No Volunteers in the field. Battling COVID-19 — and the global rollout of virtual volunteering. Remarks and Q&A with Acting Director of the Peace Corps Carol Spahn as part of Peace Corps Connect 2021.
Pictured: In Morocco, partners and volunteer participants team up as part of the Virtual Service Pilot — which has fostered collaboration on projects around the world since October 2020. Photo courtesy Peace Corps Morocco.
Carol Spahn has served as acting director of the Peace Corps since January 2021. She previously served as a Volunteer in Romania 1994–96 and later as country director for Malawi and chief of operations for the Africa region. She spoke on September 23, 2021, as part of the opening evening of Peace Corps Connect 2021. The Q&A was moderated by Glenn Blumhorst, President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. Below is an edited version of their conversation. Watch the entire conversation here.
Carol Spahn: I can think of nothing more important than being here today with the Peace Corps family. It is such a gift to be part of this community that continues to show up years and decades later, to be with each other and to work together to make the world a better place, to make the agency the best that it can be. We value you. We are listening, we are here with you. And we really thank you for your support. I know that most of you have a burning question on your minds, which is: When will Volunteers get back out into service? I don’t think I need to explain to anyone the enormity of the pandemic’s impacts on health, safety, and well-being around the world, as well as the disproportionate impact that it has had on many of the countries where Volunteers served. We are all anxious to get out there and be a part of the solution. Finding the balance between the health and safety of our Volunteers in our communities has been one of the biggest challenges of my time as acting director.
When we first evacuated Volunteers in March 2020 — in itself an amazing feat; we evacuated almost 7,000 Volunteers in just eight days — we thought we would turn around and get Volunteers back into service three or four months later, after COVID passed. We got to work putting procedures in place, setting up expedited applications, and working hard to make sure that we were ready. As we were gearing up to get Volunteers back into service, we hit the second wave of the pandemic. So we pulled back.
When I took this position in January 2021, we thought, We will get Volunteers vaccinated, and we will be able to get them right back out into service. Then the delta variant hit. At this time, we recognize that COVID will be with us for some time. None of us expected to be having this conversation still, 18 months after the evacuation of Volunteers.
We are evaluating every country individually. We have seen how they’ve handled the pandemic — and multiple waves — in their own communities. We are assessing their health systems as well as other factors, like medical evacuation hubs, and the availability and stability of those hubs. We have several countries that are making it through our very rigorous process. We are hopeful that we will be able to get some Volunteers out toward the beginning of 2022. But we know that the pandemic does continue to throw us curveballs. We will get Volunteers out as soon as it is safe to do so.
When I think about this time, I think about what cultural anthropologists call a liminal experience. This is a disorienting period when things are neither here nor there, when things have been so disrupted that we are forced to think about things differently. And this is not just Peace Corps. This is happening around the world.
We also have a rich history of supporting the prevention and eradication of various diseases, and supporting global health. We will need to adapt to a new reality. But we’ve done it before. And there is no organization and no people like Peace Corps Volunteers who are better prepared in times of the unexpected.
But when I think about Peace Corps’ role in the world and our rich history, there are so many examples of how Peace Corps has helped to rebuild countries following civil war, disasters; how we came in after apartheid, after the end of the Cold War, and much more. We also have a rich history of supporting the prevention and eradication of various diseases, and supporting global health. We will need to adapt to a new reality. But we’ve done it before. And there is no organization and no people like Peace Corps Volunteers who are better prepared in times of the unexpected.
Peace Corps Volunteers know how to listen first, to see what’s possible, to inspire collaboration, to challenge the status quo, and to handle uncertainty. We withstand adversity, we learn through hardship, we adapt to changing circumstances, we innovate, we partner, we fail, and we come back again, until the problem has been solved. In fact, we demand to be challenged, to have our beliefs questioned, to ask hard questions, and to acknowledge our own shortcomings. And we make lifelong friends around the world along the way.
I’ve been so inspired during this time to see how the broad Peace Corps community has stepped up, surrounded by so many of you — and so many staff members — whose very nature it is to raise your hand, to jump off the sidelines, to approach obstacles, and to get in there and solve problems. I am grateful to the 150 Peace Corps Response Volunteers who closed their service in August after contributing to the domestic whole-of-government efforts to reach underserved communities with critical health information and access. The stories from this partnership with FEMA, only the second time that Peace Corps has deployed domestically in our history, have been amazing.
Evacuated from Ukraine in March 2020, Kevin Lawson served as a Response Volunteer in 2021 in the U.S. to battle COVID-19. Photo by Meghan White / Peace Corps
We have Volunteers who reached out to a homeless community in Oregon. The people there did not want to go to the vaccination site. So what does a Volunteer do? They went back to the vaccination site and brought the doctors and nurses to the people. We have Volunteers who used Amharic, Wolof, Arabic, Spanish, and many other languages to reach people — to build trust and connections in underrepresented communities throughout the U.S.
