Peace Corps Chief nominee Olsen (Tunisia) met with widespread approval

Photo by USAID Global Health Fellows Program

The nomination of RPCV Josephine Olsen (Tunisia 1966-68) continues to get rave approval from the NPCA and other RPCVs, some of whom even know this woman. I assume, based on her Peace Corps history, that Jody got the position as a ‘final thank you’ from her good friend Senator Orrin Hatch. I suspect also, like Hatch and most Republicans, she voted for and supports the president and considers it an “honor” to represent the president in our Peace Corps countries, which Trump has now famously called “shitholes.” I assume Jody Olsen is not ‘womanly enough’ to denounce that statement since no other Republican Senator or Congressman has either.

What is most concerning to me–at my advanced age–is whether, as a senior citizen, Jody, in her mid-’70s, is up for the job and able to fulfill her duties as she has recently (March 2017) spoken openly and eloquently about her Stage II Colon cancer. You can hear her account of treatment at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1f5X20UfCs

While Sarge Shriver created “In, Up and Out” philosophy for the Peace Corps, wanting to keep it new and fresh and not making the agency a “career government job” Jody Olsen has not honored our founder wishes and has made the Peace Corps her personal employment center. She has already worked for 17 years at Peace Corps HQ and overseas, everything from being a PCV to Acting Deputy and Director for 8 years. She left the Peace Corps only when Democrats were in the White House. In fact, she has worked longer in PC/HQ than most of the cleaning staff!

Jody is well liked by people who have worked with her at the Peace Corps and as a “single mom’ she has raised two children. I remember her mentioning at her Congressional Hearing how her husband was a great help, even though at the time he had left her. I’m told they’re still “friendly.”

Now in her twilight years, Jody returns “once again” to the agency but this time carries the handicap of our president on her back. She will have to go into the “developing world” and attempt–at least I hope–to explain Donald Trump to African, Latin American, and Asian leaders and officials–many of whom are much better educated than The Donald– that Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t like our President. PCVs are good Americans seeking to do good work for others. Well, lots of luck, Jody. Note: JCoyne

Peace Corps Chief Nomination Met With
Widespread Approval, Relief
By Kelli Rogers from  Devex
11 January 2018

Photo by University of Maryland

Josephine Olsen has been nominated to be the director of the Peace Corps.  The announcement of nominee Josephine Olsen to lead the Peace Corps has been met with sighs of relief and applause throughout the global development and social work communities.

The White House announced last Wednesday that Olsen, currently a visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, will be the administration’s nominee for Peace Corps director.  Olsen is no stranger to the Peace Corps, having served as a volunteer herself in Tunisia from 1966 to 1968, followed by decades in a variety of roles — including holding most every level of leadership position for the agency: Country director, regional director, deputy director, and acting director.

Trump nominates Josephine Olsen as Peace Corps chief

President Donald Trump nominated Josephine Olsen to be director of the Peace Corps on Wednesday. Olsen has held numerous positions with the agency since she first served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia 50 years ago.

Immediately following the announcement of her nomination last week, members of the global development community took to Twitter to laud the pick, saying Olsen’s skills and background would be crucial to leading the Peace Corps forward.

Last week also saw Sean Cairncross, deputy assistant to the president and senior adviser to the White House chief of staff, become the administration’s nominee to the top job at the Millenium Challenge Corporation.  Cairncross’ lack of development or foreign policy experience has thus far resulted in a mixed response, while Olsen’s nomination appears to enjoy unanimous support due to her extensive background in the industry.  [Emphasis added.]

“The social work community is very pleased and rather surprised that the Trump administration is making such a great appointment of someone who will be very able to carry out the leadership of an independent organization that will do the whole country proud,” said Richard Barth, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who has worked with Olsen during the past eight years of her visiting professorship.

Olsen is an energetic, positive leader, Barth noted.  During her time teaching in Baltimore, Olsen created an online training program for professionals embarking on work overseas.  He expects she will carry her passions for intercultural competencies and risk management, two of the issues she became an important resource for at the university, back with her to the Peace Corps.

The future Peace Corp chief is also passionate about ensuring that those who develop skills through service for the agency have additional opportunities to contribute internationally following their years of volunteering.

