Tiffany James posted an articleUpdates from the Peace Corps community — across the country and around the world see more
News and updates from the Peace Corps community — across the country, around the world, and spanning generations of returned Volunteers and staff.
By Peter V. Deekle (Iran 1968–70)
Gloria Blackwell (pictured), who served as a Volunteer in Cameroon 1986–88, was recently named CEO of the American Association of University Women — a nonprofit organization advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research. In April, Colombia bestowed citizenship upon Maureen Orth (Colombia 1964–66) in recognition of her lifetime of work supporting education in the country. Writer Michael Meyer (China 1995–97) recently published Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet, which explores Franklin’s deathbed wager of 2,000 pounds to Boston and Philadelphia with the expectation that the investments be lent out over the following two centuries to tradesmen to jump-start their careers. Plus we share news about fellowships, a new documentary, and poetry in translation from Ukrainian.
Have news to share with the Peace Corps community? Let us know.
Eric Scherer was appointed as state executive director for the USDA Rhode Island Farm Service Agency (FSA) by the Biden Administration in late April. He previously worked as a USDA technical service provider and USDA certified conservation planner, providing technical consulting work for the public and private sector on natural resource issues. Prior to his work as a technical consultant, he served as the executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District, where he provided program leadership for the conservation district programs that focused on conserving and protecting natural resources. Scherer brings to his new role 37 years of federal service experience, including work for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in six states in various positions. As state executive director, he will oversee the delivery of FSA programs to agricultural producers in Rhode Island.
Gloria Blackwell (1986–88) was named chief executive officer of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) last October. She is also AAUW’s main representative to the United Nations. For nearly two decades, Blackwell managed AAUW’s highly esteemed fellowships and grants program — awarding more than $70 million in funding to women scholars and programs in the U.S. and abroad. Before she joined AAUW in 2004, Blackwell’s extensive experience in fellowship and grant management expanded during her time with Institute of International Education as the director of Africa education programs. While in that position, she oversaw girl’s education programs in Africa and mid-career fellowships for global professionals. In addition to serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, she served as a Peace Corps staff member in Washington, D.C.
The latest book from Michael Meyer (1995–97) is Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet (Mariner Books), which explores Franklin’s deathbed wager of 2,000 pounds to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia with the expectation that the investments be lent out over the following two centuries to tradesmen to jump-start their careers. In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, Meyer shared his own surprise at discovering the story behind this wager. “I didn't know that his will was essentially another chapter of his life,” he said, “that he used his will to settle scores with family, with enemies, and he used his will to pass on his legacy and his values and to place a large bet on the survival of the working class in the United States.” Meyer was among the first Peace Corps Volunteers who served in China. Since serving there, he has written three reported books set in China, starting with The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. His writing has earned him a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book from the Society of American Travel Writers. Meyer’s stories have appeared in various publications, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, the Los Angeles Times, and the Paris Review. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Taiwan in 2021.
On April 27, Maureen Orth (1964–66) was honored in a ceremony in which she was sworn in as a citizen of Colombia — in recognition of her lifetime of service to the people of Colombia. That all began with serving in the Peace Corps. By video conference, President of Colombia Iván Duque Márquez administered the oath of citizenship to Orth during an elegant ceremony hosted by Colombian Ambassador to the U.S. Juan Carlos Pinzón at his residence. In 2005, at the request of the Secretary of Education of Medellin who asked her to empower the children in her school to become competitive in the 21st century, Orth founded the Marina Orth Foundation. It has since grown to include 21 public and charter schools offering computers for every child K-5, STEM, English, and leadership training, including robotics and coding. In 2015, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos awarded her the Cruz de San Carlos, Colombia’s highest civilian award for service to the country. She also was awarded the McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian of the Year Award from Refugees International.