Likewise, I’m profoundly grateful to our 240 Virtual Service Pilot participants. Through this engagement, you’ve challenged the status quo and demonstrated that, through technology, we can realize impact and that partnerships can be sustained. Participants serving virtually in Nepal are supporting government health and agricultural workers to combat growing food insecurity and economic hardship attributable to COVID-19. Virtual service participants in the Eastern Caribbean have developed a blended learning program, and they’re training teachers across four countries to use digital and online learning to help students return to learning and recover from educational disruptions. This virtual service program can tear down barriers to service, both for volunteers who can’t serve overseas and for communities that, for health safety or other logistical reasons, can’t host volunteers in person.
For the latest round of this pilot, we have returned Volunteers from every decade — the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, and beyond — returning to their country of service virtually, to support them during this time. It is such an amazing tribute to the legacy of Peace Corps, and the real commitment that is not just those two years when a Volunteer serves, but that really extends a lifetime.
In the community of Mantasoa in Madagascar, Peace Corps staff helped launch a vaccination campaign. Photo courtesy Peace Corps
I would be remiss if I didn’t also highlight the tremendous work being done by our staff around the world. Since the global evacuation, our staff have been working tirelessly to keep advancing Peace Corps’ mission of world peace and friendship. The working partnerships that have emerged organically during this time are remarkable.
In Rwanda, our staff have partnered with the Centers for Disease Control to conduct virtual contact tracing to minimize the spread of COVID. This is very similar to the commendable work staff undertook during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa 2014–16. In Timor Leste, staff have been partners to the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization, and have translated COVID-19 information and guidelines into Tetum and nine other local languages, promoting equitable access to health information throughout the country.
In Rwanda, our staff have partnered with the Centers for Disease Control to conduct virtual contact tracing to minimize the spread of COVID. This is very similar to the commendable work staff undertook during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa 2014–16.
Almost every single post around the world is directly contributing at this time to the objectives of the United States’ COVID-19 global response and recovery framework. Technology has been key during this time, not only for the virtual service, but also for our staff. In North Macedonia, after completing our eight-week course developer certificate practicum, our staff partnered with the Ministry of Education and delivered workshops to all 25,000 educators from 1,000 public schools in the country so that they could educate their students virtually. Meanwhile, our global agency has poured time and attention into strengthening our systems.
This time without Volunteers in the field has given us a unique opportunity to make strategic improvements. And I would encourage all to sign up for “Inside Peace Corps,” a newsletter we’re putting out that pulls back the curtain so that you can see improvements that we are making. There are too many to list at this time, but I do want to raise a couple.
First, keeping equity at the heart of our work, we continue to ramp up our intercultural competence, diversity, equity and inclusion practice. We have gained invaluable insights from our RPCV community through the “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” report through our barrier analysis in our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force. We have implemented unconscious bias training for all staff around the world. We will be requiring this training for Volunteers before they go out into service. We are approving a new position that will focus on retention, looking at Volunteers in the pipeline to ensure that we understand what the barriers are for our Volunteers of color, our applicants of color who are applying to the Peace Corps, and that we are at a place to remove those barriers.
We also have a new programming, training, and evaluation system that looks at core competencies — and among those are ICDE&I competencies, through which we are intentionally building accountability to our host countries. These will be used globally, and Volunteers will all be evaluated on a standardized set of ICDE&I competencies, which set clear levels of how Volunteers are expected to master technical skills and demonstrate the agency’s values through their assignments.
There is so much that is going on in this space. You will see a lot of it in our strategic plan when that is released. [It was released December 3. —Ed.] One of the big ideas we were asked to consider in the 2020 “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” report was around ethical storytelling. We’ve taken this recommendation seriously and are developing an ethical storytelling toolkit for staff, Volunteers, and RPCVs. That will equip us all with the awareness and communication tools necessary to keep our host communities at the heart of our storytelling. Through this work, we aspire to achieve a more ethical and equitable storytelling standard that extends across all of the Peace Corps network, and ensures that Peace Corps members have a sense of belonging and that we are honoring identity throughout.
Finally, I know that many of you have deep concerns about our Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program. We are committed to strengthening this program and have been taking a long, hard look at where it can be improved. We’ve taken several actions already that are aimed to reinforce this system, and that also respect the rights, the privacy, and the needs of any Volunteers who experience any crime during service, including sexual assault. I am very proud of the advances that the agency has made in this space. And I’m very personally committed and accountable for this work.
I want to end by quoting from a speech that President Biden gave at the U.N. General Assembly. He said, “There is a clear and urgent choice we face here, at the dawning of what must be a decisive decade for our world, a decade that will quite literally determine our futures. And whether we choose to fight for our shared future or not will reverberate for generations to come.”
This is a pivotal moment in our history, and the parallels between where we were in 1961 and where we are now are striking. The core of what we do as Peace Corps — person-to-person exchange, and the value of living and working together — will not change.
This is a pivotal moment in our history, and the parallels between where we were in 1961 and where we are now are striking. The core of what we do as Peace Corps — person-to-person exchange, and the value of living and working together — will not change. But we can create a Peace Corps that transcends the experience we all know and love to create a new and improved Peace Corps, one that encompasses the diverse, equitable, and inclusive vision we have — a vision of an agency that is able to respond quickly to shifting realities, and utilize a variety of creative tools and modalities to combat some of the greatest threats of our lifetime.
