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President John F. Kennedy called the Peace Corps an expression of America’s responsibilities to the “great common cause of world development.” But as the Peace Corps celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, it’s an organization at a crossroads. Almost 8,000 volunteers are currently serving in 77 countries. But reports are shining a harsh spotlight on volunteer safety issues. Director Aaron Williams joins Kojo to discuss the future of the Peace Corps.
- Aaron Williams Director, Peace Corps
In this footage from 1961, President Kennedy outlines his vision for his new Peace Corps program:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. When President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, he took great pains to emphasize what the new agency was not. It was not an instrument of diplomacy or propaganda or ideological conflict, he said. It was a place where idealistic young Americans could contribute to the great common cause of world development. Over the last 50 years, more than 200,000 Americans have taken up their challenge, serving in far-flung corners of the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut a lot has changed over the last decades. Some original partner countries like India and Brazil are now global economic powers. Many host communities want computer literacy classes as much as they want public health or agricultural projects, and the volunteer experience itself is changing too. In the era of cell phones and Internet cafes. The Peace Corps also finds itself in a harsh public spotlight over volunteer safety.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to talk about that 50-year legacy of the Peace Corps is Aaron Williams, director of the Peace Corps, a position he's held since August 2009. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic between the years 1967 and 1970. Aaron Williams, good to have you aboard.
MR. AARON WILLIAMSWell, thank you for having me, Kojo. It's a pleasure to be on this show and thank you for giving us an opportunity to talk a little bit today about the Peace Corps and this wonderful 50 years legacy.
NNAMDIEven today, the Peace Corps identity is intimately intertwined with the mythology of its creation with figures like President John F. Kennedy and Sergeant Shriver, the idealistic zeal of the 1960s. Today, 50 years later, a lot has changed in American popular culture. How has the Peace Corps changed over than time?
WILLIAMSWell, you know, I get that question a lot, Kojo. And in the past…
NNAMDIOkay, then I revoke it. Go ahead please.
WILLIAMSIn the past year and a half since I've been director of the Peace Corps, I've traveled to 10 countries now, including of course the Dominican Republic, which will not surprise me because that's where I served as a volunteer. And let me tell you what I see that has not changed, which I think is important to note. That is the incredible passion, the desire to serve the linguistic challenge of our volunteer, some of them speaking not just one language but sometimes two languages.
WILLIAMSFor example, I was just in Paraguay and there are volunteers not only who fluent in Spanish. Many of our volunteers are fluent in Guarani, the second language of Paraguay. So they're very talented. And I think that they bring that passion, that concern and the ability to work shoulder to shoulder with people in communities at the grassroots level around the world. The thing that has changed since I was a Peace Corps volunteer over the past 20, 30 years is that now, of course, we have different types of technology.
WILLIAMSI didn't have a cell phone. Now, just about 95 percent of our volunteers have cell phones. So they can stay in touch with their friends and family and use that cell phone, that technology in a very, very astute way to make a difference at the grassroots level.
NNAMDIAre they losing something by having this technology? Wasn't being away -- when you went away in the Peace Corps in 1967, you were gone for several months, nobody was expecting to hear from you for several months.
WILLIAMSThis is so true.
NNAMDIWasn't that a part of the experience itself? And how has that changed now that people can have contact 24/7 even when they're in remote locations?
WILLIAMSWell, I think that the volunteers, first of all, they recognize that in order to have a substantive experience, they need to immerse themselves in the local culture. We train and support them in that. So they have that as their objective. And secondly, I think that using the technology just not to stay in touch but also to explain to Americans back home about the marvelous experience that they're having and using that technology to really make a difference at the village level, working with NGOs in the countries where we serve. So I think they're doing very well in terms of having a valuable and substantive volunteer experience.
NNAMDII know we have a lot of Peace Corps volunteers, former Peace Corps volunteers in our listening audience who might want to join this conversation. The number is 800-433-8850. Have you served in the Peace Corps? Call us, tell us about your experience. 800-433-8850. Do you think the idea of volunteering abroad and the model of the Peace Corps is as powerful today as it was in 1961. You can join the conversation at our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIWhat has changed, Aaron Williams, as the broader global context has changed since 1961? Many of the original countries that we see volunteers in those days had only a handful of native-born college graduates, original partner countries included, Brazil, India, Afghanistan, Iran. Today, Brazil and India are global economic powerhouses. Does that change the Peace Corps' relationship with those countries?
WILLIAMSI think -- the countries you just mentioned, Peace Corps is no longer serving in those countries, because out there the emerging market countries leaders in the world stage. But in most of the developing world, Kojo, we still endemic poverty, the challenges of lack of education. Now we have new issues such as climate change. And so, therefore, there's a need to build this global community in 21st century more than ever before. And Peace Corps volunteers are there in the villages, in the communities making a difference.
