Episode 8: Service Abroad is Service to the Nation
Ken talks to Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the 19th Director of the Peace Corps, about service abroad and whether it is also service to the United States.
The Peace Corps is different from most of the other programs we’ve discussed so far on Rebuilding America. Rather than serving fellow Americans, the Peace Corps sends volunteers abroad to serve communities in other countries. Ken talks with Carrie Hessler-Radelet, former Peace Corps Director and current President and CEO of Project Concern International, about international service and the benefits it has back home.
The alumni testimonial features Kareen Sanchez and Adam Greenberg, both Peace Corps alumni.
Ken Harbaugh: Want to get paid, gain skills, and make a difference in your community? A service year may be just what you’re looking for. Apply today at ServiceYear.org/podcast.
Welcome to Rebuilding America, produced in partnership with New Politics. We’re here to talk about national service: what is it, why do we need it, and can it rebuild America? Today: service abroad.
I’ll talk first with Carrie Hessler-Radelet. Now the President and CEO of the global development organization Project Concern International, Carrie was the 19th Director of the Peace Corps during the Obama Administration. After my conversation with Carrie, we’ll also hear from two recent Peace Corps alumni - Kareen Sanchez and Adam Greenberg.
This series is about national service in the United States. Most of the time, when we think of national service, we think about Americans serving at home. But the Peace Corps is different. It sends volunteers abroad to serve communities in other countries. Why would we talk about this kind of foreign service in a show called Rebuilding America? I posed that question to Carrie Hessler-Radelet: is Peace Corps service also service to this nation?
Carrie Hessler-Radelet: If coronavirus has shown us anything, it is that no nation is an island. We live in a globalized world. Our country and our people are interconnected with one another, whether we like it or not. And many of the most challenging problems we face as a nation, COVID, climate change, terrorism, the pursuit of peace, all of these problems can only be solved through the collective effort of many people in many nations. So if you believe that the national security and economic prosperity of the United States is interconnected to the security and prosperity of other nations, then it makes sense that we should invest in our partner nations by building strong foundations for their economic growth and their social welfare and strong effective governance.
KH: So let's back up, you have spent, it seems like, your entire life pursuing this service abroad, from being a Peace Corps volunteer yourself to your leadership now, Project Concern International. What was it that pushed you initially to go out into the field and then kept you in that loop returning again and again, to serve in that way?
CHR: You know, one thing that you may not know about me is I come from the only four generation Peace Corps family. So my aunt was a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 60s, my grandparents served in Malaysia after they retired. They were 70 years old when they went into the Peace Corps. I've wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer since I was seven years old. And now my nephew has, just to complete the four generations, has completed his service in Mozambique. So I grew up with a knowledge of the Peace Corps, a curiosity about other countries and other people. And also, I would say the Peace Corps changed the trajectory of my entire life and my husband's life. We would not have had the career we had if it hadn't been for the Peace Corps. Any kind of service, though, anywhere, I believe is a force multiplier. It brings benefit to those who serve as well as the communities that they serve. Frankly, to me, I believe that the need to serve is baked into our DNA as human beings. Historically we've had to collaborate and cooperate with other people to survive, and so the benefit we get out of service, and that includes international service, I believe is just fundamental to what it means to be a human being.
KH: When you say that the need to serve is baked into our DNA, I believe that too. And I have had mentors who talked about turning on the service gene and once you get that first experience of serving others, it's encoded and you go back again and again. But I also worry about the increasing compartmentalization of the service ethos. I think about my family, a military family, I think about your family, a Peace Corps family. And it does, for me, raise the prospect of service being channeled into certain groups, like the military now draws from a smaller and smaller slice of American society, geographically, demographically. Do you have that same concern? If you do, is there a way to broaden the appeal of service so that everybody feels they have a chance to do it, and ultimately an obligation?
