August 6, 2020
By Betsy Small Campbell, CPS Partnership Community
In March of 2020, when global borders threatened to close due to the Coronavirus outbreak, 7,500 Peace Corps volunteers were hurriedly evacuated from 61 countries. With no time to wrap up or say goodbye, they retreated along with the rest of us behind America’s closed doors. It’s not surprising that the news of their return hardly made a sound amid the din and anxiety of a surging global pandemic. As the uncertainty of COVID-19 converges with America’s long-overdue reckoning with its systemic racism, testing America’s durability, it’s important to consider how the departure of these volunteers from their posts around the world amounts to a diplomatic casualty under the current political leadership and should be met with the noise of real concern. With the moral authority of the United States in free-fall abroad, we can ill-afford to lose the grassroots-work of the Peace Corps. While only one thin layer of American foreign service, it is arguably one of its crown jewels.
The Peace Corps is often portrayed as a community of generous change agents capable of enduring uncommon hardship, or more thoughtful stand-ins for the ethnocentric tourists abroad. A less generous interpretation sees this type of volunteering as an Outward Bound-style experience for floundering — or privileged and mostly white, liberal arts graduates. In truth, the Peace Corps has distinguished itself beyond any of these stereotypes. Racial equality has always been at the forefront of the Peace Corps’ diplomatic mission. For over six decades, this sometimes-overlooked agency has been actively engaged in non-violent, collaborative international projects, building new and sustainable systems, often within environments that challenge models of domination. I know because I was a volunteer once, too.
In 1984, the Peace Corps sent me to a place I could not then find on a map. I was assigned to teach farmers how to grow rice in swamps, unaware of the cruel irony that centuries earlier, enslaved Sierra Leoneans taught rice-agriculture to colonists along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.
There, in a rain forest village of mud homes and 40 rice-farming families, I learned three valuable lessons:
I was stronger than I believed.
None of us can survive on our own.
Every democracy is fragile.
In creating the Peace Corps in 1961, the Kennedys and the Shrivers may have been naïve and merely been making the world “safe for Coca-Cola”— or incredibly visionary. Regardless of the agency’s original intent, the individuals who rode the wave of the idealistic “ask not what your country can do for you” era of American history by volunteering have always been willing to navigate unfamiliar physical, emotional, and psychological territory. These volunteers have learned the power of empathy in the face of adversities most Americans have never seen. They show us that for our democracy to survive, we Americans must cultivate a different way of being in the world—one that strengthens compassionate connections by witnessing and holding one another’s history and pain.
In many ways, we are all the Peace Corps now, having to re-discover our strengths, reckon with the cracks in our country’s foundation and turning to one another for support and guidance.
On June 10th, Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen issued a statement responding to the murder of George Floyd and the racial protests it spurred. “The Peace Corps family—both at home and around the world, is outraged and saddened by the killing of George Floyd. We mourn his life, and all Black lives lost to beliefs, behaviors, and practices that continue to be embedded in systems of racism throughout the United States.” Her statement reminds us that the Peace Corps agency and the people who serve within it have always been an indispensable bridge to the rest of the world.
Yet, even with the Peace Corps’ commitment to the goals and ideals of the agency —taking global initiative to address global problems—like racism, it’s worth noting that with no finite timetable for when volunteers might return to their posts around the world, and no plan to ensure their safe and successful return home, it’s uncertain how this agency, which relies on invitations from foreign governments, can survive COVID-19 alongside this current administration’s diminution of our democracy.
It’s no exaggeration to say that America, with its growing disparities in health and wealth, now resembles many of the post-colonial countries where volunteers have served. Many Peace Corps volunteers have lived in places where anger of its citizens erupted into sustained civil conflict, as it finally did in Sierra Leone in 1991. In that case (as in most), it was a disruption that failed to accelerate the change people had hoped for and only deepened and widened divisions — creating wounds so raw, even the healing hurts.
In 2013, I traveled with my daughter to the war-torn village in Sierra Leone where I had served. I wanted to introduce her to the community that three decades earlier had welcomed me and in profound ways, changed the way I think and feel. Three months after we left, Ebola broke out and with it, fears of a global pandemic. The government instituted “ABC: Avoid Body Contact,” nearly impossible in close-knit villages. Once again, Sierra Leone’s hopes were as quarantined as their now-untouchable bodies.
When I returned again in 2018, coordinated international efforts and diligent contact-tracing had eradicated the loathsome virus. No one in this village died of Ebola, but they took me to see the graves where my old friends, their family members, were buried, casualties of a brutal decade-long Blood Diamond war they were still grieving.
Today, it is we who have to avoid bodily contact and keep our distance from others as America’s doors re-open and our crises multiply and deepen.
In many ways, we are all the Peace Corps now, having to re-discover our strengths, reckon with the cracks in our country’s foundation and turning to one another for support and guidance. Much like those the Peace Corps serves, we are navigating our way through broken systems with changed working conditions and for millions, no work at all. In our efforts to adapt, we are learning to create new habits and rituals within our homes, (if you are lucky enough to have a home and to keep it), and in our communities. Between us and the breakdown of our society is an urgent need to connect with one another –as volunteers do—building new partnership oriented cultural systems—one person at a time by witnessing our collective capacity in times of frustration, fear, grief and injustice—even as we border each other’s humanity in novel and unexpected ways.
In the early days of my Peace Corps assignment, the farmers taught me how to gather supplies — necessities for living — food, water, medicines, and mail. Like all Peace Corps volunteers, I developed habits that became anchors with which to offset conditions that, at first, I couldn’t wrap my mind around. I grew my imagination for what’s possible and internalized how community bonds are strengthened through care, compassion, and dialogue. All that, too, we Americans are now learning—how to see ourselves in each other’s pain and choose not to leave anyone behind. Either this, or violence.
For those who have served in the Peace Corps, the experience has always been a mix of what’s beautiful and what’s devastating. If you go you hurt, if you hurt you feel. And if you feel, you’ll remain connected forever. This is what all returned volunteers can offer us. Consider them necessary ambassadors who can show us how to change, how to feel, and how to connect.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Betsy Small Campbell, M.A., Ed. M. is a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University, and North Carolina Central University in Durham, NC. Her work as a cross-cultural counselor and special educator with marginalized populations worldwide spans three decades, most recently with immigrant survivors of domestic violence. Betsy served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone (1984-1987). She is the former Executive Director of War Child, USA. Her book in progress, Before Before, explores life in the diamond district of Sierra Leone and its lasting implications that speak to our current cultural and political moment.