A TOWERING TASK: A Peace Corps Documentary (Alana DeJoseph, Producer & Director)
Republic of Mali, West Africa, 1993. Twenty-three year old Alana DeJoseph followed the village midwife through the African night with only a kerosene lantern to light winding paths leading to a small, round, mud hut where a young Malian woman reclined stoically. Inexperienced, scared, and resolute, Alana did more than show up as a Peace Corps volunteer; she was a woman crossing a cultural bridge during one of the most unifying times in women’s lives: childbirth.
With over 220,000 chosen Americans having invested their youthful idealism and fine minds in the Towering Task of Peace since 1961, this snapshot of the Peace Corps experience is one of millions shared by a declining number of souls who call the Peace Corps the most profound and transformative experience of their lives. New graduates brimming with potential, they thought they would change the world; by Peace Corps design, the world changed them.
In response to the Cold War threat and a race for global favoritism over Russia, the Peace Corps was founded by John F. Kennedy, Jr. as an international cultural bridge, particularly among developing countries lacking infrastructure and vulnerable to oppression. The Camelot ideal of peace was a beacon of hope for an increasingly cynical youth of America, including young Alana.
From a perch of relative privilege, Alana attended Washington and Lee University, an environment at the time more dedicated to educating young business leaders and lawyers than searching for new approaches to peace. Yet a passionate business school professor noticed her shining eyes as he described engagement in the world, not as a periphery concept, but at the core of living a fully expressed life. He suggested the Peace Corps, and Alana, like so many of her American compatriots, applied for the ride of their lives.
Since it’s inception, the Peace Corps has served in 141 countries, many of which have become stable global citizens and US allies, Superpowers and peace brokers. They’ve led the charge on global initiatives like food security, disease treatment and prevention, and gender equity. These efforts went on to have an even greater impact through educated leadership: In Africa alone, Peace Corps volunteers were the initial teachers to twelve students who went on to become top political leaders. In the face of opposing messages, their personal experience of the United States afforded unprecedented understanding and connectedness, and a shared vision of collaboration and peace.
Although difficult to measure in facts and figures, the global impact of the Peace Corps is overwhelming. For fifty-five years volunteers have been striving to meet three main goals: Meet the need for trained men and women in developing countries; promote an accurate and accessible view of Americans throughout the world; and illuminate generations of Americans on the universality of the human experience among all peoples, regardless of race, religion, and geography.
But if you ask a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) how the experience impacted their lives, invariably they tell stories of knowledge transformed into wisdom, western idealism transformed into humility, and above all, a deep connection and grace that bridges cultures to this day. Now awakened world citizens, they embody a loyalty to humanity while identifying as Americans, and they take their roles as engaged “super citizen” to heart.
As a celebrated documentarian with a powerful journalistic ethic, Alana has become a steward, archivist, and catalyst for the Peace Corps, a role she considers sacred and urgent. To RPCVs, including Alana, the marginalization in the past several years of the Peace Corps is a form of blasphemy and a reflection of fading ideals; the overwhelming response among returned volunteers has been “Not on my watch.” Within this community is a fierce determination to see the Peace Corps remain relevant and vital on the international stage and in the intimacy of the informed American dining room.
For Alana, that has taken the form of producing and directing an unprecedented landmark documentary not only as a vehicle to create a baseline history of one of the greatest global emissaries of peace in history, including capturing the early voices before they fade away, but to usher in a new era of possibility in today’s context. With countless opportunities already squandered, the stakes are staggeringly high.
To warriors like Alana DeJoseph, the global leaders she has assembled, and Americans who care about how we show up in the world, the call to action is clear and urgent: Keep the Peace Corps relevant on the world stage by honoring its iconic past, while ushering in a New Era of Possibility.