Between her stints with the Peace Corps, Olsen took on several other positions within global development institutions. From 1997 to 2002 Olsen was a senior vice president at the Academy for Educational Development, a major United States Agency for International Development implementing partner, where she worked with ICT adviser colleague Glenn Strachan.

“Jody was an amazing leader, very patient, very interested in your opinion, very supportive of the people I saw who worked for her,” said Strachan, now chief information and technology officer for health care nonprofit Jhpiego. “She was incredibly intelligent and really cared about the work she did, and I know she loved the Peace Corps.”

Carrie Hessler-Radelet on how Peace Corps can remain a ‘vital force for the future’

The 19th Peace Corps director handed over her duties to a new administration and transition team on Jan. 20.  Here’s what Carrie Hessler-Radelet has to say about authentic leadership, the business of development and the future of the agency she reformed.

This, according to former Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, is perhaps the most important quality in a leader of the organization. In an exit interview with Devex in January 2017, Hessler-Radelet, who spent seven years leading the most ambitious reform agenda the agency has ever seen, told Devex that success as the agency’s leader is mainly about passion for the work.

“I think that the most important thing is that the director loves the mission and loves the volunteers,” Hessler-Radelet said, adding that being a returned Peace Corps volunteer — though not a requirement of success — is helpful in order to better understand the overall experience.

Olsen will step into the role at yet another pivotal time for the agency.  Trump proposed a $12 million cut to the Peace Corps’ roughly $400 million budget in his 2018 budget request.  In August last year, the agency announced that it was gradually eliminating 200 of its roughly 900 U.S.-based positions, [emphasis added] a move that Peace Corps Acting Director Sheila Crowley said was made in response to the president’s budget proposal.

Those who have worked with her are confident Olsen will tackle the challenges of supporting the agency’s mission under budget constraints as “a warm and understanding leader who will listen to her leaders but also to the volunteers in the field,” Strachan said.  “She knows what needs to be done going forward, having already held an executive position at Peace Corps,” he added.

Olsen’s nomination must still await confirmation by the U.S. Senate, but University of Maryland’s Barth isn’t worried: “I know her Senate confirmation was unanimous last time in her role and I expect that it will be again,” he told Devex.

 

11 Comments

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  • Trump is so transparent. Projection is one of the psychological defense mechanism he consistently uses. The names he calls others are a reflection of how he feels about himself. Beneath his sociopathic narcissist facade is a damaged self-loathing child who abuses all who work with him and brings disrepute to their reputations..

    Ms. Olsen appears to be a stellar person and serving in the position inaugurated by Sarge Shriver would be a capstone to her stellar career. I wish her well.

  • Interesting. I was not aware of the age of Mrs Olsen. Age: around 80. If she is unable to attend weekly, daily staff meetings; travel the world to see RPCV’s; ask for help from the President and Congress; does this sound like a good fit? Will this help the Peace Corps move forward?
    Michael L. Driscoll, Group 11, Western Samoa; 1973-74

  • Speaking as a 77-year-old RPCV I’d like to say I hope being 80 won’t be a bar for Jody Olsen. Everybody’s different.

  • I can’t help but think we’ve been over this ground before, with another Republican woman, Loret Miller Ruppe, who also suspended the Five Year Rule, and is credited with not only saving the Peace Corps, but revitalizing it, consistent with the JFK spirit. Let”s give Jody Olsen the opportunity to show what she can do, in these difficult, but not dissimilar times. For many of us RPCVs who would go on to executive positions, a lot of us have questioned the wisdom of the Five Year Rule, seeing the danger of lack of experience, lack of perspective, and lack of direction to be every bit as dangerous as impacted governmental tedium and bureaucracy feared by Sargent Shriver. A long time ago, I suggested a ten-year maximum rule, AND the establishment of a Board of Directors, representing the American People, to watchdog the organization’s top dogs. John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment 1963, -64, -65.

  • Here’s what one of my readers thinks of me and my comments:

    You’ve become more of a curmudgeon in your older age – and snarky! I think Jodie is in her early 70s. Had the opportunity to work with her when she was a Regional Director as well as Deputy Director – and while we may have had philosophical differences at times – and who doesn’t in Peace Corps, was always open to listening, patient and very supportive of Volunteers and staff.

