Late summer 2012, as Peace Corps was closing in Romania, they invited me to offer some thoughts to the crowd of several hundred volunteers, friends and partners assembled in the Ambassador’s garden. My rambling went a little something like this…
“There has been a joke going around about Barack Obama’s updated campaign slogan. After 4 years of ‘Yes We Can’ it now reads ‘We almost did, we worked really hard and things are going to get better!’
The same might be said of the Peace Corps Romania. And it raises some interesting questions. Did we succeed in delivering on our own ‘Yes We Can’ expectation? Were we meant to? Why are we so beautifully naïve to think that we could in the first place?
First, did we succeed? I believe the answer is in large part yes when keeping in mind that only 30% of the Peace Corps mandate is development and the rest is cross cultural exchange. There are some clearly identifiable and successful social change projects which have taken root and flourished under volunteer’s partnership and guidance; from Ovidiu Rom, to the WWOOF’s program, to ReStart Romania and Community Foundation projects I have had the honor of supporting over the last 6 years since coming to Romania as a volunteer in 2006. These projects have motivated hundreds of thousands to engage in education, health, integration, basic democracy, community building, etc…
These big projects remain, however, only as important as the change they made on an individual level. It is on that level where the breadth of our impact is most obvious. Literally hundreds of times over the last 6 years, as I ranged with somewhat schizophrenic abandon from rural biogas projects to philanthropy development to technology for civil society, a young entrepreneur or leader approached me with ‘oh, you were Peace Corps? The reason I am leading X is that one time a Peace Corps volunteer said I should try.’
I want you to think about that for a moment. Whether on a large scale or small, the beautiful American idealism of hope, the mantras of personal ability and responsibility, spread by volunteers out of love and frustration in equal measure, motivated and created space for others. And motivated them in an environment which has tended not to reward entrepreneurism, creativity or social change leadership.
Our time here has been a dance between Yes We Can and Asta Este. And in so many ways we did succeed. In ways bigger or smaller, I believe that building space for folks to take personal responsibility has not been wasted time. That space was filled by Romanians who care deeply for Romania – – leaders ready to build stronger communities, to agitate – – leaders to whom we contributed our unfair allotment of social capital, received simply because we are American, and who now believe, or did for a while, that yes, they can.
And now we are leaving. And at a time when Romania could use a lot more of the same.
Asa, si? Thankfully, in the last couple years as I began working in tech for social change, I have come to believe we have been surpassed by social networks and media – which are increasingly enabling leaders to find their peers online or off and start building outside the system. They are empowered by facebook – testing and learning in a place that allows them to believe in new ideas and rules, a space not dominated those who came before or by the pains of history.
These leaders are proving in ways bigger and more systemic than we could have, that many do indeed care about Romania and are willing to work for it – that Asta is not necessarily Este. They lead projects already global and local – supporting entrepreneurial learning like RoPot, working on the environment like Let’s Do It, and supporting peer to peer learning of language and other skills like Time Bank. They are the ones who will prove that peace corps was vital and good in its own time, touching and supporting many, but that its time in Romania has indeed passed into good hands as the rules for social dialog have changed – bringing faces, voices and bodies into a richer and more democratic dialog about this country.
So, did we deliver our mission? I believe we did though the stories are often told years later and in retrospect. We worked really hard. I have to believe things will indeed get better as people stand up with the support of their on or offline communities. And we, America, certainly benefitted from the thousands of former volunteers who returned home more worldly, thoughtful and mature thanks to their time in Romania.
It has been an honor to serve this positive aspect of American foreign relations. Thanks to the staff, friends, supporters, partners and volunteers who allow this to happen.”