Rolling Out

David White on Peace Corps’ role in global diplomacy and the power of service

Deputy Director of the Peace Corps, David White, shares insights on the importance of diversity in service and the vast opportunities for young African Americans in international affairs.

David E. White Jr. is the 14th Deputy Director of the Peace Corps. He was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 20, 2023, and sworn in by Director Carol Spahn on Dec. 29.

White most recently served as Senior Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources at the U.S. Department of State. Prior to joining the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President in the White House Presidential Personnel Office (PPO). Earlier in the Biden-Harris Administration, White served on the National Security Council as Senior Advisor to the White House Coordinator for Operation Allies Welcome, where he facilitated whole-of-government efforts to provide housing, health care, education, employment, and other resources at scale for nearly 90,000 Afghan allies resettled in the United States.

An attorney by training, White joined the Biden-Harris Administration as Deputy Associate Counsel in PPO after serving on the Biden-Harris Transition Team. White began his career in public service as a cavalry officer in the U.S. Army. He served on active duty in a variety of domestic and overseas assignments, including as a Scout Platoon Leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom from 2011 to 2012. After being wounded in combat, White served as second-in-command of the Warrior Transition Unit at West Point, where he coordinated care for other wounded, ill, and injured service members. His military awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, and Combat Action Badge.

White is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and earned his law degree, cum laude, from Harvard Law School. After law school, he clerked for Judge Paul J. Watford of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and later practiced law at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York City. Born and raised in New York’s Hudson Valley, White lives in Washington, D.C.

He had a chance to converse with rolling out‘s publisher and CEO, Munson Steed, and their conversation follows here:

Munson Steed: Hey, ladies and gentlemen, this is Munson Steed, and welcome to rolling out, A Seat at the Table. What does it mean to be at a seat at the table, be able to impact the community, the world, and beyond. I am so proud to have the deputy director of the Peace Corps, my dear brother, David White, how are you?

David White: Well, I’m doing fantastic. Munson, first of all, let me say, thank you for having me here today. It’s a real privilege to be sitting down with a legend like you, I mean, under your leadership, rolling out has helped move black culture in a positive way. So, I appreciate that and it’s great to be here today.

MS: Well, thanks for that. Culture, young people, purpose, the Peace Corps clearly has a tradition of that, but many may not know the value proposition that it offers both to their career and to their purpose. How can you share just some insights if you will? That we should assume our seat at the table at the Peace Corps.

DW: Absolutely. I appreciate that. So, we’ve got to have a seat at the table. We’ve got to have a seat at every table, and that looks like foreign policy, international affairs and being evolved as a global citizen. That’s what it means to be a part of the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps has a long legacy and an exciting future. President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 as an international service agency, and now, at the invitation of governments, volunteers work with community members in education, health, environment, agriculture, community economic development and youth development. 

We have a global network of volunteers, staff and community members who are driven by that mission of world peace and friendship. And now, we’ve got more than 240,000 Americans who have served in 143 countries. So, when we talk about black and brown people being at the table, we’re talking about US ambassadors who started their career as Peace Corps Volunteers. We’re talking about folks who are in the Congress, in both the House and Senate who started their careers as Peace Corps volunteers. There are few better ways of being a Peace Corps volunteer to be able to get involved and really have an impact in the world.

MS: If you were giving a speech right there at Howard, or going down to Morehouse, or Fisk or Spelman, and you were gonna give a graduation speech, what would the title of that speech be? And what would you challenge them to do as it relates to having a role in bringing peace and diplomacy to the world?

DW: Absolutely. Well, first of all, I would tell you that the speech would probably be second of President Biden’s speech, because he’s speaking at Morehouse here soon. So, mine would probably be second-best to that one. But here’s what I would talk about: The Peace Corps is not idealistic. The Peace Corps was formed in 1961 on a simple yet boldly profound question. That question was, would Americans be willing to go abroad, live in some of the most rural communities for two years? Work in partnership with people with very different lived experiences from their own, while learning the language, embracing their cultures, to build bridges of understanding to further our mission world peace and friendship. 

So, more than six decades later, we know the answer to that question. It has been and continues to be an overwhelming “yes.” So, year after year, decade after decade, more than like, we said, 240,000 people stood up to serve this great cause, changing forever not only the way that Americans see the world, but also the way in which the world looks at America. So, today, we’ve got thousands of volunteers continuing this great tradition and ensuring we have a great future too. And they’re furthering our mission, one individual interaction at a time as they live and work side by side with the communities they serve. 

And I believe I would tell that Commencement audience, we are at a decisive moment in world history. We’re facing a lot of challenges. We’ve got global conflict and wars. Now more than ever, it’s important that we’re working on peace and friendship. We’ve also got the largest generation of youth in history coming of age right now, and they’re taking their place among global leaders. Today, we’ve got about 1.2 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24 across the planet. And nearly 90% of them, 90% are living in low income and developing countries. 

And let’s talk about Africa for a minute. The median age across Africa today is just 19 years old. And by the year 2050, 1 in 4 people in the world will be living in Africa. So, now some people look at these demographic trends, Munson, and they think, “Well, this is a challenge that has to be confronted.” But here at the Peace Corps, we see that as an opportunity to be embraced. We see that as an opportunity to work with the leaders of today and tomorrow to develop skills and pursue opportunities that stem the tide of irregular migration, that gives a chance for folks to invest in their own communities. 