Elyse Magen (2018–20) assumed a new position in April as program associate for the Udall Foundation — an independent executive branch agency providing programs to promote leadership, education, collaboration, and conflict resolution in the areas of environment, public lands, and natural resources. Magen brings to her new role diverse experience addressing economic, social, and environmental issues by working with diverse communities in the United States and Latin America. While earning her bachelor’s in economics and environmental studies at Tulane University, Magen worked as a peer health educator at the university’s wellness center, and she served as an environmental economics intern at the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador during the summer of 2017. In 2020, Magen was evacuated from her Peace Corps service as a community economic development analyst in Colombia due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Refusing to let that be the end of her Volunteer story, she obtained an NPCA Community Fund grant to complete one of her unfinished secondary projects with “Chicas de Transformación,” a womens’ chocolate cooperative in Santa Marta, Colombia. With the support of a NPCA community fund grant, Magen helped the collective build a new workspace and purchase machinery that would allow the cooperative to start selling a new line of chocolate products they were unable to produce before, increasing their profit margins.
Jessica Pickering (2019–20) is a 2022 Templeton Fellow within the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Africa Program. In May 2022, she graduated from Tulane University with a master’s degree in homeland security and a certificate in intelligence. From the University of Washington in Seattle, she received her bachelor’s in international affairs, focusing on foreign policy, diplomacy, peace, and security. Her research interests include international security, foreign policy, and the effects of gender equity, climate change, and governance on policy and stability in West Africa.
Mathew Crichton (2016–17) is now a senior consultant at Deloitte, advising government and public sector clients through critical and complex issues. From 2018–22, Crichton served as an IT and Training Specialist with the Peace Corps Agency and president of its employee union.
Charles Vorkas (2002–04) is a faculty member at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine. With a diverse background in research and international patient care, Vorkas is leading efforts in his newly-established lab to better understand disease resistance. It was while serving as a Volunteer in Mozambique that he witnessed the effects of infectious diseases and was often in contact with individuals who were suffering from diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis. “It definitely confirmed that this was a major global health problem that I would like to help to address in my career,” Vorkas said.
Matt Sarnecki (2004–06), a journalist, producer and film director at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, had a world premiere in May at Hot Docs 2022 in the International Spectrum Section of his documentary film, “The Killing of a Journalist.” It tells the story of a young investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, who were brutally murdered in their home in Slovakia in February 2018. Their deaths inspired the biggest protests in Slovakia since the fall of communism. The story took an unexpected turn when a source leaked the secret murder case file to the murdered journalist’s colleagues. It included the computers and encrypted communications of the assassination’s alleged mastermind, a businessman closely connected to the country’s ruling party. Trawling these encrypted messages, journalists discovered that their country had been captured by corrupt oligarchs, judges, and law enforcement officials.
Ali Kinsella (2008–11), together with Dzvinia Orlowsky, is the translator of the poetry collection Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow (Lost Horse Press, 2021) by Ukrainian writer Natalka Bilotserkivets. Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow brings together selected works written over the last four decades. Having established an English language following largely on the merits of a single poem, Bilotserkivets’s larger body of work continues to be relatively unknown. Natalka Bilotserkivets was an active participant in Ukraine’s Renaissance of the late-Soviet and early independence period. Ali Kinsella has been translating from Ukrainian for eight years. Her published works include essays, poetry, monographs, and subtitles to various films. She holds an M.A. from Columbia University, where she wrote a thesis on the intersection of feminism and nationalism in small states. She lived in Ukraine for nearly five years. She is currently in Chicago, where she also sometimes works as a baker. The collection is shortlisted for the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize.
PEACE CORPS STAFF
Kechi Achebe, who directs Office of Global Health and HIV for the Peace Corps, was recently among those honored as part of a special event recognizing leaders in the Nigerian Diaspora in the United States. Themed “The Pride of Our Ancestry; The Strength of Our Diaspora,” the event was hosted by the Nigerian Physicians Advocacy Group and Constituency for Africa and included special guest Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general at the World Trade Organization. “There is no greater blessing than to be honored by your own community,” Achebe said. “I stand on the shoulders of women and other global health leaders who started the fight for global health equity for all, especially for disadvantaged communities all over the world.” Achebe has served in her role with the Peace Corps since December 2020. She previously led leadership posts with Africare and Save the Children.
