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Republic of Georgia, (c) S Tsopurashvili 2016

  • 20 Sep 2018 by Lila Holzman

    [This blog post was originally published on the NorCal blog site on September 20, 2018.]

    On September 8, 2018 a group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers gathered in San Francisco to support the Rise for Climate, Jobs, & Justice event and movement. Those not in Northern California plugged in to local actions across the country. Why did we do this? What did we accomplish?

    Climate Change is an urgent issue that affects everything. When California’s Governor Jerry Brown announced San Francisco would host a Global Climate Action Summit, grassroots groups like and the People’s Climate Movement rose to the occasion. Lest the summit be too focused on high level talk, the people began organizing a mass mobilization to kick off the week by calling attention to vulnerable communities, who will be most hurt by climate change, and to the need to press our global leaders for solutions that are sustainable and just.

    As RPCVs, we are very in tune with the interconnected nature of issues like climate change. Volunteers live in countries that are already dealing with sea level rise. Volunteers farm in terrains where the dry season now lasts far too long, adding to list of hardships felt by subsistence farmers. Volunteers serve in regions where climate-induced migration fuels and intensifies conflict. Volunteers understand that complex problems cannot be solved with simple solutions. Progress must be made conscientiously and sustainably. It must be made both at a systems level and with feet on the ground.

    So leading up to September 8th, RPCVs for Environmental Action along with the Northern California Peace Corps Association took advantage of the opportunity to get the word out about this event and the movement it represents. We even presented on it to a large audience of RPCVs gathered for the National Peace Corps Association’s annual conference as part of a session on ways RPCVs can take action on the environment.

    On the day of the march, we hosted a table at their Resource Fair. As the tens of thousands of marchers arrived to the fair and passed by our RPCV table, we shared our unique perspective with others in the climate movement. Wearing multiple hats, we talked to folks about the work Peace Corps volunteers do, the role the program serves in American international diplomacy, and the experience we gained immersing ourselves in a foreign culture. Some passersby were interested in joining the Peace Corps, whether newly out of college or later on in their careers, wanting to hear about our experience and impact. Others came running up with stories of when they served 30 years ago and said they hadn’t realized there were other RPCVs involved in these types of events. Others excitedly took our photos to show their niece, father, friend who was in the Peace Corps. It was deeply uplifting to connect with others who share our passion for promoting sustainable progress.

    In a truly multicultural moment, one man approached with a thick Spanish accent saying he was a reporter from Spain and wanted to ask a few questions. I replied in Spanish (with my slightly Panamanian accent) saying that I was happy to answer his questions in whatever language. I think I surprised him, but he didn’t skip a beat. He fired off a bunch of thought-provoking questions about who I was, why I thought being there mattered, what I was hoping the Global Climate Action Summit would accomplish, and what could we really do about it all? The conversation got my adrenaline pumping, and I felt proud to articulate my perspective in my second tongue. A day later, I read my quote in El País:

    Lila Holzman, activista de los Cuerpos de Paz de EE UU, profundizaba en esta idea: “Esperamos ver acción. Casi todos sabemos que el cambio climático es importante y ahora es tiempo de hacer cosas. Si a nivel nacional la política no reacciona, hay otros que sí pueden hacerlo, así como las empresas y los inversores”.

    While I’m not sure I would’ve called myself an “activist from the Peace Corps,” the rest of the quote he took from our conversation I absolutely stand by: “We want to see action. We know that climate change is important and now is the time to act. Since national level politics won’t step up, there are others that should like companies and investors.”

    At the end of the day, I felt proud to be a part of the Peace Corps community and all the cross-cultural awareness it represents. We as RPCVs must continue to take advantage of opportunities to add our unique perspective and value to the causes we care about.

    RPCVs #RiseForClimate because we recognize that global problems require global understanding and local action.


    - Lila Holzman

    President, NorCalPCA

    Leadership Team, RPCVs4EA

    RPCV Panama

  • 03 Sep 2018 by Kate Schachter

    (This blog post, written by Kate Schachter, was originally published on the National Peace Corps Association's blog.)

    Since my return from my first Peace Corps service in Ghana in 2007, I’ve been coming to the annual conferences, except for the year I went into PC Response in Georgia. Attendance has always been low, usually around 250-350. And I keep asking myself…why don’t more RPCVs come? What should we be doing different? Am I just a glutton for meetings?


    Education USA Kate Schachter – 2016, In Batumi, Georgia, representing our alma maters at a US State Department event

    In particular, since 2011 when NPCA started the new shared group hosting system and rotates it on a known schedule (50th anniversary in DC, Upper Midwest, Northeast, South, West, repeat), it’s been a great opportunity to meet with RPCVs from other regions. Lessons have been learned and improvements made with every single Peace Corps Connect (PCC), but still attendance is surprisingly small. If we get more people, the conference pays for itself, and then some, with NPCA able to provide lower prices, especially to new RPCVs and volunteers.

    Here are just a few of the things I love about the PCC conferences. 

    The people! Meet or reconnect with RPCVs from every era. All the rest of the things I love start here with the community.

    The information! I was chatting with Averill Strasser and his wife, and he mentioned he is working with RPCV Peter Jensen on projects all over Africa. Peter is teaching people how to bury water and has made great progress showing successes in desperate situations. Wait…what? Bury water?? Check out his YouTube channel.

