A Conversation with Jody Olsen, Former Peace Corps Director

Women’s Economic Empowerment and the Peace Corps – A Conversation with Jody Olsen, Former Peace Corps Director

Interviewed Held on March 8, 2019
Edited for this blog

Jody Olsen and Nina Easton

Dr. Olsen served as a volunteer in Tunisia in the late 1960s, and she held various leadership positions throughout the agency in the ’80s, the ’90s, and 2000s. And between that time she spent time as a visiting professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Social Work, as well as the director of the university’s Global Education Initiatives.

The  moderator is CSIS Senior Associate Nina Easton chair of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women International Summit and the co-chair of the Fortune Global Forum.

Nina Easton: OK, hands up: How many former Peace Corps volunteers do we have here? Ooh. (Cheers, applause.) OK. (Applause.)

And, Jody, thank you for your service.

Jody Olsen: Well, thank you.

Nina Easton: I warned you that we always at Smart Women, Smart Power like to get to know who we’re talking to first. And something that people don’t really know about you, you grew up – maybe they do know – in Salt Lake City. Your grandfather was a four-term U.S. senator.

Jody Olsen: Yes, he was.

Nina Easton: And you told me behind stage that he was this kind of strict conservative guy, but he was standing one person away from FDR when they were signing the Social Security legislation. He believed in that.

Jody Olsen: Yes. Yeah. If you see that picture – (applause) – there’s my grandfather.

Nina Easton: Tell us about him.

Jody Olsen: Well, when we talk about leadership, he grew up in central Utah, and he stole horses to earn his way through law school. (Laughter.)

Nina Easton: I like the guy already. (Laughter.)

Jody Olsen: Great guy. Then he went into Congress, and from that he was elected to the Senate where he served four terms, and he finished in 1940. So I don’t remember him as a senator, but all the family stories has him be so strict and so conservative and so straitlaced that a little bit of me was like, no, I’m not going to be like that. So I’m not quite as straitlaced.

Nina Easton: So he didn’t really steal horses because –

Jody Olsen: Well, actually, he did. (Laughter.) Yeah.

Nina Easton: So he wasn’t that strict and conservative.

Jody Olsen: No, no.

Nina Easton: OK.

Jody Olsen: And it’s – no. He did have to steal the horses so he did get through college.

Nina Easton: OK. There’s a whole story there.

Jody Olsen: There’s another story there.

Nina Easton: But we need your story first. So then there’s your father, who was a member of Congress.

Jody Olsen: Yes. My –

Nina Easton: He ran for Senate.

Jody Olsen: Yes. My father was a member of Congress starting in 1958, and then he also ran for the Senate in 1962, and then went back into Congress. And then, in 1966, he lost. And he was then selected to go to Madagascar as ambassador and took the whole family except me because I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia. And so I waved to him across the continent. (Laughter.) And I appreciate that the three years that they spent in Madagascar influenced who they’ve been all these years since. And so –

Nina Easton: How so?

Jody Olsen: So I have – in the house are so many Madagascar paintings and statues. You know that Madagascar has just fabulous statues. My brothers all got to be fluent in French because they went to a school in Antananarivo and they talk about it. They have stories about the lemur that was on their shoulder, and you appreciate how an international experience, even if it’s for two or three years growing up or right after you finish college, it stays with you. It becomes who you are for the rest of your life.

Nina Easton: And despite all those travels, you were not on an airplane until you flew to Tunisia. You would just get in the family car to drive from Salt Lake City to Washington all those years.

Jody Olsen: Yes. We – when my father was elected in 1958, I was a freshman or a sophomore in high school and we loaded six kids and two parents in this little minivan or whatever you called it then and –

Nina Easton: Station wagon, probably.

Jody Olsen: Station wagon, yeah. Station wagon. (Laughter.) And we drove the 2,100 miles to Washington, D.C., for all of us to see, and as many of you know, in Salt Lake City you have great big huge high mountains, and they’re august and great and lots of snow and skiing. And so we drove. And my father, who had grown up in Washington because his father was in the Senate, said, we can’t wait to see the Eastern mountains. And so there we are. We’re going forward. We’re going forward. (Laughter.) And we get to Hagerstown –

Nina Easton: Oh.

Jody Olsen: – and he goes, these wonderful mountains, and I look around. I go, wait a minute; where are the mountains? Where are they at? (Laughter.)

Nina Easton: I had the same reaction, coming from California. Like, there’s mountains? Yeah.

Jody Olsen: There’s mountains? Where are the mountains?

Nina Easton: OK.

