Olivia Chuang posted an articleUnprecedented times, so we’ve set aside the standard playbook for WorldView magazine. see more
The evacuation of Peace Corps Volunteers serving around the globe is unprecedented. So is the way our nation is coming to terms with the truth that Black Lives Matter.
By Steven Boyd Saum
For most Peace Corps Volunteers, the news broke on the Ides of March: due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, every single one of them would be coming home. In its 59-year history, Peace Corps had never undertaken a global evacuation. But then, in so many ways, these are unprecedented times.
In one sense, we feel the precariousness of institutions that we want to sustain — and face the truth of those in desperate need of reform. And since the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day, protests have swept across this nation and scores of others. We grasp the real possibility of dismantling systemic racism — descendant of that original sin of Black slavery, infused in the founding of America.
So for this edition of WorldView, we’ve set aside the standard playbook. We’ve expanded the print magazine so that we can address at least a little better the enormity of this moment. And we’re bringing you a tale in three parts.
Nepal farewell: Training to become Volunteers, Rachel Ramsey (facing camera) and Elyse Paré had to evacuate instead. Photo by Eddie De La Fuente
Volunteers were yanked from their communities — sometimes with less than an hour’s notice. They want the world to know what they left behind — in terms of people and places and relationships where they were serving. More important, they want others to understand their unfinished business — as Volunteers working alongside colleagues as part of the audacious Peace Corps mission. We bring your stories from every region where Peace Corps was serving in the beginning of 2020 — from Volunteers and counterparts, country directors and families. Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen also recounts how she reached the agonizing decision to recall all Volunteers.
As for the evacuation: It did not come with one fell swoop. First there was China — where COVID-19 began to spread in January. Then Mongolia — where Volunteers were evacuated before the virus had even begun to hit. And, as countries around the world began to shutter airports and lock down travel, the options for Peace Corps diminished by the day — or the hour.
Volunteers returned to a country grappling with pandemic and an economy suffering a meltdown. Most had no job waiting or a clear game plan. Uncertainty and heartbreak they had in spades. This is the hand they were dealt. So how do they play it?
Evacuated Volunteers needed help landing on their feet. National Peace Corps Association rolled out a program to assist. Staff worked with members of Congress to provide essential support for evacuated Volunteers when it comes to health insurance, unemployment compensation, and other assistance. And NPCA ramped up a new way to provide grant funding for projects that Volunteers had to put on hold when they left.
The Peace Corps community sprang into action in many ways — and we bring you stories from some of the ways they have helped. That includes evacuated Volunteers helping one another — and their communities in the United States in a time of crisis.
That national crisis took on a new dimension with Black Lives Matter protests. We’ve seen many returned Volunteers raising their voices against racism and for justice. We bring you those stories, too, very much with the sense of: This is the moment we are in now.
A Reckoning: and What Next?
We convened a series of town hall meetings July 8–16 and a global summit on July 18 to ask some big questions — not only about the future of Peace Corps, but how we live out values of equity and justice here at home and in the work we do around the world. To help spark debate, in this edition Lex Rieffel reframes the structure of the whole Peace Corps endeavor and poses some striking possibilities for a post-pandemic world. We hope you’ll join the conversation in virtual person, and as we carry ideas forward in the months and years to come.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView and directs communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.
Ana Victoria Cruz posted an articleShare your story—whether it’s video, pictures, text. This is just a beginning. see more
On March 15 more than 7,300 Peace Corps Volunteers were told they needed to leave the communities they had called home—an unprecedented global evacuation. They were uprooted from the lives and work they had come to know, sometimes without the opportunity to even say goodbye. They are returning to a country in crisis.
National Peace Corps Association is working to ensure they have the resources they need during these uncertain and difficult times. We also want to make sure the world hears their stories.
We are gathering here first-person videos and stories, as well as interviews with evacuated Volunteers from around the world.
We invite you to participate, too. We want to share your story—whether it’s video, pictures, text, or you’d like to talk to one of our writers. This is just a beginning.
Home: Originally the Midwest — now North Las Vegas, Nevada
English Education and Community Development Volunteer
“To me, Peace Corps wasn’t just about teaching languages. It was about promoting equity.”
Home: Amherst, Massachusetts
Peace Corps Health Extension Volunteer
“Peace Corps work is so powerful because it’s work we do together with our communities, based on their priorities. It’s work that can become sustainable as we share knowledge and learn together.”
Home: Sharon, Massachusetts
Teaching English, Leadership, and Life Skills (TELLS) Volunteer helping teachers improve their skills and develop new teaching methodologies. She had one hour to pack before evacuating. Now she is a contact tracer with Partners In Health.
"I'm still hoping to go back to Panama one way or another, mostly because I feel very indebted to the whole country and I really want to pay that back...I can only hope that we have the opportunity to do that moving forward."
Home: Rochester, New York by way of Arlington, Virginia
Community health Volunteer in a rural community, focusing on water, sanitation, and nutrition.
“Even though I am back in the United States, I continue to work with the women’s group on this project, believing it could provide real change for these women.”
Home: Medford, New Jersey
Teaching information communication technology and art classes to deaf students in northern Namibia.
“I would also like for Peace Corps Volunteers to help empower deaf and hard-of-hearing people to let them know that they are just as capable as hearing people in achieving their dreams, and to not let anything hold them back.”
Home: San Francisco, California
Working on economic empowerment of women in Colombia — helping women who harvest cacao and turn that into chocolate products*
“These women [entrepreneurs] have been fighting really hard … a lot of people telling them they can’t.”
*Through NPCA's Community Fund, Elyse's project was fully funded!
Home: Rochester, New York
Post-secondary English educator at the University of Mahajanga
“I left behind the most extraordinary community … If it is not possible to personally reinstate or return to Metangula, I hope that Peace Corps is able to reinstate its programs in Mozambique so that Metangula will receive another volunteer in the future.”
Home: Greensboro, North Carolina
Youth Development Volunteer in Apostolove, Dnipropetrovs'ka oblast
“Ukrainians and I are asking the same question: When will I come back? And more important: When will Peace Corps come back?”
Home: Kansas City, Missouri
Three-time Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English — and had hoped to extend to three years of service in Nepal. Previously served in Thailand and Mongolia.
“I left students behind — many that were lower level students that most teachers had written off. … Many of them have begun to be excited about learning … I want to return as soon as possible.”
Home: Louisville, Kentucky
Serving as a community health services promoter
“I left behind the most extraordinary community … If it is not possible to personally reinstate or return to Metangula, I hope that Peace Corps is able to reinstate its programs in Mozambique so that Metangula will receive another volunteer in the future.”
Home: Greater Washington, DC Area
Serving as an English teaching and gender education Volunteer
“We need to get the Peace Corps opened up again as soon as possible. … [They’re] doing incredible work, especially supporting girls’ education.”
Home: Thousand Oaks, California
Working as part of Teaching Empowerment for Student Success (TESS) program, teaching alongside a Thai teacher.
“Peace Corps really provides an outlet for creating a global community, and I think there always be a need for that.”
Home: San Francisco, California
Working as a Public Health Education Volunteer
“Mongolia loves Peace Corps! … I really hope that—in enough time—Peace Corps will send Volunteers back and be able to continue the work going on in the country.”
Home: Condon, Oregon
Working with dairy farmers on economic development and entrepreneurship.
“Much of what I was doing seemed like it would soon have promising results.”
Home: Gloucester, Virginia
Teaching English as a foreign language in a school in a small village. Unfinished business: building a resource center for learning English to help students, faculty, and staff.
“I hope everyone stays safe, and I will be back as soon as possible.”
Steven Boyd Saum served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96 and is the editor of WorldView magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steven Saum posted an articleA code to download the app for free — for a limited time see more
Sign up to receive WorldView digital with our app, including searchable archives and digital exclusives.
1. Sign up for an account here. For a limited time, access is free using the code DIGITAL2020.
2. Then download the app from the iOS store, Google Play, or read the mag on Flickread on your computer here.
Questions? Email us.
National Peace Corps Association Operations posted an articleWhat will your commitment to the planet and future generations be? see more
History and ideas from RPCVs for Environmental Action
By Kate Schachter
It began as a teach-in on the environment. After years of attempting to influence Congress to take action for environmental reforms, Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, turned to the American public: With actions nationwide, it was time to raise awareness of environmental crises across the country.
On April 22, 1970, more than 20 million people across the nation took part in events large and small: students and teachers, mothers and children, scientists and farmers, labor union members and politicians of all stripes. The day was supposed to be a one-off. Instead, it became known as Earth Day—and it marked the beginning of what became known as the “Environmental Decade.” It was a grassroots movement—with some key organizers offering guidance, including RPCV Bryce Hamilton (Guatemala 63–65).
In the run-up to the first Earth Day, Gaylor Nelson founded Environmental Teach-in, Inc. with a coordinating office in Washington, D.C. He enlisted as co-chairman a Republican member of Congress, Pete McCloskey. Bryce Hamilton was working for a nonprofit, and he immediately volunteered his services to Nelson’s coordinating office.
Hamilton wanted to focus on expanding the vision of teach-ins from colleges to include high school students across the country. He oversaw curriculum development. But in true Peace Corps community engagement fashion, he said, “We don’t try to set any policies here. We want people to determine what the pollution and other environmental problems are in their own area, and then do something about them.” Thousands of schools across the country joined in.
