Carol Spahn became the twenty-first Peace Corps Director this year. Her Peace Corps journey started as a Volunteer in Romania, but she also served as a Peace Corps’ Malawi’s Country Director. Carol has the experience needed to take the agency’s intercultural development to the next level. Her thoughtful approach and community-driven focus enabled her to successfully serve as executive director for an African nonprofit as well as the senior vice president of operations for Women for Women International.
Women of Peace Corps Legacy’s co-founder and former Peace Corps Director, Jody Olsen sat down with Carol to talk about everything from lessons learned from service to advice for aspiring leaders.
Jody: How do women leaders help shape you and your leadership?
Carol: I’ll start with you Jody, because I’ve watched you lead the organization through an incredibly challenging decision. How you cheered everyone on through what was – I can only say a traumatic moment in our history [and] a moment when we were all hands-on deck, coming together for a common purpose – it was powerful!
I enjoyed watching your leadership of the agency during that time, and I learned a lot from you. There are different female leaders that inspired [me] in different ways. Sarah Gerwin, who works at the Peace Corps now, was a Volunteer in Romania. We both stayed [in country] for an extra year. I worked for GE Capital; she, for a consulting firm that supported a GE Capital bank. [After] a GE Capital’s strategy [team meeting], Sarah pulled [me aside] and said, “You need to speak up! You know more than you think.” That has always stuck with me.
Jody: What is a moment or two from Volunteer service that has shaped you?
Carol: It’s hard to pinpoint one moment, because there’s this cumulative impact of moments when you reflect on it. I think the biggest skill that probably any volunteer learns – and one I certainly learned was [to be curious]. It was four years after the fall of communism, and there were all kinds of perceptions, stereotypes, and understandings of what it meant to live under a communist regime. You go in with those perceptions and stereotypes whether you want to or not.
I think that whole experience taught me to be curious rather than judgmental or make assumptions.
Our cross-cultural training taught us [Volunteers] about the art, history, and Romanian life. But you know, we had some challenges, [such as] ordering food in restaurants. We would order a piece of meat. [The servers] would bring us bread, salad, French fries, and charge us for all of it. We would fight it because we were Peace Corps Volunteers and didn’t have any money. It took us six months to figure out that, that’s just the way it was. Now anytime I’m feeling that indignant self-righteousness, I step back and say, “What’s really going on here?”
At our root, we’re humans. We have similar needs and wants. We want to be seen, heard and understood. When you approach something with curiosity, you don’t end up with those embarrassing [misunderstandings].
But you [need to] stick up for yourself when it’s not a cross-cultural moment; when it's a “I need to step up and own this space.” It’s a delicate balance to walk and [everyone] makes mistakes along the way.
Jody: You just hit at the heart of being a woman in a leadership position on a team: When is it
respectful, when is it humble, and when is it time to speak? How do we use our voice
without being judged in different ways than often men are being judged?
Carol: I took a great cross-cultural negotiation course and we had to practice some of these [situations] and think about what evidence we were bringing or how we were negotiating a particular situation. There was a situation where I was in a finance role and my background was accounting and finance. The board asked me to step into an executive director role temporarily. I had young kids, I had taken this position as a part-time position. I said, “Look, I’ll do this, but I can’t do that job and my old job at the same time. I’m going to take this job and we’re going to fill the other position.
I said, “You're hiring me to do this job, right?” and they said, “Yes.” I said, “Do you want me to do the full job?” and they said, “Yes.” And I said, “Then I would like the full salary for that job, and I will do what it takes to get it done.”
Had I not asked or advocated for myself, I would have been doing two jobs for the same salary. You know that was sort of expected. I certainly grew up in a family that values hard work, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept a situation that’s not going to work for you and your family.
Jody: How do you see the agency rebuilding in the next year to three years? What’s it going
to look like?
Carol: It’s been a journey over the last couple of years. You never know what any day might bring in this vast beautiful morass of humanity we call, the Peace Corps. There wasn’t ever a time to step back and say “Alright, we’re going to work on our systems,” or “We’re going to do our record keeping,” or we’re going to do any number of things that you know you should do, but can never get to.
