After leading the agency through unprecedented times, Peace Corps’ 21st Director Carol Spahn is sworn into office. Now she affirms her priority of investing in youth empowerment.
By Tiffany James
As a Volunteer serving in Romania after the fall of communism, Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn worked with entrepreneurs who wanted to start businesses during a time when the country was shifting toward a market economy. Nearly 30 years later, she was sworn in to lead the Peace Corps as its 21st director and seventh woman director on January 11, 2023. After serving as Acting Director since January 2021, Spahn’s nomination was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in December. Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA) administered the oath of office after his opening speech where he proclaimed that “Peace Corps is Back” to the room full of invited guests and online attendees joining from around the world via livestream. In celebration of this long overdue moment, congratulatory words for Spahn were expressed virtually from Peace Corps community members in Ukraine, Malawi, North Macedonia, Sri Lanka, and more — including the newly established Peace Corps Vietnam.
“I’m proud of what the Peace Corps has gone through over the last few years and how we’ve stepped up to really navigate an extraordinarily challenging time for the world and for this agency,” Spahn told me after her swearing-in ceremony at Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “There’s no roadmap for going through what we’ve gone through as a global society, and as Peace Corps. And what being a Volunteer teaches you is just to figure it out, ask questions, be curious, and try something.”
Director Spahn meets with a Volunteer and neighbor in Benin on a recent trip across Africa.
Spahn praised and credited her staff for tirelessly working throughout the pandemic to recalibrate, adapt, and strengthen the agency to ensure it was ready to respond to today’s needs while looking ahead to tomorrow. Part of their work during the COVID-19 pandemic involved assessing and diversifying the ways in which the agency operated. “I think that’s really encouraging people during this time to innovate, to ask questions,” Spahn said. “This is a time when we ask ourselves, ‘Why do we do this in a certain way? Can we do it better? Can we do it differently to respond to what today’s needs are?’ And that has come from my whole life experience, but it’s been particularly relevant during this time with the Peace Corps because everything has been disrupted.”
Further developed with host country nationals, Volunteers, partners, and counterparts, Peace Corps staff fortified logical project frameworks to streamline outcome identification and revamp reporting systems. After the exercise Spahn posed the question: How many of our project outcomes and indicators target youth? The pulled report revealed that 80 percent of government partners and global communities are requesting that the Peace Corps focus on supporting youth.
Investing in youth aligns with the initiatives Spahn committed to prioritize during her nomination testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last November. At that time, she stressed that there are 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24 with roughly 90 percent living in developing countries. This is the largest generation in history that has the power to bring about a demographic dividend or—without access to proper resources and opportunities—bring about mass unemployment and social unrest due to barriers hindering the fulfillment of their potential. “Peace Corps Volunteers are uniquely suited to work alongside youth on a range of develop-ment goals, from food security and disease prevention to gender equity and economic growth,” Spahn testified. “Together, we will contribute to the development of the next generation of global leaders, a critical investment for a secure, sustainable, and prosperous future.”
80 percent of government partners and global communities are requesting that the Peace Corps focus on supporting youth.
Seven weeks after she was sworn into office, Spahn reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to youth development during the “Connect with the World” virtual event held on February 28 as part of Peace Corps Week. After noting the encouraging return of more than 1,200 Volunteers serving in 51 countries at the beginning of her keynote address, Spahn seized the opportunity to answer a question she had been receiving regularly: Are Volunteers going back to the same Peace Corps? Her response was a resounding ‘no’, stating that the Peace Corps is not the same and is not returning as it was before the global pandemic. “As we return Volunteers to a strengthened Peace Corps, one with additional support systems taking into account, of course, COVID, environments, innovations, and new service modalities, we must also think about ourselves and our potential differently,” Spahn said. “And it’s important, as we do that, that we acknowledge that 62 years later, the Peace Corps is so much more than one volunteer in one community for two years.” Spahn offered an expanded definition of the Peace Corps to include the more than 240,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, tens of thousands of Peace Corps staff, millions of host family members, students, and counterparts around the world, making up a powerful net-work of grassroots changemakers. This more inclusive outlook sets the stage for the announcement of Peace Corps’ new holistic approach to youth programming.
To better illustrate how the agency plans to harness the power of youth, Spahn shared a hypothetical narrative centered around a young girl named Safiya from the Kyrgyz Republic who embarks on side-by-side service with a Volunteer named Monique. The story continues with Safiya and Monique each earning a Teaching English as Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate, which open doors for Monique’s post-service career back in the U.S. and Safiya’s career within her community. Spahn continues by sharing how Safiya joins Peace Corps Kyrgyz Republic’s new Youth Network, attends a regional Youth Network Conference in Thailand where she obtains competitive jobs skills and builds connections with global counterparts, lands grant funding from the Friends of the Kyrgyz Republic affiliate group to conduct a community project for adolescents, and travels to the U.S. as part of the International Visitor Leadership Program, allowing her to visit organizations that combat gender based violence.
“62 years later, the Peace Corps is so much more than one Volunteer in one community for two years.” Spahn offered an expanded definition of the Peace Corps to include the more than 240,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
While the hypothetical story concludes with Safiya starting an NGO in Kyrgyz Republic in alignment with her realized passion for gender equity and gender-based violence prevention, Spahn insists that Safiya’s journey is open-ended, inviting those present to consider how, through her experiences as a member of the Peace Corps community, she had now become a thriving local leader committed to lifelong service, and Spahn stated that this more systematic approach to youth programming was already embedded in the agency’s strategic plan and is not replacing any exist-ing projects. For the next two years, the agency plans to initiate the approach on a small scale by establishing pilots in a few countries. After the initial phase of assessment and learning, they will undergo a gradual whose contributions might support the overall success of her community and country.expansion inviting more countries and Volunteers to participate over time.
“We have all seen that the world has changed, and the Peace Corps is responding and evolving along with it,” said Spahn. “It is our time to be bold as a network and to challenge ourselves as we double down on our investment in youth to systematically provide opportunity as we lean into our ethos, and build on our core strengths to address power imbalances”
Tiffany James is Associate Director of Strategic Communications at the NPCA. She was an AmeriCorps Volulnteer (2009–11) and VISTA Volunteer (2015–16)