Calling For The Peace Corps Next Act: The Equal Society Corps

One of many incredible days for me as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya (Kaimosi).

One of the many incredible experiences I had as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya (Kaimosi).

I was a Peace Corps volunteer a decade ago and it was one of the most important and impactful experiences of my life. As designed and established by John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps provides technical assistance, helping people outside the United States to understand American culture, and helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries.

As Wikipedia summarizes, “The work is generally related to social and economic development. Each program participant, a Peace Corps Volunteer, is an American citizen, typically with a college degree, who works abroad for a period of two years after three months of training. Volunteers work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs in education, hunger business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment.”

When I volunteered, there was a lot of emphasis on the fact that the three goals of a Peace Corps Volunteer were equally weighted, in other words- yes, you were there to help, but fully two-thirds of your “job” was to learn and share. Learn from the host country about their values and experience and to share American values and experience. Being was as important as doing.

Well, it’s occurred to me that it is time for a Peace Corps reboot, or better yet, a new agency altogether. The Peace Corps was conceived at a time when America was perceived (at least by us) as the pinnacle of society. A shining example of industry, ingenuity, strength, and progressive values- in short, a place to be admired. And to be sure, we remain an economic powerhouse and we can consume consumables like nobody’s business (too bad that’s not an Olympic sport), but we have begun to falter in a lot of important ways.

Where to be born? Well, we beat UAE and South Korea, so we've got that going for us, which is nice.

Where to be born? Well, we beat UAE and South Korea, so we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

I am sure everyone has seen those lists about the countries that are top for education, health-care, life-expectancy, quality of life, gender equity, infant mortalityrenewable energy, and gun-deaths. Perhaps the one list to rule them all is the Economist’s Where to be born list (we rank a disappointing 17th in 2013). On many of these lists, we are not even in the top ten but we should be and we can be. For the long-term health of the nation, I assert we must take action to improve our standing on these lists.

I think what we are lacking, is a model. The US is so vast and insulated; and because it’s so huge, we “travel” within its borders- Disneyland parks had over 30 million visitors last year. As my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya taught me, and the many thousands that have served in its 50 years of existence, it’s hard to conceive of another culture until you live in it. As that famous aphorism says, “Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” Well, we need to do some walking in some different shoes.

There is a visceral understanding that comes from living in a place with no electricity, no running water, no tarmac road, minimal infrastructure, and no organized social safety net that makes you inestimably more grateful for what we have here in the United States. I also continue to feel incredibly privileged for all that I learned from my time in Kenya, lessons that I still apply in my personal and professional life.

And yet, there are those lists. The lists that suggest (perhaps even prove) there could be an even better way. Given America’s great history and tradition of competitiveness (JFK was also instrumental in the race to land a man on the moon) and our desire to be number one, I would like to humbly call for the creation of The Equal Society Corps (I was going to say Better Society Corps, but the initials invite too many jokes). The mission of the ESC would be similar to the Peace Corps, but we would go to countries that rank high on aforementioned lists.

Imagine sending the best and brightest of our nation abroad for a couple of years to get a real understanding of what a more equal, more fair, more sustainable society looks like. Rather than teaching about water sanitation, hygiene, and disease prevention, ESC Volunteers would learn what it is like to have access to health care, child care, a retirement fund, and an excellent education regardless of your (or your parent’s) station in life.

Imagine sending the best and brightest of our nation abroad for a couple of years to get a real understanding of what a more equal, more fair, more sustainable society looks like. Rather than teaching about water sanitation, hygiene, and disease prevention, ESC Volunteers would learn what it is like to have access to health care, child care, a retirement fund, and an excellent education regardless of your (or your parent’s) station in life.

I think one reason that Americans struggle against estate taxes, is that we know that our system is highly unfair and being born near or at the lowest end of the economic scale burdens you with a huge list of disadvantages from birth. A burden that for millions of Americans is impossible to shed and that will effect the quality and length of your life significantly. We need to start changing the reality of this ugly truth.

Here is a list of countries we could target for partnership with the Equal Society Corps:

  • Australia
  • Denmark
  • United Kingdom
  • Switzerland
  • Norway
  • Canada
  • Sweden
  • Iceland
  • Finland
  • Netherlands
  • Singapore
  • New Zealand

Of course, this list and idea isn’t to say that America doesn’t have many incredible things going for it. Obviously, we are a powerful nation and our economic & technological production over the years has been nothing short of phenomenal. Think of many of the biggest and greatest companies in technology and most of them were founded here. Not to mention the contributions we have made in times of world conflict, particularly during WWII.