CHR: Yeah. No, I would love to create a culture of national service. I mean, I'm even frankly in favor of mandatory national service, although there are many who feel that's going too far. Because I think that service profoundly changes and strengthens who we are as individuals, as people. It does, it makes us better people. And yes, there are ways to broaden the appeal. One of the things the Peace Corps did while I was Peace Corps Director is created a program called Peace Corps Prep, which is a program that went to universities, especially minority-serving universities, to tell people about the Peace Corps, to help people get their first passport, to involve them in a course of study that would prepare them and make them eligible for Peace Corps. Because many people don't even know about the Peace Corps. I mean, families like mine grew up with it and if you're well-educated you may have heard, or you had the economic wherewithal to be able to serve you may know about the Peace Corps, you may know about other volunteer opportunities. But many people don't even realize that Peace Corps exists, and so our program was really designed to work with those individuals, those students, and their families to give them an understanding of the opportunities that service provides, both domestic and international service, and then encourage them to pursue international service. And there are two reasons for this. First of all, we believe strongly at Peace Corps that we needed to represent the incredible diversity of the American people, and that meant that we needed to have a volunteer force that represented our country. And so we took that commitment seriously. And while I was there, the diversity numbers within Peace Corps went from 14% when we started in 2010 to 39% when I left in 2017, January 2017. So we worked hard on this and we were able to move the needle, but it takes intentionality.
KH: As someone with a familial legacy in the Peace Corps second to none, can you give us the founding story of the Peace Corps and how that presidential call to service ignited this movement?
CHR: Then Senator Kennedy was making his way across country and he stopped in Ann Arbor for what he thought was just to get to a hotel and sleep. But what he discovered is that there were 5,000 University of Michigan grads waiting for him on the steps of the Michigan Union, and his advisors told him that he just had to say something for just two minutes or so. And so, the president of the student body and a couple of other, the editor of the Michigan Daily, were there waiting for him. And they had written 10 items, basically it was titled “The Demands of the University of Michigan Students”. And one of them was to create a civilian service that was international in nature as an alternative to military service. And according to the story, and I talked to the people who were there, President Kennedy looked at the list and he said, "I'll talk about one of these." And so he got up on the steps of the Michigan Union and he said, “how many of you who are studying to be doctors would be willing to spend time in Africa? How many of you who are going to be engineers would be willing to travel abroad?" And it got such a resounding cry of approval from that crowd that he started to look into it. His brother-in-law, Sergeant Shriver, was a big fan of service. The next big event he had was at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, he floated the idea, he actually named it the Peace Corps then with, I think, very little thought, frankly, in terms of whether or not that was the right name for it. But again, it got so much approval by the crowd that it was one of the very first things he did as a president. He actually signed the legislation establishing the Peace Corps only 39 days after he took office creating a whole new federal agency. I mean, that kind of speed is unheard of.
KH: You have to imagine that his challenge to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, was a direct appeal to those young people and about the Peace Corps, about that call to service. What was the biggest lesson you took from serving abroad as a young person when you returned home?
CHR: I have to say that I think that the very heart of service, the thing that makes service so important, is the relationship of trust that you build with other human beings. And it's that relationship and in that relationship that we are changed just as they are changed, and together we can make the world a better place in that small corner of the world. One of the things I love about Peace Corps service is that it is a two year commitment. It takes a long time to build lifelong relationships of trust, and the bonds that are built between volunteers and their communities are strong and they stand the test of time, and people are changed forever. I'd love to actually share a story and this is actually not my story, but a story that is told by Dick Celeste, who's a former Peace Corps Director under Jimmy Carter. He tells a story about a volunteer that he met somewhere in West Africa, I think. And she was a volunteer who was legally blind, so she really did not have the vision that most of us had. But he visited her after about a year and a half into her service, and he asked her, "how has your service changed you?" And she says, "it has enabled me to see life through new eyes." And he said, "well please, tell me about that." And she said, "well, because I came and I've lived among this community and I've been the recipient of their kindness and their understanding, their hospitality. They've taught me the language, they've taught me the culture, they've helped me to be effective in my job. People that I didn't know before and people I might've even feared before, I now see other nations with new eyes. I see these people with new eyes. I'm here, and I'm an American and people see me as an American, and I'm experiencing life that's different. But what it has also taught me is an appreciation for my own country, how much I value the freedom I have, how much I value the opportunity to get a public education. It's helped me to see my own country with new eyes." And then she said, "and then I think about the change that has taken place within me and how many skills I've developed. I know now that I can take on any challenge because I have conquered this challenge. I have done things I could never imagine possible before. And so I now see myself through new eyes." And I just thought that was such a beautiful and poignant story. She has learned to see other nations through new eyes, she has learned to see her own country through new eyes, and she has learned to see herself through new eyes. And that really, to me, is the essence of the volunteer experience. It is the relationships that change you forever.
