementing a vision that had never been done before, and his job was to respond to the enormous, pent-up drive that young Americans felt to serve their country – they were only waiting for their leaders to catch up with them and create the means. There was also huge demand for volunteers in the world’s poor countries, many of which were only then emerging out of colonialism and toward independence.  Sarge and his fellow Peace Corps architects threw a lot of spaghetti at a lot of walls to see what stuck—and a lot of it did.  And it stuck for a reason that President Kennedy and Sarge understood:  The volunteers would make it stick.  People have a lot to give, if only we ask them and give them the opportunity.

I remember those days pretty clearly. All the experts assured us that the Peace Corps would be a colossal failure. Diplomacy was a job for professionals; all these volunteers would only screw it up.  Furthermore, Americans wouldn’t serve under those conditions. Live in a mud hut in the middle of an African village for two years with no electricity or running water and no salary? Get real. But we thrived on it. Not because it was easy—it wasn’t. Many of us were ready to go home when our tours were up.  But most if not all returned volunteers will tell you that to this day, their Peace Corps experience was the most formative of their lives, and that they got far more out of it than they feel they gave. Somehow, Sarge got this. I don’t know how, but he did. He knew this would happen. Under his driving leadership and that of his colleagues, the Peace Corps grew to a size that has sadly not been sustained—not even approached—to the present day. We’ve never gotten more bang for our foreign policy buck.

There was one other aspect of Sarge’s leadership that I don’t think is recognized enough. The Peace Corps historians will correct me if I don’t have this right, but I think another thing the experts said was that you might be able to send men to serve under those conditions, but you could never send women. Sarge said no:  It’s a matter of opportunity. American women must have the same opportunity to give to their country that American men have. To this day I don’t know how a man born into his time and circumstances managed to get to that conviction, but he did. As a result, I was able to serve alongside female volunteers and watch them succeed—and excel—in circumstances that I found daunting. It was a liberating experience that I couldn’t articulate at the time; the categories for having this discussion had not yet been invented. I’m sure it was seminal to my experience since, and indeed the experience of the generation that served with me.

That the Peace Corps is still the vibrant, mission-driven agency that it was 50 years ago is an enormous tribute to its founder. You can’t say that about many government agencies. The Peace Corps has learned a great deal. It does its job much better now than it did then. The Peace Corps’ challenge today is to keep learning and changing with the times while remaining grounded in the fundamentals that Sarge had the genius to build into it:  that the Peace Corps is a collaborative exercise in mutual service and learning between U.S. volunteers and their host communities, serving needs not invented in Washington but articulated by the communities themselves, and bringing the learning back home to help our fellow citizens understand the countries in which we served. The challenge of Peace Corps’ imitators is to understand that although there are many models, these fundamentals are essential to success.

As I’ve said many times, we need this more today than we did then. I hope Sarge’s death will be the occasion for our rededication to the principles of service that have brought the Peace Corps—and the United States—admiration abroad.


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