Jody Olsen: So that was a little bit disappointing. But the – I loved being in Washington in high school and you could all guess – because I dated. And we didn’t have any money so we found everything that was free in Washington, D.C. So that’s why I’ve been to the museums. I’ve been to all the concerts, everything that’s free out on the Mall. And I knew at that time, even though I went back to the University of Utah, that, you know, I’m not sure I’m going to live in Salt Lake the rest of my life.

Nina Easton: And you were the only one of your family that pursued public service on a high level like this, which is interesting.

Jody Olsen: It’s – yes.

Nina Easton: So you’re in college in Salt Lake City and you decide to join the Peace Corps.

Jody Olsen: Well, I’m in – I’m in college. I’m in the University of Utah and, as a junior, I – I was in a sorority the whole time because I was so retiring. You wouldn’t believe I was so retiring but I was so quiet. But I needed a sorority so I could figure out how to come out a little bit and be a little noisier. And this guy stood up and he spoke for 10 minutes. Then he sat down, and I was eating my cake and I went, you know, I think I want to do that. But that was 1964. He had just come back from being a Peace Corps volunteer. You know, I was – because I was engaged. You know, I was going to get married and have kids and settle down, and this 10 minutes – 10 minutes – changed everything. And we – it takes guts, I think. At the time I didn’t think it took guts. I just thought, I want to do that. So the next day I went to Bob and I said, guess what, and Bob said, you know –

Nina Easton: Your fiancé?

Jody Olsen: My fiancé. You know, I think we can make that happen, and a year and a half later we were married and we went to Tunisia as a couple, and it was the first time for either one of us that we –

Nina Easton: So he was a Peace Corps volunteer as well?

Jody Olsen: Yeah . We were a married couple as a Peace Corps volunteer. But to make that decision, and I guess one of the statements to women is follow your gut. I mean, that was quite a gut reaction –

Nina Easton: Yeah.

Jody Olsen: – and my parents and other family and friends were like, no, no, no, you’re totally out of your mind, and it was back when they didn’t know much about what this organization was about. But we did it and, as anyone here who has done Peace Corps or other ways of living overseas knows, it so totally changes your life and what you thought you were going to do you’re probably not going to do anymore.

Nina Easton: And what was the inner drive to – aside from the 10 minutes? I mean, what was inside you that said, I have to do this?

Jody Olsen: I used to go out – when my father would come – when I was at the University of Utah he would fly back from Washington to campaign and I would always meet him at the airport, and every time I picked him up and then put him back on the plane I kept thinking, I want to get on a plane and just see where it goes. I have no idea why. I just want to get on an airplane and see where it goes. That’s not a very good reason to become a Peace Corps volunteer. (Laughter.) But it must have been part of what was in the back of my brain to get me ready to when I heard that I could go someplace far away.

Nina Easton: So it was really adventure?

Jody Olsen: It was adventure. You know, I want to think about all these wonderful reasons.

Nina Easton: Yeah. I was going to say, like it wasn’t like you’re helping the world or anything. It was adventure. OK.

Jody Olsen: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to save the world. I wanted to, you know, have a life of goodness. No, it was adventure. (Laughter.)

Nina Easton: Good. I love the honesty.

Jody Olsen: It was, like, oh, I want to just do something.

Nina Easton: And you describe to me the – it was a transformative experience Take us there and tell us how that was.

Jody Olsen: In a couple of ways it was personally transformative, and then we’ll talk about what we do when we interact in communities. But at that point in life, when you get married – when a woman gets married, particularly in Utah, you take your husband’s name, including the first name. So I was – I became Mrs. Robert Olsen. And then all the mail comes to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Olsen. And that you don’t get a piece of mail that belongs to you.

Jody Olsen: And so I had been married almost a year and a half when we went. And I was so used to that’s what you did . That’s what we all did in Salt Lake. Peace Corps has no idea what they did for me. They sent me my own envelope with my own name on it when we were getting ready to go. It was Mrs. Jody Olsen. And I’m going, oh, I have my own envelope. Bob, you have yours, I have mine. And I was in a different program. He was in architecture and I was in English. And so we went to – you know, we had different in-service training and we had different cohorts that we were working with in Tunisia. And I went, oh, I have my own project.

Jody Olsen: It sounds strange now, but this is four decades ago, almost five decades ago.

Nina Easton: And it’s important – I think it’s important for women today to hear that.

Jody Olsen: But you – I found myself. I found that I could have a voice. That was one of the elements of what Peace Corps taught me. I could have a voice. And what was wonderful is Bob had a great experience working in architecture. And I had a great experience working largely in education. We would share experiences at night. We would do lots of things together. But we could be equal partners in this experience. And I had never understood that that was possible before. So from a personal point of view, Peace Corps was wonderful. That was the last thing I was expecting.