In addition to local actions, a raft of national legislative reforms followed—for clean air and water, OSHA regulations, growing the National Park system, and creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Bryce Hamilton, 1970. Photo courtesy Bryce Hamilton.
Many of those reforms have since been rolled back. Others are under threat—while the threats of climate change are increasingly clear. In 1970, the CO2 level in the atmosphere was 325.54 parts per million. Today it’s 412.6 ppm. It’s generally understood that the safe level of CO2 is 350 ppm. Today we must not only educate ourselves and others—like our representatives—but also make a commitment to action. This year, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, RPCVs for Environmental Action have partnered with the Citizen’s Climate Lobby (CCL) and have formed a Peace Corps Action Team. Join us and take action on Earth Day and every day:
- Consider the 12-month New Year’s resolutions proposed by the Earth Day network, or create your own monthly challenges.
- Listen to our NPCA-sponsored webinar on “Bringing Advocacy Action to the Environment” and hear Brett Cease of CCL explain their work. Educate yourself about how to advocate for the planet.
- Approach your RPCV group board and ask for formal endorsement of H.R.763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Let Brady Fergusson, leader of the PCAT, know you are endorsing. Resolve to make climate change a concern worth advocating for.
- Join us to help promote important initiatives.Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Resolve to find your environmental passion and work for it.
- Offset your carbon footprint by joining ucapture.com/rpcv. Free and easy to use with offsets offered by over 25,000 online retailers from Expedia to Booking, from WalMart to Target.
Earth Day is now a global event. This year it will be celebrated by more than 1 billion people in more than 190 countries. Bryce Hamilton continues to participate in Earth Day events and work on social justice issues. As we went to press, he was still planning go to Washington to celebrate Earth Day in April. Though in this time of crisis, as the prevention of the spread of coronavirus remains a top priority, Earth Day celebrations are either being rescheduled or are being organized as virtual events. Find out more here.
Half a century ago, grassroots action across the country helped change how Americans think about the environment. What will your commitment to the planet and future generations be?
Kate Schachter (Ghana 2004–07) is group leader of RPCVs for Environmental Action. Learn more about the history of Earth Day at nelsonearthday.net, a collaborative website between the University of Wisconsin – Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Wisconsin Historical Society. More info at email@example.com.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Spring 2020 issue. Last updated March 30.
Ana Victoria Cruz posted an articleThe cost of a three-room school on donated land is between US $25,000 - $30,000 today. see more
I first visited Myanmar as a tourist in 1996, a few years after the country’s name changed from Burma. Years later, I was curious to return to Myanmar because I have grown to love Asia’s art, its culture, and Buddhism.
I’ve traveled in more than 100 countries and many of them were very poor, but I never had the impulse to jump in and help solve a problem until the day in 2010 I walked through the hills of Myanmar’s Southern Shan State.
In the market town of Kalaw, I met people working with a local non-government organization called the Rural Development Society. Despite the political and economic challenges of the country now known as Myanmar, this rural development organization has since 1990 been building schools in several surrounding villages. Two more communities were “school ready,” meaning they had a donated school site, a commitment for government teachers, a school committee, a strong desire from parents to see their children educated, and a commitment from villagers to do the unskilled labor to build a school. They needed only funding, organization and a plan to execute the vision.
We went to see one of these villages, the ethnic Danu farming community of Nan Auw which was about one and a half hours over rutted tracks from Kalaw. The villagers had carefully carved out space for a school by redrawing their own house lot boundaries. Two days later the chief of Nan Auw came to Kalaw with a petition signed by all the villagers asking for help. Most of the signatures were ‘X’s. That night I thought long and hard about what it meant to be illiterate in the 21st century: no ability to use the internet, no access to further education, vulnerability to human trafficking and no prospects in life except to be a subsistence farmers like their parents. What could be done to keep the children of Nan Auw from a similar fate? The answer, I realized was to help the village build a school to educate them.
Returning to San Francisco, I talked to my friend Andrew Lederer, another RPCV who served in farm mechanics in Pune, India from 1969 to 1971. Andrew agreed to help raise money to build the Nan Auw school and we created Build a School in Burma to do it. Andrew and I wrote the first checks and started a campaign for donations. To our surprise we quickly raised enough money to build Nan Auw Primary School.
We have gone on to build 45 more schools with villages and partners in Myanmar. Most of our schools are quite similar in design, because of government requirements and the type of materials available in most rural areas of the country. We also seek to build cost-effective, durable buildings that can be maintained with locally available materials and labor skills. This means that buildings are simple. We strive for a brightly lit learning environment, and make sure the school has furniture, a water supply and sanitary toilets.
Neither of us had any real experience raising money. That first year we put up our own donations and wrote to friends, relatives and professional associates asking for contributions. The goal was to raise $18,000 to cover the building costs for Nan Auw Primary School. But generosity foiled our simple-minded plan. Total donations topped $24,000. We decided to find another village needing a school. And so a “one-off” school became an organization.
Andrew and I had long been involved with non-profit organizations; we knew how time-consuming creating a 501(c)3 would be. A professional fundraiser friend suggested we work with a fiscal sponsor to get started, rather than spend our energy becoming a non-profit.
A fiscal sponsor provides its tax-exempt status to non-profit organizations. The fiscal sponsor usually charges a fee and sometimes provides other services, such as an on-line donation platform. Donors can take their tax deduction because of the fiscal sponsors IRS status.
Build a School in Burma is a non-profit organization with a specific focus on education in Myanmar. Our first 40 schools were built for less than $1 million. We were deeply fortunate to hire Naing Lin Swe as our country director. He is a longtime NGO worker who had just left the Karen Women Action Group, our longest active school building partner. Naing Naing’s patient community development skills, as well as his knowledge of construction and his facility in dealing with people at all levels in Myanmar society have been powerful reasons for our success.
We keep our costs down to ensure compliance with all of our board’s policies and IRS rules for each project. Naing Naing is our only employee and a board member contributes the cost of Naing Naing’s salary. When advisory board members like Andrew and I travel to Burma we pay our own expenses. Operating expenses were about 7 percent of last year’s budget. This allowed us to focus on raising money and building schools to build a track record.
Early results strengthened our fundraising and our experience working with communities to build their schools. Donations gradually increased, and we were faced with the problems of growth.
Both Andrew and I have experienced the disappointment of donating to high salaries and perks to executives and seeing the ineffectiveness of many NGO foreign assistance efforts.
We decided to organize Build a School in Burma as an all-volunteer effort and invited people who showed interest and had skills to join us on a volunteer advisory board and to manage web and social media, fundraising, accounting and disbursement, press, managing projects and programs from 9,000 miles away. Most of the seven volunteers providing services are in the United States but we’re now getting increased support from Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Norway.
Over time we have found generous donors who had a personal connection to Burma: Burmese emigrants who left and became successful elsewhere, travelers who had been touched by the graciousness of Myanmar people and wanted to help, Buddhist and Christian individuals and organizations with connections to the country.
Under the Country’s Radar
Myanmar is a challenging environment. It remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. When Build a School in Burma began in 2010 the country was still a xenophobic military dictatorship. At that time, the average 25-year-old had only four years of formal education, the lowest in Asia. Foreigners were viewed with suspicion, and were prohibited from visiting many parts of the country. Transparency International had ranked only Somalia as more corrupt than Myanmar. Roads and communications were poor—many parts of the country lacked cell phone signals. The residue of many of these problems persist, but conditions are slowly improving and the government is devoting more money and effort to education.
Being old Peace Corps Volunteers, we decided on a ‘bottom up’ approach in-country: Build a School in Burma would work with local Myanmar non-government organizations and 18 community-based groups to build the 46 schools completed to date.
We collaborate with the local NGO or religious organization and the school committee, use local materials, designs, contractors and workers. Our goal was to remain “under the radar”, and to empower the local people to resolve problems and deal with the government. To this day we have not had a formal meeting with the Myanmar’s ministry of education. We’re already active in communities to find villages which needed schools that were willing to contribute to building them.
Even now, the violent ethnic conflicts in this country are intense, particularly between the dominant Bamar (Burmese) and the more than 130 minority groups that make up 40 percent of the population. Ethnic conflict is still a risk in many parts of the nation and clashes between ethnic militias and the Burmese Army are a daily occurence.
We‘ve been surprised at how quickly a project can come together. Working directly with communities rather than government ministries has been a key. I don’t think we would ever have considered trying this without the cross-cultural training and experience Andrew and I had from Peace Corps.
Even under these circumstances, problems building schools in Myanmar have been fewer than we first expected. In one or two cases we decided not to build a particular school because we perceived someone had their hand out in getting approvals.
New Schools Over Nine Years
The cost of a three-room school on donated land is between US $25,000 - $30,000 today.
Most of our schools serve non-majority ethnic groups. None of our schools has been damaged in fighting but the bridge to one village school was blown up by the army a few years ago. Rapid urbanization and work abroad means populations are not growing in many rural areas, so a few schools have fewer students than we would like after expanding them. In a few cases the communities have not fully held up their end of the cooperative bargain or cooperation among villagers has broken down during or after construction. So far every school has been completed, is in use and is serving its intended purpose.
We began installing solar electricity in some schools in 2015. Until recently, only about one quarter of Burmese households had electricity from the national grid. As many of our 46 schools are in remote rural communities, most do not have access to power. Electric lights help students study at night, particularly to prepare for national exams given at the end of the 4th, 8th and 10th grades.
