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Scott Brinton

The Peace Corps, a history of spirited engagement

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Surrounded by thousands of adoring supporters, many sporting red MAGA caps, President Trump sauntered into a victory rally in Cincinnati on Dec. 1, 2016, three and a half weeks after his election, and laid out the Trump Doctrine.

“You hear a lot of talk about how we’re becoming a globalized world,” he bellowed to the chanting and screaming crowd, “but the relationships people value in this country are local: family, city, state, country. They’re local. There’s no global anthem, no global currency, no certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag, and that flag is the American flag.”

So ends “A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps,” a 2019 documentary directed, edited and produced by Alana DeJoseph, who served as a small enterprise development Peace Corps volunteer in a tiny village in Mali, West Africa, from 1992 to 1994. The film, with historical footage and interviews with former and current volunteers and world leaders, most notably former President Jimmy Carter, tells the nearly 60-year history of the federal agency devoted to fostering world peace.

I watched the film, which DeJoseph described as her “baby,” only weeks before Trump lost his re-election bid. It was a nervous time for many. Would the United States again elect an unabashed nationalist as president and continue on its lonely path toward global disengagement, closing borders, fraying alliances and shredding hard-fought international treaties, or would it choose another path, one of re-engagement — one that seeks to build friendships rather than divide and conquer?

This was the question with which DeJoseph chose to end “A Towering Task,” The answer would, potentially, determine the Peace Corps’ future.

I was particularly interested in the film because I served in Peace Corps, in Bulgaria, from 1991 to 1993. I was among the first two dozen volunteers — and Americans, period — to enter the country after the fall of communism only a year earlier. It was a time of great trepidation — many wondered whether democracy would take hold for good in Eastern Europe after mass protests had toppled one hardline regime after another — and a time of great hope — millions of Eastern Europeans cheered the opening of the former Soviet bloc to the West.

As an American who wore jeans and sweatshirts and spoke with a New York accent, I was something of a local celebrity in Veliko Turnovo, the ancient city in central Bulgaria where I served. I cannot express in words the sense of optimism I felt at the time. You believed, if only for a short time, that world peace was perhaps at hand.

As one of the globalists whom Trump has decried for the past four-plus years, I feared his presidency, and I wasn’t unwarranted in my concern. In June 2017, Trump withdrew from the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Then, in 2018, he backed out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed by Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, at least for the foreseeable future. I could go on, but this column isn’t about Trump. It’s about “A Towering Task.”

Last week, President-elect Joe Biden immediately affirmed that the U.S. would re-enter the Paris accord, one of President Barack Obama’s signature achievements. We shall see what becomes of the Iran nuclear deal.

Biden’s election gives returned Peace Corps volunteers like me a sense of hope that the U.S. will continue to engage with the world, as it had for decades before Trump, and that the Peace Corps will continue its core mission of building international friendships by sending Americans to developing nations to live and work as people in those countries do. As “A Towering Task” makes clear, each Peace Corps volunteer is an ambassador of goodwill, a friendly face who becomes deeply embedded in the local society and culture, and whose contributions become the stuff of local conversation for years to follow.

Creating the Peace Corps in the 1960s was indeed a monumental undertaking by President John F. Kennedy and the agency’s first director, Sargent Shriver — Kennedy’s brother-in-law and the father of broadcaster Maria Shriver. The film, narrated by Academy Award-nominated actress Annette Bening, does a masterful job of telling the early story of the Peace Corps and the political fray that its formation stirred, after which it meticulously chronicles the agency’s history, decade by decade, with panoramic footage from Peace Corps countries around the globe, showing both natural wonders and human suffering.

The film also shows it’s perfectly possible to love one’s country — the U.S. — and engage with the world. If you love the Peace Corps, watch this film. If you love your country, watch this film. If you love the world, watch this film. You can do so here.  

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.