Jody Olsen: Now, again, as many return volunteers talk about, the idea of learning to listen, learning to observe, hear stories, and absorb so that you can fit in is, I think, something that anyone would describe as an important first step, that you – are the skills that you take with you the rest of your life. And I did. I mean, just to give you one quick example. I had been there a week and a half, and I needed to buy a stamp for the aerogram to spend to my parents that they would get in six months.

Jody Olsen: But in that process, I’d come to the door of the – of the space where you get your stamp and mail your letter. And, you know, there was – the men were in cloth from head to foot. And the women were in cloth from head to foot. And there was a lot of noise, and a lot of language that I didn’t understand at the time. And I had no idea, how am I going to get a stamp? How am I going to find out how much it costs? How am I going to put it on an envelope and put it in the post? So I stood there.

Jody Olsen: And I’ll never forget standing there for 15 minutes just watching, how does this work? And at the end of 15 minutes it was like, aha, I got it. It was a whole different way than anything I knew, but I learned a great lesson of just stand quiet, just be present, just listen, just watch. And how events unfold for you when you do that.

Nina Easton: What did you learn by doing that? What did you learn about human nature, being in a totally different culture?

Jody Olsen: That’s a good question. One, most of our values are the same. And I was – I ate with a family every day, and a very strong, very religious Arab family. And in fact, the grandfather had done the Hajj. And as we would have our noon meal, and I would play with the kids and talk to the grandparents – I mean, my Arabic got a little bit better, but with that. We had the same feelings about children. We had the same feelings about what is a close family. And I appreciated that even though, you know, languages, and cultures, and what we eat, and women stayed largely covered, that you work your way through that. And we were having all the same conversations about family values, and support for each other.

Jody Olsen: And it helped me appreciate, as I’ve done many other things in my life, to, one, understand the differences that you see, be present with them, because you find the commonality. And you’re always looking for where is that space where we can tell each other’s story.

Nina Easton: So you also had a bit of a culture clash over food, which you told on this same – at CSIS not long ago. We do have to hear that story.

Jody Olsen: Yes, I did. Oh, you have to hear that story. Well, I had – when I was here before, the question was, you know, a little bit about, when did you know that you belonged or what was one of those challenges that makes you feel that you’re finally present? I had been eating with this family and we had become very close. And after about eight or nine months, they said we’re going to make a very special dish for you this time. And I felt like I had eaten just about everything. And I was thrilled, I mean, couscous and all of that is the usual fare. But they reminded me all week long that this special meal was being set on Friday.

Jody Olsen: So after school, I went and I dressed up this time. I mean, I usually dressed up, but I was very proper. And I came to the door and they’re all very proper and, you know, a standard middle-class family in Sousse, Tunisia. And so you climb up these stairs and you come in and you sit down and everybody said, oh, we’re so excited. And then you all sit around the table and here are the kids and the grandparents and the parents. And the food comes out. And I’m just thrilled to have this very special meal.

Jody Olsen: Well, it was a demi tête, it was a half of a cow’s head – and it was literally half of a cow’s head – (laughter) – because there was the ear and there was the eye, there was half of the mouth. And I went I don’t even want to turn around and see what that other half looks like. It was the most –

Nina Easton: Let’s say disgusting.

Jody Olsen: Disgusting. (Laughter.)

Nina Easton: It’s OK.

Jody Olsen: There we go. It was so disgusting. And they’re all sitting around like this – (laughter) – because they are so excited to share this with me, the volunteer. And I didn’t know what to do. And, you know, there you have that nanosecond of, what do I do? I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it. And I just remember in that moment, where’s my Arabic? It’s pretty grim, it’s pretty crummy. And I decided that I could find enough words, something about psychology and perceptions and something to try to get across the message I’m sure it’s delicious, but I can’t eat it, I just – it’s making me almost sick.

Jody Olsen: And the guts that I had, I couldn’t believe that I had the courage to do it, but I knew I couldn’t eat it, to be able to say that to a family that had spent almost all week to make sure I had this perfect meal. And they all burst out laughing and they were saying that’s OK, it’s really OK, you love us. And they sent me in the kitchen and let me cook my own meal. (Laughter.) Come and eat my meal while they at e the cow’s head.

Jody Olsen: But, you know, we – and many of us, I think, think about that moment when you say we’re OK and that moment was when I knew I was OK when I wasn’t going to eat the cow’s head.

Nina Easton: You don’t have to merge.

Jody Olsen: I don’t have to merge the cow’s head into my culture.

Nina Easton: Yeah, didn’t merge the cow’s head. And the Tunisia experience, I just found out from you, actually impacted your decision about getting a Ph.D. and then focusing on gerontology, a Ph.D. in human behavior and focusing on gerontology of all things. Tell us about that.