Orrin Luc posted an articleI was a combat interpreter in Afghanistan, where cultural illiteracy led to U.S. failure. see more
I was a combat interpreter in Afghanistan, where cultural illiteracy led to U.S. failure.
Illustration by Miguel Davilla
By Baktash Ahadi
Like many Afghan Americans, I spent much time beginning in August trying to secure safe passage from Afghanistan for family, friends, and colleagues, with tragically limited success. I also know that many Americans have been asking: Why is this crazy scramble necessary? How could Afghanistan have collapsed so quickly?
As a former combat interpreter who served alongside U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces, I can tell you part of the answer — one that’s been missing from the conversation: culture.
When comparing the Taliban with the United States and its Western allies, the vast majority of Afghans have always viewed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. To many Americans, that may seem an outlandish claim. The coalition, after all, poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan. It built highways. It emancipated Afghan women. It gave millions of people the right to vote for the first time ever.
Americans went straight to building roads and schools and governing institutions — in an effort to “win hearts and minds” — without first figuring out what values animate those hearts and what ideas fill those minds.
All true. But the Americans went straight to building roads and schools and governing institutions — in an effort to “win hearts and minds” — without first figuring out what values animate those hearts and what ideas fill those minds. We thus wound up acting in ways that would ultimately alienate everyday Afghans.
First, almost all representatives of Western governments — military and civilian — were required to stay “inside the wire,” meaning they were confined at all times to Kabul’s fortified Green Zone and well-guarded military bases across the country.
Each of my own trips to visit family in Kabul was a breach for which I could have been disciplined. But I’m glad I broke the rules. If my colleagues had been allowed to enjoy the same experience — the scent of kebab in Shahr-e Naw, the hustle and bustle of Qala-e Fathullah — they might have developed a much better feel for the country, its people, and its culture.
As it was, however, virtually the only contact most Afghans had with the West came via heavily armed and armored combat troops. Americans thus mistook the Afghan countryside for a mere theater of war, rather than as a place where people actually lived. U.S. forces turned villages into battlegrounds, pulverizing mud homes and destroying livelihoods. One could almost hear the Taliban laughing as any sympathy for the West evaporated in bursts of gunfire.
Sometimes, yes, we built good things — clinics, schools, wells. But when the building was done, we would simply leave. The Taliban would not only destroy those facilities, but also look upon the local community with greater suspicion for having received “gifts” from America.
The Marines I worked with were shocked, for example, to hear me exchanging favorite Koran verses with my fellow Afghans, mistaking this for extremism rather than shared piety.
Second, the front-line troops were given zero training in cultural literacy. The Marines I worked with were shocked, for example, to hear me exchanging favorite Koran verses with my fellow Afghans, mistaking this for extremism rather than shared piety. When talking to Afghan villagers, the Marines would not remove their sunglasses — a clear indication of untrustworthiness in a country that values eye contact. In some cases, they would approach and directly address village women, violating one of rural Afghanistan’s strictest cultural norms.
Faux pas such as these sound almost comically basic, and they are. But multiplied over millions of interactions throughout the United States’ two decades of wheel-spinning in Afghanistan, they cost us dearly in terms of local support.
From the point of view of many Afghans, Americans might as well have been extraterrestrials, descending out of the black sky every few weeks, looking and acting alien, and always bringing disruption, if not outright ruin. We failed to understand what made sense for Afghans time and time again. No wonder the Taliban maintained such sway over the past 20 years.
BEFORE LONG, U.S. TROOPS WILL BE BACK IN AFGHANISTAN, and for the same reason we invaded in 2001: Already, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other terrorists are regrouping, as recent attacks make clear. And next time, it will be even harder for the West to garner support, given our betrayal of our Afghan allies.
