A Conversation with Aaron Williams in Honor of Black History Month

February 28, 2022 By Liz Schrayer

As Black History Month comes to a close, I am honored to highlight a new book, “A Life Unimagined” written by a dear friend and former USGLC Board member, Aaron Williams, who served as the first African American male to lead the Peace Corps asDirector from 2009 to 2012. Aaron is not only a proud former Peace Corps volunteer, having served in the Dominican Republic in 1967, but he dedicated his career as a foreign service officer at USAID for 22 years. After his tenure as the Director of the Peace Corps, Aaron served as Executive Vice President of the International Development Group with RTI International, a nonprofit research corporation and a long-time partner of USGLC. He received numerous honors over his distinguished career, including being awarded emeritus status by RTI in 2018 in recognition of his dedicated career in public service.

The following is an excerpt from a wonderful conversation I had with Aaron Williams about his inspiring new book and his distinguished career.

Liz: You recently wrote a powerful book, “A Life Unimagined,” capturing your life’s journey. What led you to write this book?   

Aaron: In writing this book/memoir I had two goals: first, I wanted to inspire young students to consider a career in global affairs, especially minorities, people of color, who are still unrepresented overall in our foreign affairs agencies and in international development organizations overall. Second, it was my desire to leave a legacy for my five grandsons: a book about our family and my career, seen through my eyes and in my words.

Liz: What inspired you to dedicate your life to public service, and specifically to a career in the foreign service? 

Aaron: I was a geography major in college, and fascinated about the world and foreign cultures. Although very young during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, I had heard some of his speeches about the Peace Corps, and I was intrigued by this opportunity to serve my country, to live in a new culture, and to learn a new language.

When I decided to join the Peace Corps, it was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken in my life. I was the first college graduate in my working-class family, and they were fearful for me, taking this step into the “unknown,” plus as a “volunteer.” Fortunately, my mother thought it was a marvelous idea, and my Peace Corps Volunteer service (PCV) in the Dominican Republic (DR) transformed my life, in unimaginable ways.

I had just turned 20 years old, and I was tested right away, by being assigned to serve as a teacher trainer of a group of Dominican teachers much older than me. After two years of successful service, and now fluent in Spanish, I had the unique opportunity to extend for a third year, as an instructor at the DR’s premier university, the Catholic University. Interestingly, the Dean of the College of Education, my boss, a dynamic leader and Jesuit priest, had been the head master of the high school that Fidel Castro had attended in Cuba. USAID’s program to support the Catholic University program was a great success story, and I had a front-row seat — a tremendous introduction to the organization where I would subsequently spend 22 glorious years.

Liz: This month we celebrate Black History Month. What message would you deliver to young people of color considering careers in the foreign service and looking to follow the example you have set?

Aaron: I served as a USAID foreign service officer for 22 years, as both a mission director and senior official at headquarters.  I’ve worked in every region of the world, and as a leader at both USAID and the Peace Corps, it’s always been a distinct honor to represent the United States.

As an African-American, I am a direct beneficiary of the civil rights movement, and stand on the shoulders of those who sacrificed their blood, sweat, and tears in fighting for the monumental changes that opened up opportunities for black and brown people across our country, and specifically in the U.S. Foreign Service.

However, as has been reported widely in the media, and discussed broadly by foreign policy and national security organizations, and progressive advocacy groups, the continuing lack of diversity must be addressed, and as characterized by some, “it’s clear that the failure to diversify senior positions in our foreign affairs agencies undermines U.S. credibility abroad.”

To this point, we must call on the U.S. foreign affairs agencies to rise to this challenge, and seize this moment to demonstrate leadership in pursuing broad-based policies and programs that will promote diversity and social justice in both headquarters and American embassies around the world.  We must invest in the diverse human capital of the future that will reflect the true face of our country.

I now see a renewed effort by the State Department and USAID to build a foreign service that looks like the America it represents. So my message is: we need your talent, and there are initiatives underway in the agencies that will enthusiastically welcome you into their ranks.

Liz: What did you take away from your experiences as Director of the Peace Corps and as a Peace Corps volunteer – what you have indicated were among your proudest accomplishments – and how have they impacted the rest of your professional career? 

Aaron: My service as a PCV transformed my life, and set the stage for me to become a global executive in three sectors: business, government, and the non-profit world. Then, to come full circle, lead the Peace Corps; serving in the historic Obama-Biden administration was an honor and privilege. What a magnificent opportunity it was to lead this iconic American institution that promotes world peace and friendship.

I am very proud of what we accomplished during my tenure at the Peace Corps. This would include:  some of the most significant policy and operational reforms in its more than 50-year history that set the stage for a major increase in funding, and, in the process, offered hundreds of young Americans the opportunity to serve their country. Further, we opened 5 new country programs in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and created new partnerships with other presidential programs, e.g.: PEPFAR and PMI.  We celebrated Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary – providing a platform for America and the world to join us in celebrating 50 years of promoting global peace and friendship, and our senior staff traveled to 15 countries, 20 states, and 28 cities in 2011.

One noteworthy initiative led to the creation of a new type of volunteer by joining forces with

Dr. Eric Goosby, then head of PEPFAR, and Dr. Vanessa Kerry, the founder of the Global Health Service Corps (now called Seed Global Heath). We formed a unique public-private partnership that provided experienced doctors and nurses to serve as faculty in teaching hospitals in Africa.

Liz: How would you inspire young people considering a career in public service, but concerned about the volatility of today’s world?

Aaron: In these momentous times of great uncertainty and great complexity, there is also great opportunity for those who want to serve. When I speak to students and young professionals about public service, I urge them to take on new challenges, step out of their comfort zone and take calculated risks. I believe this approach leads to tremendous personal growth, allows one to pursue one’s passion, and can result in amazing career opportunities.

In this vein, the Peace Corps is a marvelous platform for a young person to develop leadership skills and resilience experience early in their life, and this experience will be essential for a successful career.

A wise foreign policy expert once told me that “one of the reasons Peace Corps is so successful is that it is premised on putting individuals in dynamic situations for relatively short durations where their individuality is the institutional action lane. . . . It is absolutely unique among governmental institutions, and these individuals often bring creativity, dynamism, and positive development outcomes.”

Just as my generation was called on to serve by President Kennedy, this new generation is challenged once again to rise to the occasion. I am convinced, as I witnessed in the Peace Corps of the twenty-first century, that young people now embarking on their new careers will continue to harness the enthusiasm, skills, and talents required to serve America and the world.

Liz: After a distinguished career spent in public service, starting with your days as a Peace Corps volunteer over 50 years ago, how has your view of America’s role in the world evolved and what are your hopes for the next 50 years?

Aaron: During my career, I have seen the evolution of America’s role in the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the rise of globalization, and the emergence of China as a rival world power. America is no longer the sole superpower, and as Tom Friedman described in his book on globalization, “The World Is Flat”, we are interconnected as never before due to technology shortening the distance between countries, and its corresponding impact on our society in terms of global business and trade, diplomacy, global health, etc.

In response this new reality, America must continue to develop a diverse cohort of leaders, across all sectors, who possess a global mindset and who have multi-country and multicultural experiences. I remain optimistic about America’s will and determination to achieve this, because I have had the pleasure of seeing talented young professionals in foreign affairs agencies, global corporations, and global NGOs who have the skill and dogged determination to make a difference in our world. This coupled with their expanding experience will no doubt assure America’s global leadership in the future.