KH: There is a moment right now that we are experiencing where national service is at the forefront of the public dialogue about trust-building, about the things you talked about, about what it's going to take to address all of the post COVID-19 challenges our nation and our world is going to face. Do you think the Peace Corps is positioned to benefit from that, from the bills now making their way through Congress, from just this zeitgeist of service being a critical element of recovery?
CHR: I very much hope so and I also hope that this moment will teach us that our country stands in league with other nations, that we need to actively engage with other nations, and that international service is a critical part of national service, and that it benefits our nation just as much as it benefits other nations. Early on in my time as director, I had the opportunity to meet with President Alpha Condé of Guinea. And President Condé and four other newly democratically elected presidents of West Africa were invited to meet with President Obama in the White House. And so, he came to the United States and he right away made a request to meet with me. So, we started out with a very formal meeting. It's always a very formal meeting when you meet with a president of another nation. And after we had gone through all the formalities, he turned to me and he said, "now I would like to speak to you from my heart. I want to tell you how Peace Corps has transformed my life, because I had a Peace Corps volunteer teacher who gave me the ability to speak French and English, but also develop confidence in myself and it totally changed the trajectory of my life. But even more than that, I want to talk about how it has changed the lives of my people. During the course of my recent six month campaign for presidency," he said, "I've visited nearly every village in my country. I went to villages in the far, far East of my country where my own campaign staff would not go because it was too far and it was over bumpy roads. But there were Peace Corps volunteers living there." He said, "then I went to villages in the remote North where I still have a hard time getting a civil servant to be posted up there, and there were Peace Corps volunteers there. And I went to some of the villages in the center of my country where there are some good roads and there are NGOs, like mine, that come and they support communities, and they drop off bags of rice or cement, or they hold a training and they do some excellent work. But at the end of the day, they drive home to their homes in Conakry, our capital, while your volunteers stay. By your presence, you and your volunteers told my people that Americans care about them and that my people are so important to them, to your people, that you're willing to give your most precious asset, your sons and your daughters, to travel thousands of miles from home to live among my people, to learn our language, to eat our food, to learn our culture, work on our priorities. You came honoring our culture, our people and our way of life. And then when we work together in small villages across my nation, we work together to create the conditions that will allow my people to lift themselves out of poverty. Your being there," he said, "validates my people in a way that sending them money, even building the school, never could accomplish. Your being there validates my people more than the millions and millions of dollars your country has given us for the past decade. My people are proud to teach you their language, their life, their culture. We are proud to call you family. You give my people a hand up, not a handout, and that makes all the difference." And I hear that story still to this day. Every time I get into a taxi cab in Washington, D.C., or I meet maybe somebody and who has immigrated here, the story is so common. “I had a teacher who was a Peace Corps volunteer who taught me English. And I'm driving a taxi now, but my daughter, she's a doctor in this country.” When I was Peace Corps Director, there were 10 presidents in Africa alone that told me that they would not be president today if it was not for a Peace Corps volunteer who gave them confidence in themselves and helped them see the world beyond themselves. And that is the benefit of Peace Corps service, but any service. It's human beings working together, doing their best to open each other's eyes to discover new possibilities together, to lift humanity in a way that both benefit profoundly. That country, Guinea now, is a country that looks to the United States for guidance, for help. It partners with our nation in international treaties and accords. It is a nation that looks to our country for help, and it is because- for many reasons, but one of them is because they have a president who was taught by a Peace Corps volunteer and his profound gratitude for that experience.
KH: I hear echoes of that story in the stories of service in the U.S., in the stories of Teach for America volunteers in classrooms and MedServe fellows in rural clinics. Do you hold that same hope that the service gene can be activated widely enough in this country and that those who have served abroad can bring that experience, that empathy, that ability to see things through new eyes back home and help us rebuild and renew that spirit of service, that ethos at home?
CHR: Yes, absolutely. First of all, I believe that service profoundly changes all people, no matter if they serve in this country or if they serve abroad. And there are so many ways to make the world better here, starting here in our own country. And in fact, I feel like the need for us to reach out across boundaries is maybe more important in our country than it's ever been right now. And many of our staff and volunteers started first by domestic volunteer service. And we also know, because we've done the research, that returned Peace Corps volunteers volunteer back home in their own community at a rate that is twice that of the American public. So once you become a volunteer of sorts, that service gene is baked into you and you continue to serve your nation wherever you live. And most volunteers come home and live back in the United States and serve their country in many ways, as volunteers or as professionals. I have great hope that national service can help our country address many of the challenges that we face. I love programs, like AmeriCorps and its partner, Teach for America, or City Year, or many of the other wonderful volunteer service programs there are here in our own country. Our country needs volunteer service. Not only because it benefits from the fruit of our labor, but because of the life-changing relationships that are built through that experience.
