The Peace Corps and Democracy

“The presence of Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the world means that democracy is on the offensive, using peaceful and decent means to demonstrate the basic values of our society. [...] Peace Corps Volunteers are America’s door-to-door representative in the villages of the world. They are as important to us as a dealership in Wimberly, Texas, is to Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan. They are to democracy what precinct workers are to a political party.”
Sargent Shriver |Austin, TX|October 5, 1962

Our Quote of the Week marks the 61st anniversary of Sargent Shriver’s appointment to the post of Director of the Peace Corps. The connections that Sargent Shriver makes between the Peace Corps and democracy are important to remember today.

This week, our quote comes from Sargent Shriver’s 1962 Speech at the Texas Judicial Conference. In his remarks, Shriver stresses the benefits of Peace Corps Volunteers learning about their host communities, and vice versa. He says: “A free democracy’s blood is knowledge,” reminding the audience that Peace Corps service strengthens the bonds between Volunteers and the communities in which they serve. Shriver continues:

“Peace Corps Volunteers are getting that knowledge through first-hand experience. No longer will they be guilty of what one Volunteer described as the three ‘cardinal sins of not knowing, not caring, not acting.’”

In short: the act of serving and of truly connecting with people of different cultures makes us engaged, global citizens who care deeply for and defend the well-being and dignity of others. And the hope is that the Volunteers’ examples of global citizenship will positively influence both the communities in which they serve, as well as those they return to in the United States.

A recent, poignant example of promoting democracy through the Peace Corps comes from Gabriel Cortez, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in the Ukraine until 2019. At the time, Gabriel wrote about his experience for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe blog, stating:

“From promoting tolerance and non-discrimination, to developing education programs, to confronting corruption, Peace Corps volunteers exhibit the strength of the partnerships between OSCE participating States and work to improve the lives of others. True progress is rooted in the sustainable and long-term projects of Peace Corps volunteers and their communities. In Ukraine, I saw firsthand the impact the Peace Corps can have in developing communities: a summer leadership camp for middle school students, a newly built community center with music and dance classes in a small village, and an accounting transparency workshop that reduced corruption in several city management offices. Substantive changes are happening every day in villages, towns, and cities across the country and throughout Peace Corps-partnered OSCE countries.”

The juxtaposition of the Peace Corps’ recent efforts to nurture democracy in the Ukraine, and the brutal war being waged in Russia’s effort to destroy the country’s democracy today, is truly shocking. It reminds us of the fragility of democracy, and of the importance of defending it at home and abroad.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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