WILLIAMSAnd as you well know, in many of the villages and communities where we serve around the world, this might be the only American that the people in that village will ever see. And it's an awesome responsibility for a young American to go to these villages, these towns, these organizations and to make a difference. It certainly was the same challenge I face when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, 20 years old. I was responsible for taking care of the high school education for 50 teachers, much older than I was.
NNAMDIWhen I graduated high school in Guyana, South America, and worked for a few years, the only Americans I knew of my approximate age were Peace Corps volunteers who happened to be in that country at that time. But here is Isaac in Fairfax, Va. If you'd put on your headphones, you can now hear Isaac because Isaac seems to be suggesting that there could be a new kind of Peace Corps. Isaac, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ISAACThank you, Kojo. And thank you to the Peace Corps for all the work they do. I want to find out whether it is possible to consider creating a kind of Peace Corps for the diasporans who are here in the U.S. so they can go to their (word?) countries and serve for two years. Americans have been (word?), so I think we need to step up to the plate now to take the challenge. And I want to find out from the director whether that something that they may consider in the future.
WILLIAMSIsaac, first of all, thank you for your interest in the Peace Corps and for that wonderful question. And I've heard a lot of talk about people wanting to give back to the communities where they originally came from. That's something that we're giving serious thought to, because we want to give all Americans the opportunity to serve and those who have a particular interest in Africa or Asia or Latin America, we certainly want to engage in a dialogue with them. And we're talking to a number of different groups who are interested in that particular topic. So it's something that we're thinking about seriously.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Isaac. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. Isaac brings up the fact that the Peace Corps is a global story, but that here in Washington, it's also a local story. I mentioned the huge alumni network of Peace Corps volunteers working and living here. How does that community influence the current work of the Corps?
WILLIAMSWell, we have 200,000 returned Peace Corps volunteers in the United States who served over 50 years, Kojo, in 139 countries. And a large percentage of them have gravitated back to Washington because of this service and their interest in international policy and international affairs and development. So they are -- first of all, my staff -- there's about 60 percent of my staff are returned Peace Corps volunteers. So every corner of the Peace Corps office, when I walk any given day, I see these enthusiastic talented people who want to give back.
WILLIAMSIn every walk of life in America, whether it's in health care, in education, in high schools or higher education, in the U.S. Congress, we have returned Peace Corps volunteers who are making a difference every day. And at same time, let me just also tell you one quick story about my trip to Ghana. I was in Ghana in October. Ghana was the first country that President Kennedy and Sergeant Shriver sent volunteers to in 1961. Fifty years of uninterrupted service.
WILLIAMSI went to Ghana in October to kick off our 50th anniversary and met with leaders in government, in business and in the nonprofit world. Every one of the men and women that I met, Kojo, all of these leaders had had a positive transformative experience with a Peace Corps volunteer in their youth, either as a coach or a mentor or as a teacher, including the vice president of Ghana.
NNAMDIWell, we mentioned your service in the Dominican Republic from 1967 to 1970. What did you actually do?
WILLIAMSI was a teacher trainer. I was a certified teacher in Chicago when I left and I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. And I decided to take on this incredible responsibility of leaving the country for the first time. And I went to the Dominican Republic and I was part of a teacher training program. Our job was to provide elementary school teachers in the rural areas with a high school diploma.
WILLIAMSAnd so we taught them the subject matter and also helped them with their teaching methodology over a period of two years. And so I was responsible personally as a volunteer for 50 teachers. And I travel kind of like a circuit rider, if you will, to visit them during the weeks.
NNAMDIAs a person of color, what was it like serving a broad at this time we're talking 1967 here, where America's image may not have been that great in many corners of the world, especially over issues of race and social justice?
WILLIAMSIt was a challenge because the average Dominican that I first met didn't think that I was an American.
NNAMDIThat you're Dominican, why are you speaking this foreign language?
WILLIAMSThat's right. Why do have an accent in your Spanish? And so -- and also it was following the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. I arrived a couple of years later. And so, that was a challenge. And of course part of the role of any Peace Corps volunteer now and in the past is to explain American to your community, to let them get to know you one on one as an individual and eventually all of those barriers will disappear. And you're enveloped in that community and they see you as an individual, somebody whose plans to contribute to working on their priorities with them, shoulder to shoulder. It makes all the difference in the world.
NNAMDII can tell you, in Guyana, the Peace Corps volunteers I knew were both African-American and white and many of our conversations are more, how shall I put it? Our most intensive conversations has to do with race relations in the United States. Could you explain the significance of the term returning member as opposed to former Peace Corps volunteer?
WILLIAMSWell, I think that we don't call ourselves former. We’re returned Peace Corps volunteers because we're always going to be of service to any community where we serve. We started off in our Peace Corps, then we bring that rich incredible experience that we've had in the countries around the world and we didn't come back and contribute to our communities here in the United States. And Peace Corps volunteers, it's something that's in our DNA. We serve in Peace Corps, now we come back home and we serve. So we're returned volunteers, we're not former.
