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Darlene Grant: Defining a Life of Service

Darlene Grant In Mongolia

When Darlene Grant boarded a plane to Cambodia on her way to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, she was already an award-winning, tenured professor. Peace Corps was the answer to the question she had been pondering about whether to take a Fulbright year or a sabbatical. At the time, she chose Peace Corps and now, 12 years later, she is still serving with the agency and continuing to define what service means and how central it is to intentional leadership.

At a young age, Dr. Grant experienced moments that defined service to family and service to community. For example, she recalls sitting at the feet of her maternal grandmother, who was snapping off tips of string beans in preparation for Sunday dinners after church — dinners that turned into discussions presided over by her minister grandfather during the pinnacle of the civil rights movement. “I was too young to understand the whispered conversations and emotions swirling around me, but aware something important was happening in my 1960s world. I learned early that to serve equated to survival, to courage, to sacrifice, and to respect, as my grandparents and parents strived for a better world for anyone treated as lesser than anyone else.”

Grant was guided by a few good people who were keen to help her achieve her dreams. These mentors connected her with her first experience in the federal government—an internship with Office of the Federal Trade Commission, garnered through an inner-city youth empowerment program. Coming from a predominantly Black inner-city primary and secondary school environment, this experience helped her prepare for her future professional work and education environments, which would be predominately white.

Darlene grant at a swearing in
Darlene Grant, second from right, at a swearing-in ceremony for Peace Corps Response Volunteers in Kosovo in 2016.

Throughout years of undergraduate study in the area of sociology, Grant found synchronicity and a strong sense of belonging in the field that she describes as, “everyday life as I had experienced and observed it, captured in more sophisticated terminology. Subsequently, Grant dedicated two decades to the social work profession as a clinician, a teacher, and an administrator. Through it all, she was someone who thrived in side-by-side work with individuals and families pushing against tremendous odds to overcome addiction, navigate mental illness, break the cycle of incarceration and, later, with university students from underrepresented groups striving to become the first in their families to earn college degrees. Throughout this experience, Grant continued to be intentional about learning; about herself, others, the influence of race and culture, and about approaches to allying with people from different walks of life to build resilient and successful individuals, families, communities, and organizations.

By the time she boarded the plane to Cambodia with 45 other new Peace Corps Volunteers, Grant was 49. While learning a complex language, in an equally complex and nuanced culture, one of her first tasks, similar to that of many Peace Corps Volunteers, was to build a successful relationship with her host family. Of that experience, Grant notes, “I was so grateful for everything I had learned and taught about human behavior and the social environment and intercultural relations and dynamics. But what we know can only get us so far as Peace Corps Volunteers, the key to successful service is setting that as background, and as foreground our focus is to listen and learn from the communities we live and work in, their culture, priorities, hopes and dreams.” And, before she knew it, Grant was seated on the floor in her Cambodian host family’s modest village home, watching an afternoon Korean soap opera dubbed in Khmer language at the feet of her host mother.

After her 27-month service, Grant returned to her professorship at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. She was there for two semesters when she received the call asking her to continue her public service career as the Peace Corps’ Country Director in Mongolia. In this position, Grant was the most senior Peace Corps representative in the country, responsible for leading diplomatic and representational relationships with host government leaders and the U.S. Ambassador to the inviting country. Additionally, she was responsible for programming and staffing, which ensured the training, health, safety, and meaningful work of Volunteers throughout their service. She regards the job of Country Director as a humbling, exciting, and heavy responsibility.

Darlene grant with students in Cambodia
After Volunteering in Cambodia, Darlene Grant went on to be a Peace Corps country director and is now a senior advisor to the director at Peace Corps headquarters..

Being a Peace Corps Country Director led to many memorable experiences, especially when it came to meeting the goals of the countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve. Grant recalls, “Standing side by side, and at one point arm-in-arm, with the President of [Kosovo] at that time...[talking] about the value of bridging cultural, language, and other differences to reach Kosovo’s goals for English education in communities where paying for English tutors and special classes was outside family and community resources. [It] was one of the proudest moments in my time as a Peace Corps Country Director.” Being Peace Corps director allowed Grant to see firsthand how the people-to-people approach of Peace Corps forges connections between Volunteers and local communities.

Now, as Senior Advisor to the Director at Peace Corps headquarters, Grant notes that when it comes to Peace Corps service, learning a host country's language, both figuratively and literally, eating their food, and participating in daily activities and occasional customs, and problem solving while navigating our differences, is an essential part of service, which also helped her succeed in the federal government.

“I am not surprised, but immensely honored and proud that my personal history plus my social work ethos, training, [and] working experience enabled a style and approach to leadership that resonated so positively with Peace Corps staff and Volunteers.”

Service is an ever-changing, evolving act and word and Dr. Grant continues encouraging others to live out their definition of what service means to them. However one defines service, it is not about self. Service requires a focus on listening, empathizing, and engaging with others who come from very different backgrounds and systems of belief. For Grant, it is the ability to put yourself in the background and co-create opportunities for change, pathways for better, and freedom from what is holding people back.