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Calling For The Peace Corps Next Act: The Equal Society Corps

One of many incredible days for me as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya (Kaimosi).

One of the many incredible experiences I had as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya (Kaimosi).

I was a Peace Corps volunteer a decade ago and it was one of the most important and impactful experiences of my life. As designed and established by John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Peace Corps provides technical assistance, helping people outside the United States to understand American culture, and helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries.

As Wikipedia summarizes, “The work is generally related to social and economic development. Each program participant, a Peace Corps Volunteer, is an American citizen, typically with a college degree, who works abroad for a period of two years after three months of training. Volunteers work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs in education, hunger business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment.”

When I volunteered, there was a lot of emphasis on the fact that the three goals of a Peace Corps Volunteer were equally weighted, in other words- yes, you were there to help, but fully two-thirds of your “job” was to learn and share. Learn from the host country about their values and experience and to share American values and experience. Being was as important as doing.

Well, it’s occurred to me that it is time for a Peace Corps reboot, or better yet, a new agency altogether. The Peace Corps was conceived at a time when America was perceived (at least by us) as the pinnacle of society. A shining example of industry, ingenuity, strength, and progressive values- in short, a place to be admired. And to be sure, we remain an economic powerhouse and we can consume consumables like nobody’s business (too bad that’s not an Olympic sport), but we have begun to falter in a lot of important ways.

Where to be born? Well, we beat UAE and South Korea, so we've got that going for us, which is nice.

Where to be born? Well, we beat UAE and South Korea, so we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

I am sure everyone has seen those lists about the countries that are top for education, health-care, life-expectancy, quality of life, gender equity, infant mortalityrenewable energy, and gun-deaths. Perhaps the one list to rule them all is the Economist’s Where to be born list (we rank a disappointing 17th in 2013). On many of these lists, we are not even in the top ten but we should be and we can be. For the long-term health of the nation, I assert we must take action to improve our standing on these lists.

I think what we are lacking, is a model. The US is so vast and insulated; and because it’s so huge, we “travel” within its borders- Disneyland parks had over 30 million visitors last year. As my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya taught me, and the many thousands that have served in its 50 years of existence, it’s hard to conceive of another culture until you live in it. As that famous aphorism says, “Never judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” Well, we need to do some walking in some different shoes.

There is a visceral understanding that comes from living in a place with no electricity, no running water, no tarmac road, minimal infrastructure, and no organized social safety net that makes you inestimably more grateful for what we have here in the United States. I also continue to feel incredibly privileged for all that I learned from my time in Kenya, lessons that I still apply in my personal and professional life.

And yet, there are those lists. The lists that suggest (perhaps even prove) there could be an even better way. Given America’s great history and tradition of competitiveness (JFK was also instrumental in the race to land a man on the moon) and our desire to be number one, I would like to humbly call for the creation of The Equal Society Corps (I was going to say Better Society Corps, but the initials invite too many jokes). The mission of the ESC would be similar to the Peace Corps, but we would go to countries that rank high on aforementioned lists.

Imagine sending the best and brightest of our nation abroad for a couple of years to get a real understanding of what a more equal, more fair, more sustainable society looks like. Rather than teaching about water sanitation, hygiene, and disease prevention, ESC Volunteers would learn what it is like to have access to health care, child care, a retirement fund, and an excellent education regardless of your (or your parent’s) station in life.

Imagine sending the best and brightest of our nation abroad for a couple of years to get a real understanding of what a more equal, more fair, more sustainable society looks like. Rather than teaching about water sanitation, hygiene, and disease prevention, ESC Volunteers would learn what it is like to have access to health care, child care, a retirement fund, and an excellent education regardless of your (or your parent’s) station in life.

I think one reason that Americans struggle against estate taxes, is that we know that our system is highly unfair and being born near or at the lowest end of the economic scale burdens you with a huge list of disadvantages from birth. A burden that for millions of Americans is impossible to shed and that will effect the quality and length of your life significantly. We need to start changing the reality of this ugly truth.

Here is a list of countries we could target for partnership with the Equal Society Corps:

  • Australia
  • Denmark
  • United Kingdom
  • Switzerland
  • Norway
  • Canada
  • Sweden
  • Iceland
  • Finland
  • Netherlands
  • Singapore
  • New Zealand

Of course, this list and idea isn’t to say that America doesn’t have many incredible things going for it. Obviously, we are a powerful nation and our economic & technological production over the years has been nothing short of phenomenal. Think of many of the biggest and greatest companies in technology and most of them were founded here. Not to mention the contributions we have made in times of world conflict, particularly during WWII.

It’s also not to say that this list of countries doesn’t have it’s own host of challenges. Many of these countries are smaller with more homogenous populations, some could be states within the United States. Certainly, there is no “perfect” country and we should use our learnings from these countries to continue our quest “to form a more perfect Union”, as enshrined in the preamble to our Constitution.

Just as those who join the Peace Corps are motivated by a healthy dose of idealism, so would the Equal Society Corps be motivated by a desire to better themselves and the world around them. Peace Corps volunteers have also always had strong backs, open minds, and willing hearts- qualities that would serve volunteers well in this new, next generation mission.

I shared the idea for this story with my dad, and he said, heck, he’d like to go. As someone closer to 80 than 75, even with an excellent personal economic outlook (including a pension and retirement savings), he is thinking about what elder care options there are for him in the United States. Probably more than anything else, older parents in the United States do not want to be a burden to their children, and yet- with long life expectancy but often complex and expensive care needs- needs that would have been difficult to cope with at peak income levels, to say nothing of retirement income, their worst fears are being realized. For my generation, the outlook is far, far worse.