Perhaps the most important part of creating a school has been working with the community to discuss how to plan and organize. Cooperating with local partners, we select villages based on their knowledge of places they are already working. We have clear criteria for a school project: need, community participation, sustainability, readiness, interethnic and interreligious cooperation and keeping children together with their families.
A High School
Three years ago Peace Corps came slowly and haltingly to Myanmar. I made a point to seek out the new country director, even before the first volunteers arrived. We offered to collaborate with Peace Corps Burma on education-related projects, but nothing came of that meeting. So when the chance came last year to work with current volunteer Abby Hester, we were excited.
Abby contacted Bob through our Build a School in Burma website. She wrote about the need for a large new building at Thanatpin Basic Education High School near Bego in Southern Myanmar, where she was teaching. Several old buildings needed replacement; some were no longer safe to use. With a proposal drafted by Abby and the school staff and her counterpart, Naing Naing traveled to Thanatpin to assess the school.
The proposal was to build a new two-story, steel structure classroom building in early 2019. Abby’s family donated funds toward the new school building. We hired an experienced contractor to erect a two-story steel frame building and add eight new sanitary toilets and a water supply.
Partnership with local communities and organizations is at the heart of all of our school projects. The Thanatpin community helped plan the building and donated labor and money for new toilets. They also cut a trackway to get materials to the building site.
Thanatpin was a bit non-standard in that the school committee became our partner rather than a third-party NGO. Abby and her counterpart, You You Wah, eased the process as did the work of a couple of particularly strong school committee members.
The project had many twists and turns. Several challenges had to be overcome, including a lack of space and school yard flooding during the rainy season. The site was at the back of the school compound, with no road access and the region was prone to flood in the rainy season. We had to cut a track beside a canal to bring in building materials. The building pad had to be lifted with soil brought from elsewhere in this very flat region. The toilet water supply piping was improperly installed and had to be reversed.
A date had been set for an official celebratory opening just before Abby’s close of service date. We were operating under time pressure. Naing Naing, Abby and the Thanatpin school committee worked diligently to gain approvals, prepare the site and start construction.
On June 1, Build a School in Burma and Thanatpin marked the building’s completion, just in time for the beginning of a new school year. The Deputy Chief of Mission from the U.S. embassy, the Peace Corps country director, several members of the state and national parliaments, local township and education officers, teachers and school staff, Abby’s family, our advisory board members, members of the local community…and most importantly, the students of Thanatpin Basic Education High School, celebrated the new building together.
One of our special guests was David Zweig, an RPCV I served with in Jamaica 38 years ago. When another Jamaica RPCV told him about our Thanatpin school construction project, David offered to contribute the cost of the classroom furniture. We already had a donor for that but I persuaded him to support another nearby school. He contributed enough to build the entire Taw Bot Su primary school and we opened it the day after we opened Thanatpin. David came to attend both school openings and now serves on our Build a School in Burma board.
Robert Cornwell is the founder and executive director of Build a School in Burma. He served in the Peace Corps as an agricultural trainer in St. Mary’s Parish, Jamaica from 1981 to 1983. During his professional career he has advised cities, states and federal agencies on public-private partnerships and capital finance, including the Washington Nationals baseball park in the District of Columbia.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Winter 2019 issue.
Thirty years of connecting Peace Corps Volunteers, educators, and classrooms see more
Thirty years of connecting Peace Corps Volunteers, educators, and classrooms
For three decades the Peace Corps’ Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program has fostered global learning in the United States and around the world. And the program is celebrating its 30th anniversary by bringing more to the classroom: new interactive resources that teach intercultural understanding and global competence to young people.
What’s there? Hundreds of online resources for U.S. learners, teachers, and current and returned Peace Corps volunteers. New lesson plans, activities, stories, and global competence trainings for educators.
World Wise Schools provides easy-to-implement programs that educators can incorporate. They create space for discussion in a global mindset — and tackle barriers and stereotypes. They’re free for anyone to use. And they provide an engaging way for students to learn about countries and communities where Peace Corps volunteers serve.
Lessons and matching
There are lessons on gender bias and STEM-focused resources—and, including the arts, materials on STEAM. Some educators connect with classrooms around the world to work in French and Spanish—others in Arabic, Chinese, or other languages.
The program also brings RPCVs of all stripes into the classroom for visits. Through the Speakers Match program, RPCVs volunteer to share experiences from their service with students—or they take advantage of online resources to create their own event or activity in the classroom.
“Through the World Wise Schools program anyone in the U.S. can see into another society and meet people from across the globe in an intercultural exchange,” says Katie Hamann, a Peace Corps program specialist on the team. Hamann served as a Volunteer in Mali and the Dominican Republic 2011–15. And, she says, “This is key to creating a globally competent classroom, community and world.”
How? Teachers incorporate these materials into existing study units or use them as the centerpiece of an interdisciplinary curriculum. Some RPCVs and PCVs post materials on social media using #wws. World Wise Schools also fosters an appreciation of global issues by facilitating communication between Peace Corps Volunteers and students — via email and WhatsApp, Skype and video chats, and even old-fashioned letters.
In Ohio, students connected with a Volunteer working in Senegal — and they created 80 handmade books in French to send to Senegalese students. In a classroom in Flintridge, California, students tapped their e-connections to write “Once Upon a Time in Cameroon” (or, in French, “Il était une fois au Cameroun”), an adaptation of classic fairy tales about the regional flora and fauna of the country.
Challenge your perspective
Paul D. Coverdell established World Wise Schools in 1989 while serving as director of the Peace Corps. “The world is made a bit smaller through understanding others,” he said. “It takes becoming uncomfortable, being willing to challenge your own perspective, and being curious about new ideas.”
Coverdell was an Atlanta insurance company executive and former Georgia state senator before he was appointed director by President George H.W. Bush. He served for two years until Georgia voters elected him to the U.S. Senate.
Stephanie Scribner (Mali 93-95) teaches fourth grade in East Hartford, Connecticut. She has used World Wise Schools curricula for 20 years. Why? Because, she says, thanks to the program, “My classes feel invigorated and passionate about the world.”
This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Spring 2020 edition.
A MacArthur Fellow takes stock of climate change loss and damage — and immediate solutions see more
FIJI & BEYOND: A MacArthur Fellow takes stock of climate change loss and damage — and immediate solutions
By Stacy Jupiter
Under threat: Low-lying islands and coral cays, like barrier islands Wallis and Futuna, are extremely vulnerable to impacts of sea level rise. Photo by Stacy Jupiter.
In August 2019, as Pacific Island leaders arrived to their annual forum leaders meeting in Tuvalu, an atoll nation of less than 12,000 people with its highest elevation at 15 feet above sea level, they were greeted by children submerged in water in a moat around a model of their sinking island holding a simple message: “Save Tuvalu, save the world.”
The children’s plea was heard. Pacific Island leaders and negotiators went in to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid in early December 2019 feeling empowered, armed with the Kainaki II Declaration in which they called for “all parties to the Paris Agreement … to pursue global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this is critical to the security of our Blue Pacific.”
However, the outcome of the climate negotiations, a watered down text, left many Pacific Islanders distraught. Key decisions, including on funding for “loss and damage” to help countries impacted by climate disasters rebuild and repair, were punted to this year’s climate talks in Glasgow in November.
This matters deeply for Pacific Island nations. Small island developing states in the Pacific and the rest of the world collectively account for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but they are on the front lines of climate impacts.
Small island developing states in the Pacific and the rest of the world collectively account for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but they are on the front lines of climate impacts.
An Australian government report from the Pacific Climate Change Science Program released in 2011 notes that sea level has been rising across the western Pacific at rates exceeding 6 millimeters per year, and nearly double that around parts of Solomon Islands and Federated States of Micronesia. And while there is high year-to-year variability, on average sea surface temperatures have warmed by 0.75 C in this region over the past 50 years. Model projections indicate a widespread increase in the number of heavy rain days, with extreme 1-in-20-year events likely to occur four times per year by 2055 under high emissions scenarios. All of these consequences of climate change have big impacts on islands in the South Pacific.
The impacts of sea-level rise are some of the most visible and alarming. A recent study from Solomon Islands documented the disappearance of five reef islands since the 1940s, with further shoreline erosion on others causing entire community relocations. Low-lying atoll nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati are grappling with existential crises as rising seas destroy infrastructure and cause salinization of groundwater, which affects people’s ability to access drinking water and grow crops. Pacific Island nations have been developing national relocation policies to deal with displacement of people from climate impacts. In 2014, the government of Kiribati purchased land in Fiji to hedge bets against future change.
There are also pressing and yet unanswered questions as to what will happen to a nation’s exclusive economic zone if its land is swallowed by the sea. An exclusive economic zone is the area extending 200 nautical miles from the coast over which a nation has sovereign rights regarding use and exploitation of its marine resources. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides the legal framework for establishing these maritime boundaries, was written in 1982, long before there was global concern about a warming planet and expanding oceans. How the disappearance of islands that set the baseline for maritime boundaries will affect the ability of Pacific states to control access to marine resources that drive their economy is still unknown.
Moreover, many of these marine resources, such as tuna stocks, are highly migratory and are sensitive to changes in ocean temperature and dissolved oxygen. Scientific models under various future climate simulations indicate that many of the main tuna stocks will move eastward, resulting in decreases of total fisheries catch across the western Pacific by up to 25 percent by 2050. This is of great concern to small island nations, yet big ocean states, such as Kiribati, a country with only 811 square kilometers of land and an exclusive economic zone of well over 3 million square kilometers of sea, where revenue from fisheries makes up about 16 percent of GDP. Regional cooperation will be crucial to ensure that Pacific nations are able to collectively retain livelihood and food security benefits. This should build on the model of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, under which eight Pacific nations have come together to regulate catch of approximately 25 to 30 percent of the world’s tuna supply.
