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Liberia: Peace Corps to Peace Prize, a 50-Year Journey

February 21, 2012
By: WSU News

Steven and Jacqueline Keenan, international development experts,  brought “Worcester in the World” to life for history and criminal justice students with their talk about the recent history and people of the place they met nearly 50 years ago, Liberia, on Tuesday, February 14.

“The message Jackie and I want to share with you today is look outside yourself before you decide your future,” Steve said.

In 1963, as they prepared to graduate from college—Steve from Worcester State University and Jackie from SUNY-Albany—each was invited to join the Peace Corps and teach in Liberia, a country the size of Virginia that was founded 41 years before the U.S. Civil War by free African-Americans and freed American slaves.

Both served as teachers in separate parts of the country. They met at a Peace Corps gathering and later married in Monrovia at St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

“What we found in Liberia were welcoming people,” Steve recalled. “There were no starving, no unattended children. The people really lived by the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’”

When a civil war erupted in 1989 between the ruling class, descendants of the African-Americans, and tribal Africans, who had been treated as second-class citizens for more than 150 years, the Keenans renewed their deep connection to the country and its people. They participated in a PBS special on the war, founded several schools in Liberia, brought a child who needed eye care to the U.S. for treatment, and visited the child and his family in Liberia in 2000.

The Keenans hopes for the country have been renewed by the presidency of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and work of peace activist Leyman Gbowee, both of whom were awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. They are helping the country stabilize by focusing on education. The Keenan Vocational Institute currently runs classes in sewing, hairdressing, computers, basic business accounting, and soap-making. The others are elementary schools. They are currently building another school there.

The presentation, sponsored by the Theme Semester “Worcester in the World” and Center for the Study of Human Rights, featured pictures taken in Liberia over the years, a clip from the movie “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” and Google Earth maps. Photo albums with hard copies of the picture were available to students as well.

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