NNAMDIHere is Tom in Silver Spring, Md. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMThanks, Kojo. Two things, one, I think we should give Hubert Humphrey, the late senator, more credit for helping create the Peace Corps than he's been able to get. I think John Kennedy gets most of the credit, but I think Hubert Humphrey was basically -- I think he was the grandfather of the Peace Corps.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that he coined the term, Peace Corps. Is that correct?
WILLIAMSThat's a good point, Tom I agree with you. I have a little story after you get through asking your question.
TOMNo, no. Here's a story. I was part of a group that came back after the first -- I was Liberia one, 1962, 1964.
TOMAnd there was a conference in Washington of returned volunteers in 1965, an effort to try to encourage former volunteers to get back into activism in the states. And I was invited. I was in St. Louis at the time. They flew me back to Washington. I was sitting in the audience of the lecture hall at one point and I looked around and there was Hubert Humphrey sitting there unidentified in the audience.
TOMAnd I went up and shook his hand and I said, it was great to see you, Senator Humphrey. Anyway, the other point is some of us, few unlucky, I guess, served only in the Peace Corps -- not only in the Peace Corps, but I also spent three years in the Army, one year in Vietnam. So there are a few of us who were Peace Corps veterans around. And frankly, looking back on that, Peace Corps was better. However, I was a medic in Vietnam and I guess some of my Peace Corps experience translated, I hope, to what I was doing in Vietnam. Anyway, that's my point and I'd love to hear you guys talk about that.
WILLIAMSWell, Tom first of all, thank you for your service, both in the Peace Corps and also in the military. Very, very important. And Kojo that's another example of why we're returned and never former. I think the other thing -- Tom, I'll tell you a quick story.
WILLIAMSI was just out in Monterey, California at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and I met Professor Peter Grothe. Professor Grothe was a staffer for Hubert Humphrey and he tells me that he was the guy who wrote -- actually came up with the term Peace Corps and provided to Senator Humphrey and Senator Humphrey worked with President Kennedy and Sergeant Shriver and it moved forward. But I think you're right that certainly Senator Humphrey deserves credit.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call Tom. Even as we speak, Aaron Williams, political leaders in both parties are scouring budgets, trying to trim the fat off federal spending. Peace Corps' budget was on the chopping block in FY2012. how do you make the case in today's world that the Peace Corps fits within our core national interests?
WILLIAMSI think one of the advantages that we've always had in the Peace Corps, Kojo, in terms of the Congress, is that we always enjoy bipartisan support. Both sides of the Democrats, Republicans, they understand the value of the Peace Corps.
WILLIAMSI think also when I go up on Capitol Hill and talk to the members of Congress and Senators about the Peace Corps, they understand our mission. They believe that we need to continue to provide opportunities for Americans to be global citizens.
WILLIAMSThat the Peace Corps is a unique way to cross that bridge to becoming a global citizen and when they return home with a knowledge of other countries and a way of working together as leaders, it makes all the difference in the world. And so I think that even though we have to operate in this difficult budget environment I think that we're going to be treated fairly within that context.
NNAMDIBy its very nature, volunteering in remote areas of developing countries implies a certain level of danger and female volunteers are unfortunately disproportionately victims of certain crimes. The House Foreign Relations Committee recently held a hearing on violence against Peace Corps volunteers and it focuses -- it focused on instances of sexual assault as well as the case of Kate Puzey, a volunteer who was killed in 2009 in Benin.
NNAMDIShe was murdered. She had been a whistler-blower, reporting that a staff member had been sexually assaulting girls at her schools. She was apparently murdered after her email was shared with the alleged offender's brother. Can you talk a little bit about what the Peace Corps has experienced and how those experiences now shape how you view the issue of safety and security for your volunteers especially for your female volunteers?
WILLIAMSKojo, I think that, first of all, there's nothing more important to me and to all of us who work in the Peace Corps than the health, the safety and the security of our volunteers. It's essential and it's something I think about every day.
WILLIAMSMy heart goes out to the family of Kate Puzey, that remarkable young American who was serving in Benin. And the case is now under investigation. There's very little I can really comment on in terms of that particular case, but what we want to see is justice for Kate. And everyone, the U.S. ambassador, the State Department, the Peace Corps, the FBI, we're all working together to pursue justice for Kate in Benin.
WILLIAMSI think that we are doing everything we can to provide an environment that is safe for volunteers and especially safe for female volunteers. Our training is aimed at providing support and training that allows us to mitigate the dangers to volunteers serving in the field. We believe that we do not put volunteers in dangerous situations.
WILLIAMSWe spend a lot of time looking at site selection, looking at counterparts, the organizations they work for. We have a very well organized and well-staffed security program in place. We have a global director of security. We have regional security directors. We have in every post, in every country where we serve we have a coordinator for security.