When it rains: Extreme weather will impact coastal villages with flooding, damage to infrastructure, and water-related disease.
Photo by Stacy Jupiter
Changing ocean temperatures are also wreaking havoc on Pacific coral reefs. The corals that build the fantastical and colorful structures that house thousands of fish and invertebrate species upon which Pacific people depend for food are colonial animals, related to jellyfish. The coral animals are particularly sensitive to abrupt changes in ocean temperature, which cause them to expel algae that live in their tissues, making the corals appear white or “bleached.” The world’s coral reefs, including across the Pacific, experienced unprecedented levels of coral bleaching between 2014 and 2017 during a particularly prolonged warming event, which led to high rates of coral mortality. Fortunately, new findings suggest that there are many reefs in the Pacific that have characteristics that make them predisposed to surviving heat waves. These areas are urgent priorities for protection and management. Thousands of communities across the Pacific have already taken action, many with the assistance of local Peace Corps volunteers, through setting up marine protected areas, reducing local fishing effort, and controlling activities on land to minimize added stress from pollution.
Loss of coral reefs means more than just loss of beautiful places to snorkel or fisheries habitat. When reef structures degrade, they lose the ability to reduce wave energy from storm surges. A report released in 2019 by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal Hazards Program indicates that healthy coral reefs in U.S. waters and territories provide more than $1.8 billion in flood protection benefits every year. In the Pacific, storm surges associated with tropical cyclones and heavy rainfall have contributed to huge losses in infrastructure, casualties and, later, outbreaks of water-related disease associated with the flooding events. Tropical Cyclone Pam, which struck Vanuatu in March 2015, caused damage equivalent to 64.1 percent of national GDP, while Tropical Cyclone Winston, which battered Fiji in February 2016, killed 44 people and completely destroyed villages along its path.
Pacific Island countries recognize that building resilience to these climate impacts requires collaboration, coordination, and communication. In 2016, Pacific Island Forum Leaders endorsed the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific, a regional policy platform that integrates the disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and ecosystem management sectors. The framework outlines Pacific commitments to low carbon development, improving disaster response, and strengthened systems for adaptation through approaches that encourage people to get out of the silos of their own organizations and cooperate together. Working together also improves how resources are allocated in small island states by focusing on solutions that can simultaneously yield multiple benefits for society.
There are outstanding examples of initiatives across the Pacific that are embracing this transdisciplinary approach to address emerging climate impacts. Through the Watershed Interventions for Systems Health in Fiji (WISH Fiji) project, my organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, is working with colleagues from the Ministry of Health and Medical Services, Fiji National University, and multiple Australian research institutions. We are co-designing watershed management with local communities situated along five river basins on Fiji’s two largest islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, as well as on Ovalau Island. These river basins have been hotspots for outbreaks of water-related diseases such as typhoid, leptospirosis, and dengue. We believe that targeted actions to improve watershed condition and sanitation infrastructure will both reduce disease risk in people and also increase the availability and quality of freshwater and marine resources.
For example, one of the project villages has a septic tank sitting on the edge of an eroding riverbank, leaching untreated wastewater into areas used for washing that then drains onto nearshore coral reefs. Relocating and sealing this structure and revegetating the riverbank could reduce the spread of bacterial disease in people, reduce downstream coral disease, and improve habitat for important freshwater and marine fisheries. Such win-win solutions will achieve outcomes for health, food security, and the environment that all improve local capacity to adapt to global change at a fraction of the cost compared with uncoordinated, single sector approaches.
There is urgent need to inspire people to take local action on the ground to protect themselves. One way to do this is by strengthening Pacific Islanders’ connections to people and place.
It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the climate challenges facing Pacific Islanders — almost entirely a consequence of others’ actions. While words spoken by politicians and policy-makers in Paris, Madrid, or Glasgow might eventually help turn the tide of global public opinion to influence meaningful commitments to mitigate climate impacts, right now there is urgent need to inspire people to take local action on the ground to protect themselves. One way to do this is by strengthening Pacific Islanders’ connections to people and place.
Across the Pacific, there are specific terms in many island languages (e.g., vanua in Fijian, ahupuaʻa in Hawaiian, tabinau in Yapese) for geographically linked land and sea spaces over which local people control access and use of resources that are essential for their survival and cultural practices. A key element for any climate adaptation strategy is to raise awareness that people need to have a healthy environment from forest to sea and strong connections to their ancestral place to enable cultural practice. By emphasizing these links, we are able to galvanize people to look after their environment in ways that will ultimately better prepare them for what the future holds.
Stacy Jupiter directs the Melanesia Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, for which she previously directed the Fiji Country Program. She studied at Harvard and served with the Peace Corps in Gabon 1997–99 before completing a doctorate at University of California at Santa Cruz. Her scientific articles have been published in Nature, PLoS One, the Journal of Marine Biology, and the Journal of Applied Ecology, among other journals. For her work as a marine scientist in the Pacific, she is a 2019 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition.
A Towering Task - Peace Corps Film see more
Peace Corps in the American Conversation
By Alana DeJoseph
Nearly six and a half years ago, when we began production on “A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps,” it was important to get this story out. America was forgetting that there was a Peace Corps. Much has changed in the years since. In some ways, it’s not just the Peace Corps we need to talk about now, but why and how America as a whole engages with the rest of the world.
Peace Corps historian John Coyne, who served asa volunteer in Ethiopia 1962–64, talks about the Peace Corps as being mom’s apple pie. It is supposed to be an all-American feel-good story. Maybe that’s why the public has begun to forget about the agency. Where’s the drama?
When I closed my service back in 1994, I wrote a letter to the Peace Corps stating that I wanted to produce a documentary about the agency. I was 24 years old. I didn’t know much beyond my own personal experience. I just had this inkling that there was something to this story that went beyond my own transformation—and it was important.
The story of the Peace Corps prompts a conversation about how we as Americans —and how the United States as a country—relate to the rest of the world. Many Americans will never travel beyond our borders; even fewer will get the chance to be Peace Corps Volunteers. So what is the point of all of that outreach, be it through Peace Corps, the State Department, or even the Pentagon?
It seemed a straightforward question with a straightforward answer—until recent times have shown us that the answer is not that clear to many, and that we as Americans are in sore need of a serious discourse on what global citizenship means. Global issues such as climate change, disease, and migration cannot be dealt with on a national level or while distrusting our neighbors.
When we started production on “A Towering Task,” the necessity of this conversation was already there, although arguably not nearly as urgent. We saw the Peace Corps fading from America’s consciousness at a time when it was needed most. As we produced the film and premiered it in Washington, D.C. on September 22, 2019, it became clear how crucial that conversation is now: Only two days after the premiere, an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump was initiated because of events connected to Ukraine—a country that has also hosted Peace Corps volunteers since 1992 and plays a major role in our documentary.
Liberia: “A Towering Task” director Alana DeJoseph and director of photography Vanessa Carr interview Peace Corps Volunteer Tisania Currie. Photo courtesy Alana DeJoseph
We quickly moved from the thrill of a gala premiere to the urgency to screen this film across the country—and the globe—to as wide an audience as possible. To bring people together from all sorts of backgrounds and fields of interests to consider how America’s history has shaped our interaction with the world, and how an agency such as the Peace Corps has weathered some tough times and come out stronger on the other end.
This is not the first time attempts have been made to end the Peace Corps—whether that be by trying to defund it (unsuccessfully in 2019) or by attempting to subsume it under the State Department (proposed by Senator Rick Scott in fall 2019). And it is not the first time that government officials—and the country as a whole—are unclear on what the Peace Corps’ purpose is in the first place.
Since the premiere, the film has been shown in dozens of venues: universities, embassies, reunions of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, film festivals, and more. We will show the film at retirement communities, middle and high schools, conferences, museums, libraries—anywhere people can learn from the history of this small but important agency. The help of RPCVs has been and will be essential to connect to venues and their constituents. With at least 1,000 screenings over the course of 2020, we will have an impact on the American conversation beyond those who already know how important this story is.
Our distributor, First Run Features, is working on theatrical release. Once the community screenings are up and running we will also work towards broadcast, streaming, video-on-demand, DVD and Blu-ray sales. Let this just be the beginning.
UPDATE April 30, 2020: Beginning May 22, “A Towering Task” begins theatrical release! See the documentary website for more. The film is still available for community screenings as well. In April, Alana DeJoseph and National Peace Corps Association hosted a special free screening for Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.
Alana DeJoseph served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali 1992–94 and has worked in video and film production for over 20 years. For more on the film, including screenings and info on how to host one, visit peacecorpsdocumentary.com — or visit this link about distributing the film from First Run Features. Suggest screening venues to the filmmakers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition. Updated 01 May 2020, 19:17.
Steven Saum posted an articleA letter to readers from the new editor of WorldView amid unprecedented times. see more
The weather: We talk about it but don’t do a blessed thing about it, right? Until we did, without intending to — into the Anthropocene era we rode, brave new world of climate instability. But that climate changing is accompanied by some very predictable results — at least for small-landed and big-oceaned island nations in the Pacific: catastrophic storms, king tides washing across communities, threatened fresh water supplies and health and well-being, and the very land itself disappearing.