KH: That was Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the 19th Director of the Peace Corps and a former volunteer herself. In a minute, we’ll hear from two other people whose lives were deeply affected by their service in the Peace Corps.
But first, let’s learn about New Politics, the sponsor of this podcast. Listen to founder and Executive Director Emily Cherniack tell us about the work New Politics does to lift up servant leaders into elected office.
Emily Cherniack: New Politics, which is an organization that I founded and now run, we are a nonpartisan organization that aims to revitalize American democracy by recruiting, developing, and electing servant leaders who put community and country first.
We help these outstanding leaders who have served in the military, or national service programs like AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps, run for office because we believe leaders who have dedicated their lives to serving our country are the kinds of proven leaders we need in politics.
We think that leadership should transcend "party". So we'll talk to, and consider, supporting anyone who has served and embodies those servant leadership values.
I would say to anyone who feels disillusioned and hopeless about our politics to not lose hope, because there are a wave of leaders coming up through the pipeline who have what it takes to change our politics. These are amazing servant leaders from across the country who are stepping up and answering the call to serve again, and as candidates and campaign staffers and volunteers. Leaders like James Talarico who is a Teach For America alum, and in Texas was the youngest state rep to be elected and he has already done some big wins with bipartisan efforts on education reform.
Or you look at David Crowley who is a Public Allies alum and Milwaukee state rep who, after scoring big wins for his community, is already positioned to even make more meaningful change as the first African American elected to the County Executive in the history of Milwaukee. They embody what it means to put the country first and they are sort of the hope and the inspiration that I feel when I think about the future of our politics for America.
KH: If you’re thinking about getting involved in politics, visit newpolitics.org to learn more about taking the next step in your service career.
Kareen Sanchez served here in the United States before she decided to go abroad with the Peace Corps. Like many who turn on that service gene early in life, she has made national service her career.
Kareen Sanchez: Both my parents are immigrants. They were born and raised in Mexico. They immigrated to the United States. And so I didn't know about national service. It wasn't like... As a little girl they ask you, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I never thought, "Oh, I'm going to do national service." I kind of would say the typical careers. I want to be a teacher. I want to be a veterinarian. I want to be a psychologist. But I have made it a career to do national service. I started off doing AmeriCorps And while I was in AmeriCorps, they really emphasized professional development and my supervisor and the leaders would always encourage us to think about, "Yes, you're doing one year of AmeriCorps, but what are you going to do after your one year ends?" So they called it the LACY plan, which means Life After City Year, LACY. And so my supervisors would always ask, "What's your LACY plan? What are you doing after City Year? What are you doing after AmeriCorps?" And I had heard about a Peace Corps workshop that if I went, I could get credit for professional development while I was in AmeriCorps and that's where I first learned about Peace Corps. And in the workshop, they talked about Peace Corps Masters International, which is a very unique program and unfortunately it doesn't exist anymore. And it was unique in that it combined graduate school with Peace Corps service. So at the same time I would be going to graduate school, I would be doing service internationally and then coming back and wrapping it up. And so I saw it as a great opportunity to do both. I applied for the University of Miami, which was a Peace Corps Masters International program, and while I was preparing for Peace Corps service, I eventually got invited to serve in the Dominican Republic because of my background in youth development and knowing Spanish, it was a good fit. And once I served internationally, I continued to have that background where I feel like my graduate program really prepared me, because I was thinking about issues like how to work with nonprofits internationally. How do you communicate with people? How do you build relationships?