WILLIAMSAnd the other thing is that we don't operate in a vacuum. We're part of the Embassy country team under the ambassador. We work with the regional security advisor and believe me, everyone in an embassy in any country where we serve, they're concerned about our Peace Corps volunteers and do everything they can to support us. So it's something that is very, very important to us.
NNAMDIOne of the groups giving voice to these concerns, specific concerns, by people who have been survivors of sexual assault is an organization called First Response Action, that's been advocating for a legislative fix to problems that it sees with the Peace Corps.
NNAMDIWe spoke with Jess Shmocheck, a former Peace Corps member and a member of the board of First Response Action. She's gone public with her story as a survivor of an attack when she served in Bangladesh. I think it was in 2004. She told us how she became involved in this issue.
MS. JESS SHMOCHECKI came public with my story only after talking more with a few people close to me and realizing that this was, you know, an opportunity that I needed to take to hopefully bring about change. Because through hearing all of these stories and realizing that there were so many others out there just like me, that they didn't feel so alone.
NNAMDIFirst Response Action has focused on legislative fixes to this problem. you're working with members of Congress to introduce a law that will compel the Peace Corps to amend its policies. Does that mean you don't think the agency can reform itself?
SHMOCHECKWell, I think what history's shown us and what has come out of the hearing is that over the past two or three decades there have been several efforts but nothing has been done to really overall the system in the way that survivors are treated. While this administration has made some of the best efforts of any that I have seen because of the five-year rule nothing can be certain that it will stay in place.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean when you said because of the five-year rule?
SHMOCHECKThe five-year rule is that, you know, to keep fresh people within the Peace Corps, someone can stay in their position up to five years and they have to leave. So while the director may be doing a lot of work now, he's now two and a half years in or something like that and then he leaves at the end. The next director may not take this issue as seriously.
NNAMDISo you're trying to make sure that it's permanently written into the regulations and rules of the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps has acknowledged that it needs to do a better job in this area. What specific practices have you identified that should be reformed through this new law?
SHMOCHECKWe would like all of their training materials vetted through outside agencies that are best practices and experts in the field. Basically there are already systems in place that the Peace Corps could model after. It wouldn't be them reinventing the wheel.
SHMOCHECKYou know, the Department of Defense has a system and pretty much anything could be modified and one of our main asks, in fact, is to place victim advocates in the major hubs throughout the world. That way they can respond to sexual assault and rape quickly and effectively and not have cross training of other staff. That way there could be a clear and defined roles and a quicker and better-streamlined response.
NNAMDIIn other words, what you seem to be saying is that you are opposed to cross training because you don't want Peace Corps workers to have dual responsibilities when it comes to dealing with survivors of sexual assault. You would like to see a core of people placed in hubs who are trained specifically and only for that purpose.
NNAMDIObviously, you've had a very traumatic experience in the Peace Corps. Do you still believe in the Peace Corps mission?
SHMOCHECKI absolutely do or I wouldn't be doing the work that I am doing. I wouldn't be fighting so hard to make it a better and stronger and safer Peace Corps. I am not trying to get rid of it or badmouth it or defend it or anything. I mean, I went into the Peace Corps with ideals and I have felt such hope for it. I just want them to be the best that it can be and safe as it can be for everyone else.
NNAMDIJess Shmocheck, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIJessica Shmocheck is a board member of First Response Action. We're going to take a short break. When we get back we'll return to our conversation with Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Aaron Williams. He's director of the Peace Corps. a position he's held since August 2009. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic from the years 1967 through 1970. we're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIHave you had experience serving in the Peace Corps? Are you a returned member? You might want to share that experience. 800-433-8850. Aaron Williams, before the break, we heard from Jess Shmocheck from the group, First Response Action.
NNAMDII'd like to get your general response and also to a couple of specific things. First, the group is pursuing a legislative remedy to this problem, apparently because it doesn't seem to have the confidence that the agency could address their concerns suitably over the long term. And speaking of the long term, we had an email from Jennifer who said, "Along the line of safety and security, can you discuss the five-year rule of employment? I think that is a weak link and why there are so many problems for volunteers."
WILLIAMSOkay. Thank you, Kojo. First of all, let me just say I'm really pleased that Jess called in because Jess is a concerned member of our Peace Corps family. All 200,000 of us who have served, we're part of a family and when anything happens to one member of our family, it causes great anguish to all of us.
WILLIAMSAnd then the other thing is I want to thank her for her commitment and support of Peace Corps mission and the fact that she and her colleagues are working with us. You know, we've met with them several times to make sure that we put in a reform agenda at Peace Corps, a plan of action that we're carrying out that's going to make a difference in the future. So I want to thank her for that.