The first autumn that I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine — as the weather cooled and the names of the months changed from Golden to Leaves Fall — my colleagues in the provincial capital of Luts’k expressed sympathy for this poor American now facing his first Ukrainian winter.
I’m from Chicago, I told them. Got the winter thing down.
• • • • •
I first wrote for WorldView some 15 years ago, after returning to Ukraine for a visit amid a frigid December, observing the third round of elections during the Orange Revolution. It was good to be back — to see old friends, how they were trying to make their corner of the world (in the geographic center of Europe) a better place, and given that I’d grown up in the vicinity of the Windy City, I had heard a thing or two about election hijinks over the years. It was also good to work with editor David Arnold to give shape to the piece I wrote, good to share this story with the Peace Corps community around the world. For Ukraine it was a moment of hope — soon dashed. But the wheel of history turns, yes?
For those in the southern hemisphere — from South America to sub-Saharan Africa to the Pacific and parts of Asia, that’s about half the Peace Corps Volunteers on the planet — fall is falling. Here in the northern hemisphere, spring is springing. In these pages, Editor Emeritus David Arnold has handed me the editorial baton: a privilege and honor to take it, to carry on the work of catching your stories. Magazines are storehouses of words and images and ideas. They are also living, breathing creatures nurtured over time by the people who guide them. This one has had the fortune of being led with intelligence and integrity, earning respect and goodwill.
Nearly a quarter million volunteers, and how many more millions of lives have been touched by what you’ve said and done?
And deservedly so: Nearly a quarter million volunteers to date, and how many more millions of colleagues and students and neighbors and other lives—across the world and back home—have been touched by what you’ve said and taught, written and learned, advocated for and done with your own hands? And are doing now. That’s something we can talk about.
• • • • •
And so we are, even amid a global pandemic — after every Peace Corps Volunteer on the planet was evacuated in March. This spring edition of WorldView tackles climate change in the Pacific. We put the print edition to bed before the global evacuation — but not before Volunteers in China were called home. Our community is rallying to help these 7,300 Volunteers, and we’ve been telling their stories in digital form. We’ll be sharing many facets of their stories in the summer edition of the magazine.
We also know that at this moment, it’s absolutely critical to tell Peace Corps stories far and wide. So here’s some news about that.
We’ve put the contents of this entire edition online — to reach evacuated Volunteers and our whole community wherever they are. Share these stories with friends and colleagues on social media. You can also get this whole edition for free on our app. Sign up for an account and use the code we sent to all members of the Peace Corps Community. (Didn’t get that code? Let us know.) Then download the app from the App Store or Google Play — or for desktop and laptop computers, get it here. Then explore: digital exclusives and searchable archives and more.
And we could use any help you can give at this unprecedented time. We know many members of our community are hurting. But if you are able to make a gift of any size, that will help us provide the critical support for evacuated Volunteers — and rally folks far and wide for this whole ambitious Peace Corps mission.
Write Steven Saum: email@example.com.
The original version of this note appeared in the Spring 2020 print edition of WorldView, published in March.
Peace Corps community gives feedback on Worldview magazine see more
I am a Peace Corps Volunteer posted in Zambia. I lent a copy of [the Spring 2019] WorldView to some members of my community and they saw the article about TCP Global, “Empowering a Village.” They’re interested in microfinance and would like loans to help with various projects they want to pursue in our village. Then they formed a group of ten and asked me to get in touch with Helene Dudley at TCP Global. The leader of them is Stanley Shikoki.
Would it be possible for TCP Global to provide micro-loans in my community?
Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia
One of the virtues of print — it’s easy to share a magazine with friends! TCP Global responded in the affirmative regarding micro-loans, sent materials to Calvin Yahn, and requested mentoring support from Friends and RPCVs of Zambia. Let us know how we can help you connect with the broader Peace Corps community. —Ed.
I want to say how pleased I am with WorldView. So many great stories from countries everywhere in the world. I wish all middle and high school students had access to a subscription to our magazine through their school libraries and/or their social studies teachers. When my nephew was a social studies teacher, I was sending past issues and Madison’s International Calendar to him for his classroom or the school library.
The Peace Corps community should be especially grateful to hear from our Latin America veterans in the Summer 2019 issue on the Northern Triangle, and El Paso, too. Those articles make me feel so proud to be an RPCV. Sadly, I later read reports that the State Department deputy secretary for Latin America, Kimberly Breier, apparently resigned over a dispute regarding White House plans to make U.S. asylum seekers apply first in Guatemala. What have we come to?
I like the changes in WorldView, too. I used to have trouble reading the text because of the lack of contrast between the typeface print and the white pages. The new type looks great. The font is still a bit small but the darker print makes for great easier reading. I also need to check out the digital version.
Côte d’Ivoire 1965–67
We hope you’ll all check out the digital version, too! You can find more than a decade’s worth of archives on our app right now. Right now that’s free for everyone in the Peace Corps Community. Write us for details. And if you’d like to support a gift subscription, let us know. You have great stories to tell. —Ed.
In your Winter 2019 issue on page 6 it was very good to see the terrific story about Ron Venezia drawn from his 1996 oral history. You credited the Library of Congress for conducting this interview, but while such oral histories are also filed there, the credit really goes to the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, which is the home of this and thousands of other fascinating oral histories of State and USAID people, many of whom also served in the Peace Corps. This diplomatic archive is a tremendous resource and deserves recognition for its wonderful ongoing oral history program. I urge your readers to check it out at ADST.org.
Peace Corps staff, 1963–67
A look back at travel in China see more
Photos by Jamie Fouss. Introduction by David Arnold
In 1984, Jamie Fouss and a Peace Corps Samoa friend, Liz Alperin, spent six weeks traveling in the People’s Republic of China. The United States had established diplomatic relations only five years prior. China had recently removed the requirement that all foreigners travel in groups; Jamie and Liz were some of the first foreigners to travel on their own. Traveling in those days was quite challenging. Few Chinese people spoke English. Foreigners needed special permission to visit certain cities and could only stay in hotels that accepted special foreign exchange currency.
Traveling by train, bus, and boat, Jamie and Liz visited the south, west, and northern parts of China. With a Berlitz phrase dictionary and a Canon AE-1 camera, Jamie found it simple enough to engage with locals, whom he found to be friendly, hospitable, and curious. Wanting to depict typical Chinese life, Jamie photographed the people, their food, culture, neighborhoods, and lifestyle.
Twenty years later Jamie returned to Beijing as a diplomat. He would often ride his bike to a nearby village to photograph people there. He made it a practice to make prints and deliver them to those he had photographed the previous weekend. The villagers, who were eager to see Jamie and receive their pictures, often invited him into their homes, shops, and restaurants for him to photograph them some more.
Jamie’s interest in photographing people began while serving as a science/math Peace Corps volunteer at Ulimasao College on the island of Savai’i in Western Samoa from 1981 to 1983. He later served as Peace Corps Country Director in the Marshall Islands and then returned to Samoa as Associate Director. He is now the U.S. Consul General in Wuhan, China, having had earlier diplomatic postings in Taipei, Beijing, Guangzhou, Dhaka, and Hyderabad. He has often given his 1984 slide presentation, endearing himself to Chinese audiences, who marvel at what China was like in simpler times. But the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan upended life for so many. In January, Jamie was evacuated to California and put in quarantine.
Piece work: a burlap bag factory in Guangzhou. Long a trading hub, the city had a population of less than 3 million in 1984. Now more than 14 million people live there.
Connected by water: Sailors enjoying a day off near the Pearl River in Guangzhou. Ninety miles from the South China Sea, it was the first port to be regularly visited by European traders.
The journey: an overland bus station in Yunnan Province. This area in southwest China is renowned for its diversity of people and landscapes. It’s now interconnected by high-speed rail.
Tile work: A farmer and his wife repairing their home’s roof. Clay tiles were first used for roofing by humans in China, in the Neolithic Age.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition
From Mongolia to the San Francisco Police. For Kenneth Syring, it’s about service. see more
WHY I GIVE: From Mongolia to the San Francisco Police. For Kenneth Syring, it’s about service.
Interview by Valerie Kurka
Kenneth Syring joined Peace Corps when Volunteers didn’t choose their destination. He was thrilled when Peace Corps asked him to go to Mongolia. That’s the country he had in mind when this Bakersfield, California native applied. He soon was teaching English and tackling human trafficking. Now he’s an investigator with the San Francisco Police Department. Their motto, in part: Oro en paz — “gold in peace.”
How did Peace Corps shape your path?
Peace Corps gave me a bug for service. I like to get my hands on a problem and work with it. I’ve always valued community improvement, helping others, leaving things better than I found them. I was an English teacher in a secondary school in eastern Mongolia 2006–08 with four other PCVs and other volunteers in the community. Human trafficking is a consistent and significant issue in Mongolia. Working with Save the Children, local police and leaders, and the Peace Corps country office, we started an anti-human trafficking awareness initiative. That helped Mongolians mitigate and prevent trafficking in the region.
My experience in Peace Corps drove my interest in studying anti-human trafficking in graduate school at the University of London. After working with international development nonprofits in Washington, D.C., I found an opportunity with the San Francisco Police — first as a patrol officer and then in the Crime Scene Investigation unit. I’ve been able to work on a number of issues that I encountered during Peace Corps service, including human trafficking.
