Address by the Director of the Peace Corps to the July 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future
By Jody Olsen
On July 18, 2020, National Peace Corps Association hosted Peace Corps Connect to the Future, a global ideas summit. NPCA invited Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen to speak. She was introduced by Glenn Blumhorst, President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. Her remarks come a week after Peace Corps signed a historic agreement for launching a program with Viet Nam in 2022. And they come as the COVID-19 pandemic makes the future for all international work uncertain.
Here is a transcript and video of the introduction and her remarks.
Glenn Blumhorst: I just want to say today, it’s just such an honor and a privilege to have Director Olsen with us. I know she has a busy schedule, she has a lot going on. And she’s very busy trying to get Volunteers back into the field as soon as possible — as soon as the conditions permit. But she’s been really in tune with the community, I would say, attentive to the needs and expectations of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who were evacuated, and she has certainly paid attention to what’s going on in our community and in our country.
So it’s really a pleasure for me to introduce her today. She’s going to share a few words with us. The 20th, director of the Peace Corps, Jody Olsen, who was sworn in in March 2018, started her service with the Peace Corps community as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tunisia in 1966 to 68. She has held multiple leadership positions at the Peace Corps, including headquarters and in the field. She was once the Acting Director of the Peace Corps, the Deputy Director, she has been a chief of staff. She has been a regional director, and she has been a country director in Togo. But let me say: Those are certainly strong credentials for somebody to be the current Peace Corps Director.
I know Jody personally, and I know her very well, and her values and her commitments. And I have to say, there’s no better person for the job right now than Jody Olsen. I know that Jody cares deeply about the Peace Corps itself, about Peace Corps Volunteers. And when it came to make the evacuation — or the decision to evacuate the Volunteers, and evacuate the Volunteers, I trusted Jody. I knew that she was doing what she felt was in the best interest of the agency and the Peace Corps Volunteers themselves. They all arrived home safe and sound. And their lives interrupted back home weren’t the same, but she handled that situation like no one of us would ever would have wanted to have to had to do. I’m so grateful for having her at the helm of the Peace Corps itself. And I’m very grateful for her two decades of service to the Peace Corps community. So I’m proud and honored and privileged to introduce my colleague and friend, and our esteemed Director of the Peace Corps. Dr. Josephine “Jody” Olsen.
Peace Corps Today
Watch: Jody Olsen’s remarks at Peace Corps Connect to the Future
Jody Olsen: It’s a real pleasure to be here, even virtually, thank you all so much. A special thank you to Glenn, a longtime friend, colleague, and a person I admire, as well as everyone at the National Peace Corps Association. Thank you, thank you for all you do. Thank you for all your support — everything that you do.
I also want to note, at this moment, as we just took a moment of silence — that many years ago, I was lucky enough to hear Nelson Mandela speak and even shake his hand. I didn’t want to do anything with my hand for quite a while afterward. I was so proud of that moment. But what I remember from that moment was his entire speech was about hope, was about the future, and about what can be accomplished. He never appeared angry. He always appeared strong and hopeful that entire evening. And knowing his background, I carried that, and I have tried to carry that with me ever since.
When I was in college, I happened to be standing on Constitution Avenue, as people moved forward for the March on Washington in August 1963, which included Congressman Lewis — very young at that time. That march, that afternoon, so affected me. And as I’ve had the pleasure of reading and seeing and hearing and understanding Congressman Lewis’s journey, his leadership that he has given this country, I too, feel very sad at this moment and want to make sure that I honor a national icon and national leader for all of us.
I want to begin — oh, first, I do want to thank Katie Long! That was so wonderful, what you sang, and I might just say, Katie, that you probably said better than I’m going to say — a lot of what I’m feeling right at the moment. And I’m hoping that the future and the excitement you had, that reference to the future that you, Glenn, also had, that I can continue to carry that with me as I speak for a few minutes this afternoon. I want to thank NPCA, the board, the staff, and members, for all you do to support the Peace Corps mission and goals, and the incredible support you give Peace Corps and your fellow RPCVs during this very challenging time. You note, as you see, the title is Peace Corps Today. Now there’s a reason for this title. I want to say “Peace Corps Future,” “Peace Corps Going Forward,” because this is about the future. And I’m going to be talking about our plans for returning to our global presence. But I have to refer to them as our global future plans exist today: Saturday, July 18. Why do I give a date for this? Even as we’re largely in charge of our process for returning, we’re not in charge of the virus. It dictates the time. It dictates the place. And in this global pandemic, our time, its time, its place — changes every day.
Even as we’re largely in charge of our process for returning, we’re not in charge of the virus. It dictates the time. It dictates the place.