    Also, as an alumnus of 17+ years (spread over six different decades), I would argue that those of us who have been able to come back provide the historical continuity and corporate memory lost with the five year rule. One thing I would add is that leaving and returning, I always brought back new skills and understanding that I would never have been able to get had I been a continuous employee, yet develop a deeper understanding of the value and operations of the Agency.

    And as to the “five year rule,” a few years ago I asked a colleague in the IG what their take was on that “rule”. The IG had done some recent investigation of its origins – and had the same understanding as you noted, I believe, because the Agency was considering asking Congress to amend it. As far as anyone could tell, based on “legislative history,” which purports to provide some context to legislation, it seems that the five year rule may have been based more on our wonderful Congress’ feeling that this fool’s undertaking would leave them stuck with thousands of federal employees once the Peace Corps crashed and burned. The five year rule, thereby, gave them the ability to close down the agency and get rid of the staff. I love Peace Corps “myths,” but sometimes there are additional explanations. Of course, it didn’t happen as expected.

    Finally, from own my experience working with Volunteers, staff and counterparts in more than 40 countries, our friends overseas have long understood – because of their own experiences, that “ordinary” citizens are not necessarily the same as their governments. That has been the strength of Peace Corps!

  • It would be helpful to know if this alumnus began his or her Peace Corps career as a Volunteer and if so, when and where.
    This experience cited working with Jody Olsen is valuable to gaining a perspective on her nomination. However, having said that, I would like to address the mythology that our “keeper of institutional history” has just perpetrated with this statement:

    “The IG had done some recent investigation of its origins – and had the same understanding as you noted, I believe, because the Agency was considering asking Congress to amend it. As far as anyone could tell, based on “legislative history,” which purports to provide some context to legislation, it seems that the five year rule may have been based more on our wonderful Congress’ feeling that this fool’s undertaking would leave them stuck with thousands of federal employees once the Peace Corps crashed and burned. The five year rule, thereby, gave them the ability to close down the agency and get rid of the staff. I love Peace Corps “myths,” but sometimes there are additional explanations. Of course, it didn’t happen as expected.”

    This is not accurate. Dr. Robert B. Textor was a young Dr. of Cultural Anthropology and worked at Peace Corps in 1961 as staff and went on to train Thailand I. He created the policy of limited tenture at the Peace Corps for the sole purpose of allowing the agency to be staffed by returned Peace Corps Volunteers. The eight year tenture limit would allow positons to be open for these returning Volunteers who would bring their cross-cultural experience and their contempory knowlege to the agency. He gave the memo to Franklin who presented it to Shriver, who embraced it. Originally, Dr. Textor wanted the tenture to be not five, but eight years.

    The OIG as well as the GAO have failfully documented the problems with the so-called Five Year Rule. It wasn’t until the year before he died, that OIG even interviewed Dr. Textor about the so-called “Five Year Rule”, The personnel system at Peace Corps is unique and it makes it difficult to apply the civil service template to evaluating the agency.

    There are two great mysteries, for me, about Peace Corps: The first is : Why did not Shriver insist on making successful service as a Peace Corps Volunteer a prerequisite for any peace Corps job? The second is: Why was the Peace Corps Library destroyed and little attempt to build an institutional history? The one Director who did want to preserve history was Loret Miller Ruppe.

    Dr. Textor’s work is well represented on this website. The aforementioned alumnus as well as others should read these articles:
    http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/robert/
    http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/update-on-dr-robert-textor/
    http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/the-legacy-of-robert-b-textor/

  • Joanne, I think the logic against making successful service as a volunteer prerequisite to PC employment, is two-fold. First, that a lot of applicants out there, never having served as a PCV, are nevertheless brilliant candidates. I would point to so many of the founders, incl country directors, like the legendary Andy Hernandez and George Carter.

    Second, and as a practical matter, all PCVs are not necessarily exemplary, and some have, regrettably simply sat out their time, with little initiative or commitment, and accomplishing very little. Given the choice of the two, would an intelligent exec want to have his/her hand forced by a rule. Additionally, the experience of a PC volunteer from one culture to another, and the insights gained, are so radically differing, that they could well be, as a practical qualification for employment, dangerously irrelevant.