I’ve been with SFPD more than seven years. I work with incredibly service-oriented people — and I’m one of five RPCVs! At a time when there is massive tension between communities and police, I see policing as a development opportunity — where police are members of the community.
Look toward the future: A young girl plays in western Mongolia. Photo by Kari Aun/Shutterstock
How did you become active in Returned Peace Corps Volunteer activities?
I moved to San Francisco and sought out connection with the Peace Corps Community through the Northern California Peace Corps Association. I’ve attended events and have donated to them, and I’ve been involved with NPCA affiliate group Friends of Mongolia.
You’ve made a generous gift to NPCA and are a member of the Shriver Circle of donors who give $1,000 annually. Why?
I knew about NPCA from reading World-View during Peace Corps service. I’m a big believer in the Third Goal, in the mission of NPCA, and what NPCA does for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and in advocating for Peace Corps. The way foreign policy is currently conducted, coupled with rising geopolitical instability, Peace Corps is absolutely needed. Helping people throughout the world learn about Americans — and Americans learn about others — that’s one of the most important things we can do.
Advice to your RPCV cohorts?
The majority of us consider our service in Peace Corps as a defining time in our lives — and in our sense of contribution to the world. A major reason I donate to NPCA is because I want to help advocate for continued opportunities for Americans to experience the world in this way. I want citizens of our partner nations to experience the best of what America represents—and to have an impact in a service that I deeply admire. I believe NPCA and its affiliates are the best vehicles that we have to focus our support for the Peace Corps’ mission in a meaningful way.
Mongolian sunset. Photo by Kenneth Syring
Spending a few years assisting with local development in a similar way as Peace Corps service is really helpful. I believe that the police are uniquely positioned to help develop the communities they serve. So I strongly encourage RPCVs to explore serving in this capacity for a few years—to infuse their community development and cross-cultural experience into the American policing mindset.
To volunteers just returning, looking to reconnect, or make a different kind of impact, I’d say: By virtue of being an RPCV and the way you see the world, you’re already making changes you might not even notice. A lot of people in mid-career search for a big accomplishment. Instead, just know we’ve been doing it all along. Our impact is cumulative since we started. Keep it up.
Valerie Kurka is NPCA development officer and served in Tanzania (2006–08). Talk to her about ideas for supporting NPCA programs: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpt from Tilting with Windmills see more
Connect turbines from wind alley to where people need the juice, and you could transform the American energy grid. Even get us to 50 percent renewables. That was Michael Skelly’s grand vision.
By Russell Gold
This is not a story with a happy ending — yet. It’s a tale of former Peace Corps Volunteer Michael Skelly (Costa Rica 85-87), who set out to build an interstate energy transmission superhighway system. Over a decade, the roadblocks proved immense. Here are excerpts from Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy by Russell Gold.
When he was 25 years old, Michael Skelly felt directionless.
He wrote a letter to his parents from Costa Rica, where he was wrapping up two years in the Peace Corps. “Time to start clipping fun articles about fun things to do with your life and sending them down my way.”
He had been sent to the small town of Golfito on the Pacific coast. United Fruit Co. built the city, once called Banana City, in the early twentieth century as headquarters of its country operations. An extensive labor strike led the company to leave Golfito in 1985. A couple of months later, Skelly arrived in town.
The region had “very serious economic and social difficulties,” noted the Peace Corps country head in a 1987 letter. There were few jobs and little bank credit. Skelly worked with an electricians cooperative to set up an inventory control system and a radio advertisement campaign. But he spent most of his time working with the town’s fishermen.
In letters home, he complained about not having enough to read and the challenge of developing a workable business model. “Gotta figure out a new way for these fishermen to sell their fish,” he wrote. There was only one buyer in the capital and “he’s got these guys over a barrel, always, as they say here, playing games with the prices.” He worked on a microcredit programs to help the fishermen start businesses to get their catch to nearby markets. “I didn’t know much about fish or like running microcredit programs, but you sort of figure it out,” he said years later.
One lesson that Skelly took from his time in Costa Rica was the importance and influence of money. In 1989, he decided that if businesses were central to the operations of the world, he should understand how they worked. He enrolled at Harvard Business School. As he neared finishing his degree, Skelly decided he wanted to have a more interesting job than any of classmates. His wife, Anne Whitlock, has a slightly different memory. She said his objective was to find a job where he didn’t have to wear a suit and tie to the interview.
• • • • •
Twenty-two years later, in early 2009, he felt directionless again. He was in good health and energetic. He and Anne had three children who were all in middle and high school. He had spent the previous few years as the chief developer of a pioneering wind farm development company. Then he had made a quixotic, and nearly successful, run for Congress as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district in west Houston.
He angled for a job in Barack Obama’s incoming administration, hoping to be the assistant secretary in charge of renewable energy. He imagined himself as an idealistic bureaucrat with a $1 billion budget. Why not? He had built about twenty wind farms that produced more than five million megawatt hours of power a year. To put that into perspective, it was more power than that generated by a handful of smaller nuclear power plants. Washington did not welcome Skelly with open arms. It was, he later said, a “truly humbling experience.”
Back in Houston, he took some meetings about developing more wind. People were willing to back him, but the prospect left him unenthusiastic. He wanted to move forward. He was starting to think and talk about climate change. He was plagued by the thought that all his work building wind farms wouldn’t make a difference for the climate. “How are we ever going to move the needle on renewable energy?” Skelly wondered. At the time, solar was expensive and a niche product, an accessory for the wealthy and environmentally minded. It provided one-fiftieth of one percent of the electricity in the United States in 2009. Wind, a bit more mainstream, generated a bit less than 2 percent of the electricity in the United States. Skelly knew increasing that figure would be difficult.
The U.S. Energy Department issued a report titled 20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030. The agency concluded this was doable, but would require $20 billion for several thousand miles of new wires.
A few months earlier, the U.S. Energy Department issued a report on renewable energy. It was titled 20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030. The agency concluded this was doable, but would require $20 billion for several thousand miles of new wires to move the electrons from where it was windy to where people used a lot of electricity.
The government report produced a map of where new transmission lines would be needed. In bright red, the largest cluster of new lines was centered in the thin sliver of the Oklahoma panhandle, heading eastward into Mississippi and Arkansas. The report stated: “If the considerable wind resources of the United States are to be utilized, a significant amount of new transmission will be required.” Who would pay for it? The report was silent on this question.
The Power Lines We Need
All new electricity generation — including wind energy — would require massive expansion by 2030.
From 20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030
Every generation or so, the country goes on an infrastructure-building spree to accommodate new forms of energy. Maybe it was wind’s turn. Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, thought so. “We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,” she told a reporter a month after the Energy Department report. The quote was in an article that described a wind farm called Maple Ridge in upstate New York that sometimes had to shut down even when there was a brisk wind blowing because of congestion on the grid. Skelly knew all about that wind farm. He had built it.
The idea of a transmission superhighway system was the kind of grand vision that appealed to Skelly. It was the kind of thing that America once excelled at. The U.S. government and American companies had built the interstate highway system, the Hoover Dam, and the Panama Canal. Skelly loved these projects. He read books about them. The more he thought about it, the more he came to believe that the modern equivalent was a new and improved grid. It was certainly a needle mover, Skelly thought.
As the year wore on, Skelly felt himself sinking into a funk. He was thinking a lot about climate, but found it depressing. “People think that inspiration comes from, like, you’re sitting around and you’re happy about something and this great idea pops into your head. I think the opposite is true.” Wallowing and worry were his sources of inspiration. “From despondency comes inspiration, not from giddy happiness,” he said.
From Skelly’s despondency came his desire to build transmission lines. They would begin in the Great Plains, that large airshaft in the middle of the country where the wind blew consistently and the wind speeds were strong. The lines would carry the renewable energy to where people lived. There was one large problem: He wasn’t sure that a private start-up could build an interstate transmission line. Giant utility companies typically built them. They had authority to condemn property, if needed, to route these lines. And the companies didn’t risk their money. The state utility commissions guaranteed them a return on the billions of dollars they invested. Could a private company accomplish such an undertaking?
Maybe. It was hard to say. No one had really ever tried. Skelly figured someone had to test the idea to see if a private company could build a big interstate transmission line. Why shouldn’t it be him? He figured someone would give him money to try because of his earlier wind success. And he would be building something challenging again. Skelly thought it sounded like fun.
If he could build a large transmission line to connect the windy and sunny parts of the country to the cities, renewable energy would take off. And if he could make money doing it, this would beget more investments and more renewable energy. If he could figure out how to do it, others would follow.
• • • • •
Work on the new company began in what Skelly called the “Casita,” the little house. It was a romantic description of the garage apartment behind his home in the West University neighborhood. Skelly wanted to build something enormous — a power line that stretched across three states, held aloft by 150-foot-tall towers. But the small apartment was large enough to work on pitch decks and financial models. Skelly’s first recruit, Jimmy Glotfelty, required little convincing. At a family-run restaurant, Skelly explained his idea over a Tex-Mex breakfast.
“Wow,” Glotfelty responded. “I’ve always wanted to start a transmission company.” He had tried something similar, but less ambitious, a few years earlier. He lacked Skelly’s entrepreneurial chops. “I was a government guy and I had a really hard time figuring out the business side of things,” he admitted.