It’s also not to say that this list of countries doesn’t have it’s own host of challenges. Many of these countries are smaller with more homogenous populations, some could be states within the United States. Certainly, there is no “perfect” country and we should use our learnings from these countries to continue our quest “to form a more perfect Union”, as enshrined in the preamble to our Constitution.

Just as those who join the Peace Corps are motivated by a healthy dose of idealism, so would the Equal Society Corps be motivated by a desire to better themselves and the world around them. Peace Corps volunteers have also always had strong backs, open minds, and willing hearts- qualities that would serve volunteers well in this new, next generation mission.

I shared the idea for this story with my dad, and he said, heck, he’d like to go. As someone closer to 80 than 75, even with an excellent personal economic outlook (including a pension and retirement savings), he is thinking about what elder care options there are for him in the United States. Probably more than anything else, older parents in the United States do not want to be a burden to their children, and yet- with long life expectancy but often complex and expensive care needs- needs that would have been difficult to cope with at peak income levels, to say nothing of retirement income, their worst fears are being realized. For my generation, the outlook is far, far worse.

The good news is we have a dozen or more countries to learn from and America has a huge workforce that we can point towards this great cause. I would love to see what transformation could be wrought within our own borders by exposing our best and brightest to the ideas and systems that are already working well around the world. The Equal Society Corps could be a key strategy in reversing the direction America has been heading on “the lists.”

Please share, comment, and maybe get ready to pack your bags!

About jenlocati

JENNIE LOCATI started her blog, WYS Words as a way to share her experiences as a professional woman, wife, mother, and irrepressible “do-gooder”. Her diverse life experiences have taken her to Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer, the trading floors of Wall Street, to PATH, and most recently back to Microsoft, where she works in Executive Communications. Jennie shares her many misadventures, occasional insights, and unique perspectives in a voice that is self-deprecating, honest, and authentic. Read more at www.wyswords.com

Posted on November 2, 2014, in Big Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. “Imagine sending the best and brightest of our nation abroad for a couple of years to get a real understanding of what a more equal, more fair, more sustainable society looks like.”

    It’s not a lack of perspective or experience that’s lacking, but political will. A sizable portion (10%, 20%?) of our society certainly has a real understanding of what a more equal fair and sustainable society looks like. It’s called being well-off in America. What’s lacking or missing is the empathy and experience with the rest of the 80 or 90% of America. But nothing in America was won without a fight, so it’s incumbent on those in America who are not sharing in the American Dream to get organized or be organized by… ?

    It’s no secret how/why the other countries you mention ahead of us on all of those ranked lists do what they do. They have stronger governments and historical and current popular cultures that support strong government. They also have better elites who support or at least tolerate strong governments. Our elites… not so much.

    Maybe the new organization should focus on introducing those from the bottom of our society to those at or near the top of our society. That would go a long way to convincing the “masses” in America that their lot is actually not so good. Or, introduce those from the bottom of our society to those other advanced, more egalitarian societies. Both of those alternatives would be better than sending our “best and brightest” overseas. Our “best and brightest” do not appear to care enough about the inequality in our society. Inequality is a byproduct of our politics and culture. We are still the richest country in the world by almost any absolute measure. It’s just that our “averages” are lowered by our tolerance of inequality.

    The simpler solution is of course a mandatory national service program. The left/progressive faction of our society would probably not tolerate encouraging more Americans to serve in the US military because of knee-jerk biases. But the fact is only through national service programs, military service included, can we begin to build the shared experience and empathy that is fundamental to closing the gaps (wealth, income, education, health, empathy, et al.) in our society.

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    • Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply! I couldn’t agree more about the wealth gap. Check out the blog I just wrote on that very topic, Just How Big Is A Billion. Also- you may not know it, but consider yourself on the formation committee! Just kidding- but I appreciate the issues and challenges you are raising. I agree that a National Service Program of some kind would be a terrific idea- whether Military Service, Americorps, Peace Corps, or some new service corps.