Jody Olsen: When I was teaching in Tunisia, I had 14-year-old boys, five classes of 40 14-year-old boys. They didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Arabic and almost no words of French. We all got better over the year.

Jody Olsen: But in the process of teaching, we’re finding stories for them to communicate their English. And one of their favorite stories that I heard repeated over and over again was about their grandmothers who were in the living room of their houses and what their grandmothers taught them and the stories of their grandmothers and, to some extent, their grandfathers and the things that they would do together. And I was listening and thinking, where are the grandparents in the United States? Where are the grandparents that are in the living room and in the house? And I was appreciating, you know, from a values perspective the cultures and across the ages.

Jody Olsen: And so when I came home and ultimately went on for a Ph.D., I wanted it to be in gerontology because I really wanted to figure out how to bring multi generations together because I watched firsthand the joy of young people and grandparents.

Nina Easton: And how much weight a grandparent carries.

Jody Olsen: Huge weight.

Nina Easton: So we’re going to turn to the Peace Corps now. I wanted to remind everybody that there are cards, I believe, on everybody’s seats. Go ahead and start writing your questions, we’ll collect them, and we’ll be asking Dr. Olsen.

Nina Easton: So let’s just talk broadly. Congratulations on getting a budget you liked.

Jody Olsen: Oh, yes. We did very well. (Laughter.) Thank you all. (Laughter.)

Nina Easton: Talk about, you know, Peace Corps has been able to maintain pretty much bipartisan support. It’s really considered and – the argument is that it is a tool of our foreign policy, a soft policy tool. What is the role of the Peace Corps in American foreign policy, in your mind?

Jody Olsen: Well, the good news is that it’s not part of America’s official foreign policy, and I’ll explain that in a moment.

Nina Easton: No, no, that’s a good – yeah. That’s a good catch.

Jody Olsen: And because it’s not part of official American foreign policy, as one of the first – the secretary of state when Peace Corps began said it’s probably the best part of American foreign policy.

Jody Olsen: And the reason why it’s not, just very quickly to frame it out, is that, first, Peace Corps as an agency is independent of all other agencies in the federal government, and so that we clearly work to ensure that volunteers are in communities all over the world.

Jody Olsen: Second, we go where we’re asked. It’s the countries that invite us, and they help set the agenda for what we’re going to do. Now, the agenda has to be something that young Americans can do, but – with college degrees. But we have these collaborations in what we’re going to do while we’re there.

Jody Olsen: And third – and I think this is really key – that volunteers are there in the community to be part of that community. And often the host families or the counterparts were saying, how did they give up air conditioning, how did they give up TVs, and now how did they give up all of their smartphones to come and be with us? And it’s very hard for people to understand what Americans that come as volunteers come and live and be part of that, so we can’t be part of any agenda because then it cuts and makes at risk why is the person here. Is he here for some agenda that’s beyond the fact that he’s here teaching or he’s here doing health? And so we have to be very neutral and very bipartisan and nonpartisan and very community-based, and that’s what has really sustained us.

Jody Olsen: I might stay with this just for another moment, that Peace Corps has a mission of world peace and friendship, and it has three goals. And these three goals are equal and they’re integrated. And that’s what has been the key, I think, to our success over now 58 years.

Jody Olsen: The first goal is you share a technical skill. And so, you know, I taught English, or we do teacher training, or we do master farming with counterparts, or we do women’s development. That’s part of what we do.

Jody Olsen: Second, we share who we are as individuals. So I was sharing for two years who I was as a female from Salt Lake City, Utah. I couldn’t be a man from New York City – it wouldn’t have worked – I was who I was. And that’s what I shared. That’s what they saw, was this person.

Jody Olsen: Third, you then share it back in the United States. Now, up until recently you did that sharing after you came home. Now you start sharing the moment you get on the airplane to go because they are, hey mom, I just landed. So it’s that giving back to the States.

Jody Olsen: But what I find so exciting – and I’ll – and I’ll give an example, because I was working with a – in Thiès, Senegal. Anybody was a volunteer in Senegal? Oh, yes. Great country by the way. So I was in Thiès, Senegal, and there was a young volunteer from San Francisco. She was an urban agriculture volunteer, and she was working with a master farmer in Feed the Future, which is a cooperation that we have with USAID. And what I was watching is they were planting all these, you know, sample rows of spinach, and then they were planting small trees, and then they were raising chickens. And I watched her and this master farmer, this wonderful tall older guy, and the way they interacted. The trusted each other. They were using a local language. They were discussing ideas back and forth.

Jody Olsen: How did that happen? It happened because she started by sharing herself. She started by saying I’m going to be part of you all. I’m going to learn your language. I’m going to eat the food. I’m going to play with the kids. I’m going to go chase the chickens. Whatever it is. So that the farmer could listen because he knew that she had taken a responsibility to really be there. And so you see where goals one and two really come together, because each makes the other work.

