Communications Intern posted an articleAn Update from Acting Director Carol Spahn at the Shriver Leadership Summit see more
An Update from Acting Director Carol Spahn
Carol Spahn served as a Volunteer in Romania 1994–96 as a small business advisor, as country director for Peace Corps Malawi, and as chief of operations in the Africa Region, covering eastern and southern Africa. She has held roles at Women for Women International, Accordia Global Health Foundation, and Small Enterprise Assistance Funds. Here are edited excerpts of her remarks at NPCA’s Sargent Shriver Leadership Summit in March 2021.
IN MY FIVE-YEAR TOUR AS COUNTRY DIRECTOR IN MALAWI, I swore in around 500 Volunteers. During each swearing-in ceremony, I reminded Volunteers that their service was not an adventure but a journey. One of my favorite things to witness was their growth and development — not just language skills or cultural competence, relationships or projects. I’m talking about observable growth in their character, awareness, humility, and global citizenship. They stepped off the plane eager and bright-eyed but walked back with wisdom and respect, and often tears of sadness to leave. The same journey was apparent amongst our host country staff: What started as a job became a passion for community development and intercultural exchange.
Peace Corps and our mission have never been more relevant. But in order to meet this moment, we must adapt.
For 60 years Peace Corps has been on a journey of development and growth, improvement and constant learning — the journey of a million miles, places, and people around the globe. The pace has been steady and the steps deliberate. As I have participated in panels throughout Peace Corps Week, particularly one with all living former directors, I have been struck by how Peace Corps has responded and adapted across the decades: to diseases like smallpox, polio, guinea worm, and HIV; and to historic events like the end of the Cold War. Given what the world has been through the past year, I can say without hesitation that Peace Corps and our mission have never been more relevant. But in order to meet this moment, we must adapt.
A welcome: Acting Director of the Peace Corps Carol Spahn, right, while serving as country director in Malawi. Photo courtesy of Peace Corps
What we see ahead
Our top priority is returning Volunteers to service as soon as conditions allow. Localized situations continue to shift daily, especially with changes related to vaccine accessibility and new variants of the virus. We’re unfortunately not yet able to offer a firm time frame for when Volunteers will return. However, we continue to assess each country’s situation based on robust medical, security, programmatic, administrative, and logistical criteria. We are very aware of evacuated Volunteers’ strong desire to return, along with a large and growing cohort of invitees anxious to begin their journeys.
Every one of our host countries has enthusiastically expressed their interest in our return. We are planning to reopen El Salvador; we have staff in place to launch Peace Corps in Viet Nam. Recruitment teams, now fully virtual, are working tirelessly, and we continue to receive new applications — not at pre-COVID levels, but significant given the pandemic and the pause in our operations. We expect interest to pick up even more once Volunteers start going back.
Returning Volunteers to service in a world where the ground has fundamentally shifted has required that we reimagine and reengineer almost everything we do.
Last week we announced we will require all Volunteers to receive a COVID vaccine before going into service. This decision was made not only to protect the health and safety of Volunteers but also host country staff and communities. Staff at each post will have the opportunity to be vaccinated prior to the return of Volunteers. Many staff have already been vaccinated; one host country government added our staff to their vaccine priority list — a testament to the value of our contribution.
Returning Volunteers to service in a world where the ground has fundamentally shifted has required that we reimagine and reengineer almost everything we do. This includes granular things like safety standards at training locations, to broader fundamentals of how to stay true to our core approach of people-to-people relationship-building when safety measures require social distancing. We have established systems to control for all the things that we can control for — and to be flexible in all the ways we can be flexible. I’ve seen photos of staff members getting their vaccines; these and the COVAX plane landing in Ghana this week have given us hope that we are rounding the corner.
Virtual and Grassroot
I’ve gotten the “So what are you all doing if you don’t have Volunteers in the field?” question a lot. Our Volunteers are our lifeblood. We feel their absence intensely and deeply. And the needs in the countries we serve have not gone away.