What we tried to do – and your leadership started this Jody – was to say let’s shore up! Let's contribute in every way we can to the COVID-19 response in countries, so that we can keep our staff fresh, engaged, and motivated. Let’s be the strongest Peace Corps we can possibly be for when Volunteers come back.
The programming piece has been in the works for 5-8 years! This comprehensive system starting with logical project frameworks, developed from the ground up with host country nationals, volunteers, partners, and counterparts.
Alongside that, was a revamp of the reporting systems. The reporting system tied to the grants is more user friendly and it incorporates these logical project frameworks. Then we went through a process of training design alignment with Volunteer competencies. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a core competency for the Peace Corps. This beautifully comprehensive, aligned system with built-in reporting functions where eventually a Volunteer will be able to [access] a dashboard to report back to communities or government partners in unique ways. That is a beautiful thing! That is rolling out now.
We talk a lot about security incident systems and trainings around sexual assault. There’s a lot of work done with our teams around diversity, equity, and inclusion. The beautiful thing that comes out of these discussions is that with logical project frameworks and everything loaded into the system, they can run a report [to answer any given question], such as percent of projects related to youth development.
This is the largest generation of youth in history. Ninety percent of whom live in developing countries. It can result in a demographic dividend, or it can result in mass unemployment and social interest. We are using strategic foresight to say what is coming down the road? How is it going to affect us? Are the number of college students declining in US colleges?
We’re building on our strengths and [a community’s capacity]. How can we not just teach youth in a secondary school, but link them to opportunity? I feel like this is our moment to shine, to step up, and bring the voices of young people and others in the furthest reaches of communities to the table in a unique way.
At this point, we’re building on strengths, making sure we retain all of the things that make Peace Corps magical and expanding our impact even more. We’re looking to expand some of the certification opportunities. [We’ve been exploring questions such as,] “What if every volunteer and counterpart got a project design and management certificate?”
This is all long-term building off of our strategic plan. We’re building a holistic picture where
some countries might only need or want Peace Corps Response Volunteers. Others might be in a
completely different place where they’re trying to build up their own local volunteer network.
To do all of that, we need to have efficient systems. We need to standardize to help us streamline
and modernize some of our basic functions. A lot of it’s done, but we have room to grow.
The other piece of it is that the pace of change is just going to keep increasing. We have to be
creative, we have to be adaptive, and Virtual Service is just one of, I hope, many tools we
develop. We’re seeing [Virtual Service’s effectiveness] in Ukraine. We have 18 virtual
engagements in an active war zone. That just gives me the chills. The Ukrainian ambassador to
the US was at our event last night and she said, “We love Peace Corps! What can I do to help
people understand what it means even to have Virtual Service [support]?” That’s a game
A lot of our [ideas] address some of the equity and ownership issues at a more structural level.
Again, it’ll take time, but I’m just excited it’s been an all-agency effort. Everyone contributing through the strategic plan and all of the working groups. It’s a very inspiring time right now as we build back up and with everybody thinking about how we seize this opportunity to be better.
Jody: How are the countries responding to us returning? Do we feel comfortable Congress
is behind us and working along?
Carol: We asked every country “Do you want us?” before we invited Volunteers to go back. They have been asking “When are you coming back?” [over and over]. We have a backlog of 12 formal invitations from countries that want the Peace Corps to re-enter or for new Peace Corps programs. It means something to have volunteers in country. The symbolism, the commitment, the fact that Americans care enough to go and be a part of [their community], especially after this period of isolation and divisiveness is powerful.
We want to get people back out there and that is my plea to all of you: do everything you can to share the word, so we can get over this period of holding back. That’s why we are launching a new campaign. It is a bold invitation with energy, passion, and strength behind it.
It’s been incredible to see and hear leaders say, “Please come back. You’re part of the fabric of our country.” Uzbekistan invited us back and would like 10,000 volunteers! Mongolia wants 1,000. We were so excited to swear in the first group of Volunteers [in Vietnam, too].
Jody: If you had a piece of advice for all of us, what would it be?
Carol: I feel a little conscious giving advice to people I admire so much. I think that as women, sometimes we let fear – fear of failure, fear of judgment, and fear of people not liking us – get in the way of what we’re capable of. My advice would be to reflect on how fear might be holding you back.
For the full recorded interview, visit the Women of Peace Corps Legacy’s YouTube channel.