So when you listen, we’re hoping this is what we can be over this coming year. But this is as of Saturday, July 18th. To the recently evacuated Returned Volunteers who may be here today, and I know that several of you are, I am here for you. We’re here for you. As I have talked with many of you, I know that I can’t fully appreciate what you have been going through in having to leave your communities with almost no notice, to a return that you hadn’t planned. As I have said before, that fateful day, March 15th, just four and a half months ago — that decision to evacuate all Volunteers was the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life. And I think you can understand in that, I have been part of Peace Corps, Peace Corps has been part of me — for now over 54 years. I’m grateful for your service. And we are grateful to NPCA and all the affiliate groups, and all of our partners in service, who have stepped up and supported and continue to support our Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. The Peace Corps mission is still as relevant today as it was 59 years ago.
The idea of Peace Corps — that idea that Volunteers could serve their country for the cause of peace by living and working in other countries — struck a chord with thousands in the early ’60s. And I confess —myself included — 1964 was when I first heard about Peace Corps. And that enthusiasm continues today. We must work together to ensure that the mission continues into the future, that Volunteers return to the field when safely possible. While the mission remains relevant today, the world has changed. We’ve already been talking about that. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only highlighted racial and social economic inequities in our countries — in our country — but in countries abroad as well, including all current Peace Corps countries of service. The pandemic has also highlighted global interconnectedness, and with it an increased need for people who can effectively and sensitively navigate cross-cultural difference to build joy and equitable systems and sustainable peace.
This need speaks directly to our continued relevance, and why we must return to our countries of service as soon as it is safe to do so. We take these few months, this few months of pause in our in-field service, as an opportunity to build into our plans, a strong, self-aware, and equitable environment for all staff and Volunteers. Peace Corps’ focused goal, which is fully supported by Congress — let me say that again, which is fully supported by Congress — is to return to a full global presence as soon as we possibly can.
Much uncertainty remains here at home and abroad about when and where we will be able to begin reestablishing our operations overseas. Still a question. I repeat: We don’t control the disease or its course, but we do control our process to getting overseas. We have some of the brightest and most committed people on our team working hard to plan for reentry to the field that is strong and sustainable, while assuring the wellbeing of Volunteers, staff, and communities. We have developed a comprehensive, two-part process whereby posts work alongside offices at Peace Corps Headquarters to plan for reentry and to prepare to receive Volunteers. Our host country staff are in place in our 61 countries with critical responsibilities towards our return. Our return begins with an external review process, which assesses a wide range of external factors, both domestic and international, including medical, security, administrative, and logistical criteria that must be just right for us to consider a reentry to a specific country.
The pandemic has also highlighted global interconnectedness, and with it an increased need for people who can effectively and sensitively navigate cross-cultural difference to build joy and equitable systems and sustainable peace.
When a country meets these external review criteria, Peace Corps notifies Congress — an important step — that we are initiating a planning for reentry process, and this triggers the internal review. Our internal review is an exhaustive process by which a post prepares for every part of supporting Peace Corps Volunteers, staff, and communities. It involves everything from our host families to our counterparts, to transportation in country, to precautions in the workplace, and to know how to treat a COVID case if it should arise. There are a multitude of checks and balances in this system because we cannot risk anyone.
The Office of Safety and Security, Health Services, Global Operations, and Regions will each thoroughly review and approve each post’s individual plans. The Peace Corps is already working in close partnership with our host country governments, local communities, and in-country stakeholders to ensure that the timing of our return is safe and according to each country’s local conditions and requirements. And no two countries are similar.
Multiple mitigation measures will assure that we’re respectful of our host country’s management of the pandemic, including testing for all Volunteers prior to departure — and a 14-day mandatory quarantine once they arrive. All posts will have an emergency response plan, with detailed guidance on responding to any COVID-19 emergencies that arise. Posts are very eager to welcome Volunteers again for service. We hear this every day. And they are fully engaged in this detailed planning process. We will provide reorientation and training on how to operate in a different environment. And there will be more training and preparation for Volunteers and for staff to manage the different challenges of service during COVID-19. Until the pandemic is fully under control, we must operate in a different manner than we have before. And Glenn alluded to that earlier. And the challenges of Volunteer service are going to differ.
This is about assuring our host governments that we are keeping Volunteers and their host families, counterparts, and communities healthy and safe. As you can guess, a lot of uncertainty remains. We face returning to countries where life, public education, health, agriculture, and food processing, distribution, and other systems and people have been impacted by COVID-19. In addition, and most importantly, people all over the world have been observing, and even participating in racial justice and equity protests, particularly those in the United States. We are navigating a world that is in transition. Simultaneously, each of us as individuals — and so much within myself — we are transitioning in our own personal connection to the issues of race, social justice, and inequality. Given this time to focus and to grow, we will return to our posts with renewed eyes, renewed clarity of what to serve means, and renewed expectations of ourselves. The agency is responding. We are responding. We’re taking steps. We’re building into and making central to our return to operations a workforce that is representative of the diversity of America by uncovering and removing barriers to equal opportunity for multiple groups, including Black invitees, Volunteers, and employees.
We are navigating a world that is in transition. Simultaneously, each of us as individuals — and so much within myself — we are transitioning in our own personal connection to the issues of race, social justice, and inequality.