      Again- thanks for the reply. -Jennie

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    • Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply! I couldn’t agree more about the wealth gap. Check out the blog I just wrote on that very topic, Just How Big Is A Billion. Also- you may not know it, but consider yourself on the formation committee! Just kidding- but I appreciate the issues and challenges you are raising. I agree that a National Service Program of some kind would be a terrific idea- whether Military Service, Americorps, Peace Corps, or some new service corps.

      Again- thanks for the reply. -Jennie

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      • Jennie, I noodled around your blog a bit and admire your voice and you empathy. the entry about the birth of your twins and why you care is very moving. As you likely already know, there is a lot of activity in the philanthropic world that is focused on new ways to apply wealth to address social ills. I personally think the discussion is still too focused on outcomes and beneficiaries, group or individual, or on the mechanics of giving, or on changing (e.g., “disintermediating”) the philanthropy industry. There seems to be less attention paid to the generally topic of social empathy, and how to increase/rebuild our mutual empathy (see Putnam’s Bowling Alone) in an increasingly specialized and fragmented world, where we “choose” our new virtual societies and thus care less about our real neighbors and real communities. Solve the empathy puzzle and everything will be fine in the long term because we are still a wealthy and energetic country. We just need to care about each other more.

        BTW, I think the other big problem no one is yet talking about is the “professionalization” of our politics in which there is money to be made in the activity of elections and policy formulation. That money (the consulting, “journalism,” advertising, and influence peddling careers to be made) is becoming more important and more corrosive to healthy political debate and healthy public policy formulation. The needs and wants of the intermediary are influencing the discourse and no one seems yet focused on this development. The actual policy and the actual politicians matter less and less and what matters more is the “vitality and health” of the political industry. It’s only a matter of time before some creative or greedy person figures out a way to commoditize, package, and trade political influence, especially since there is now unlimited money involved. Only in America can we turn a basic public activity, such as choosing our leaders, into a for-profit enterprise!

        Anyway, thank you for your empathy and energy.

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  2. A couple of years in Denmark? Wouldn’t we all…
    Unfortunately, the idea is idiotic.
    Our lack of decent healthcare, our immigration mess, these are not a result of people not knowing what it’s like to live in Denmark.
    We are the victims of a government elected by people who are amazingly poorly educated. Our education system is a disgrace. Most of these people couldn’t find Denmark on a map. So Senators and Congressmen, who only care about getting elected, work on that level. Taking money from big insurers means we will get no serious health care. If you’re the Senator from Kentucky, you support the Coal industry. We are a country for sale.
    We just saw an election won by people who got us into 2 stupid unfunded wars, and then drove the economy into a ditch.
    We don’t fix these things going to Denmark.

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    • George, Thanks for your comments. Although I wouldn’t have put the idea out there if I didn’t think it was slightly better than *idiotic*, I do think it has plenty of limitations and challenges. My point was more to highlight many of the same issues you reference. I agree there is too much money in politics and not enough in basic services and I DO believe that if Americans had broader exposure to the diverse ways that society can be structured, we could find some ideas/practices to leverage or adopt. And maybe check out my follow up post, Just How Big Is A Billion where I tackle Wealth Inequality. Thanks!

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  3. The Peace Corps definitely needs “a reboot…a real understanding of what a more equal, more fair, more sustainable society looks like,” The people of my village in the Dominican Republic treated me significantly more fairly, respectfully and equally than the Peace Corps, who subjected me to discrimination in hiring, continuous harassment, and perpetual efforts to terminate me due to my disability. The people in my community said, “We don’t care if you’re different; you help us,” I will go back there, eventually to continue my efforts to facilitate full employment there, for anyone who wants a job.

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  4. I don’t know where these egalitan societies are. Most Third World countries are run by Dictators. I was in Iran under the Shah, with the third biggest secret police in the world.
    What are you all talking about?
    The Peace Corps is wonderful the way it is.
    We should just fund twice as many volunteers.
    And we should sell it.
    “The toughest job you’ll ever love” was a good start.

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  5. Hi Jennie;
    Until recently I was the Director of Programming and Training for Peace Corps in Kenya. I left when we suspended the program because of security reasons and am currently working in Burkina Faso; so, your article really caught my attention. I totally agree with your idea of an ESC and we could also send Volunteers to developing countries to learn how to live more simply and relationship-oriented and bring these ideas back to the States as well.
    Phil

    Liked by 1 person

    • Philip, Thanks so much for the reply. It was indeed a sad day when Peace Corps pulled out of Kenya- though I hope circumstances will change to allow re-entry at some point. There is so much to be gained by cultural exchange between countries- whether developing or otherwise. I am a big fan of any programs or initiatives that promote cultural education, knowledge sharing, and insight. Best of luck in Burkina Faso! -Jennie

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  6. Instead of creating a whole new Equal Society Corps, what about promoting and increasing funding for already-existing university study abroad programs?

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  7. Reblogged this on grandmacharitychallenge and commented:
    I love this essay – I’m ready to pack my bags. Well, not quite. I need to finish my book tour first!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Two practical problems:
    1) Work: What would ESC volunteers do all day? Would host country nationals be happy to see a foreigner doing that job?
    2) Cost: It’s much cheaper to support 100 volunteers in Kenya than in Australia. How much was your living allowance? How far would that go in Switzerland?

    As far as your goal, I’ll bypass your assumption that Singapore is “more equal, more fair” than the U.S. and move on to “ESC Volunteers would learn what it is like to have access to health care, child care, a retirement fund, and an excellent education regardless of your (or your parent’s) station in life.” Well, most PCVs, fresh out of college and from upper-middle class families, have (generally) never had to worry about health care. Most would not need child care, and would not be able to take advantage of retirement and education systems in their host country. You’d need to move several generations of a family for them to experience all those things.

    I’m all for international exchange of all sorts, but I’m afraid that those most in need of the lessons you hope the ESC will teach would not volunteer to live abroad. And if they did, I’m afraid their paradigm would only allow them to learn what it’s like to pay ridiculously high taxes and chafe under copious government regulation.

    I am certainly in favor of the government supporting any kind of international exchange. But my goal would simply be for Americans to understand that a different culture does not just mean different traditional costumes and food.

    Maybe we don’t need international exchange as much as inter-state exchange. Speaking for myself, I’d rather spend 2 years in any of the countries you listed than spend 2 years in Alabama or Montana. I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling (though others might eschew Massachusetts or California). (I remember a friend who made it through 2 years of Peace Corps, but later had to transfer law schools, because she couldn’t live in Texas.) It might be better for our country if we encouraged exchange among the states.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am sorry I do not agree to a change of name for Peace Corps and do not agree to equal society corps. In these emerging economies we served I learned people need basics. I want to read; I want an education, I want clean water. I want free of disease. The name suggested is esoteric to people who live day to day on survival interests. American values should not be proselytized in these countries. Deliver clean water, deliver education to girls and boys, deliver good wholesome nutrition and food. Deliver good health, hygiene, medicine. Build schools, hospitals, infrastructure and leave. Let the people decide for themselves on what is assimilation, equality and integration means for them. Americans are still ‘out to lunch’ about American values. The red states are a good example to show other countries that we are a divided states of America. And we need Red states support in legislation for programs overseas. Basics for human needs is something people would consider.

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    • Thanks Donald. I didn’t mean to suggest we should curtail the mission of the Peace Corps. I love what I did in the Peace Corps and believe strongly in its continued relevance and mission. Rather, I think there is an opportunity for us to learn from other nations that we would more commonly think of as our “peers” in terms of development. Great point about the name- it needs work. Thanks for the feedback and thanks for reading. -Jennie

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  10. Elizabeth Vaughan

    Beautifully written! I completely support this idea. I studied abroad in Sweden before my Peace Corps Service in Uganda and those experiences really opened my eyes to the disparities that exist all across the globe; between developed countries, developing countries and most importantly, within my home town of San Diego.

    Thank you for this post and for all that you do!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Elizabeth! It sounds like your experience is exactly along the lines of what I am envisioning. I wonder what your greatest take-aways are from your time in Sweden? I can better imagine your experience in Uganda- such a beautiful country!

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    • Elizabeth Vaughan

      Hi Jennie,

      I had little experience abroad before Sweden and I was raised to believe America was the greatest County in the world. I saw one homeless person my entire time in Sweden. I learned of a very different immigration policy, health system and education structure that left no one out. For my young mind, it was the most enlightening period of my life. I work in community public health in-part, as a result of my time in Sweden because I saw a system that worked there while living in a system that had failed my family here. My time in Sweden led me to start asking the bigger questions, which eventually led me to apply for the Peace Corps.

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