Jody Olsen: And the third goal, you’ve got to create the stories so you have something to say to friends and families in the U.S. You’re not going to say, hey, mom, nothing happened today; I just sat in my chair. So something has to happen. And you get very excited about creating these experiences to share back home.

Nina Easton: And social media has really impacted that.

Jody Olsen: (Audio break) – the social media side is that families and friends and colleagues are getting more involved in the experience while it’s happening.

Jody Olsen: Let me give one quick example from Macedonia when we were visiting a volunteer and she was at home in her host family. And we were at the dining room table, and she said every Sunday night I Skype my family from Pittsburgh. So we were talking about her every Sunday night Skyping her family from Pittsburgh. Well, the second time she did it her host family said, well, you’re not going to Skype your family by yourself; we’re going to be right here. (Laughter.) And what was happening was that the two mothers were starting to bond – (laughter) – through this Macedonian and English, and the host family invited the family from Pittsburgh over for Christmas. And you watched what was happening and the family in Pittsburgh was saying, the mother there, it’s her daughter too.

Jody Olsen: So I’m guessing, I’m thinking, I’m feeling that this volunteer experience, this Peace Corps volunteer experience, has even become more expansive and more relevant because we can engage so many more people in it now than we could many years ago.

Nina Easton: So those are all the great upsides. There’s also – you’re also struggling with some issues about the safety of volunteers. We had the Kate Puzey case. I didn’t realize that three or four volunteers a year die. Is that correct?

Jody Olsen: Approximately, yeah.

Nina Easton: You know, some parts of the country aren’t – the world are not safe, and some choices that people make aren’t safe. And then you have issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment. How are you coping with that or how are you addressing that?

Jody Olsen: The Peace Corps is a wonderful team. Peace Corps – I want to thank everybody here. I’m just so happy to see friends and colleagues and Peace Corps staff colleagues. Just thank you for being here.

Jody Olsen: As a team, you’re looking for how can we make this experience work as best as it can. And so we have emergency procedures, and so all the volunteers do carry a phone. I mean, for those of you who were volunteers a few years ago, everybody has a phone now. And your – just as a sidebar to – and then I’ll come back. Often the phone gets charged in a pole that sits in the village that has a solar panel on the top, and the volunteer with all the other village people go and charge their phones in the pole with the solar panel. So it’s amazing how you can keep cellphones alive. But we all – all the volunteers have emergency links, and we have a good system so that if anything happens immediately the volunteer has contact. And that is a very strong component.

Jody Olsen: We also have up to 12 weeks of pre-service training, and in that it’s a lot of safety and security tips. It’s staying safe. A lot of cultural tips, particularly for women, because we’re – 63 percent of volunteers are now women. And how do you stay safe? How do you minimize a chance of something happen? That training is extremely important.

Jody Olsen: We also have a very complete system that, if an assault occurs, of, again, emergency contact and support for the person that was assaulted all the way through. And we’re proud of the record that we’ve been working towards these years, and we’re now being asked by other agencies to come and talk about our system because we’ve worked so hard on it.

Jody Olsen: I might just note that in the recent legislation we were encouraged to talk about sexual assault with counterparts and host families, which is almost like the ultimate of crossing cultures. And I originally was like, oh my heavens. And what I’ve been hearing is that it has been this opportunity to bring cultural conversations, language, people caring, values into a conversation that goes even farther than we had before. And so it is about how do you create a community of support for a Peace Corps volunteer.

Nina Easton: So let’s talk about the women’s economic empowerment initiative. Tell us about that and what you’re doing.

Jody Olsen: The women’s – and I brought a chart because I wanted to make sure I read it because I’m so excited about it. And this was rolled out on February 7th when President Trump signed a national security presidential memorandum establishing the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative to promote women’s economic empowerment through the work of the U.S. government with local and national partners around the world. It’s a whole of government. And so we at Peace Corps and with a lot of the other federal agencies are working on our place to really help build women’s empowerment – economic empowerment.

Jody Olsen: What’s exciting for us is – here’s my other little cheat sheet – that probably not many people here know that in the legislation of 1961 is put what almost is word for word what the women’s economic empowerment initiative is: To give particular attention to those programs, projects, and activities which tend to integrate women into the national economics of developing countries, thus improving their status and assisting the total development effort. This was September 1961. So with this initiative we are able to celebrate the enormous number of projects volunteers have – Kimberly was describing one she was working with as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria – that are enabling women to be able to do more and to strengthen their role in communities.

