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 articleAnd new appointments to other leadership posts at the agency by the Biden Administration see more
Updated March 4: The Biden Administration continues to fill out political appointments for staff at the agency.
By NPCA Staff
On January 20, Carol Spahn was named Acting Director of the Peace Corps by President Biden. Spahn had been serving as the Peace Corps chief of operations for Africa. She succeeds Jody Olsen, who stepped down as director on January 20.
Spahn has over 25 years of experience in international development, business, health, and women’s empowerment. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania (1994–96) and country director in Malawi (2014–19). Her work with the nonprofit sector includes experience with Women for Women International — which supports female survivors of war — and Accordia Global Health Foundation — which helps fight infectious disease in Africa.
“It is an honor to serve the Peace Corps and our country,” Spahn said in a release from the agency. “From my time as a volunteer in Romania to my years as a country director in Malawi, I have loved my work for the Peace Corps, the American people, and the people of the countries where I have served. I am grateful the Biden-Harris transition team has accorded me the privilege of serving in this new role.”
A welcome: Acting Director of the Peace Corps Carol Spahn, right. Photo courtesy Peace Corps
Spahn holds a master’s in international development from George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, and she earned her bachelor’s in accounting and philosophy from the Catholic University of America.
With the scale of tasks before the new administration, it will likely be some months before a new director is appointed and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Someone committed to transformational change
Peace Corps’ first general counsel, Bill Josephson, is co-author with Warren Wiggins of the 1961 report that laid out the scope of what founding the Peace Corps entailed. They called the report A Towering Task.
In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, all 7,300 Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated from the countries where they were serving. Currently Volunteers are not projected to return to the field until the second half of 2021. Assessing the challenges of the months ahead, Josephson surmises that relaunching Peace Corps will be an even greater towering task, with the agency requiring extraordinary leadership to return it successfully to the field.
In late 2020, a special advisory council to National Peace Corps Association issued a community-driven report, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” on how to reimagine, reshape, and retool Peace Corps for a changed world. One of the key points made at the conclusion of the report is this: “The next Peace Corps director should be appointed quickly. They should be an individual of national stature, preferably a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who is committed to transformational change at the agency by advancing the recommendations included in this report. 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.”
Additional appointments to date: Updated February 17
As of January 28, there were several public announcements, via the press and social media, of new staff at the Peace Corps agency.
Dave Noble has been named chief of staff for Peace Corps. He had been serving as executive director of the ACLU of Michigan. Under the Obama administration, he served as a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Presidential Personnel Office, and prior to that as deputy chief of staff and White House liaison for NASA.
Scott Beale has been appointed Associate Director of Global Operations for Peace Corps. In 2006 Beale founded Atlas Corps, a volunteer program to connect and empower global leaders through service in the United States. Over the past 15 years, Atlas Corps has brought more than 1,000 individuals from 103 countries to the United States on 12- to 18-month fellowships, earning the organization recognition by some as a “reverse Peace Corps.” Beale has been twice named one of the top nonprofit CEOs in the United States by the Nonprofit Times. President Obama recognized him at the Clinton Global Initiative as part of his administration’s Stand With Civil Society Initiative. And Beale wrote this piece about Atlas Corps for the Summer 2013 edition of WorldView magazine, published by National Peace Corps Association.
Sarah Dietch has been appointed to serve as director of Peace Corps Response, a program that sends U.S. Volunteers with more experience on short-term, high-impact assignments around the world. All Peace Corps Response Volunteers were also evacuated in March 2020 and have yet to return to the field. This year the programs marks its 25th anniversary. Dietch served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia 2017–19, and her professional experience includes work with several government agencies: as a senior advisor for USDA, an assistant administrator for legislative affairs at Transportation Security Administration, and chief of staff for the office of legislative affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.
New announcements as of February 17:
Mary Bruce has been named Associate Director for Volunteer Recruitment and Selection. As she notes in her LinkedIn profile, that work includes “rebuilding the pipeline of 7,000 Volunteers in 60+ countries annually, as Peace Corps relaunches its work after evacuating all Volunteers in 2020 due to COVID.” For more than seven years she directed AmeriCorps Alums, a national organization focused on social impact to leverage the experience of those who had served in AmeriCorps. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco 2004–06 and, prior to that, served as a teacher’s aide and tutor with AmeriCorps in Washington, D.C.
Jacklyn Dao Dinneen has been named deputy chief of staff for Peace Corps. Under the Obama administration, she directed gifts and grants management for the Peace Corps and served as White House liaison; she also served within the White House as assistant policy director, and with the Department of Homeland Security. Previous roles include work with Sen. Lincoln Chaffee and Teach for America. For the past four years she served in senior roles with The Partnership, Inc., an organization that was established to focus on the advancement of African Americans in corporate Boston and over the past three decades has grown into an organization that supports multicultural professionals at all levels in an increasingly diverse and global workforce.
News from March 1:
Faith Oltman has been named Director of Communications for Peace Corps. She comes to the agency with experience helming communications for the Columbus City Attorney and with the Ohio State Senate and House of Representatives.
News from May 21:
Victor Sloan has been named Associate Director, Health Services, as reported in Politico. He had been serving as CEO of Sheng Consulting, and he holds a faculty appointment at the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine at Rutgers University. He served as a Volunteer in Cameroon 1981–83 and notes, “After more than 20+ years in the pharmaceutical industry, I am humbled and honored to have been appointed to serve as Associate Director, Health Services at the Peace Corps. Forty years after I served as a Volunteer in Cameroon, I am thrilled to be returning to the agency to work to ensure the health of Trainees and Volunteers.”
Story last updated June 1 at 10:00 a.m.
Jeremy Wustner-Brown posted an articleJeremy champions Peace Corps ideals after service through his involvement in affiliate groups. see more
By: Jeremy Wustner-Brown (Romania 2011-2013)
Before joining the Peace Corps as a 30-something, mid-career volunteer, I gave a lot of thought to what I really wanted to do with my life. At that point, I had already been fortunate to have had a great career with a number of outstanding firms, but I knew I wanted more. During this period, on the recommendation of a friend, I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl discusses the meaning of life and how we can flourish in the face of daily challenges. The book is rather somber, but has had a lasting resonance with me. At the heart of it, Frankl posits that it is love that enables us to endure. For me, love is all about community and community is one of the many things that the Peace Corps provides.
This remains true following service as well. Not long after returning from my host country of Romania, I worked closely with a colleague to establish the General Services Administration (GSA) Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) Employee Association, or GREA for short. Also as a result of that work, I was asked to run for the board of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington, D.C. (RPCV/W) and today I serve the community as their Communications Director. These are both great organizations that work closely with NPCA as affiliate groups while doing their best to represent the RPCV community. I’ve found my time with both to be similarly rewarding to Peace Corps service itself.
Another influential book that drives home this point is Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. The NPCA hosted Junger this September at the Peace Corps Connect conference, where he discussed Tribe's focus on the benefits of a strong community. As members of the Peace Corps community we are fortunate to have served abroad in host communities with great social networks, and are equally fortunate to have come home to the great social networks of the RPCV community.
All of our paths are different, and what drives us varies widely, but for me, much of my purpose in life is satisfied through these communities, by continuing Peace Corps’ mission through them, and building lasting, meaningful relationships with those I serve alongside. So if you’re ever feeling down, or left out, know that as a current volunteer, an already returned one or as an aspiring volunteer, you’re surrounded by a loving community of likeminded folks dedicated to service.