And we work with partners to ensure that we’re bringing a brighter future for everyone. So, I know it’s not going to be easy, but I would tell these folks who want to get out there after they’re graduating from college, that life begins at the end of your comfort zone, and so you got to jump right in there, take it by the horns, and there’s no greater way than to do that with Peace Corps and serve somewhere in the world doing fantastic work.

MS: Just for some career insights, what are two or three skill sets that you think young people who choose this opportunity at the Peace Corps can actually benefit from? You have all the skills, you could be anywhere in the country … why is service so important to us? And why we should be in these spaces, taking up these spaces to meet and to grow these countries in Africa that need to see young African American leaders and create those friendships for our lifetime?

DW: Absolutely. So, we are really fortunate being Americans, in the sense that no matter what country with whom we go to a negotiating table, or whom we go to to negotiate a treaty with, or some multilateral agreement, we can field a diplomat from that country, who’s from that diaspora living here in the United States. Whether we’re working with the People’s Republic of China, or we’re working with Mexico, or we’re working with the UK, we have someone who came from that place, whose family is from that place, because we are indeed a nation of immigrants. 

And so, that is the strength of America and the Peace Corps, that diversity, that lived experience that we’re able to bring to bear. On your question specifically on why the Peace Corps and the types of things folks are going to be able to get from it. I would tell you first off, adaptive leadership skills. It is a huge opportunity to basically learn a language in those first 3 months, because Peace Corps Service is really a 27-month commitment. It’s three months of pre-service training where you’re learning the language, learning the people you’re going to be working with, and really getting integrated into your community. 

And then in those two years, you’re working on the language, you’re getting to know your neighbors, you’re getting to know that community rolling up your sleeves, and folks often tell me that first year after pre-service training. That’s the year that’s toughest, because you’re trying to master the language, you’re getting to know people. And then, when that second year comes around, you just don’t have enough time to finish everything that you wanted to do. So, we have many Peace Corps volunteers that actually end up extending. They do another year, because the work that they’re working on it’s just so important. 

What makes the Peace Corps unique is that since we started we’ve been dedicated to working on shared development priorities. That means we don’t parachute into a country and tell that country. Hey, here’s what you need to do to develop. No, we’re an empathetic listening partner, we show up and say, How can we help support you? How can we work side by side? Tell us what you need? And so, whether that’s education focused on English language learning, whether that’s ensuring that we’re mitigating the effects of climate change, whether that’s community economic development and helping to train the next generation of entrepreneurs. We’re here to do that. 

I would also tell you that Peace Corps volunteers are overrepresented in the State Department, in the Millennium Challenge corporation, at USAID, and so many other agencies in government. Because they recognize the Peace Corps as a fantastic steppingstone to be able to get into a career in public service, but I’d also tell you it can be immensely helpful if you want to go into business. Reed Hastings, the CEO and founder of Netflix, was a Peace Corps volunteer, serving in the Peace Corps. So, there is every opportunity available to young people who want to serve their country abroad, and they should consider doing it through the Peace Corps.

MS: Lastly, just why you’ve chosen. This wasn’t something you had to do. For those young people who, from West Point to Harvard. you chose a road of service. Why is serving our country important for all of us to understand, and particularly the black community? Those who want to leave Chicago, or those who want to go and see? Take Detroit and now see the world. But why did you choose to serve your country?

DW: Thanks for that, Munson. I would kind of circle back to what you said before. It’s about having a seat at the table. By serving the country and being a Black or brown person, and doing that, you have a seat at the table. You can ensure that your community is not left behind. Now me, I’m a third-generation military veteran. DNA, it’s imprinted. The service is really imprinted on my DNA. My dad served in the Army, a grandfather in the Navy. My brother also went to West Point. He also serves in government, so I’ve got a brother-in-law, and my sister supported him in the Marine Corps. 

So, we’re a military family. but it’s beyond the military. It’s really about public service at the end of the day. I believe America is great. It provides great promise. We have a great vision when it comes to the American dream. But there’s always going to be that gap between what we aspire to be, as a people, as a country, in who we are at any given moment. And our job is to be able to close that gap little by little, to be able to make today’s America better reflect that promise that was made so many years ago. And it takes a diverse set of folks with lived experience to really get there. 

So, I take my experience growing up in New York, in the Hudson Valley, being part of the military, when I was leading troops in Afghanistan. Being a lawyer, having graduated from Harvard Law School, being a law clerk, working at everything from death penalty appeals to matters of bankruptcy, and also having practice law and a corporate firm in New York City. 

I take all those different experiences, you know, as a black man on top of that, and I bring that to bear every day, and how I can support my Government to fulfill that promise that we’ve made to the American people, all people. And so, I think of the Peace Corps as being an inclusive environment for everyone to serve. I talk about the Peace Corps as being America’s Agency, and I would love to see more Black and brown folks signing up and serving with the Peace Corps.

MS: Well, I want to thank you for coming on A Seat at the Table. It’s been phenomenal. Ladies and gentlemen, my dear brother, a true leader, true visionary for our community and for service. Thanks for serving our community both as a veteran, but also in the administration, to make sure that we have a seat at the table. Ladies and gentlemen, David White, deputy director of the Peace Corps. Thank you so much, David.

DW: Thanks so much, Munson.

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