We’ve used this time strategically so that we can build back better — in ways big and small, including not-so-glamorous but critical things like cybersecurity and system upgrades. One positive aspect of moving into the Zoom world: We are in phase two of a Virtual Service Pilot program that involves 20 posts and 85 participants. Evacuated returned Volunteers, trainees, and returned Response Volunteers are donating 12 to 15 hours a week in countries they served in, for a period of 12 weeks. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and we believe there is tremendous potential for the future.
As an example of the virtual work being done, I’ll tell you about returning volunteer Samara, who coordinated with a local nonprofit in Costa Rica, whose goal is to create a domestic version of the Peace Corps, appropriately called the Costa Rica Corps. This organization was looking for help establishing their own pool of volunteers and matching them with counterparts. Samara was able to help them virtually to craft a volunteer profile and application brochure which will be used to train and interview interested volunteers.
Teams around the world are also getting creative with training and reporting; more than 600 staff from headquarters and the field have been trained in developing and implementing blended learning strategies. Teams mentored by host country nationals from other countries or HQ staff have developed 150 blended learning training projects. This has tremendous potential to reinvent how we do training — and utilize expertise across borders. Volunteers will be working with updated logical project frameworks and held to new reporting standards. By late this year, they will have a reporting system that will provide a personal dashboard on metrics. Program managers will be able to report consolidated results to host country partners and ministries. This has the power to transform how we relate with communities and Volunteers in the field.
There’s innovative work being done by staff to meet the needs of communities we serve — from contact tracing to virtual workshops to working with farmers. In Ukraine, post staff have repurposed PEPFAR funding to implement a cross-regional program supporting the most vulnerable youth through food vouchers and HIV/AIDS case counseling calls. In Malawi, staff and counterparts have continued in-person HIV prevention work for youth through Grassroot Soccer; they have tested new approaches following COVID protocols; and they continue to support partners through providing personal protective equipment and other resources so counterparts can safely continue work in rural communities.
Inequity and pandemic response
We have asked every post to meet with their ministries of health and partners in country to determine how we can help support their pandemic response. This will differ across countries, depending on needs, but we anticipate every Volunteer will have a role to play. The head of the World Health Organization has said that the world is on the brink of catastrophic moral failure due to unfair vaccine rollouts. And COVID has shown us once again the vast inequities in global health. To the extent that Peace Corps can play a role at the invitation of the countries we serve, we will be there.
COVID has shown us once again the vast inequities in global health. To the extent that Peace Corps can play a role at the invitation of the countries we serve, we will be there.
In addition to a dramatic reckoning around health inequity, we have a moment of reckoning on racial justice. The Peace Corps at its core is about honoring diversity around the world. It’s about building relationships and opportunity, and fostering equity and inclusion. It is important to all of us — staff, Volunteers, host communities — that our workplace, our volunteer system, and our culture reflect these values. We will be looking for Peace Corps to be a leader in addressing systemic racism.
At various points throughout our history, we have been called to do more, and we have stepped up, but we know that we have room to grow. In 2010 then-director Aaron Williams called on Peace Corps to diversify recruiting across race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and religion. At the time, 19 percent of Volunteers identified as a minority. In the last decade that has grown to 34 percent. Five years ago, we started doing intensive intercultural competence, diversity, equity, and inclusion training for entire post teams. This was a one-week foundations course. Last year we rolled out a pocket model that includes a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens as Volunteers undertake participatory community assessments. And we tripled the medical reimbursement for applicants to ensure that this was not a barrier to service.
I share this with you to honor the work that has been done up to this point. That said, we have heard recommendations brought forth by NPCA and through letters written by passionate and interested stakeholders across the Peace Corps community. We are listening. And we acknowledge the need to continue to address inequities, to reach out to underserved communities, to address gaps in training, to examine support structures during service. Our task force is busy developing recommendations on staffing, and pre-service and in-service support. We have barrier analysis underway looking at hiring, promotion, retention, and other staffing practices. A mandatory training course on unconscious bias will be launched on April 1 for all staff. This is just the beginning.
