Remarks by Peace Corps Director Mark L. Schneider at Send Off of first Peace Corps Volunteers of the 21st Century
January 17, 2000Monday, January 17, 2000 Miami, Florida
It is a pleasure for me to be with all of you as you prepare to embark on what I am confident will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your lives: serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in El Salvador and Bolivia.
You also mark a series of important firsts. You are the first group of Volunteers that I will be sending off as Director of the Peace Corps. Even more impressive, you are the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers of the 21st century.
Given my own involvement with in Latin America—starting with my own service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador with my wife in 1966—I am especially happy to be in Miami to convey my best wishes to all of you.
I can sense the excitement, the spirit of enthusiasm, and maybe a few butterflies fluttering in a few stomachs. Believe me, I know how you feel. Even though my departure for El Salvador took place more than 30 years ago, I can still recall the feeling of expectation and venturing into the unknown that my wife and I experienced on that day. So while I know it is easy for me to say, relax a little. Enjoy it.
Let me begin by saying what I think is most important for the Director of the Peace Corps to say to a group of people who are about to begin their service as Peace Corps Volunteers: Thank you.
Thank you for making the decision to devote two years of your life to help people in the cities, barrios, and rural areas of El Salvador and Bolivia develop their communities and build better lives for their children.
Thank you for your willingness to leave your families and friends here at home to go abroad, learn a new language, immerse yourself in a different culture, and contribute to poverty reduction and development. In the process, I guarantee that you will build friendships with people that will often last a lifetime.
There are many things I could say about what lies ahead. But first, let me tell you that the countries you are departing for are wonderful places to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers. You will be glad to know that you have many predecessors: 2,271 Volunteers have served in Bolivia, and 1,560 Volunteers have served in El Salvador. I have traveled to Bolivia a half dozen times and to El Salvador far more frequently. They are incredibly interesting places that are filled with extraordinary people who, I am sure, will welcome you into their communities and make you members of their families.
The people, cultures, histories of El Salvador and Bolivia are unique in many ways. I know that one of the most interesting, challenging, and memorable parts of your time as Peace Corps Volunteers will be the process of learning about them and adapting to them.
In El Salvador, you are traveling to a country in which the memories of a generation-long civil conflict still are vivid and painful. The President elected this past year, Francisco Flores, is only the second in the country's history to be chosen in an election in which all sectors of the political spectrum freely participated. The rural areas where many of you will serve in water and sanitation programs are areas that less than a decade ago were the site of guerrilla and military combat.
Yet today, the leaders of all groups are working on the basic underlying issues of development. President Flores has embraced a more participatory process of defining government policy in his seven months in office than any of his recent predecessors.
Perhaps the magnitude of the changes is best shown by the following anecdote. When I traveled with President Clinton to El Salvador last spring in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, he addressed the National Assembly. At one point, he commended the country for coming together, regardless of political ideology, to confront the issues of poverty and to choose reconciliation as the path to the future. The soon-to-be Presidentrancisco Flores joined in a spontaneous standing applause from the audience. And to my surprise, simrancisco Flores joined in a spontaneous standing applause from the audience. And to my surprise, simultaneously, the former FMLN guerrilla leaders of decades, now either members of Parliament or political officials, came to their feet applauding. The common response was astonishing.
Yet poverty and inequity remain widespread. And the question for democratic government is how to extend the benefits of development quickly enough to the people to outpace rising expectations and frustration.
In Bolivia, the percentage living in extreme poverty is even higher and the contradictions are perhaps more intense. But the natural resource basis is far richer. Many of you will be working closely with communities of indigenous peoples. Their involvement in the life of the nation, economic, social and political, remains Bolivia's foremost challenge. Two years ago, on my last trip, I saw a truly positive process of decentralization underway—called "participacion popular". And while initiated by the previous government, the current government has retained it. While it has some flaws, it is a watershed in the national life of the country because in community after community, it means that indigenous peoples are electing their own municipal leaders and engaging with them in how to meet local needs.
But if there is one thing that El Salvador and Bolivia share in common it is that the people of both countries have a sense of legitimate pride and dignity about who they are. As you will see and learn, even in the face of deep poverty and, in some cases, tragic histories, the people of these countries have maintained their individual identities and their cultural heritage.