The good news is we have a dozen or more countries to learn from and America has a huge workforce that we can point towards this great cause. I would love to see what transformation could be wrought within our own borders by exposing our best and brightest to the ideas and systems that are already working well around the world. The Equal Society Corps could be a key strategy in reversing the direction America has been heading on “the lists.”

Please share, comment, and maybe get ready to pack your bags!

Six Years Later

Today is the sixth anniversary of my husband Tony’s sudden cardiac arrest. It was six years ago that he nearly died (well, technically did die) and was saved by the incredible work of Seattle’s firefighters and Medic One trained paramedics, along with the doctors and staff at the University of Washington Medical Center who valiantly continued the work begun in the field, including putting him in a medically induced coma, chilling his body (aka Therapeutic Hypothermia) to preserve brain function, and finally after 4 days that seemed to last forever, bring him out of that coma and back to me. If you’d like to read about (or re-live) some of that time, I recently rediscovered the blog that I had created at the time to share Tony’s progress. (side note: I LOVE the Internet because I had actually totally forgotten I had created it!)

As time goes by, I grow more grateful. The magnitude and impact of what these paramedics (and all involved) did increases over time. Each day that goes by makes the gift greater- a slow ripple growing ever outward across a lake of time. I am so thankful for our dear friends & neighbors who stood bravely with me in our kitchen as the paramedics worked for nearly an hour before getting a pulse. I am so grateful to our friends, his fraternity brothers, our co-workers, and family- all of whom provided a steady stream of support while Tony was in the hospital, including meals, child-care, and most of all- love and emotional support for all of us.

This year, my gratitude took on a new dimension as a high school classmate of mine, a charming, warm, vibrant mother of two, suffered a similar event- but with a heartbreaking outcome. I was so hopeful for her recovery when I first learned that she had suffered a cardiac arrest, but it soon become clear that she was not as fortunate as Tony. My heart aches for her and her beautiful family, and makes me more aware than ever of the importance and power of world-class emergency response and pre-hospital care.

Which brings me to another thought, as someone who works now in Global Health- the importance of strong health systems. Today, the Ebola crisis is highlighting and bringing attention, not only to the need for rapid, comprehensive emergency response to crisis, but perhaps more important over the long-run, this crisis will renew the focus on the importance of a strong health systems across the board.

In developing countries, fragile health systems can quickly crumble and buckle under the shock of a crisis- whether precipitated by a natural disaster, disease outbreak, famine, or war- but even in developed countries (I am looking at you- US of A), systems that do not receive the investment in infrastructure, maintenance, and growth will stagnate and deteriorate to a dangerous degree. I do not see what is happening in the US with Ebola as a symptom of that- yet. Rather, I’d point to the recent issues with the VA system for Veterans as a more concrete example of the slow degradation in care and process that does not often generate headlines but does contribute to poor outcomes and even death for those dependent on the system.

The WHO defines a Health System as: A health system consists of all organizations, people and actions whose primary intent is to promote, restore or maintain health. This includes efforts to influence determinants of health as well as more direct health-improving activities. A health system is therefore more than the pyramid of publicly owned facilities that deliver personal health services. It includes, for example, a mother caring for a sick child at home; private providers; behaviour change programmes; vector-control campaigns; health insurance organizations; occupational health and safety legislation. It includes inter-sectoral action by health staff, for example, encouraging the ministry of education to promote female education, a well-known determinant of better health.

It is a fact, that the strong front-end to the health system that has been built here in Seattle, through both public and private support- saved Tony’s life. I have no doubt that in nearly any other city in the world, Tony would have died. So, hooray for us- but that standard of care should be more widely available. We have the technology, the systems, the proof that it works- it needs to be available to every person, not just us lucky Pacific Northwesterners.

I feel like I am in a unique position having been the beneficiary of the world’s leading emergency response care, now working for an organization dedicated to improving Global Health (in large part through the systematic strengthening of Health Systems), and because of the time that Tony and I spent as public health volunteers in Kenya 10 years ago- to truly understand how crucial a robust, comprehensive, accessible system is.

Whether thinking about it from the micro view of one single, solitary life saved to the macro view of saving millions of lives through the development and distribution of life-saving, disease-preventing vaccines around the world, the current Ebola crisis presents the public with the opportunity to recognize the absolutely vital value of a strong health system- from the local paramedic, to the community health worker, to the importance of childhood vaccination, to mental health care, to the funding needed across the board.

We must support our communities, our state, and most importantly our national government, in the incredibly important work of strengthening and modernizing our existing health care system. It is a huge and costly undertaking, but the benefits over the long-run are immeasurable and incredibly worthwhile. At some point, it will be your life or the life of a loved-one that will be saved or improved.

In the meantime and on a more personal level, I encourage you to do what I am going to do tonight- go home and hug your loved ones. Take a moment to really look at them with an eye to what your life would be like without them. It only takes a few moments for that feeling to settle in your heart. Then give them the kind of hug that will make them laugh with delight and surprise, make them say, “What’s gotten into you?!”

You can just reply and say, “Oh, I’m just so glad you are here.”

Want to learn more or contribute:

Did you find this worth reading? Please share or comment. It means so much to me!

Thank you!

Jennie

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