As we carry out this work, we are cognizant of the need to balance a collective sense of urgency with a need to be intentional, so that the changes we implement will be both effective and sustainable. Systemic change requires deliberate steps and endurance.
The “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” report was an enormous undertaking, and I want to commend everyone who was involved. We have read it, and I have shared it with agency leadership. It is striking how much overlap there is among the actions or initiatives already enacted or underway at Peace Corps; the input we received from the field and our community through our task force for diversity, equity, and inclusion; and the content of this report. We need to meet this historic moment on so many levels. We will be kicking off our strategic planning process shortly with new agency leadership, and this report will help to inform those deliberations as we chart the path for the future.
Ahead on this journey
We also recognize the critical importance of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community and celebrating the domestic dividend — the role that those Volunteers play more broadly in society, and specifically in international development. Perhaps even more important, these RPCVs bring perspective, problem-solving skills, and deep respect to their roles as parents, neighbors, and global citizens. How important those qualities are during this time of tremendous divisiveness — and when we have been incredibly isolated, as individuals and as communities. Our Office of the Third Goal is working closely with NPCA to help tell the story more broadly of the contributions of Volunteers as they return to the U.S. following service.
This will be an agency that promotes world peace and friendship at a time when the world so badly craves mutual respect, solidarity, and community.
We are preparing for a future that demonstrates how the agency, during a time of uncertainty, builds back better, and is more relevant than ever. This will be an agency that safely returns, just as it safely evacuated. An agency that is truly representative of the United States and all its people. An agency that builds on its strong history and foundation of embracing difference. An agency that is part of the global solution to the COVID pandemic. And an agency that promotes world peace and friendship at a time when the world so badly craves mutual respect, solidarity, and community.
Peace Corps service may look different in the future — from how Volunteers serve to how they are trained. But we will be there in a spirit of partnership and with humility.
Steven Saum posted an articleWe need diverse and experienced leadership at Peace Corps — and a commitment to reimagine the agency see more
With our allies in Congress, we’re working to ensure that the administration understands this is no time to return to the status quo. We need diverse and experienced leadership at Peace Corps — and a commitment to reimagine, reshape, and retool for a changed world.
By Glenn Blumhorst
Many of us in the Peace Corps community took note of the pledge in President Biden’s inaugural address to “engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. And, we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
Those words resonate with the Peace Corps mission, not with a sense of “be like us!” but with a sense of solidarity and commitment to working and learning alongside one another, wherever we serve. One of the messages we’re driving home to members of Congress and the Executive Branch: If we’re reengaging with the world, let’s do it with ideals that are supposed to represent what’s best about this country — even as we work in our communities and at the national level to build a more perfect union.
That said, if we value the role of the Peace Corps, we have to be serious about reimagining, retooling, and reshaping the agency for a changed world. As the administration appoints new leadership for the agency, it is critical that it brings on board not only a director but top staff who reflect a commitment to equity and racial justice, and that these leaders come equipped with global experience and a deep understanding of — and commitment to — the Peace Corps community.
Equity, experience, and community
At the Peace Corps agency, January 20 marked the departure of Director Jody Olsen, who led the agency during unprecedented times, including the global evacuation of Volunteers in spring 2020. Last fall she was optimistic about Volunteers returning to the field as early as January 2021. But by December it was clear that was no longer a possibility. Plans are now for Volunteers to return in the second half of 2021. The health and safety of communities and Volunteers is paramount.
Carol Spahn has been named Acting Director of the Peace Corps. The Biden Administration has also begun to announce new political appointments. We’re meeting with Spahn and the leadership team as it takes form to ensure that we keep moving forward with the big ideas the Peace Corps community has outlined to meet the needs of a world as it is, not as it was. For Peace Corps, as with so much in this country, now is not the time to return to the status quo. Now is the time for historic changes.
When many hundreds of members of the Peace Corps community came together in summer 2020 for a series of town hall meetings and a global ideas summit, it was with a sense of an agency, a nation, and a world facing multiple crises. From those meetings came “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” a community-driven report that brings together big ideas and targeted, actionable recommendations for the agency and the Executive Branch, Congress, and the wider Peace Corps community — particularly NPCA.
