"Why should you, a white woman, go work in Africa?"
The question was from an African American newsroom colleague, and it knocked me back. It was the late 1990s, and I had just announced that I was joining the Peace Corps, assigned to a remote public health post in Zambia, in southern Africa.
I’d applied to the Peace Corps primarily to set aside my journalist’s notebook and experience life beyond my own bubble, to better understand the world by immersing myself in hands-on work. I liked the Peace Corps’ grassroots approach to development work — that we would be working as partners with local community members, not as "experts" or advisers. My colleague caught whiffs of neocolonialism.
Neither of us used the terms "white savior" or "white privilege," but that’s what we were talking about.
Now, the U.S. Peace Corps, which marked its 60th anniversary Monday, is at a crossroads — in part because it is figuring out how to restart its programs after pulling all of its 7,300 volunteers home when the COVID-19 pandemic hit a year ago. And in part because a growing number of recent volunteers are pushing the Peace Corps to reckon with that "white savior" problem.
One small group is calling on Congress to abolish the Peace Corps.
Efforts to dismantle this tiny agency are nothing new. From the moment President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order establishing the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, critics have sought to defund and eliminate it. Peace Corps generally has wide bipartisan support, but opponents, often from the conservative right, have argued for years that Peace Corps’ budget, about $410 million for programs in 61 countries, would be better spent on programs back home.
This new push to abolish Peace Corps is different. It was started by three volunteers who were evacuated from their service in Africa in early 2020. They say they were inspired by the protests in the U.S. after George Floyd’s killing and by campaigns to "defund the police." Reflecting on their service overseas, they drafted a list of demands and launched an Instagram account called "Decolonizing Peace Corps," which has about 7,000 followers and has sparked fierce debate within the Peace Corps community.
Their demands are bold: a commendable list of recommendations for improving training and increasing diversity among volunteers and staff — and then a call to dissolve Peace Corps by 2040.
Why? Lindsay Allen, one of the volunteers, explained in a recent Medium interview:
"If you look at Peace Corps’ goals, you assume cultural exchange is a good thing. But when (Peace Corps) asks volunteers to share ‘American culture,’ they … want us to talk about baseball and Thanksgiving and not necessarily about America’s failures. … They ultimately want us to play into American exceptionalism and I think that’s quite harmful. … Without an honest discussion of imperialism, neocolonialism and privilege, volunteers will not be able to understand the culture of the formerly colonized country they’re serving."
Allen and her "abolish Peace Corps" supporters aren’t alone with their questions. For years — 60, in fact — volunteers have been wrestling with these concerns, each of us encountering these issues of American imperialism, colonization and the value of foreign aid through our own experiences in our host countries and back home in the United States.
Thousands of volunteers have gone on to work in public policy, study foreign relations, run for elected office, serve at home — each of them informed and influenced by what they experienced and witnessed in the Peace Corps, good and bad.
That, to me, is a strong argument for preserving the Peace Corps, not abolishing it. Give more young Americans the chance to get out of their comfort zones, to challenge their own assumptions about other places and people — and explore that question of the U.S. role in the world.
That doesn’t mean the Peace Corps shouldn’t change. For too long it was comfortable appealing to a largely white set of volunteers who could afford to take off for two-and-a-half years with virtually no income. In 1990, only about 7% of volunteers were from minority groups. In 2009 it was up to just 16%. By 2020, it had climbed to 34%. College loan deferment, credit for graduate school and other flexible arrangements have made Peace Corps far more attainable. The pressure is on, rightly so, for more change, to keep the program relevant, effective and accessible.
During my service, which coincided with the 2000 presidential election and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I watched what America did right and wrong and listened to the Zambian reaction. I questioned the self-perpetuating nature of aid organizations. I learned the value of incremental change. I saw waste. I saw innovation. I encountered good people and bad. And I witnessed how generations of colonialism had both helped and hurt the community I grew to love.
Like most former volunteers I know, my thoughts on these issues are still evolving years later. But serving in the Peace Corps gave each of us that invaluable vantage point — one that I hope more young Americans, not fewer, will be able to experience.
Lara Weber is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.