WILLIAMSIn terms of the legislative remedy that you asked me about, that Jess commented on, I think that's a legitimate concern. And we are working with the members of the committee and other members of Congress to pursue the kinds of reforms that could become permanent at the Peace Corps because I think we want the Peace Corps to be a modern 21st century organization that cares about this type of issue, that deals with volunteers who are victims in a compassionate way and we're putting in place and tapping the best expertise in the country to do that.
WILLIAMSWe just signed a MOU with RAINN, which the largest, most widely known and highly respected anti-sexual assault organization in the United States. They're going to give us guides and technical expertise. So we're working in concert with Jess and her colleagues and the Congress.
NNAMDIThe five-year rule?
WILLIAMSThe five-year rule. The five-year rule was put in place by the legendary, brilliant leader Sargent Shriver, when he was first director of the Peace Corps because he wanted the Peace Corps to be different from other federal agencies so that you would have an infusion of new blood. And that's one reason, Kojo, why today 60 percent of my current staff are return Peace Corps volunteers.
WILLIAMSAt the same time, certain parts of our staff are exempt from the five-year rule. For example, our safety and security staff, worldwide, they are exempt from the five-year rule. And the five-year rule is often a theological question within the Peace Corps. I can line you up people on one side of the street, on the other side of the street who can argue their cases very well.
WILLIAMSAnd I come down somewhere in the middle. I think that it's something that we need to take a look at. We, as a matter of fact, conducted an assessment of the Peace Corps when I first came in, in my first year. And one of the things that we decided to take a look at is the five-year rule.
NNAMDIYou mentioned RAINN. RAINN, it's my understanding that's the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. We got an email from Susan who said, "Our daughter's currently serving her second year in Albania. She's teaching English as a second language in a high school. She also provides group lessons in English to interested community members. We talk with her weekly via Skype. Many of her cohorts blog about their experiences. We are privileged and proud of her service."
NNAMDIIn the break, you told me about another Peace Corps volunteer who uses Skype and who might be one of the less youthful – well, not the less youthful because this volunteer's clearly very youthful, but one of the less young members of the Peace Corps. Who is this?
WILLIAMSWell, first, let me thank Susan for her daughter's service and for allowing her daughter to serve her country and the community that she works in, in Albania. And that's just wonderful to hear that. Our oldest volunteer in the world recently completed her service in Morocco.
WILLIAMSEighty-six years old and she Skyped with her grandchildren. And this was an amazing woman. She also met Secretary Clinton when Secretary Clinton traveled to Morocco. And so she had a wonderful two years in the Peace Corps. She is a person that we all admire and respect and it just goes to show that the Peace Corps is for everybody no matter what your age.
NNAMDISpeaking of age, here is Bob, in Washington D.C. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBWonderful, Kojo, thank you so much for taking my call. Director Williams, I've had the pleasure of going to some presentations put on by the Peace Corps and in those meetings, I've run into professionals, doctors, engineers, MBAs, maybe even some training in microfinance. And the question amongst us was, after we're talking after the meeting, we go like, god, we really want to do this.
BOBYou know, we're in our 40s and 50s, well-trained in best practices and -- but we're saying two years is a little bit much. Is there any possibility that another category can be developed with people with a lifetime of experience and professional experience, that would, say, do your three months training and you're there for a year? And maybe you'll even know in advance what type of program you're going to be assisting with so you can bring some plans or some ideas.
BOBYou could also do maybe some fundraising in your local community and let people who really want to do this, really, really want to be involved. But maybe a year out of their life is the most they can give. But you're really tapping into that 40s and 50s high-energy, you know, talented and trained, who really want to participate with the Peace Corps. Has any thought been given something like that?
WILLIAMSBob, thank you for that question and thank you for your interest and service in the Peace Corps. First of all, we have thought about that. We have something that's fairly unique within the Foreign Affairs arena, if you will. We have an office, an organization in the Peace Corps called Peace Response and it provides short-term assignments primarily for returned Peace Corps volunteers worldwide.
WILLIAMSWe have been thinking about opening up Peace Response to people who have not served in the Peace Corps and who actually cannot commit two years of their life to service, but who want to serve. And this is very much in concert with our interests in promoting volunteer service worldwide.
WILLIAMSAnd so we're engaging in these conversations. You should reach out to us. I'll be happy to talk to you, have people on my staff talk to you about this because it's a very innovative idea that we're now in the process of shaping.
BOBThank you, thank you. Go ahead, Kojo.
NNAMDIBut Bob, do you really, really want to do it?
BOBCan you see -- can you hear how excited I am?
NNAMDIYes, I could tell.
BOBI would be -- I've got a couple graduate degrees. I would be there in a second and I'm sure that there's just a huge, untapped reservoir of people out there who really want to do this, but it may be just a time limitation.
NNAMDIBelieve me, your passion and enthusiasm are coming through the telephone line.