Past directors of the Peace Corps who served under Democratic and Republican administrations alike have underscored to us that the big ideas put forward here are absolutely essential.
Past directors of the Peace Corps who served under Democratic and Republican administrations alike have underscored to us that the big ideas put forward here are absolutely essential: that many of them address longstanding issues and sorely needed changes, but there never had been the opportunity to undertake them on a major scale. Now is that time.
Whom the Biden Administration appoints to top posts at the agency sends a powerful signal to the community. Will the leaders reflect a commitment to equity and racial justice — and a serious commitment to the quarter million strong Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community? Members of Congress who have been champions for Peace Corps funding are watching as well.
A roadmap for change
The report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” provides a roadmap for change. While the report is far-ranging in point-by-point recommendations that are grouped into eight separate chapters, here are three overriding themes that emerged. We’re working to ensure that the administration and new staff at the agency take these to heart:
1. The Peace Corps community must be a leader in addressing systemic racism.
The Peace Corps agency, like American society as a whole, is grappling with how to evolve so that its work fulfills the promise of our ideals. This means tackling agency hiring and recruitment, and greater support for Volunteers who are people of color, to ensure an equitable Peace Corps experience. It also means ensuring that perceptions of a “white savior complex” and neocolonialism are not reinforced. These are criticisms leveled at much work in international development, where not all actors are bound by the kinds of ideals that are meant to guide the Peace Corps. Conversely, many in the U.S. bristle when hearing these terms; but it’s important to both recognize the context and address them head-on to enable a more effective and welcome return for Volunteers.
2. The Peace Corps agency needs to stand by its community — and leverage it for impact.
The agency’s work is only as good as the contributions of the people who make it run. This does not mean only staff but includes, in particular, the broader community of Volunteers and returned Volunteers. In programs around the world, it absolutely includes the colleagues and communities that host Volunteers. NPCA has demonstrated that it is both possible and beneficial to become community-driven to promote the goals of the Peace Corps. Community-driven programming will keep the work both current and relevant to the world around us, ensuring that the agency succeeds in its mission in a changed world.
3. Now is the moment for the Peace Corps agency to make dramatic change.
The opportunity for a reimagined and re-booted Peace Corps now exists and it should be taken.
Who is there to lead the change matters. From the Peace Corps community, this message came through clearly: When it comes to the permanent director, they should be an individual of national stature, preferably a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who is committed to transformational change at the agency. They must have the gravitas to advance the Peace Corps’ interests with both Congress and the White House while also making the case to the American people about the value of a renewed Peace Corps for the United States — and communities throughout the world.
In an unprecedented time, the Peace Corps community has come together with an unparalleled response. With the new administration, there are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers with years of experience already taking on key roles in the U.S. Department of State, Department of Labor, and National Security Council. These appointments show a value placed on experience and racial equity — and a commitment to leading with the best. Let’s ensure that commitment carries over to Peace Corps as well.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association
Jonathan Pearson posted an articleA Call for Proposals: Work with National Peace Corps Association on Training for Diversity, Equity, and InclusionAddressing systemic racism begins with us see more
Work with NPCA on this crucial issue — and have an impact on the wider Peace Corps community.
In our work to lead a vibrant Peace Corps community, National Peace Corps Association is looking for a partner with expertise in providing training on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Our society needs to tackle systemic racism as it has shaped institutions and communities — including the Peace Corps community. And addressing systemic racism begins with us.
Here is a request for proposals to work with NPCA in this crucial area — and, through the work we do with the broader Peace Corps community, make a valuable contribution in this area more broadly.
Those specializing in building an anti-racism environment within member-based nonprofit organizations are particularly encouraged to submit proposals. For questions please contact NPCA by email.
Please review our Frequently Asked Questions regarding this request for proposals.
Submissions will be accepted through Friday, February 26, 2021 at 6 p.m. EST.
SPECIAL NOTE: Submission deadline has been extended to Friday, March 5, 2021 at 6 p.m. EST.