    In fact, it was rules like this, with the best of intentions which were in my mind concerning the earlier debate about female volunteers and sexual or other assault and/or harassment. In this regard, I went back and researched the tragic case of Kate Puzey, and then Danae Smith, in two rather different cultural settings, trying to see exactly where the failure of judgement occurred. The failures as best I could, see, were highly subjective, and requiring an intuitive decision-maker.

    Following my own PC service, and then being drafted for the Vietnam War , I had a job very similar to that of a PC Country Director, with a lot of cross-cultural considerations, and remember so well the subtleties and subjective judgement in recruiting my 20 staffers, who would be scattered around a very large state, and not subject to daily supervision. And subsequently, when work results, which I could measure, were insufficient, deciding if it was the fault of the staffer, the fault of my interviewing, OR simply a matter of circumstances.

    I had my own experience with changes of site, key in so many of these cases (and the current law), and when I arrived in Nyasaland Protectorate, and after working with the remarkably savvy Country Director George Carter, almost like a premonition for my later post-PC job, I met PC country staffers who NEVER should have been given the job.

    I think that there is an irrecocilable conflict between the widespread belief that fixed rules make for fairness in hiring, preventing patronage/favoritism, and making the right choices — juxtaposed against the intuitive, subjective judgement needed for very judgemental and subjective responsibilites like those faced by PC Country Directors, and other pivotal jobs. That’s the conclusion of my life’s work and career. John Turnbull

  • Thank you for your observation. I had difficulty following the job that you described as “being like that of a Country Director”. Was this in the military? Was this in Vietnam? I appreciate your not being specific about the actual job, but it is hard to understand your experience without a little more information. Did you have responsibility for working within a personnel system? If so, what regulations applied in regard to affirmative action, etc? Was it government, private or NGO?

    The Peace Corps personnel system is one that needs to be studied. When you and I served, we were second generation Volunteers. It would not have been possible to staff the Peace Corps totally with RPCVs. i will note that the original Peace Corps Act had a provision for Peace Corps Leaders who were the first step in a management system.

  • In response to your question, the job I was referring to was part of the early Shriver-managed “Poverty Program”, and more specifically a Dept of Labor program called the “Concentrated Employment Program. Our efforts were directed at employment of Congressionally-defined minorities and/or social classes, and around New Mexico included a half dozen distinct cultures and languages (and although by the late 1960s and early -70s we could presume English proficiency, there were a few highly-nuanced non-English speakers, typically spiritual leaders of various groups that were the strangest).

    My staff had to, almost paradoxically, be culturally savvy, AND at the same time avoid favoritism of one group over other groups, and deal with local and tribal pressures for favoritism. In the years I was involved, we never had a complaint about favoritism in either staff hiring or in trainee selection. Today, I still am amazed at what we did.

    Our counterparts in S California, caught up with deadly competition between Black and Hispanic groups, were astounded at what we did, and I think the Fed Gov’t simply gave up trying to understand it. We had certain, sometimes conflicting, Federal laws to comply with, but devised our own personnel system and job descriptions and qualifications. i could tell you some stories about neighborliness across cultural lines, and sometimes misunderstandings and some uncrossable lines (but only confidentially, and not on this forum). John Turnbull

  • John, Your experience proves my contention about the expertise of RPCVs. You were a RPCV when you handled this job with such success! Shriver staffed his Office of Economic Opportunity with RPCVs.

  • I have been fortunate enough to have Jody as both a colleague and professor at UMB. She is full of energy, wit, empathy, and well-honed experience. She started her PC career as a volunteer in Tunisia and has held additional leadership positions as both a country director and acting director. (I might also be missing some other PC roles.) At UMB, she has led efforts to improve our interprofessional and international educational experiences and is well loved and respected by students, faculty, and staff. She has been instrumental in securing programmatic changes and funding opportunities to support UMB’s increased offerings to RPCVs. As for her energy levels, it may sound trite but she can run circles around me (I’m 33) and never takes the elevator. That being said, I think she has an amazing gift and capacity for inspiring people to bring their best selves to work and she is both an incredible listener and empowering leader.

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