A native of San Antonio, Glotfelty joined the administration of Governor George W. Bush in the mid-1990s when he was a few years out of college. He was assigned to work on deregulating the state’s electrical market. When Bush went to Washington as the forty-third president, Glotfelty followed and took an appointment at the Department of Energy.
Over the years, Glotfelty had developed a good idea of how the power grid worked and didn’t work. He was on vacation in the Santa Fe National Forest in 2003 when a blackout rippled across the Northeast United States, leaving 50 million people in the dark. He worked for days from a phone booth, the only working phone for miles, to coordinate the government response and investigate what went wrong.
In 2003 a blackout rippled across the Northeast United States, leaving 50 million people in the dark. But there was ample power to the South and West.
This experience had opened his eyes. The Northeast United States had been dark, but there was ample power to the South and West. It didn’t take an electrical engineer to see how a better-networked grid could have helped. After the blackout, he had participated in a brainstorming session at the Energy Department about a “National Electricity Backbone”: building large transmission lines that would move power around from region to region. The idea sparked his imagination.
At the breakfast, Glotfelty explained to Skelly that at the DOE he had championed a way to attract private sector money to invest in this backbone. After he left Washington, the idea had made it into law as Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
The federal government could partner with a private company to build interstate transmission. It was a way to modernize the grid without spending too much taxpayer money. The government would identify areas in need of transmission investment. The private company brought the money, and the federal government brought the power of eminent domain.
By the time breakfast was over, Glotfelty was ready to leave his job as a consultant and sign up with the new company. It could be a business that would make the U.S. power grid better, cleaner, more affordable, and more reliable. Glotflety started driving over to the Casita on Sunday afternoons to figure out how it would work.
Skelly was going to be the chief executive and visionary-in-chief. Glotfelty would figure out how to negotiate the byzantine state and federal regulatory pathways. What was needed was an actual developer, someone to focus on project minutiae. A month after his breakfast with Jimmy Glotfelty, Skelly had lunch with Mario Hurtado, an Ivy League–educated energy developer who had built hydropower dams in Latin America and consulted on liquefied natural gas terminals.
As they ate at a Thai restaurant a little north of Skelly’s house, Hurtado asked Skelly what he was doing. Skelly started talking about the project. Hurtado said he was interested. He had spent nearly two decades inside corporations and wanted to work somewhere smaller and more entrepreneurial.
He liked Skelly’s ideas. “Michael really had the vision of where wind was going to go and why transmission was the bridge to get there,” he said. Before Hurtado and Glotfelty left their regular paychecks, Skelly convened a meeting of the three men and their wives.
Anne Whitlock says it was important for everyone to know what they were getting into before they got too swept up in the excitement. Skelly was pitching and, she says, when he starts pitching he has a way of getting people to sign on to his vision. “Even if you have doubts, you think, maybe we can pull it off,” she said. But she wanted everyone to have open eyes.
“It is a start-up and it is very risky. Our funding stream could disappear,” she said. Anne had watched Skelly help build up the wind company. There was luck and hard work involved. Nothing was guaranteed, and it would take several years before the project had any hope of being built. And the forces arrayed against the project could be considerable. No one had second thoughts. Glotfelty and Hurtado both decided to give it a shot and together with Skelly, they built the new enterprise.
After a few weeks at the garage apartment, Skelly moved into a borrowed conference room in a downtown office that belonged to Michael Zilkha. Michael and Selim Zilkha had funded the wind company, and Skelly’s success building wind farms had made them a considerable sum. Moving into a real office was important, Skelly said, because it was a much better place to raise money. “The best way to raise money is to look like you don’t need it,” he said.
Eventually, Skelly pitched the Zilkhas — father and son — on becoming the first investors in what the three cofounders called Clean Line Energy Partners. Skelly talked for twenty minutes about his vision for the company before Selim Zilkha interrupted him. He said he appreciated all that Skelly had done at Zilkha Renewable to make the company successful. But he was not interested. “This is folly. It’s not the money, it’s just I don’t want to encourage you,” he said. Skelly wasn’t daunted by the warning. He was in thrall to a big idea that had gotten him out of his funk. There would be other investors.
Even after passing on backing the company, the Zilkhas told Skelly he was welcome to continue using the office space. To keep things going, Skelly began to bankroll the project. He sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort, paying for studies and interconnection requests. He eventually funded payroll. To save money, the company reused leftover campaign stationery. Early Clean Line documents often had a purple “Skelly for Congress” logo on the back.
He talked about the transmission lines they planned to build as “renewable energy pipelines.”
Skelly pitched more investors in the summer of 2009. Skelly shared his idea with Goldman Sachs as well as other investment banks and private equity companies. He talked about the transmission lines they planned to build as “renewable energy pipelines” — using the language of oil and gas that would be familiar to investors — that would connect “quality renewable resources and energy demand centers.” Developing and permitting the line would take $50 million, but they only sought half of that to get moving. Once approved, it would cost $3.5 billion to build.
Most of the early pitches didn’t end well. Investors were afraid because no one had built anything like this before. Some meetings went very poorly. In San Francisco, Skelly met with representatives from the Texas Pacific Group, a large private equity firm. As Skelly walked them through the pitch, the prospective investors ate catered sandwiches. Over thirty minutes, Skelly explained how the price difference between the cost of generating wind and the price in eastern markets was high enough to more than cover the cost of long-haul transmission. As he finished the pitch, he sat down at the long conference table. The investors thanked him and excused themselves. “They left me to finish my lunch by myself,” Skelly said.
At one meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Houston with representatives of the Ziff family, a young company intern named Charlie Ary handed Skelly a printout of the pitch deck. As Skelly passed it to Ziff representatives Bryan Begley and Neil Wallack, Ary saw a flash of purple. “My heart sank,” he remembered. Each page of the investor slides had “Skelly for Congress” printed on the back. Ary was mortified and it showed.
Begley leaned over to Ary. “This is your first business meeting, isn’t it,” he asked. It was, Ary admitted. Then Skelly jumped in. We’re a lean start-up. We got a free intern and we recycle old paper. We’re not going to waste the investors’ money, he told them.
It was an awkward start, but the Four Seasons meeting brought Skelly together with Clean Line’s first financial backers. In November 2009, Ziff’s investment vehicles put $25 million into Clean Line. By this time, Skelly estimated he had put in $1 million of his own money.
There was a lot that Skelly couldn’t put in the pitch deck. Like how he believed life was at its richest when you did things that were big and bold and challenging. “If you are motivated by that stuff, it doesn’t have to work for it to be worth it,” he said. “If you’re an investor, that’s probably not a great answer… But what else are you going to do other than the stuff you believe in that is arguably important?”
By the end of the year, Clean Line was a real company. It had money and a plan. It even had an office, in the same building but a few floors below the Zilkhas’. Appropriately enough, given the mission, a clutch of electrical wires hung from the unfinished drop ceiling in their conference room when the company moved in.
From Superpower written by Russell Gold. Copyright© 2019 by Russell Gold. Reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. Russell Gold is senior energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
This excerpt was published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition.
The formation of Friends of Tonga see more
In the wake of a devastating natural disaster, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers mobilized. And the nonprofit Friends of Tonga was formed.
By Michael Hassett and Chiara Collette
On February 11, 2018, Cyclone Gita, with winds that topped 233 km/h — category 4 hurricane strength — slammed into the Pacific island nation of Tonga. It was the worst storm in over 60 years and wrought horrendous damage on the islands of Tongatapu and ‘Eua, resulting in two deaths and numerous injuries. More than 2,000 homes were damaged, crops were destroyed across both islands, and 80 percent of the Tongan population was left without power.
Weather in the South Pacific is extremely unpredictable, so the original reporting of a cyclone heading towards Tonga did not cause much concern. (We experienced two of them while we were in the Peace Corps.) However, we watched with increasing worry as the storm bore down: Those were our friends and former students in the path of that storm.
In 2012 we were invited to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in the Kingdom of Tonga. Prior to that invitation to serve, we had never heard of Tonga. Now we can’t imagine our lives without it; the people and the place are with us daily. We forged deep friendships there — and that’s where Chiara and I met and started dating. For me, it led to a calling to be a public servant, while Chiara’s commitment to early childhood development was further solidified. In the wake of that cyclone, we wanted to do everything we could do to help.
Story time: Michael, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, reads Winnie the Pooh to Class 5. Photo courtesy Michael Hassett
How can we help?
In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, some of us in the RPCV Tonga community looked for ways to provide a unified response to assist in disaster relief; however, we hit challenges in logistics and communication, which was frustrating. We wanted to assist right away the country that we fell in love with and which has given us so much. Ultimately this failed response was the impetus for forming a group that would help us connect with the country in good times and bad: Friends of Tonga was formed.
In the summer of 2018, not even six months after the cyclone, we were married here in the United States and went back to Tonga for our honeymoon. What we witnessed filled us with both sadness and hope: sadness because food was more expensive, drug and alcohol abuse were more prevalent (since the cyclone wiped out the kava supply, many turned to cheaper substitutes), and many buildings were still damaged, including both of our schools where we taught as volunteers.
At the same time we felt hope: We saw the resilience of the Tongan spirit, and despite the suffering caused by Cyclone Gita, the Tongan hospitality was still on full display. We stayed with our host families — who surprised us with a traditional Tongan wedding ceremony, the Sapate Uluaki, or “first Sunday.” Those families dressed us in the traditional white wedding garments and special taovalas and other accoutrements, festooned the church with decorations, and prepared a massive feast.