Jody Olsen: I might note that we were able to give a particularly strong example at the rollout in the Oval Office on February 7th when it was a woman from rural Malawi who had been working with Peace Corps volunteers for eight years who spoke. She was wearing his Malawian outfit and she was describing what is women’s development and prosperity – what does that look like village by village: “I’m the founder of the Budala Women’s Group. In 2010, we started the group with 10 women to address the loss of trees in our village. Today the group has 65 women in three villages where we have many businesses that help us earn steady incomes. They include beekeeping, bakery, and vegetable garden. We have become our community’s workforce. During these past eight years we have worked with Peace Corps volunteers who have helped us gain many skills. They are critical to our success.” Can you imagine this wonderful Malawian woman giving this talk at the rollout?

Jody Olsen: And what we’re hoping to do is provide the opportunity for as many Peace Corps volunteers as possible to have these kinds of programs. We will be raising some additional resources for small-project assistance for Peace Corps volunteers to continue to do this community-level work. And I’m hoping that collectively throughout the United States we’re also talking about the work of encouraging women and that economic development that women can have in countries. And so all the ways we’re happy to partner, we want to partner as we give more training and support for Peace Corps volunteers to continue to work in these extraordinary projects.

Jody Olsen: Now, what’s exciting because of the whole-of-government, the State Department just rolled out two programs in the last day. USAID is looking at programs. We could partner with many of the other agencies. They do big-picture stuff. And a lot of the work we do rolls into that larger-picture work. It’s people like Ella, it’s thousands of Ella all through Central African countries that make such a difference. And we’re the counterparts to the thousands of Ella Zandes.

Nina Easton: So here’s a question from the audience. Are there any lessons from working on economic empowerment overseas that we can use with women in the U.S., particularly women in underserved communities here?

Jody Olsen: I think, just as I think about that question, and I think about the women in many of the countries where we work, it’s about helping them have a voice and helping them appreciate their own skills, helping them see. I mean, I’m going to go back and what happened to me as a Peace Corps volunteer, that I discovered that I could be me and I could be an active part, that one of the most important things that I think we can give women is the power of their voice and the opportunity for them, with families and in communities, to reach out and reach out in hundreds of even small ways through locally based NGO activity to have them find that power to work in the communities.

Nina Easton: Another audience question: What role do you see the engagement of young men and boys playing in the women’s economic empowerment process? And in parentheses, B-R-O camp, et cetera.

Jody Olsen: Yeah, right. Well, there’s an important role. The BRO camps that’s being referred to is that –

Nina Easton: BRO camps, OK.

Jody Olsen: Yeah, they’re BRO camps. And I know it stands for something wonderful. What does it stand for?

Nina Easton: Boys respecting others, I heard that.

Jody Olsen: Boys respecting others, thank you. That we’ve had a lot of the GLOW camps that Kimberly referred to, which is, you know, strengthening girls and young women in just understanding their own voice. We were appreciating a little more recently this is equally important for boys and young men because, how is it that we help create that opportunity for them to be equal partners as they grow up and grow forward? And so that activity for boys and young men is very, very important and in the context of what we’re talking and doing with girls and young women.

Jody Olsen: I might note that in a video that was done in Malawi with Ella Zande, her husband spoke and her husband talked about what he had learned from her work, what he had learned – I’m sorry I don’t have the quote with me – but his learning to trust her, his learning to be a partner with her, his learning to let go and share. And his words were so poignant and I think, in part, because the volunteer was working with Ella and her husband as all this activity was going forward. And so we know we need – we do have a responsibility to give boys and young men their own identity and strength vis-à-vis that identity and strength that we give young women.

Nina Easton: Another question, different topic: How have the specializations in how Peace Corps volunteers are trained, how has that changed over the years? What are the most difficult specialties to fill? And how are older volunteers faring? What special roles can they play? So specialization and older volunteers.

Jody Olsen: OK, let me start with the older volunteers. We have about 6 or 7 percent of volunteers who are over 50 and our oldest volunteer is 83. And one of the –

Nina Easton: There’s hope for some of us. Yeah, I love it.

Jody Olsen: There’s hope, dare I say there’s always a chance. I might note that sometimes when older volunteers join, we let them do a second tour or even a third tour because they’ve already had a wonderful life and they’d say, OK, now I’m going to devote this part of my life to the Peace Corps. When you’re young, we sort of nudge them out after two years or three years and say, you know, there’s other things to do. But also, with the older volunteers, now because of all of this, their kids and their grandkids get involved in their experience. And as we talked about in my own experience in Tunisia, in many of the countries the older volunteers gain a lot of respect because they are older.

Jody Olsen: Now, many of the older volunteers, just to be honest, struggle with the language and any of you that are a little older probably appreciate that languages don’t just trip off the tongue. But what I was really intrigued with as I watch older volunteers, the face, the movement, the hands, the joy, the experience overcomes any language barrier, and many of the older volunteers they come with experience.