WILLIAMSAnd Kojo, can we get his contact information, Kojo?
NNAMDII will sure do that. I'll put Bob on hold and we'll pick up your contact information and try to make sure that Aaron Williams gets in touch. On now to Susan in Washington D.C. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANHi, good afternoon, thank you. My son was in the Peace Corps Ethiopia in the late '90s and then in Nepal in the early 2000s. And I found that the American women volunteers are very naïve. They're empowered in a society. They feel safe. They think they can do anything. And the administrators of the Peace Corps are very naïve in thinking they can send a lone woman, one of these empowered American women, out to a village in a society where women do not go out alone, where they are not supposed to be unprotected.
SUSANAnd I found when I went to visit my son in Ethiopia, that most of the women had been so harassed and terrorized in the villages and because they were tough and they were not complainers, they would not say anything. But they had all teamed up with some local guy to be their protector. So they all – something like prisoners do.
SUSANAnd when I came back and talked to my -- a family counselor about what I had seen, he just went completely ballistic because he had so many clients, young women, who would return and been so harassed, terrorized and raped and they were really messed up about it. So he was very, very negative.
SUSANAnd I think the Peace Corps needs to train these women to help understand the cultures they're in and number two, they need to send them in pairs when they're out in villages in societies where women do not go out alone.
NNAMDISusan, thank you for your call. Here's Aaron Williams.
WILLIAMSSusan, thank you for you call, and I also want to thank you for your son's service in Ethiopia and Nepal. Obviously, he had a good experience because he served twice, and I thank you for your support. I think that -- let me tell you about what we're doing now in the Peace Corps today to make sure that we address these issues regarding women and their safety.
WILLIAMSFirst of all, we've set up a new training program that we're rolling out right now for volunteers, male and female, that we'll talk about guidelines -- provide guidelines for responding to rape and major sexual assault, and the procedures that one must follow to make sure we have compassionate response to any victim. Secondly, we just hired, for the first time in the history of Peace Corps, a victim's advocate to coordinate and provide victim support services.
WILLIAMSWe're also putting together a new -- we have now in place a sexual assault working group, which has developed a comprehensive sexual assault prevention and response program aimed at mitigating and also, in those cases where there are assaults, to provide compassionate care to volunteers. As we talked about earlier, I don't know if you were on the program then, we have signed an agreement with RAINN, which is the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization to collaborate with them and to have them provide information to us so that we can in fact put together mitigation programs.
WILLIAMSPeace Corps training, overall, which is conducted in all the countries where we serve, has three components, cross-cultural studies, technical training and language studies. Each of those components also has a strong element of security training and trying to help volunteers, male and female, understand the environment they are operating in, and how they can be safe in that environment.
WILLIAMSThe other thing I can say is that Peace Corps volunteers, they are not alone in communities where they serve. They have counterparts. They have host families. We do everything we can to keep our volunteers safe, and we will continue to do that. And I want to continue to listen to people who have experiences and knowledge and insight on this topic because it's important to us.
NNAMDISome advocates have called for mobile victim's advocates who could quickly arrive in country to assist victims and survivors in navigating police issues and other procedures. What do you think about that idea?
WILLIAMSWell, we just hired, Kojo, our new victim's advocate. As a matter of fact, she was the head of a national organization, and she was -- we were fortunate and privileged that she decided to step down and come to work with the Peace Corps and to help us internationally. And that's one of the ideas that she's considering. So it's something that we have under consideration. She's only been on the job for a month now, but it's something that we're looking at very seriously.
NNAMDII guess there needs to be some explanation for people who don't understand about why you would want that kind of thing to make sure that accurate forensic exams are done, that prophylactics are given, that mental health is given immediately. And I guess that's because very often those people are in a situation where that kind of service is not immediately available, and those who are advocating for it, would like it to be, if not immediately available on site, to have it be available fairly rapidly.
WILLIAMSWell, actually, all of our first responders in this case are our medical personnel in each of the countries where we serve, because we provide 24/7 medical care for all of our volunteers in every country. They have all been trained in how to respond to sexual assaults. Secondly, we don't permit any volunteer to engage with local law enforcement in any country where we are until, A, that person decides they want to do that, and secondly, they are accompanied by a Peace Corps staff to make sure that it's done in an appropriate way, and also by Embassy staff.
WILLIAMSSo I think what the question is, is how can we enhance the services that we now have in place by providing more experts who can operate globally as a mobile team. And that's something that we're giving serious consideration to.
NNAMDIWe gotta take a break, but we got this reminder on our Facebook page. "'Peace Corps: 50 Years of Promoting World Peace and Friendship,' will be a feature program at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival this summer on the National Mall. Visitors can enjoy concerts, children's activities, demonstrations of cooking and gardening, dialogues with return Peace Corps volunteers, and much more.