So while I was in Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer, my formal title was Youth, Families, and Community Development Promoter. So it's a very long title, but those three aspects of the job that's really critical in that I was working with youth in and out of the schools promoting leadership, promoting sexual health education, because there was a need in the community. For instance, for sexual health, there was a lack of any education. There wasn't any sexual health education workshops. And as a result, a lot of teenage girls would end up being pregnant or there was cases of HIV or STDs. And so most of my job was working with the youth in the elementary schools, the middle schools, the high schools. In addition, another part of my job was working with families and doing education, teaching, working with the local... they called it juntas de vecinos, but it's sort of like the local municipality where it's sort of like a parent conference where parents come every week and they talk about some of the issues in their community. And so I worked with the president of the junta de vecinos and I did a lot of workshops. And then the last part, which is community development, because I am a Mexican-American and I was already fluent in Spanish, I mean, I still had to learn the Dominican ways and their customs and their culture, but community development was very unique in that I was placed in a very large community. Oftentimes when you think of Peace Corps, oftentimes a lot of the programs are focused in education and they're also in the Africa region, and only about 4% of Peace Corps volunteers serve in the Caribbean. I also had a site mate, and he had a very similar background where his parents were immigrants, they were Colombian-Argentinian. I was living in one part of the pueblo and he was living in another part of the pueblo.
One takeaway from serving in the Peace Corps was the lack of representation and diversity in national service. So when I was selected to serve in the Dominican Republic, my cohort was 42 Peace Corps trainees and there was about 26% that were minority. And overall, 34% of Peace Corps volunteers are people of color. And so I saw that firsthand before my service, during my service and after my service. And during my service, I was really involved in trying to address the lack of diversity and representation and so there was a volunteer-led initiative called the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. And in addition, at the time, Peace Corps, they were training volunteers to help address the diversity and inclusion issues and how to be better allies. I was very involved in facilitating trainings on, “what does identity look like? How can we be better allies?” I was also on a panel where I shared my experiences as a person of color serving along the Dominican-Haitian border. And so there's always more things that while you're in service, you realize how your identity can change, and you learn tools and strategies to better support the other volunteers.
KH: That was Kareen Sanchez, an alum of the Peace Corps, as well as AmeriCorps and City Year. Like Kareen, Adam Greenberg served with AmeriCorps before he decided to join the PeaceCorps. Adam’s story is a good reminder that the Peace Corps, like most national service programs, is not exclusive to early-20-somethings right out of college. These opportunities are open to all and there is value to be gained at any stage of life.
Adam Greenberg: I served in the Peace Corps with my partner, which is actually quite rare. Generally, most Peace Corps volunteers do serve alone and it was nice to serve together. We are in our thirties, which is rare for Peace Corps volunteers, generally. I mean, there's no age limit. Some volunteers are retired and in their seventies, perhaps, but many are often right out of college. So it was a different perspective that I think we were able to form doing this a little later in our lives.
We were rural agriculture promotion extension agents, which is a fancy way, I suppose, of saying that we worked in fish farming. We lived in a rural village and we helped small scale fish farmers with improving their fish yield. The president of Zambia had declared fish farming to be a national priority for the country because unfortunately protein deficiency is a very real issue for many. And so Zambia had asked Peace Corps to do this work and, and it's important, and I value that Peace Corps serves the countries where it is asked to come. So the work that we did would be in helping farmers who were interested in fish farming with pond construction and maintenance, harvesting, and aspects of selling and marketing their fish, record keeping, savings. We also did work in malaria and education as those are unfortunately still issues in Southern Africa. And it was really a wonderful experience. It was an honor to be a part of feeling like we were helping to improve the situation of families that were appreciative of our working together, and to engage with them. Just one of the many things that Peace Corps gets very right is the soft diplomacy, the focus on respectful cultural exchange.
I was in Zambia when our current president referred to various shithole countries, and that is not who we are. Mr. Tisha, the head teacher of the school where we lived, he asked me about that. There has perhaps never been a time more important for us to ensure that decent Americans continue representing the United States abroad. That is something that my partner and I took very seriously throughout our service, the notion that we were always ambassadors of the United States first and foremost, in all the ways that we might carry ourselves 24-7. Unfortunately, I believe I've heard the statistic is something like 50% of Americans don't have a passport and aren't able to go abroad at times. And I think if we were able to make opportunities for such engagements with each other as international citizens more prevalent, then I think it would go a long way towards the issues that we are dealing with as a world.
KH: Next week on Rebuilding America, we’re heading to our own nation’s capital - Washington DC. National service is gaining traction on Capitol Hill, but what does that conversation look like? Can national service be the issue that breaks through our partisan gridlock? We’ll hear from Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth from Illinois and Republican Congressman Don Bacon from Nebraska to learn more.
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Rebuilding America is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, made in partnership with New Politics. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Associate producer is Leon Pescador. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Rebuilding America, a podcast about national service.
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