Jody Olsen: Let me give – specifically, Macedonia. We had a volunteer that I spent time with who spent 30, 35 years in special ed and at about 65 she had come to Macedonia and she was working in a center with children with disabilities and with her counterpart, and her counterpart was probably 35 to 40 years younger than she. The two of them have become like sisters, and they were exchanging ideas and the counterpart was saying, this volunteer has given me the courage that I wouldn’t have had, and the older volunteer was saying, I just can’t believe what I’ve learned from the young person and the two of them together.

Jody Olsen: So older volunteers play a very special volunteer role that is very exciting. Now, specialization – math and science we struggle with and, to some extent, sometimes education of people who have education degrees. So we’re working with that much more. We’ve changed our recruiting a tad in that we work more within the universities themselves and within the schools and colleges so that we have programs that are in agriculture at the University of Tennessee, for example, and we talk and work with the faculty and they help recruit with us because the changing specialization – I mean, countries change. The experience that they’re – that people in the countries have, the education that they already have, we have to be there in a different way and so we’re there as facilitators. We’re there as sparks.

Jody Olsen: But we do need to have enough of the ag, enough of the health, and so we’re reaching more towards people in public health or with public health degrees or with ag degrees or with education degrees. But with that, we’re – we have about 20,000 people that apply every year and it’s been fairly steady over the years. We communicate with them differently. I mean, we don’t have just these general events anymore. We’re doing this and this and do a lot of it online and then –

Nina Easton: What about tech specialization like teaching coding or things like that?

Jody Olsen: Aha. What’s exciting about this, one, is that we do have several projects when we think of women – that coding for girls and coding for women – that we now teach coding and networking – computer networking in places that don’t have electricity. We sort of bring our own and put up the solar panel.

Nina Easton: Solar panels. Uh-huh.

Jody Olsen: But what we’re discovering, and many of you appreciate, that almost every Peace Corps volunteer comes with enormous technical skill. They say, oh, I don’t have any technical skill, and then you sit and watch what they do and what they can fix and put together and try and code new programming. And so some of the volunteers actually are helping write – this is a Ghana project – apps for the cell phones in Ghana to teach young people about malaria. So the –

Nina Easton: Is there anything those Millennials can’t do?

Jody Olsen: They can do it all. They do it all. I mean, we just watch them and I go, oh my goodness, what are you doing. (Laughter.) But they just get together with the teenagers and the young folks in the countries and you just watch them swapping ideas, and there they are coding and doing apps and all for good causes. It’s quite amazing.

Nina Easton: So you’re finding you don’t need to look for that specialty. It’s just a natural – they just have a natural talent for it, just being digital.

Jody Olsen: Because they have a natural talent.

Nina Easton: Wait until Gen X comes along.

Jody Olsen: Oh, I know. I’m trying to get ready for Gen X here.

Nina Easton: Yeah. So can you discuss the blurring of the lines between the U.S. military and Peace Corps volunteers in Africa and the – it cites the example of military digging wells in northern Mali.

Jody Olsen: OK. I know that over – there has been part of the military in Africa, particularly West Africa, and we actually have not blurred lines because many of the – much of the military in the countries, particularly in the West African countries, are in countries that we are not in. And the military – like Mali, for example. I wish we were, but we’re not in Mali, or we’re not in Mauritania or Niger or Chad. But the military plays its own role and we play our own role.

Jody Olsen: And I think one of the ways that keeps us in our own role, again, is we live truly in the community. We are learning the local language. We live with a host family. We’re there with the goats. We’re eating that fufu. We’re –

Nina Easton: Except for you, with the cows.

Jody Olsen: Except for me. Oh, no, no, no. (Laughter.) I was just like, nah, no, let me go fix my own.

Jody Olsen: But the – but we integrate. We fully integrate into that process. And that is one of the ways that they have a role and we have a role, and I think we’re respectful very much of the differences of those roles.

Nina Easton: So we have a question about climate change. Do you see it shifting, you know, where you’re working, how your volunteers are working? Any trends?

Jody Olsen: Because we work at the community level, I’m not going to speak about trends – (laughs) – because I don’t really – don’t play at that level. But what’s been interesting is – let’s take Senegal, for example – the desertification has been moving farther into Senegal. And so part of our work is how do we work in a – and work with our counterparts in a more Sahelian environment. And the – you know, and as Ella was talking about, preserving or planting trees and bringing back forests that might have been disappearing for whatever reason. And we also are working with small gardens and the ways that you teach people to garden with not much water. So whatever the circumstances are that volunteers find themselves, they work with their counterparts in how do we solve being able to have enough water and have enough resources for this particular community.