Wedding attire: Chiara and Michael. Photo courtesy Michael Hassett
While visiting Chiara’s village of Ta’anga, on the outer island of ‘Eua, we met with her neighbor, Finau, who is the village’s kindergarten teacher. Her position is unique in Tonga, since early childhood education is limited and not under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. This means that any early childhood education is delivered by motivated teachers who have the time and resources to create their own kindergarten.
Fill the gaps
While we were volunteers in Tonga, Finau taught on the far side of ‘Eua from where she lived. Getting there meant taking a combination of buses, hitchhiking, and walking for an hour each way. In 2014, she finally was able to build her own kindergarten in her village of Ta’anga. It’s now one of only two centers for early-childhood education on the island.
Tragically, Cyclone Gita flattened the entire structure for the kindergarten. To hold classes, the community began using a donated UNICEF tent. We resolved then and there that Friends of Tonga would help. Not only would we ameliorate the devastation of Cyclone Gita, but we could provide services to fill the gaps of education delivery in Tonga.
Makeshift kindergarten: The UNICEF tent was where classes were held for two years. Photo courtesy Michael Hassett
For the past three years, we have designed and implemented programs to fulfill our mission. These include:
1) a pen pal program that connects elementary schools in the USA and Tonga. We currently have more than 400 participating students;
2) a scholarship program that funds needy students through high school and that has awarded 16 scholarships to date;
3) a video resource library of more than 50 children’s books, read by native English speakers, with accompanying resources meant to enhance English literacy delivery by both Peace Corps Volunteers and Tongan teachers;
4) rebuilding the Ta’anga kindergarten — because two years later, classes are still held in a tent.
Despite these successful projects, we know the real value of Friends of Tonga will be put to the test at some point — when, not if, the next severe weather event hits.
Group hug: the Ta‘anga kindergarten. Photo courtesy Michael Hassett
Flexibility, zeal — and partners
It has been a long and arduous process to get the Ta’anga kindergarten built, fraught with unique challenges. Despite the prolonged timeline and the various challenges, we are well on our way to making it a reality.
We’ve kept in mind lessons learned as Peace Corps Volunteers: With flexibility, a whole lot of zeal, and sustained effort over a long period of time, any challenge can be surmounted.
Moreover, we have been pleasantly surprised by unexpected allies and donors. We have partnered with the nonprofit Schools for Children of the World (SCW), which has built more than 100 schools across the Caribbean, Africa, and Central America. SCW has already designed the plans for a space in Ta’anga that is handicap accessible, earthquake and cyclone resistant, and has running water, natural ventilation, and a new playground. The Ta’anga community has donated the land and has pledged the labor to construct the building. We have raised over half of the funds needed to complete the project. We plan to break ground in spring 2020 and have construction complete by the beginning of 2021.
As we say in Tonga: ‘Ofa lahi atu! We love you heaps!
Michael Hassett served in Tonga 2012–14 as an English Language Facilitator in the village of Fahefa, Tongatapu. He is a Budget Analyst, in the Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Chiara Collette served 2012–14 in the village of Ta'anga on the island of 'Eua, working as an English language facilitator, teaching English to classes, and training teachers. Since the Peace Corps, Chiara has taught kindergarten, first and third grade in Maryland. She now also works at NOAA and is a Junior Analyst in the Office of Management in Budget.
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Tonga: Lessons and memories, hopes and fears see more
Tonga: Lessons and memories, hopes and fears
By Siotame Drew Havea
Forty years ago I started working with Peace Corps Tonga. When I came on board in the mid-1980s as training director and then associate director, our two main projects focused on education and health. We had also launched an agricultural project, focused on research and agribusiness, in the 1970s. Some of our volunteers complained of not enough happening in their structured jobs. So we made sure volunteers’ time and energy went to secondary projects focused on the environment.
Volunteers worked directly with farmers and community members to plant trees—to provide wind shelters, fruit trees for food, and even mangroves to foster a rich and flood-resilient ecosystem. Retiring from Peace Corps Tonga after 25 years of service, I found myself volunteering with a youth program devoted to making Tonga green, promoting organic farming. But increasingly the work we’ve done with the environment on Tonga has been to grapple with climate change as it affects our kingdom of 169 islands spread across 270,000 square miles. And increasingly we have to frame this work as adaptation.
Growing up Cyclone
My first year in primary school I joined my maternal grandmother in Vava‘u. My grandmother was taking care of her parents, who were in their nineties. The year was 1961, which coincided with a wind that clocked 200 kilometers per hour. This is before they started naming cyclones. Our place was three kilometers inland, and after the cyclone I could see the water around us. My great grandfather explained to me that these big cyclones come every 20 years to regenerate the environment. None of the fruit trees in the compound were left standing. I learned that we should leave trees that were half uprooted lying on the ground. We put leaves and decomposed rubbish around the half-uprooted trees. Then we harvested the fruits from the half-uprooted trees, before the new plants bore fruit.
Twenty years later, Cyclone Isaac hit the islands hard—especially in the northwest. Severe Cyclone Juliet hit the next year, and after that Cyclone Waka. In 1990 Cyclone Ofa cleaned out 95 percent of the houses in the Northern Islands. There’s no question that housing has to evolve to be hurricane proof—but that is beyond the means of most families. The severe cyclones are now hitting every two to three years, with greater intensity cyclones hitting every year.
In 2014 and 2017 we experienced two category 5 cyclones. We still haven’t fully recovered. Since 1961 we have had over 20 cyclones with wind speeds of more than 110 to 185 kph hitting our shores. In the last five years, flooding has become a regular part of the cyclone as well—which means we have to move families from flood areas to evacuation centers every year.
I returned to Nuku‘alofa, my home in the capital on the main island of Tongatapu, to attend junior high school. I spent time with my grandfather, a retired Methodist minister who had spent the majority of his service as a missionary in the Solomon Islands, near Papua New Guinea. My grandfather’s younger brother frequented the house. So did their cousin from the outer island of ‘Eua. I learned that my great uncle was the government official tasked with moving almost a thousand people from Niuafo‘ou island, the northernmost of the islands in Tonga, to resettle them in the island of ‘Eua, just southeast of the main island. The people had to be evacuated because Niuafo‘ou is home to an active volcano, and in 1946 and 1947 it was in a constant state of eruption.
But when my great uncle’s cousin from ‘Eua visited, he made sure to tell my great uncle he should understand what he did. The Niuafo‘ou people are very disruptive, the cousin said. They have different lifestyles and little respect for the original people of ‘Eua. They took root crops and picked fruit trees without permission. It has been 80 years of resettling in ‘Eua, and we still hear of biases and difficulties with acceptance and assimilation.
In 2009, an 8.3 magnitude earthquake that was centered in Samoa destroyed three communities on the island of Niuatoputapu and killed nine people. We built three new communities for people to resettle. Will the difficulties with acculturation and acceptance be repeated?
It is interesting to note that earthquakes are also becoming stronger and more frequent. The usual 4 to 6 magnitude earthquake is a normal weekly occurrence. But in the past decade we have experienced three earthquakes with a magnitude of 7 or more—and three were 8 in magnitude.
Seabed mining companies have announced intentions to drill around the core of the Pacific Ring of Fire. So we expect to see more earthquakes—and more powerful earthquakes—in the future.
Sea level rise
As I started high school in 1970, my maternal grandparents moved to Nuku‘alofa and lived with us. We all helped out in the small, eight-acre farm, growing a variety of root crops. My grandfather was a fisherman and had a 14-foot open boat that we used for line fishing or trawling, heading out three times a week for a few hours. On weekends we left for most of the day, and we usually hopped off on one of the uninhabited sandy islands to swim and cook fish before continuing.
At the end of last year I went fishing in the waters I fished as a boy. I could no longer see the sandy islands we often enjoyed. The western side of Tongatapu is struggling to keep communities from being divided by the water. With sea level rise, the land on both Tongatapu and the central Ha‘apai Group is sinking under the water, at the same time erosion wears away chunks of the islands. Sea walls can hold for two or three years before the sea takes them away. If sea level rise continues, Tonga will disappear in the next century.
Tonga has been part of the international processes in the Pacific calling to restrict carbon emissions, with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The health of our Pacific Ocean is our leaders’ priority in setting a 2050 ocean strategy. The Pacific has tirelessly participated in shaping the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, forged at the United Nations in 2015. We went in enthusiastically to sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Action. We know that the future of our homes is at stake.
Now in 2020, it has not been comforting to face the fact that small voices are not heard and we will be leaving a lot of people behind. Standing at the shore in front of my house, looking at the beautiful water—oceans that have provided livelihood to my family and my ancestors for ages—I am burdened by the knowledge that this land will likely disappear within 80 years. I think of my 12 grandchildren. And I grapple with the fact that the very source of livelihood that has supported us for generations will turn around and destroy that livelihood as it swallows the island.
Small Island States
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers have founded groups to support these nations: Friends of Fiji, Friends of Tonga, Friends of Micronesia—which includes Volunteers who served in the Marshall Islands—and the newly-formed Friends of Vanuatu. RPCVs for Environmental Action keep their connections with the region, too. Check out digital WorldView for more.
Siotame Drew Havea was associate director of Peace Corps Tonga 1985–2005. He continues to work to support civil society in his home country, leading the national committee for all NGOs in Tonga. He holds degrees from Willamette University and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is the 2017 recipient of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award from National Peace Corps Association.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition..