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Datebook: Peace Corps documentary lauds storied history and looks to the future

Peace Corps volunteers teach in a village.
Peace Corps Documentary
Peace Corps volunteers teach in a village.

A former Peace Corps volunteer says the organization remains relevant 60 years after its founding during the Kennedy administration.

Other nations have development programs, yet the Peace Corps is unique, said Dane Myers, now the assistant director of the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development at Illinois State University.

“A lot of the focus of the early Peace Corps years is sustainable agriculture, digging wells, and things like that. And it has evolved. Many of the areas where Peace Corps volunteers serve are undergoing vast economic, social, political, and technological changes," said Myers.

"But each location has such specific challenges, that the fact the Peace Corps sends volunteers directly into these communities where they are immersed for a period of two years, just helps them to understand the culture of the problems in a way other development efforts can't.”

The Peace Corps is celebrating six decades of service to the world and American efforts to build international relationships. The Stevenson Center and the Friends for Peace student organization at ISU are showing a documentary on the Peace Corps, “A Towering Task," at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Normal Theater in Uptown. Admission is free.

Myers said the film does more than tell the story of the Peace Corps.

“There seems to be a sense the Peace Corps has kind of fallen out of the public consciousness and a lot of people aren't even aware that it's still even operating. It's really a discussion of why is that? Is it relevant as an organization still as a kind of this hippie dippie relic from the 60s? Or, you know, is it an organization that now we need more than ever since the image of Americans has shifted over the last 60 years?” said Myers.

His answer is an emphatic yes. It’s hard to be against the goals of world peace, creating a better understanding of America through its people, and training a workforce in those nations.

“And then when you come home, you promote a better understanding of the people that you serve on the part of Americans. You know, those are very lofty goals,” said Myers, who acknowledged the history since the Kennedy years has complicated U.S. efforts to achieve those aims, but that individual diplomacy matters.

“A lot of times Peace Corps volunteers will be the only Americans that people will ever encounter. And so you serve as their window into America. These are people who you want out there representing America in the world. They're very responsible, trustworthy, they show they have a dedication to service,” said Myers. “I think it's hugely beneficial. And it provides a lot of important relationships and friendships that last lifetimes.”

China and other nations have ramped up efforts in recent decades to create cultural and financial ties to developing nations. But Myers said those tend to be transactional efforts.

“You know, you hear in the news about the Ugandan airport being seized, potentially, by the Chinese government, because they've invested in it. And so there seems to be more of a quid pro quo when it comes to the Chinese efforts. And the Peace Corps is very explicit that you know, nothing in return for our service."

Myers also said as global climate change accelerates, the role of the Peace Corps and how its vision might change could become more urgent.

“It's starting to feel that it's ever more we're running out of time, and that these issues need to be tackled,” said Myers. “I think that shift is potentially underway.”

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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