You may not have noticed, amid all the recent activity that has drawn the world's attention to Madison, but March 1 of this year marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps.
On that date in 1961, President John F. Kennedy, less than two months after his inauguration, signed an executive order that brought into being the organization that fulfilled one of the most popular initiatives from his presidential campaign. Since then, over 200,000 volunteers have worked in 139 countries, doing everything from teaching school to digging wells, in the greatest demonstration of citizen diplomacy in history.
I am one of the 200,000 volunteers who've had the privilege of serving. And though it was over 40 years ago, the two years I spent in the Peace Corps in Liberia have influenced every aspect of my life since.
Among other things, it awakened me to the influence of culture. Whereas human beings are, at base, the same the world over, the conditions of life, the history of the people, their beliefs, constructed over millennia of interacting with their environment, have created the differences that make the rest of the world such a fascinating discovery.
Culture constitutes a dimension of our lives that for the most part goes unnoticed, immersed as we are in it. We have to step outside to see it. The real genius of the Peace Corps is that when you do take that step, you come to know two cultures - your host country's and your own. It's not by accident.
In its charter, the Peace Corps was charged with three goals:
- Helping the people of interested countries meet their needs for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping bring about a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
This third goal, commonly referred to in the Corps as "bringing the world back home," has been the focus of many current anniversary celebrations, most of which took place on March 1 or the ensuing weekend. But Peace Corps and RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) are not yet done bringing it home in honor of the special occasion. People in Madison have at least three more chances to join in.
On March 24, the Promega Art Showcase, an art venue at the Promega Corporation headquarters in Fitchburg, will present "Bring the World Back Home: 50 Years with the Peace Corps." This is an exhibit of artistic and cultural objects acquired during their service by returned volunteers. As promised, it spans the world, with a heavy emphasis on Africa. For more information, visit rpcvmadison.org.
On that same day, the UW Madison African Studies Program will initiate a three-day conference at the Memorial Union, "Peace Corps & Africa: Honoring 50 Years." The program is packed with numerous speakers and discussions, including an address by Peace Corps director Aaron Williams on the impact of the Peace Corps "on Africa and beyond." You can find out more about this at africa.wisc.edu/peacecorps.
Following that conference, on March 27, the Peace Corps, National Peace Corps Association (a lobbying group), and RPCVs of Wisconsin-Madison will host the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Around the World Expo from 2 to 5 p.m. at Monona Terrace. There will be exhibitions of Peace Corps projects around the world, discussions with RPCVs, PC applicants and more. For more on this see bit.ly/MadisonExpo.
Today there are 8,655 Peace Corps volunteers in service or training, with programs in 77 host countries. (The Peace Corps must be formally invited by a country to work there.) It has generally been treated well by both parties in Congress, though the Obama administration's request for a 10% increase in its $400 million appropriation faces the same hurdles as the rest of the budget.
By any measure, in its 50 years the Peace Corps has proven itself to be both a bargain and a boon. It is among the most - if not the most - popular foreign assistance programs this country has ever mounted. If granted, the modest budget increase sought by Obama would allow it to put 10,000 volunteers in the field - seemingly a no-brainer. But brains do not rule the day.
Vince O'Hern is publisher of Isthmus. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, West Africa, from 1965 to 1967. Upon his return to the U.S. he was employed as a public affairs officer until March of 1970, opening the first Peace Corps recruiting office in Madison.