Who Is the Peace Corps For: Americans or Communities Abroad?

Losing and then having to find your culture again is a circuitous route to becoming a better citizen.

Just before graduating college, I was invited to dinner by a friend’s sister, Kristen, who had recently finished her Peace Corps service in Guyana. We sat around the table eating hummus and flatbread with her handsome Guyanese husband, and she told me stories about speaking pidgin English and the little boat she used to travel to and from her site. She came back brighter and worldlier somehow.

I had been thinking about the Peace Corps. After that dinner, a clear vision formed in my head: me, living in an African hut, playing with a group of beautiful children, and carrying water from a long distance wearing some kind of loose-fitting batik dress. Of course, I knew there was more to it than that. But Kristen’s story really spoke to me about how big the world was and how I might go about finding my place in it. Today I’m proud to call myself a returned Peace Corps volunteer, having finished my service four years ago as a youth development volunteer in Peru.

This week the Peace Corps turns 50, and veterans of the program are getting together in my hometown of Washington, D.C. to celebrate. These 50 years have brought over 200,000 American volunteers to 139 different countries. With an annual budget of around $400 million to support 8,655 current volunteers whose goals are simple: providing technical assistance, educating other countries about the United States, and learning about other countries to bring that knowledge back home. For its volunteers, the Peace Corps experience also promises personal transformation and through it, the promise of a brighter, more connected America.

“I think it’s a wanderlust combined with the sort of glamour of having done it,” says my friend Mia Farber, who was the volunteer who lived 30 minutes down the road from me and would cook me lunch when I needed to escape from my little village. “People really revere returned Peace Corps volunteers. There is just nothing bad you can ever say about it.”

The reality of what really happens in the field is so much harder to explain. Even through photographs, it’s difficult convey the beauty of the Peruvian village where I lived and worked for two years. My village of 35 families is nestled in the Andes, under a giant white-capped mountain that turned incredible colors in the late afternoon sun. My neighbors were a mix of Quechuan older ladies, who dressed traditionally in thick felt skirts and big straw hats, and the younger generations, who spoke Spanish and were trying to find their way out of the farming lifestyle. They all stared and giggled at me when I first arrived, and never really stopped. I was a signpost from a different world, a tall gringa who ate their simple meals of rice and potatoes and helped their children organize a business that sold homemade tamales on Sunday mornings.

The sunsets and the potatoes are easy to talk about. Then there are the things that are really hard to fit into a story. How I had to stop working with certain schools because the teachers regularly did not show up for class. How I came to realize there was nothing I could do to save some children’s education. How I had to leave my first host family the night before my 23rd birthday because the father beat up his two daughters for talking to boys on the porch when he wasn’t home. Or how a month before I finished my service, I was sexually assaulted by someone I trusted. How nothing was ever really done about it because after telling my Peace Corps doctors, I was too exhausted to do anything else.

Near the close of my service, I was asked to speak to the incoming group of volunteers about best practices in youth development. After my presentation, a few of them came up to me, asking questions and telling me what they wanted to do in their sites. I kept saying, “It’s really hard. It takes time. You have to get to know people before jumping in.” They looked at me bright-eyed, and I recognized myself when I had first gotten there and thought I could do anything. I had the funny urge to push them down to the ground and then pick them up and hug them close to me, just to warn them of the cycle that would soon start.

With time to reflect, knowing these extremes is what helped me to develop a deep love for Peru. The extremes helped me see my own culture more clearly, both the strength of my optimism in the hard places and the depth of my materialism, which I used to get me through those places. Eventually, around month 18, I fell into a somewhat comfortable place in the deep crack between these two cultures. I leaned heavily on my Peace Corps friends, who were the only ones who really understood the divide. I wasn’t asked to choose a side until I came home to the United States, which proved to be a harder adjustment than when I moved to Peru. I wandered around the grocery store, puzzled by my tears over a whole aisle dedicated to breakfast cereals, and wondered if I would ever feel normal again. I did, but it took a while.

Losing and then having to find your culture again is a circuitous route to becoming a better citizen. I wonder if this is what Kennedy had in mind when he first gave that speech in 1961 at the University of Michigan. He was looking for Americans who were ready to serve their country by showing a kind, giving face to people abroad, yet ended up attracting many who were frustrated with America’s own international policy. Gloria Levin, who served in Peru from 1966 to 1968, in the thick of the Vietnam War, said there were members of her group who refused to swear the Peace Corps oath, which asks volunteers to support and defend the U.S. Constitution. She says that she joined for her own personal development and as “an antidote to the U.S. government’s military incursions in southeast Asia.”

Jill Meeks, who served in Guinea Bissau, West Africa in the late 1990s, showed her town that being an American can take on different forms. “I felt like I was representing the United States, and just by being in the country taught people about how Americans could be from different ethnicities and they weren’t all white,” says Meeks, “although they definitely considered me ‘white’ I was constantly explaining I was Latina.”

My Peace Corps experience was also about expanding horizons—both my own and those of my community. I often think that one of my biggest successes of Peace Corps was telling the girls in my host family that the domestic abuse was so bad that I could no longer stay with them.

It’s easy to see where Peace Corps can grow as an organization. Most of its volunteers are fresh out of college and lack the job skills needed to create infrastructural change. Combine that with cultural and language difference, plus little to no outside funding, and long-lasting development can be challenging to say the least. It’s difficult to track progress in a meaningful way. I’ve always heard that much of the effect of having a Peace Corps volunteer in a site can’t be seen until the next generation steps up to leadership. When I went back to visit my town last year, I found all the teenage girls I had worked with were graduating from high school, thinking of post-graduate options, and most important to me, not pregnant. I have no idea if this is a result of me being there or not, but I celebrate it as if it’s my own victory.

With 50 years to reflect on, it seems that our willingness to go far into the unknown is the most important part of being a Peace Corps volunteer. In an NPR interview, one of the first volunteers, Bob Klein, said that when he was starting out in Ghana, "the head of faculty said to us, ‘Don't let anyone come out from Washington and let anyone tell you what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Because you're all they have and you'll decide what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer.’"

When I told Kristen that night at dinner that I was thinking about joining the Peace Corps, she replied, ”Do it. You don’t want to be one of those people who says “I wish I had done the Peace Corps.” She was right. Now when anyone asks me about going, I tell them to just go and worry about the details as they come up. I tell them that they will be richly rewarded in ways they will not be able to predict. I tell them it will be a little like that vision they have in their head, but so much more.

I tell them all of this because it’s true, but I also tell them for selfish reasons. I believe that a long-term cultural immersion will make them a kinder, more sensitive human being—the kind of American I want to surround myself with.

Photo courtesy of Gracy Obuchowicz.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

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For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

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In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

Center for American Progress Action Fund

Tonight's Democratic debate is a must-watch for followers of the 2020 election. And it's a nice distraction from the impeachment inquiry currently enveloping all of the political oxygen in America right now.

For most people, the main draw will be newly anointed frontrunner Pete Buttigieg, who has surprisingly surged to first place in Iowa and suddenly competing in New Hampshire. Will the other Democrats attack him? How will Elizabeth Warren react now that she's no longer sitting alone atop the primary field? After all, part of Buttigieg's rise has been his criticisms of Warren and her refusal to get into budgetary specifics over how she'd pay for her healthcare plan.

The good news is that Joe Biden apparently counts time travel amongst his other resume-building experience.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dropped a bombshell on Tuesday, announcing it had over 900 emails that White House aide Stephen Miller sent to former Breitbart writer and editor Katie McHugh.

According to the SPLC, in the emails, Miller aggressively "promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof's murderous rampage."

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