John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Election was an electrifying defeat of the status quo. All the social groups excluded in the Post-WW II Boom united behind Kennedy and his swelling army of minorities who wanted peace and prosperity instead of living in poverty and the constant fear of nuclear annihilation. After a debilitating Depression and a non-stop all-consuming World War, the people were hungry and wanted a piece of the American pie.
To achieve this dramatic transformation from war to peace President Kennedy in his Inaugural Address beseeched the citizenry to, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’, thereby rejecting the Big Brother ‘We’ll do it for you’ mania that was sweeping the economic landscape. The new President squarely put the responsibility for making that seismic shift onto the shoulders of New Frontiersmen urging them to instead, ‘Ask what you can do for your country.” The President was inviting each citizen to become personally involved in making the world a better place, one that was safe for democracy and freedom to flourish.
The President’s prime vehicle for spurring youthful involvement in helping to make these changes was his creation of the U.S. Peace Corps. Michael Heyn’s thoughtful memoir of his life and times as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-Sixties and then as a staff member of the United Nations for forty exciting years exemplifies the spirit and the substance of the people who responded to President Kennedy’s clarion call for peace-makers.
Heyn is one of those who answered President Kennedy’s call. His book “In Search of Decency – The Unexpected Power of Rich and Poor covers nearly five decades of social and political action on the international stage and succinctly reveals the power of what one person can accomplish in the world-at-large.
Heyn used his first international experience -- in his case that of helping impoverished Andean Indians accomplish the rather mundane task of creating a cooperative for raising chickens – and built upon it a lifelong career. That early cross-cultural experience ignited a fire in Heyn that drove him to devote his entire life toward improving conditions for the poor. The beauty of Heyn’s life story is that he began his international quest with no great over-arching philosophy he wanted to prove. He simply saw a need and filled it. It was, indeed, the decent thing to do.
Heyn, a savvy professional, deftly puts forth his views of conciliation and cooperation in easy to understand terms while he takes you on a whirlwind tour of the world and many of its hot spots, both politically and environmentally. His book, unencumbered by footnotes, is a fast read. It opens in 1990 with bullets flying overhead as he arrives in Liberia for his next UN assignment. A violent revolution to rid the country of Sgt. Samuel Doe, a vicious dictator, has just broken out. Who said peace-seeking was a peaceful enterprise?
After getting the scoop on Liberia and before we visit 15 of his assignments around the world, Heyn lays out the necessary human behavior he has found to be the underpinnings for a world of peace and security. They are no surprise. They’re concepts all people acknowledge: open communication, humility, our commonality, equal responsibilities, and, of course, the commitment to follow through.
Easy to accomplish in a single household but when you function in foreign cultures with strange values, the World suddenly has many competing demands. Heyn knows new ways are needed to breakthrough and make changes that are sustainable. Like all PCVs Heyn was an ardent problem-solver. Over the years he has come to see there are answers to solving poverty. There are ways to eliminate the devastating costs of poverty.
His experiences in solving problems of poverty at the grass roots are many and diverse: Peru, India, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Nepal, Kenya, Malawi, Thailand, Kosovo, Bangladesh, even South Sudan. He concludes from those varied experiences an understanding that he believes bridges the chasm between rich and poor -- the age-old human belief in decency. Heyn believes decency is the root of lasting peace and he provides numerous examples and techniques used to achieve this symbiosis of rich and poor.
For college students who after graduation want to engage in the issues of the day, Michael Heyn’s life will certainly resonate with many adventure seekers. While Heyn appears to have done more than his fair share, you might see places in his narrative where you might fit in.
Obviously on unchartered quests a person never knows whom they’ll run into on the road of life. According to his memoir Mike met General Charles de Gaulle at Stanford, Marilyn Monroe on Coronado Beach, Liberian President Ellen Johnson at work, and when Indira Gandhi & Mother Teresa huddled together for tea one afternoon, guess who was the only other person in the room. When you invest yourself in the unknown on behalf of public service you get rewards you could never have imagined. For the adventurer who wants to make a difference this book is one of those rewards. For old folks, hopefully, it is a reminder of the work that still needs to be done.
I give Mike Heyn a thumbs-up for his great effort at translating such a comprehensive and, at the same time, ecstatic experience into the simple confining bindings of a book.
by Thomas Pleasure