CON GAMES: Peace Corps in Our Time

A funny thing happened after my interview with Carolyn Hessler-Radelet, the new Director of The Peace Corps, at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

We were behind the Koch Building--yes, named after those Kochs--when a woman approached the Director and started to talk about her time in The Peace Corps and how she was now happily working in a nonprofit and how her life would never be the same after her service overseas. Then a man came up and said his father had married a woman from India--something that never would have happened were it not for his transformative time in The Peace Corps. And then Brad Tyndall, the Chief Academic Officer at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) came up to Carrie Hessler-Radelet and explained how his time in The Peace Corps had led to the book he just published.

This was nothing new for the Director of The Peace Corps but for the rest of us it's the hidden story. The Peace Corps, founded by President John F. Kennedy two months after his inauguration in 1961, has sent thousands of volunteers to help communities all over the world. But then--perhaps the hidden story--is those people, forever changed, come back home with some kind of secret sauce than never quite runs dry.

The new Director calls it "the toughest job you'll ever love" and more than 7,000 volunteers--paid just a living local wage--are deployed on every continent and within 66 countries. Kosovo is the latest Peace Corps outpost and it is unlikely to be the last. Five members of the U.S. Congress served in the Corps and so did Reed Hastings, the founder and chief executive officer of Netflix, and many others of prominence in the business world.

As a fourth-generation member of the Peace Corps, and heretofore the Deputy Director and then the Acting Director, new Director Hessler-Radelet, on the job less than a month, is in the unique position of trying to argue the relevance of The Peace Corps in a modern, far more interconnected world. She served her mission in Western Samoa from 1981-1983, so you might say she is living The Peace Corps global brand as the new Director.

We're a "nation of immigrants," she said, and Americans are "generous and compassionate and have an ethos to do good in the world." The Peace Corps is "an idea that is timeless."

"The mission has not changed," she said. "It's a lofty mission of world peace and friendship."

The Peace Corps has what are known internally as "The Three Goals":

• To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
• To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
• To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

"Volunteers living in a community [are] integrated completely," she says, and that's been the case from the founding of The Peace Corps in 1961. "What has changed is technology" and "the knowledge of what works and what doesn't work for volunteers."

One example comes from Nicaragua, where Hessler-Radelet reports that information on reproductive and sexual health questions are circulated by text messaging, which has "become a real resource for volunteers."

"An American can get a better [cell phone] signal anywhere in Liberia," the Director says, "then I can crossing the Roosevelt Bridge" in Washington, D.C.

Even so--even with the advances in technology--why are we spending $337.9 million annually on what seems so intangible?

"We are our nation's preeminent international service organization," the Director says--and she is quick to emphasize The Peace Corps does not arrive bearing any overt political agenda. She also insists there is value to be had from teaching Americans "how to represent the United States and be culturally sensitive, how to learn a language which is essential to understanding the cultural context of their environment so that they can be respectful.... So much of what we do is really based on the development of strong relationships."

In the end, Carrie Hessler-Radelet would argue there's real value when you
"engage productively with the rest of the world.... That sticks with them for the rest of their lives of the ripple effect of their service."

Did someone say "ripple effect"?

At the next session of Ideas Fest, by total chance I sat down next to Lara Weber from the Chicago Tribune. We traded cards and I looked her up on LinkedIn. Sure enough: Lara Weber was a Peace Corps volunteer for two years, working as an HIV/AIDS public health program coordinator in Zambia. I told her there was this woman at the festival that she really had to meet.