NNAMDIThe website is festival.si.edu for more information." That's festival.si.edu. We'll put a link to that website on our website, kojoshow.rog. You can still call us, 800-433-8850. If the lines are busy, go to our website, join the conversation there, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Aaron Williams. He is director of the Peace Corps, a position that he has held since August of 2009. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1967 through 1970. We got an email from Amy who said, "My father joined the Peace Corps after retiring. At the age of 62, he went to Costa Rica and Uruguay, learned to ride motorcycles, translated for doctors, and worked at a housing co-op.
NNAMDII think is a great thing for older Americans to become involved in." We have been hearing a lot of that so far. Last year, the program returned to Sierra Leon in 2008. It returned to Liberia, but the program has -- is suspended in the Ivory Coast, has been since 2003. How does the Peace Corp determine which places to operate in, and which ones to pull up stakes?
WILLIAMSKojo, we always monitor the situation -- the safety and security situation in every country where we serve worldwide. And when we determine that an environment is not safe for Peace Corp volunteers, and when it's not permissive, then we will remove our volunteers. The thing that's interesting is that there's a long line of countries that want Peace Corps to do one of three things. Either return to the country, as we did in the case of Sierra Leon last year, also Columbia and also Indonesia or to grow our program in their country, or to come there for the first time.
WILLIAMSEvery month I meet with an ambassador from a different country, or with the American ambassador in the various countries. They ask me those three questions. It's amazing that we can -- no matter what our budget it, we could never fulfill the demand for Peace Corps service around the world.
NNAMDIHere is Mary in Washington D.C. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYHello, Kojo, Director Williams. I tuned in today because my oldest granddaughter, a graduate student at Florida State University, has been accepted as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. So I wanted to hear the program. But I also want to celebrate Peace Corps on my own accord. When Peace Corps was gearing up, my husband and I were returning from Nigeria.
MARYHe was a young industrial chemist from Milwaukee who had been hired by the Nigerian government to train Nigerian scientists to take over the jobs that the British were leaving at independence. So we were there for the independence year and the next year. On our return, Peace Corps hired us to go to universities to recruit students for the Peace Corps and I was assigned the northeast. I went to Bowden and Colby and University of Maine, et cetera, Dartmouth.
MARYAnd was astounded to find how much political opposition there was to what seemed to us a great -- a really marvelous idea. We were attracted because we were young, African-American, had lived in an underdeveloped country, and had done things that perhaps Peace Corps volunteers were being asked to do. Well, anyway, despite the political opposition from Republic opposition, there was a tremendous success.
MARYAnd 25 years later, we were living in Cairo when the Middle East Peace Corps volunteers gathered in massive numbers to celebrate 25 years of that experience in the nation, celebrated as well. And we were amazed to find how many people who had been Peace Corps volunteers had made their careers in foreign affairs or in the foreign service, or living abroad and working abroad. And now, of course, our one little granddaughter is getting ready to go Peace Corps. So congratulations, and I'm thrilled to have been able to observe all this.
MARYI'm 79 years old, and I'll be a volunteer perhaps in the next round.
NNAMDIMary, just quickly, how familiar was your granddaughter with the experiences of her grandparents?
NNAMDIAh. That says it all. Here is Aaron Williams.
WILLIAMSMary, thank you so much for that call, and thank you for your service, you and your husband. And thank you for creating that legacy that motivated your granddaughter to join the Peace Corps. And, of course, University of Florida is a great Peace Corps school. So -- as is American University here in Washington, by the way. So I really appreciate that and thank you for sharing your story with us. Let me just mention something, Kojo, related to that.
WILLIAMSAs I travel the world now visiting the countries, and I've been in ten countries now in my -- during my time as director, I have found more and more that many of our ambassadors, a large percentage of the U.S. Agency for International Development Staff, the leaders of international NGOs in the field and in headquarters, these are -- a large majority of these individuals are return Peace Corps volunteers. Peace Corps has made incredible contributions to developing a cadre, a core of people who are making a difference in creating bridges between America and the rest of the world.
WILLIAMSExpertise in languages and cultures and how to operate globally, which of course, as you well know, in the 21st century is crucial for our country.
NNAMDIHere's an email we got from Mike. Mike says, "I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, worked at headquarters, currently work as a consultant in child protection international development. Very interesting topic at any time, but particularly now, given the changes around the world and the volatile budget cuts in Congress. And considering the future of Peace Corps, could you explore the most promising programs which would benefit most from this unique contextual approach, and which would promote innovation and expand the existing evidence base?
NNAMDIAs an international psychosocial and child protection consultant, I can think these sectors and others would be excellent directions to expand." Which brings me to this question, Aaron Williams. How do you measure the success of the Peace Corps, and how do you respond to people who argue that the challenges of the world today, that globalization requires a much more sophisticated approach now, than in the 1960s?
