Telling the Story of the Past, Present, and Future of the Peace Corps

ounded during the Cold War, the Peace Corps stands as an icon of American idealism. From the beginning its mission of world peace and friendship proved to be a towering task. Imbued with the unbounded energy and vision of its charismatic leader, Sargent Shriver, and thousands of vigorous volunteers, the story of the Peace Corps is a uniquely American tale. From the political machinations to establish not just a brand new government agency, but a new concept in international relations, to the growing pains of an agency striving to define its mission, A Towering Task takes viewers on a journey of what it means to be a global citizen.

Host country nationals, Peace Corps Volunteers and staff, and scholars and journalists take a closer look at peace building, economic development, and political independence through the Peace Corps’ nearly six decades of trials and transformations. Today Peace Corps volunteers serve in over 60 countries and more than 220,000 have returned since 1961, but America is reevaluating how to engage with the rest of the world. With government agency budgets under fire, increased nationalistic tendencies in America, and Peace Corps Volunteers at the forefront of some of the most pressing themes facing the global community, A Towering Task asks: What role should the Peace Corps play in the 21st century?

If you have come to help, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson
 
 
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n 2013, after a community screening of our documentary about conservationist Aldo Leopold (Green Fire), the team that had also produced The Greatest Good, a public television documentary on the 100-year history of the U.S. Forest Service, found in casual conversation that, in addition to being documentary filmmakers, three members of our team were returned Peace Corps volunteers. So, naturally we started discussing the possibility of a big-picture documentary about the Peace Corps: Had it been done? Would there be an audience for it? Could it be funded? And while we found that the answer to the first question was a surprising ‘no,’ we believed that the other two questions could be answered with a resounding yes.  And so we embarked on this journey of telling an important story of American citizenship and the global community.

Since then we have visited three countries: Liberia, the Dominican Republic, and Ukraine as a sample of Peace Corps countries. On the ground we interviewed Volunteers and staff, scholars and journalists, community leaders and community members. We have gathered interviews across the US with icons of the Peace Corps community, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from across the globe, former and current staff, as well as scholars and journalists.

We are working feverishly to assemble these important voices, the treasure trove of archival materials, music, graphics, and narration into the story of the Peace Corps. It is our hope that this footage will both preserve the legacy of the Peace Corps and inspire a national discourse about our world community.

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By thoughtfully telling the story of the Peace Corps’ past and present, and then taking a look at its future, we want to equip the American public to redefine what it means for America to join the world community - not as a wager of war, but as a peacemaker and problem solver.
— Alana DeJoseph, Director
 
 
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Looking Forward

 

Towering Task will be widely distributed nationally and internationally. Broadcast, streaming, and community screenings will make up the backbone of distribution. However, we are also developing in parallel a lesson plan, so we can take the story of the Peace Corps into the history, political science, sociology, global studies, and economics departments of universities and colleges across the country.We are aiming to set up at least one screening in each of the 141 countries where the Peace Corps served. And, most importantly, we want to bring the Peace Corps back into the American discourse, not as a dream from ages past, but as a real, tangible effort that allows all of us to reevaluate who we as American and as global citizens are. 

 
A child watches filming beside a microphone stand in Liberia.

A child watches filming beside a microphone stand in Liberia.

 
 
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A Tribute to Kenya I

 
The Kenya I team before leaving the US.

The Kenya I team before leaving the US.

 
 

n December 31, 1964, the 36 members of Kenya I arrived in Nairobi to work in Kenya’s land settlement program. From the start of training at the University of Wisconsin three months earlier we were a close-knit group that was mindful of our large task. Our assignment was to aid a Government of Kenya program that was a key companion to the political independence Kenya had obtained in December 1963, namely, the transfer of a million acres of farmland in the Central Highlands from European to African ownership, coupled with assistance to help make this an economic success for the thousands of settlers and for Kenya as a whole.

In the years since leaving Kenya we’ve lost seven of our colleagues: Tom Bruyneel, Larry Eickworth, Tom Giddings, John Grier, Roland Johnson, Dave Kuhn, and Ann Mohan. Confident they would share our conviction of the importance of A Towering Task in telling the history of the Peace Corps, not only to honor the past but also to inspire the future, we have pooled a contribution to aid in the completion of the film.

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