Fifty years ago, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy challenged young Americans to volunteer, to travel the world and extend themselves in ways previously unimagined. This first call to action resulted in the Peace Corps, and decades later it continues to call young citizens into service, helping society the world over. The forum “50 Years of the Peace Corps: Answering President Kennedy’s Call to Service,” which took place at Harvard’s Institute of Politics on Tuesday, Oct. 12, commemorated this momentous anniversary.
The panel, a part of the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum, brought together former directors of the Peace Corps, including HWS president Mark D. Gearan, as well as current Director Aaron Williams, the Colleges’ 2010 Convocation Speaker. The leaders met to discuss the organization’s continuing impact with an emphasis on the Peace Corps’ direction for the future.
“I have been struck by the domestic dividend of the Peace Corps,” remarked Gearan, when considering what the organization’s 50th anniversary means to him.
“Now that over 200,000 Americans have had this experience, what does this mean for the United States? I think it may be time for those of us who care about the Peace Corps to cast an unflinching eye at the Peace Corps today, to contemporize it – scale up more volunteers and more funding. We should perhaps look at the length of service – is it one size fits all?
“Everything about the Peace Corps ethos is about change and renewal,” continued Gearan. “The energy of the founders would be saying: is what we have been doing right for the next 50 years?”
Following the general discussion about the Peace Corps and its opportunity for growth, the audience asked questions pertaining to the Peace Corps’ relationship with NGOs and the Crisis Corps, a program Gearan created while serving as director. Now called Peace Corps Response, it is an essential part of today’s organization. Williams emphasized how incredibly important this program was during the recent crisis in Haiti.
“It was the privilege of a lifetime to be the director of Peace Corps,” acknowledged Gearan, who served as director from 1995 to 1999. “It truly is the best job in Washington.”
Other panel members included former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who served as Peace Corps director from 1991 to 1992, and Southern California Edison Spokesperson Gaddi Vasquez, director from 2002 to 2006. Harvard Kennedy School Dean and Professor Mary Jo Bane moderated the forum.
Upcoming speakers for Harvard’s John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum include Rachel Maddow, host of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, T.H. Sheila Bair, Chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and H.E. Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan.
To watch the forum in its entirety, visit the Harvard Kennedy School website at: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/news-events/news/articles/forum-peace-corps-oct10