The 2023 Franklin H. Williams Awards honors diversity and civic engagement

March 27, 2023

The Franklin H. Williams Awards ceremony was held on March 1 at Washington, D.C.’s Planet Word Museum. The awards were established in 1999 to recognize returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) of diverse backgrounds who have promoted a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans. In addition, each group of awards includes a Director’s Award given to one non-RPCV who shows deep commitment to peace through acts of civic engagement, social action, and responsible citizenship.

"Franklin H. Williams Award honorees demonstrate what is possible when bold leadership is combined with optimism, vision and heart,” said Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn. “The Peace Corps is honored to recognize these 2023 Williams Awards recipients – they challenge us all to see what is possible when the call for social justice leads to action."

Franklin H. Williams Award recipients

There were three Franklin H. Williams Award recipients in 2023. Terrell J. Starr is a journalist who served in Georgia from 2003 to ’05. Starr was in Kyiv in 2022 when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began and he produced live, on-the-ground video stories for television networks.

“I want to thank the people of Ukraine. When this war started, I was deeply embraced, I was with territorial defense members, and they took care of me. It was my Peace Corps experience that positioned me to live and work in Ukraine through this evil and unnecessary war,” he said at the ceremony.

Rob Watson Jr., the second awardee, is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and served in Paraguay from 2010 to 2013. Upon completion of his Peace Corps service in Paraguay, he spent more than four years living and working in Paraguay, where he went on to co-found five civil society organizations.

“My purpose was linked to my community's purpose. To the people of Paraguay, my lifelong [Peace Corps] friends, and the amazing staff of Paraguay, I can never repay you for what you have invested in me, I can only hope to see the civic rights of passage open up the doors to those coming behind me, and we are just getting started,” he said.

Judith Oki, who served in Liberia from 1971 to 1973 as a teacher was the third awardee. Today, Oki provides organizational development services. As Oki lived and worked in several southern African countries during the anti-apartheid struggle, opening the Peace Corps South Africa program as a staff member was a career highlight.

“My participation in the Peace Corps was life-changing, I was encouraged to explore more of my history and culture. As I look into the future, I see an incredible role for volunteers of color who can bring experience and richness as we tackle global issues of climate change, natural disasters, and pandemics,” she said.

Emerging Leaders Award winners

Two individuals received the Franklin H. Williams Emerging Leaders Award, which recognizes returned Volunteers under 35. Nicole Banister, who served in South Africa from 2013 to 2016, was one of two awardees. She is an internationally recognized television show host, presenter, and emcee.

“I am here today because the Peace Corps recognizes that diverse voices matter and they are absolutely critical to ensuring that the U.S. government, its people, and its sovereignty are representative of the world writ large, and the world writ large looks like me. Thank you to Peace Corps South Africa for this incredible recognition,” she said.

Lavar Thomas, an environmental justice coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who served in Rwanda from 2014 to 2016 received this award, too.

“Peace Corps service taught me two valuable lessons: First, my service was not about me. Second, representation matters, representation of diverse experiences, perspectives, and voices. During my service, I would teach workshops on diversity and racism to students in Rwanda. I wanted to challenge the narratives they had about Black America, and how they saw themselves, and rewrite a narrative of what was possible, contrary to what the media said about them,” he said.

The Director’s Award recipient

Charlayne Hunter Gault was the Director’s Award winner and keynote speaker. Hunter-Gault earned two Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards — the first for her work on “Apartheid's People,” a PBS NewsHour series about South African life during apartheid, the second for her work in Africa for NPR. Having more than 50 years in the industry, she spoke of her early days and friendship with Franklin J. Williams.

“I was a new reporter in New York, and I was learning a lot from Franklin [Williams]. The history I had been taught helped me in covering people of all color and sexes. I witnessed firsthand the work of the Peace Corps that I heard about from Franklin,” she said in her address. “The work they did and results they achieved contributed to the theme in one of my books, ‘New News Out of Africa.’ The theme was, there is more to Africa then how it is generally covered. Africa continues to be covered in terms of the four Ds: death, disease, disaster, and despair. I never saw any conflict in being a journalist and a drum major for justice. Many of the stories I covered through the prism of justice, equality, and respect for the rights of all,” she said.

The award recipients paid tribute to the legacy of Franklin H. Williams, a former Peace Corps regional director for Africa. Williams served as an advisor to Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver, and advanced racial justice throughout his life. The winners embody his spirit of equality and civic engagement.