We are all inextricably linked to that legacy.
Questions from the community: diversity, virtual service, reducing the risk of sexual assault, and more
Glenn Blumhorst: You mentioned the Peace Corps Connect to the Future summit and report and specific things the agency is implementing, such as ethical storytelling. Are there other recommendations that stand out and that you have been working to implement?
Spahn: It is a report I go back to frequently. As we went through our strategic planning process, it was one of many inputs we factored in. Giving priority to hiring people of color: We will have specific goals and objectives around that, and implementing systems for how to do outreach more intentionally into different communities, both for staff and for Volunteers. We would love to engage the entire Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community in helping us do that. There are recommendations about providing financial assistance. We are looking to pilot programming this year to see how we can support Volunteers who might not be able to pay upfront costs of medical clearance. Is there a way we can provide vouchers or other financial support so they do not need to carry costs until they can be reimbursed? We have been partnering with AARP for how to recruit all kinds of diversity into Peace Corps.
Blumhorst: The report was shared with of Congress. Some reforms and improvements and provisions that emanated from that report are in H.R. 1456, the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act, introduced by Congressman Garamendi.
The reauthorization bill is incredibly important; 1999 was the last Peace Corps reauthorization. It’s important that we get a new bill into place.
Spahn: The reauthorization bill is incredibly important; 1999 was the last Peace Corps reauthorization. It’s important that we get a new bill into place. The bill really does have a lot of provisions that are very supportive of our Volunteers and our community.
Blumhorst: You touched on a topic that’s one that we really want to lean in on, and listen in on — sexual assault risk reduction and response. What is the status of the congressionally-mandated Sexual Assault Advisory Council that is charged with assessing Peace Corps’ efforts to address sexual assault and offer best practices?
Spahn: The council has been meeting since May, several times a month. We’ve asked them to look back over the last five years at recommendations of the council, assess where we are, and see what is relevant from those prior recommendations: where we still have work to do, what are the most important things going forward. They will be preparing a report for us before the end of the year, and we will make that report public. [The report was released in November. — Ed.] I want to thank those advisory council members. Those are unpaid positions — people who care deeply about Peace Corps — and we put a big task in front of them this year. We have also put out a call for proposals and will be having a review of the overall structure of our Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program to make sure it is structured in the best way, that we are a continuously learning organization. There is no entity that can say, We have the best way to really meet sexual assault survivors where they are. We are all learning, we’re all growing, and we are committed to listening, improving, and putting systems in place so we can be the best that we can be.
Blumhorst: We recognize the role of staff in the field, preparing the way for Volunteers to return. Meanwhile, tell us about virtual volunteering. What have you learned from current programs?
Spahn: It has shown tremendous promise for how Volunteers can stay engaged long after service, supporting communities in a variety of ways. The beauty of virtual service is that there might be people who can’t clear medically who would still have an option to serve. We might have people with very specific skills a country is looking for, who might not be able to leave home for two years — but could contribute in other ways. We have regions that can’t be reached due to safety and security issues. We saw this with Paraguay — an ecotourism organization and national park site Volunteers were not able to reach for a variety of reasons. There is now a virtual Volunteer helping through radio programming and other ways to support environmental programs.
Will it ever replace the two-year Volunteers and that on-the-ground connection? No. That is where the magic of Peace Corps happens, in living and working together side by side for an extended period of time. But will it be a terrific supplement, using all of the tools that we have at our disposal? Absolutely.
The hardest part is that balancing act — knowing the need at this pivotal time in history… knowing what value Peace Corps Volunteers on the ground can bring, and how to do that safely.
The hardest part is really that balancing act — knowing what the need is that’s out there at this pivotal time in history, part of a global pandemic, the likes of which we will hopefully never see again in our lifetime; and knowing what value Peace Corps Volunteers on the ground can bring, and struggling through the details to make sure that we can do that safely. That has been the biggest challenge. One of the biggest barriers has been stable access to medical evacuation hubs. We’re setting up backup options and agreements. We’re all here for the mission of Peace Corps, to be out in communities and supporting world peace and friendship. The highs have been seeing innovation and how people have stepped up in many ways: what staff in the field are doing in the absence of Volunteers, and staff at headquarters buckling down to get systems in place so that when we’re ready, we really are the best that we can be.
Blumhorst: How does the agency play a role in helping RPCVs have a lifetime of service and impact?
Spahn: I love the theme of this conference, and have seen in so many ways how RPCVs have stepped up. I want to give a special shout-out to Friends of Tonga, who are a 2021 Library of Congress honoree for best practices for their virtual read-aloud program. As Peace Corps, we are looking to engage with RPCVs and through National Peace Corps Association, to really expand and understand the impact. I encourage everyone to complete the survey that NPCA put out, so that we can really understand that and help support it longer term. Our ethical storytelling kit will be a great tool. And we will be looking to work with RPCVs getting out into underrepresented communities around the United States to really elevate awareness of the Peace Corps.