This isn’t just about Afghanistan. When it comes to cultural illiteracy, America is a recidivist. We failed to understand Iraqi culture, too, so that now, many Iraqis see Iran as the lesser of two evils. Before that, we failed to understand Vietnam. And so on. Wherever our relentless military adventurism takes us next, we must do better.
This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post.
Baktash Ahadi served U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces as a combat interpreter 2010–12 and is a former chair of the State Department’s Afghan Familiarization course. His father was taught by Peace Corps Volunteers in Afghanistan. Baktash Ahadi himself served as a Volunteer in Mozambique 2005–07.
Communications Intern posted an articleEvacuation, some Peace Corps history, and #apush4peace see more
Evacuation, some Peace Corps history, and #apush4peace
When Coronavirus Unmapped the Peace Corps' Journey
Jeffrey Aubuchon (92252 Press)
Reviewed by Jake Arce and Steven Boyd Saum
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the unprecedented global evacuation of Peace Corps Volunteers. Jeffrey Aubuchon brings together stories of some evacuees chronicled in WorldView: Chelsea Bajek, who was working with a women’s group in Vanuatu; Jim Damico, evacuated from teaching in Nepal; Benjamin Rietmann, yanked from his work with farmers and young entrepreneurs in Dominican Republic; and Stacie Scott, who left behind the community she was serving as a health volunteer in Mozambique.
Aubuchon follows in greater depth two Southern California high school sweethearts, Jacqueline Moore-DesLauriers and Dylan Thompson, who served together in Morocco. In Sefrou (pop. 80,000), on the outskirts of Fez, they taught English classes and hosted a STEMpowerment workshop for girls at the local dar chabab (youth center). They established a girls’ volleyball team that played its first game on March 5. Ten days later, Peace Corps announced its global evacuation.
“Never in the last 40 years has the Association’s mission been more vital.”
The book also serves up some context for 2020 — when each week seemed like a year unto itself. And National Peace Corps Association gets more than a passing nod — particularly its crucial work advocating for evacuated Volunteers, which helped secure additional benefits for them and $88 million in supplemental funding for Peace Corps. “Never in the last 40 years has the Association’s mission been more vital,” Aubuchon writes. “Indeed, on March 16, 2020, NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst released a statement not only voicing support for all of the EPCVs, but also outlining a national plan to coordinate support for these evacuees among the Peace Corps, the NPCA, and the RPCV community itself.”
Aubuchon served as a Volunteer in Morocco 2007–09. “I walked my own Peace Corps journey in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Casablanca bombings of 2003,” he writes. He applied for and received grant funding to help build four libraries. In fall 2019, he was teaching a course in Advanced Placement U.S. History at a high school in central Massachusetts. A lesson in Cold War history led students to do more than merely talk about global problems; they founded a youth venture — and began raising funds to support Peace Corps Volunteers’ projects. Taking the acronym for the class, APUSH, they hasthtagged their effort #apush4peace. They convinced community members to put up $1,000 in seed funding — and then, through fundraising, more than tripled that, “allowing them to help a PCV in Zambia build a hospital clinic ward and help another build a library in Mozambique.”
Paama Custom Arts Festival: Traditional basket weaving on Vanuatu. Chelsea Bajek worked with these women to launch a business project. Photo by Chelsea Bajek
One of those APUSH students, Olivia Wells, takes over the closing chapter of the book. She observes: “Few people know that there are ways to help educate adolescents in Eswatini (Swaziland) about HIV/AIDS, or to help local farmers in Malawi construct an irrigation system to decrease water erosion on their farmland.”
This is a project that’s meant to give back; one dollar from each copy sold goes to Kiva.org to support microfinance projects, and another dollar goes to support National Peace Corps Association.