WILLIAMSWell, first of all, Mike, thank you for your service in Ghana as a volunteer, and for connecting with us today. Kojo, in terms of your question about how do you measure success, it's obviously important for any federal agency, and it's something that we think a lot about. I think Peace Corps is relevant today in the 21st century, because building a world community is crucial. Fifty years ago, it was important, and it's even more important in the 21st century.
WILLIAMSPeace Corps volunteers, by working in communities with no-profit organization, with government agencies in remote parts of any given country where we work, they provide tools to communities to help them solve their problems. This to me is the essence of sustainable development actually. We're helping communities by providing our service to help them make a difference in their day-to-day lives. And we're working side by side with them, speaking their language, understanding their problems in a way that no other group of people really have the time or the expertise to do that.
WILLIAMSI think that's valuable. And then when volunteers return home, they make these incredible contributions in various sectors in our own society. So if you look at the overall package of commitment to service overseas, the learning that you obtain as a Peace Corps volunteer, the experience that you bring back, this wealth of experience that can make a difference at the grass roots level, not just overseas, but also back here at home, it's a marvelous opportunity for us. One that we cannot afford not to continue to support.
NNAMDIHere is Rob in Ellicott City, Md. Rob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBThanks, Kojo, for taking my call. And just a question for the director. My son is currently serving in the Peace Corps, and of all places, he's assigned in Mongolia. And he's about, from my understanding, several hundred miles outside of the capital city, and he seems to be the only American that's in this village where he's teaching English and teaching American lifestyle. And I was just wondering, is that par for the course of the Peace Corps to only have one person assigned in such a remote location to serve and to...
ROB...pay forward what the Peace Corps is doing?
NNAMDIHere's Aaron Williams, Rob.
WILLIAMSThank you for your call, Rob, and also, thank you for allowing your son to serve in Mongolia. Now, that is an esoteric place to serve. And Mongolia is a place that has a lot of open land. It's a huge country, and so it's not unusual for a volunteer to be in a community that far from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. And the thing is that the demand for English language teaching in a place like Mongolia is enormous. We could probably put 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers in Mongolia.
WILLIAMSAnd so your son is a real leader in an area that's crucial to the future development of Mongolia, and that's why teaching English, definitely teaching in Mongolia is so popular and so important. And I know that he's gonna come back with an incredible experience, and he's gonna come back as a global leader who's gonna make a difference when he returns back to Ellicott City. So thank you for letting us know about that, and believe me, he's making a difference out there, and we're doing everything we can to keep him safe.
NNAMDIHere's Carol in Alexandria, Va. Carol, your turn.
CAROLYes. I had served in the Dominican Republic from 1998 to the year 2001. I went in kind of mid-career, so I came in with very good skills, you know, the ability to work right away with people. I also came from a multi-ethnic background, and it helped me tremendously. I did want to comment on the female safety issues which have, you know, seen a lot of press. My concern as an older female watching, you know, our young people in particular, and any women, you know, specifically -- it's not always that you're young, but the level of naive thinking and idealism is high for people going in Peace Corps.
CAROLAnd I felt that the agency did a tremendous jobs in three months of indoctrinating us, and even giving us safety and security training, and reminders, but it just didn't seem to me that you could almost do it enough, because the young people have trouble to understand they're in cultures where men think very differently than the kind of culture they came from.
CAROLThey really need this intensive education, and I would -- I would think that possibly a very good buddy system for these young women, you have to consider beautiful young women out in the world, sometimes in places where, you know, there just isn't a backup. Most of the sites were specifically very safe, but you -- you really just have to consider the circumstances. I believe that the educational issue would be really good, especially when you've got this kind of an upsurge and, you know, upheaval and violence going on worldwide.
NNAMDIWe're almost running out of time, so allow me to have Aaron Williams respond. But Carol, thank you for your call.
WILLIAMSCarol, thank you for your call, and thank you for your service in of my favorite countries by the way. And let me say a couple of things. First of all, we are tapping the best experts in the world in dealing with this topic in terms of training our volunteers. And we do believe we're gonna continue to reinforce on a consistent basis throughout a volunteer service, these messages and the training so that we can keep our volunteer safe.
WILLIAMSThe other -- the idea of a buddy system is an interesting and very pragmatic idea that we are also taking into consideration as we look at improving our safety and security systems. And believe me, your ideas are very, very worthwhile, and thank you for that.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call, Carol. We're just about out of time, but just quick, we got an email from Ali who said, "I leave in a week for the Peace Corps in Peru. Does the director have any special advice?"
WILLIAMSFirst of all, Ali, you are very fortunate because we have an incredible team in Peru. It's one of our great historic programs of volunteers in Peru. Welcome, and you're gonna do a great job, and thank you.
WILLIAMSAaron Williams is director of the Peace Corps. Thank you so much for joining us.
WILLIAMSThank you, Kojo. Thank you for letting me be on today.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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