These efforts to date have included, but are not limited to, intentional holding of very difficult dialogues throughout the agency globally. Dialogues that are continuing almost daily today and will continue going forward. We have projects that reduce work and service barriers for both staff and Volunteers. We’re assessing and strengthening diversity recruitment and strengthening diversity pipelines through new and expanded partnerships, many of which are already coming forward and with which were already engaged. A new agency-wide taskforce on diversity and inclusion in the agency will track our internal progress toward equity and diversity as we return to service, enhancing communication about non-competitive eligibility in the federal government as an opportunity to leverage U.S. government efforts to increase diversity across all federal agencies.
Our taskforce on diversity and inclusion has been charged with leveraging the agency data and all recommendations received to date — from the field, from staff, and I know for many of you as RPCVs — so that we craft and subsequently implement concrete and meaningful strategies for change.
As we face this uncertain world, one thing that is not uncertain is our relevance today. The Peace Corps mission of world peace and friendship has never been more important. And Peace Corps has never been more relevant than it is today.
This begins with how we partner with our countries wherever we serve, and how we earn their trust in returning to service safely — safely for our Volunteers, safely for our staff, and safely for the host country residents and our host country counterparts. As we move towards our 60th anniversary, which begins in October, and navigate these uncertainties, we also pause to celebrate all our Volunteers who have contributed over these past 59 years — and to celebrate the new opportunities and service that lie ahead for all of us.
Just this last week, we signed the implementing agreement between the Peace Corps and the Ministry of Education and Training of Viet Nam to officially established the Peace Corps program in English education in Viet Nam. This has been many years in the making, and a joyful moment for so many people. This historic moment, which also coincided with the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. Viet Nam will be our 143rd country to host Peace Corps Volunteers since the agency was founded. And as I was in Viet Nam in December, I appreciated their excitement. And in fact, it was three of the English teachers that I was spending time with when I talked about Volunteers living with host families — three of the teachers raised their hands and said: “Can I be a host mom? Can I be a host mom?” And I thought whichever country wherever we are, wherever we’re going to be, “Can I be a host mom?” — that’s what friendship is. That’s what families are. The next step in partnership and in cross-cultural exchange and capacity building. This next step will benefit the people of both countries for generations and further demonstrate our relevance today. We are a global organization that can have a significant impact on global challenges. Addressing these global challenges starts with maintaining our focus on getting Volunteers back into the field. That is who we are. However, as I’ve noted, we’re not going back to the field the same as we were before. We’re going to go back better. For 59 1/2 years, Peace Corps sought assurances from countries where we serve, that our Volunteers will be safe. We must now be prepared to assure the same countries that we have taken the steps necessary for everyone to be safe.
More than ever before, we and our country counterparts, we and our country leaders in each of our countries, are true partners. Returning better also relies on implementing the improvements that I have highlighted with respect to how we recruit, train, and support the Volunteers that represent us. Peace Corps Volunteers should represent the best of all of us in all our diversity — that best represents us as Americans. Going back — and how we go back — is so important, not just to the countries where we serve, but it is important to the entire world. Because the entire world is watching us. They’re waiting. They want to see. We’re going back.
We will be humble. We will be better. And we will be stronger for what we have been through together.
As we go back, we will be humble. We will be humble. We will be better. And we will be stronger for what we have been through together. The Peace Corps mission of world peace and friendship is as relevant today as it was in 1961, as I said before. We must work together to ensure that the mission continues into the future, that Volunteers returned to the field when safely possible, and that we take this pause and in the field service as an opportunity to build into our plans a stronger and more equitable environment for all staff and Volunteers. So what is our call to action? What is it for all of us — for me, the agency, our countries, our posts, returning Volunteers — what is it? Our continued relevance and ability to carry our mission only holds true as long as we are able to continually grow and challenge ourselves to set the standard for community development.
Challenge our action. Our continued relevance requires that we become increasingly diverse and inclusive. But our work doesn’t stop there. A diverse and inclusive community requires nurturing learning, and requires us to face challenges by participation in these very difficult dialogues: that we must evolve our models of service, our training and support, to meet these challenges. Ultimately, the people we serve in more than 61 countries abroad at deserve and expect nothing less. There are no easy answers. Boy, I can say — there are no easy answers! And the process will be neither quick nor simple. But I truly believe that our Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, our incredible staff, and the Peace Corps family — we are all up to this challenge. We are staying strong — and we stay a leader in our mission of world peace and friendship.
I’m here for you all. I’m here for Peace Corps. I’m here for the mission. I am here for going back: better, stronger, more diverse, more equitable. So we can be proud for our next 60 years as we begin our 60th year. Thank you all. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your help. And thank you for being strong. I’ll turn it back to Glenn.
Read more: “Our Peace Corps Evacuation Journey,” chronicling what Olsen calls the toughest decision she ever made — to evacuate all Peace Corps Volunteers globally in March 2020. The essay appears in the Summer 2020 edition of WorldView magazine.