Nina Easton: So here’s an interesting question: Are there any Peace Corps policies that impact male and female volunteers differently?

Jody Olsen: Oh, my. (Laughter.)

Nina Easton: Do you want to hop in, anybody?

Jody Olsen: Well, we have guys and we have women. (Laughs.) I’m not thinking of any offhand.

Nina Easton: Is there someone from the audience that wanted to offer a quick answer to that?

Q: A lot of – I think – (off mic). I certainly – (off mic).

Nina Easton: Oh, yeah. Oh, there’s a mic.

Jody Olsen: An interesting question.

Q: (Comes on mic.) So I served in Togo and I recently went back to visit, and I was –

Nina Easton: Talk loudly and clearly, yeah.

Jody Olsen: And talk a little louder.

Q: Oh. I was speaking to the country director there, and he mentioned that they recently rectified a rule where if a female volunteer got pregnant you have to go back to America. Basically, you’re medically separated. (Laughs.) But if a male volunteer got another Peace Corps volunteer pregnant or a host country national, they were allowed to finish their service. They recently rectified that, but that’s the only one I know of.

Jody Olsen: Well, pregnancy would be –

Nina Easton: Oh, pregnancy. Oh.

Q: I don’t know if that’s Peace Corps-wide or Togo-specific.

Jody Olsen: I mean, I – maybe I should, but I’m not very much aware of what that issue is, so I’m going to have to defer.

Q: OK, that’s fine.

Nina Easton: That’s fine.

Q: This is just my experience. (Laughs.)

Nina Easton: OK. So here’s another question since we’re running short on time: I applaud Peace Corps’ ability to always give an authoritative voice to those we assist during our service. Can you please explain how we are listening to the authoritative voices of women and girls on the ground in the Peace Corps countries about how and when to best uplift their own efforts to help themselves?

Jody Olsen: I think this comes back to how do we create an environment for women to speak. And if there’s time, let me give one last story – it’s a Togo story – about how we lift women up.

Jody Olsen: You heard from Ella, but I’m going to give one more of a person who had a master’s. She had an MBA. And she was working in a community in Togo near the Ghana border. And the women had a fairly elaborate co-op, but they wanted to have more strength and more income and really turn it into an even larger business. And so she went and, with her MBA, she was starting to teach them how to do this. And she was working French because she hadn’t learned the local language yet. And they were all going yes, yes, yes, just wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Well, at about month eight she began to realize that they hadn’t really understood what she was saying and they were doing this because she was nice, but it really was not what they really wanted.

Jody Olsen: And so finally when she got to the – I’ll be quick – when she finally got to the local language, they said, well, this is what we really want. We really want to know how to read and write numbers. They were illiterate. And she goes, oh, my heavens, I have an MBA and I’m going to teach these women how to read and write numbers. And so she bought them the copy books, the pencils, so they were marching, like, with their sons and daughters that were going to school. And deliberately over time, they were learning how to read and write numbers. And she was – she was telling me just, what am I doing?

Jody Olsen: Well, two months later a woman from another village came in and turned to these women and said, you know, they’re all sitting here reading and writing numbers, what are you doing? And the volunteer said I’m going to be found out, it’s over. And the women stood up one by one and said I’m learning how to fix my cost sheet, I’m learning how to record my profit, I’m learning how to add and track my expenses. And the volunteer started crying because what she realized was these women were holding all of this in their head, all this business, and they knew by reading and writing numbers they could expand their business and their communities and their role in the community so much into a much larger framework, and that they knew exactly why they wanted to read and write numbers.

Nina Easton: I love that story.

Jody Olsen: And so we – this is what we do. And we don’t know we do it and then all of a sudden they discover that we really did something kind of fun.

Nina Easton: So, Dr. Olsen, as we finish here, give us one quick piece of advice on being a successful leader.

Jody Olsen: Oh, my. OK, I’m going to give a few quick words. Have a passion – you’ll never know what mine is – have a strong passion, which is why –

Nina Easton: You’ll never know, so we don’t know what your passion is?

Jody Olsen: It’s called Peace Corps.



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    by Edward Mycue

    All that noisy night the phoenix flamed
    crackling embers into singeing song
    scorching fog, fuchsia, western laurel tree
    razing memories of my flower years,
    smoke clouding what passes, these keys of flesh,

    time the phoenix entered the sun dance
    fragmenting, shattering, grinding-down
    my tired half-dreams of a failed dream,
    scooping from that mist of muffled bones
    one frail and fragrant puff of finished fuse.

    Fleeing, finding stars, sky, sirens screaming,
    years turn, hope spins again into morning,
    so what could never end might yet still come again.

    (C) Copyright Edward Mycue
    (for the painter Richard Steger)

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