I think this is something that you will come to appreciate in the months and years ahead, and I know it is something that you, as a citizen of this country, can learn from.
I also know that you will be stunned how you become the United States for your communities. In some cases, you will be their only experience ever with an American. In others, you will be their only real-life alternative vision to what filters through mass media.
Let me give you one example. In the barrio where we lived in June l968, we had gone to sleep after hearing enough of the results of the California Democratic Primary to know that Robert Kennedy had won. We were awakened at dawn, by a knock at the door, from the leader of the community council, to extend his condolences at the death of Robert F. Kennedy. We lived in a barrio of 3000 people. All day, I truly believe nearly every family in our community came to pay their respects and extend their sympathies. For our community, we were the only way they could express their sorrow to the people of the United States.
Each of you has made what I know is an important and difficult decision, and one that you considered carefully. Your decision to join the Peace Corps says a great deal about you and about your commitment to service. You are part of a special organization that has earned the trust, respect, and admiration of many people here in the States and around the world.
The development work that you will be doing will often be frustrating and exhausting—that's why we call the Peace Corps the toughest job you'll ever love. But your work in helping the people of these countries develop their communities—whether it involves the environment, agriculture, health, or water and sanitation—will rewarding. It will be rewarding because it will make a difference in the lives of ordinary people, even if it takes a while to realize it. And it will be rewarding because it definitely will make a difference in your lives.
My service as a Volunteer continues to influence me in many ways. It influences the way I look at the world and the way I look at myself. It strengthened my values, my interests, and my career. It changed my life and my wife's.
I great pride in my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. And as the new Director of the Peace Corps, great pride in my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. And as the new Director of the Peace Corps, I want you to know how proud I am of you for making the decision to become a part of the Peace Corps' great legacy of service.
Once you have completed your training and get settled in at your sites, I hope that you will take a few moments from time to time and drop me a letter or an E-mail if that is possible and let me know how things are going. I will be most interested to hear from you, and it will help me do my job—which is to support you and the other 7,000 Volunteers in the field—better.
I also hope that you will become active partners in the World Wise Schools program to engage teachers and students in the United States in a dialogue about development and the developing world throughout your Peace Corps Volunteer experience.
I hope you all will find ways to become pen pals or e-mail pals with students and teachers in high schools and junior high schools in your home towns and in other towns as well. You can become a vital partner in preparing the next generation of potential Volunteers, even as you carry out our own service.
Now let me ask you do something even more important. Your biographies show clearly that you have taken the initiative and responsibility for your lives in a host of ways. Let me just say the following. Regardless how well the Peace Corps has helped to create the environment for you to succeed, whether in relation to your site, your assignment, your training, or your counterparts, you have enormous range to act to make these next two years satisfying, successful and important to your community and to yourselves. You may discover that in your secondary assignments or to make your primary assignments succeed more, you can develop initiatives that others did not think about. Make it happen. You will have my support and, I'm sure, the support of your staff as well.
Let me also say that, with regard to your health, your safety and your well-being, your own decisions are the most important of all. I want to stress that although many of you have traveled a great deal and engaged in different kinds of similar experiences, the next two years will be unique in a host of ways.
And everything that makes it exciting—-a different culture, knowing that you are working with the poorest sectors of a society, and the most difficultÐto-reach parts of a country, also presents new risks and dangers. All I ask is that you use your intelligence and your awareness, your street smarts and savvy, to reduce the risks, not increase them. There used to be a television program, Hill Street Blues, where the opening scene ended with the Sergeant saying, "Be careful, it's dangerous out there."
And it is. But it is also where some of the most caring, impressive and wonderful people you will ever meet, live, work and struggle to achieve better lives for themselves and for their families.
Robert F. Kennedy used to say as he was campaigning for the presidency that, "Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream of things that never were and say, why not."
I want you to ask yourselves, your staff, and your counter-parts, "Why not?" in helping the people in the communities you serve to achieve their dreams for themselves and their families.
So, again, I congratulate you on being selected as Peace Corps Volunteers. I thank you for volunteering. And I wish you the very best over the next two years.