JFK and the Peace Corps: Building Connections

Kennedy signed HR 7500, which established the Peace Corps, on Sept. 22, 1961. PHOTO FROM PUBLIC DOMAIN

With Kennedy’s brother-in-law Robert Sargent Shriver in charge of a Peace Corps Task Force, Tanganyika and Ghana became the first two countries involved with the Peace Corps. Since the introduction of the Peace Corps, 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. These volunteers work in developing countries in various fields, such as education, agriculture and health, and do not receive a salary. As Kennedy noted in Executive Order 10924, Peace Corps volunteers “will live at the same level as the citizens of the country which they are sent to, doing the same work, eating the food, speaking the same language.”

Brookline High School Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator Gary Shiffman said that the Peace Corps, along with other programs such as the peacetime civilian draft and Public Works Administration of the 1930s, created a sense of national unity, something that is lacking in today’s polarized social climate.

Shiffman also said that the Peace Corps and other programs such as AmeriCorps VISTA parallel programs offered at the high school.

“Our Social Justice Leadership workshop, the Global Leadership class, they’re really in that model,” Shiffman said. “Young people can do things; you can go out and do projects, practice, learn.”

Spotlight: Ben Berman

Brookline High School English teacher Ben Berman taught English in Zimbabwe from 1998 to 2001. Berman said he became interested in joining the Peace Corps after spending six months with a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal and India, where the volunteer was running a home for orphaned girls who were sold into prostitution and recovered by the police, but whose families did not accept them back.

Berman went to Zimbabwe as part of the Peace Corps right after he graduated from college. He said that living in a new culture was a formative experience for him.

“It was immersive,” Berman said. “I was probably the only American or White person for about a 100 mile radius for the most part when I was in the rural areas. That was both very exciting and challenging at times. The White/Black tensions were pretty high in Zimbabwe at times, so it was really important to be there and to learn the language and to be there as sort of a model of what race relations can look like; it doesn’t always have to be tense, but it wasn’t always the easiest thing in the world.”

Berman also said that living and teaching in Zimbabwe helped him to develop important relationships.

“If you’re more isolated, you can see the world through a very reductive lens. You sort of have these theories and you assume things worked that way, or you see countries through a geopolitical lens, so you might know about Africa but only through war or sickness or whatever stories you hear in the news,” Berman said. “But traveling and meeting people remind you of how complex people are, countries are, and fills you with wonder to continue exploring those complexities.”

According to Berman, the Peace Corps helps spread both the idea of public service and the importance of cultural exchange. He said that these ideals reflect themselves in Kennedy’s legacy.

“So many people have a chance to travel abroad and immerse themselves in different cultures,” Berman said, “but I think Kennedy envisioned that happening in positive ways, as opposed to going in as a military presence, or hoping to go in with hopes to control, but the idea of going in to learn about different cultures and develop relationships through people is a pretty remarkable and respectful thing.”

Spotlight: Ed Wiser

Ed Wiser served in the Peace Corps in the Solomon Islands from 1991 to 1993. He said that he is still in touch with many of the people he met there. PROVIDED BY ED WISER

Brookline High School Science Curriculum Coordinator Ed Wiser served in the Peace Corps for two years in the Solomon Islands from 1991 to 1993. He said that his college’s commencement speaker Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, talked about the value of public service.

“He said something along the effect of he meets a lot of people who are over the top wealthy, these people who have done all they could to turn a business around, a bank around, and they get highly rewarded,” Wiser said. “He said, ‘They are not nearly as happy as the people who I work with in public service.’ And it really struck a chord with a lot of us, I think.”

Wiser told his interviewers at the Peace Corps that the Solomon Islands were interesting to him because he had always enjoyed the television show Gilligan’s Island as a kid. He eventually was stationed in the Solomon Islands, which had many connections to Kennedy because it was the closest assignment to where Kennedy fought during World War II.

“I had picnics on the island he got washed up on. All the waters that he patrolled within PT-109, I was right there,” Wiser said. “They even had a makeshift museum for where he was stationed. So there were a lot of interesting connections there, and a lot of people in the Solomon Islands have had a high reverence for President Kennedy, and they would always ask me about President Kennedy.”

Although the Peace Corps will give you a travel adventure, Wiser said that there are many other domestic opportunities that young people can take advantage of, such as City Year, if they are interested in entering public service.

Wiser said he considers his service in the Peace Corps valuable. He said the connections he made with the people on the Solomon Islands were just as significant as his teaching duties, and he currently stays in touch with some of the people he taught.

“When I look back on it, I’m very glad that I did it. They used to say it’s the toughest job that you’ll ever love, and it’s definitely the toughest job that I’ve ever had,” Wiser said. “Being put on an island where there is nobody there like you, it gives you a real sense for the way a lot people in the world live.”