As for the stories of the Volunteers who were evacuated: Those journeys continue beyond the pages of the book. For example, Jim Damico, a three-time Volunteer, didn’t wait for Peace Corps to return to Nepal. He went back on his own in January 2021 and has been mentoring teachers. Chelsea Bajek, who was serving in Vanuatu, had successfully applied for a Peace Corps Partnership Program grant to purchase equipment and materials for skill-building workshops at the Paama Women’s Handicraft Center. But those funds were cut off when Bajek was evacuated. Thanks to crowdsourcing and NPCA’s Community Fund, in 2021 that project was fully funded and will, Bajek reports, increase opportunities for women’s economic development and empowerment.
Steven Saum posted an articleShe and son Gideon had their lives cut tragically short in a boating accident. see more
By Steven Boyd Saum
She was a mother and wife and human rights attorney. She was granddaughter of Robert F. Kennedy and daughter of David Lee Townsend and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland. She was a woman of boundless energy and an avid advocate for social justice and human rights, with a focus on issues relating to women, girls, and communities affected by HIV/AIDS.
Her passion to make a difference in the lives of others greatly shaped the remarkable career she established for herself. She served in the Peace Corps in Mozambique, worked with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, and taught bioethics and human rights at Georgetown University. She worked with the Obama Administration as the first senior advisor for human rights within the U.S. Department of State’s Global AIDS program, at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Global Affairs, and served as executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiative.
Mother and son: Maeve Kennedy McKean and Gideon. Illustration by Edward Rooks
She was born in 1979 and tragically killed, along with her 8-year-old son Gideon, in a boating accident near a family home in Maryland on April 2. She leaves her husband, David, and children Gabriela and Toby. A virtual memorial was held on April 12, bringing together thousands of people from around the country to celebrate the lives of mother and son.
Steven Saum posted an articleI left behind my adored Mozambican family, friends, and students. see more
Mozambique | Stacie Scott
Home: Louisville, Kentucky
My community, Metangula, is in the northern province of Niassa. I was a community health services promoter for 22 months, working in the community health center organizing HIV patient files. I formed an English club, an English theater youth group, and a Grassroot Soccer youth group. I also trained high school students in HIV/AIDS and malaria prevention.
When we were evacuated, I left behind my adored Mozambican family, friends, and students. I had to leave behind my two cats, whom I love dearly and planned on bringing home with me.
I left behind the most extraordinary community. Metangula sits on Lake Niassa, the third largest lake in Africa. The rainy seasons fills the mountains with lushness. It’s a special and beautiful place.
During my service, I didn’t complete any large scale projects or grants. I certainly questioned my ability to have an impact and whether my activities were necessary. What I learned is that the size of the project does not determine its importance. Fostering positive relationships with youth and community members — being a trustworthy, honest, reliable person — makes a difference. If I build positive relationships with youth, they are more likely to participate and to carry the messages I teach, then share that knowledge. In the grand scheme of things, this is what matters — and this is what people need the most, no matter where we are in the world.
In the grand scheme of things, this is what matters — and this is what people need the most, no matter where we are in the world.
After the conclusion of my Grassroot Soccer program, one of my students, Inacio, came looking for me at the hospital. He handed me a typed document that had been folded twice and stapled shut.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s for Tia Stacie to read at home.”
Inacio had written a letter thanking his colleagues within the program, explained the implications of HIV in his community, and noted what he learned from the curriculum. The ultimate paragraph was titled “special thanks,” for Tia Stacie: for the doors that I open for the group — and that in return, the group loves me greatly because I am a “mother” always on their side.
Sunrise in Namaacha, where Stacie Scott and other Volunteers trained before beginning service. Photo by Stacie Scott
A couple days later, I found Inacio in his normal hangout spot. “Inacio, you are a very special man,” I said. “Do you know why?” He smiled and looked away bashfully. I explained that my job here can be difficult, but his acknowledgment of the program did my heart so much good. It is due to my students that I charge ahead even on the toughest days. “You all do far more for me than I could ever do for you,” I added. Of course, he disagreed and only continued to thank me more. “I am a transformed man now,” he insisted.
Many community members told me during my farewell, “We are already accustomed to you being here!” Given our abrupt departure, it is even more important to return to show our commitment.
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Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.