    And then there’s the information embedded in the many breakout sessions. Through panel presentations and discussions, cause-related groups, Peace Corps, and NPCA shared important news about projects that impact members. This year I was pleased to have the RPCVs for Environmental Action be accepted to offer a panel presentation entitled “RPCVs Take Action on the Environment.” Many thanks to the 20 or so people who chose to sit in on our presentation instead any of the six other sessions, or opt out for a kayak trip on the Delaware River!

    The groups! A half day is devoted to the opportunity for affiliate group representatives to get together and learn what’s going on at NPCA in the area of group services; learn from each other; and give feedback to NPCA, the Affiliate Group Network Coordinator, and the Member-Elected Board members. Outside the half-day forum, we recognize groups with the Loret Miller Ruppe Award for Outstanding Community Service, which this year justly went to the Cincinnati Area Returned Volunteers (CARV) for their work with refugees. And there are more awards: the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award, the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service, and the Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award. Acceptance speeches are heartfelt and inspirational about the work accomplished.

    Parade of Flags – 2011, DC Parade of Flags to the Capitol

    The atmosphere! I always feel charged from the effect of being with “my people.” The combination of meetings, receptions, dinners, and downtime turn the conference into an exciting dynamic of Third Goal accomplishment. The pomp and circumstance of a Gala dinner at the Kennedy Center or a Parade of the Flags in DC in 2011; a boat cruise and dinner on the Mississippi River for 150 people in 2012; a boat ride in the Boston Harbor in 2013; a community garden service project in 2017; a hike along the Appalachian Trail in 2018. These examples bring it together for an enjoyable long weekend.

    The reflection! It all starts with our service in Peace Corps. When I went to Peace Corps Response/Georgia, I was proud to see that they had both versions of the Peace Corps Pledge – the required one, and the new one that Meleia Egger had created in 2015. I was prepared in Georgia, and still I was blown away by the poetry of it. The pledge created the right atmosphere in Berkeley when it was formally introduced. It remains a fitting commitment to world peace and friendship.


    Next year, be there! HoTPCC is Heart of Texas Peace Corps Connect, June 21-23, 2019. What’s not to like about Austin?!

    PCC Nashville to NorCal – 2014, Tennessee RPCVs hand the conference baton to NorCal


    About the Author: 

    Kate Schachter has broad Peace Corps experience. She first served as a 50+ Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana from 2004-2007, leaving a 20-year corporate career in middle management positions in two biotechnology companies in Madison, WI. Ghana was followed by active participation on the leadership team of the RPCVs of Wisconsin-Madison, from 2007 to the present. She also was elected as an NPCA Board member and Group Leaders Forum Coordinator from 2010-13. In 2016 she returned to volunteer service as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Georgia. Kate is a co-founder and group leader of the RPCVs for Environmental Action. In January 2018, she was offered a position as the UW-Madison Campus Recruiter. What better job than to talk about Peace Corps service all day?! 


  • 18 Apr 2018 by Brady Fergusson

    When I found out I would be doing my Peace Corps service in Kiribati, I had no clue where that was (it’s in the Central Pacific Ocean) or how its name is pronounced (the “t” is actually like an “s”). I also had no idea what a coral atoll is (that’s what the islands of Kiribati are). I soon learned that they are narrow strips of land that can stretch for miles from tip to tip but are only about a quarter mile wide, on average. In some locations, you can stand in one spot and see the ocean both to your left and to your right.


    Climate change and the rising ocean are having a significant impact on these low-lying islands. The problem is not that they are going to “sink” - what will probably force people to abandon them in the future is the saltwater intruding into the groundwater. Before I arrived there in 2007, the village of Ewena on the island of Abaiang was already dealing with brackish well water. One of my Health and Community Development projects was to team up with a group of nursing students to complete a water survey in the village; we found that half of the homes had brackish wells. To help overcome this problem, I worked with a village resident to write a grant for rainwater tanks. I have gone back to visit several times since I finished my service and I have been glad to see that there are now even more tanks. They have become a necessity as the wells have become increasingly brackish.



    Although the rainwater tanks have been a solution to the problem of saltwater intrusion, they are not likely to be effective in the long-term. There have already been occasions when tanks have gone dry after periods of no rain and people have had to walk long distances to find freshwater wells. In addition, the intruding saltwater is decreasing the productivity of the plants people rely on for food: taro root, breadfruit trees, and coconut trees. It seems that it is only a matter of time before Abaiang and the other islands of Kiribati can no longer sustain human habitation.



    It is heartbreaking to think that the people who were so warm and welcoming to me will have to leave their beautiful islands. I fell in love with Kiribati and with a woman I met there; although we now live half a world away, Kiribati remains close to our hearts. If you want to help the people of Kiribati, here are a few actions you can take:


    1. Talk to others about Kiribati - many people have never heard of the country or of the challenges its people are facing.

    2. Support legislation aimed at mitigating climate change (e.g. carbon pricing). If we can slow down climate change and the rise of the sea, the people of Kiribati will have more time to prepare to move elsewhere.

    3. Support people’s right to migrate. Think of immigration as more of an opportunity than a threat. President Trump has proposed eliminating the Diversity Visa Lottery, but since when is diversity a bad thing?


    I decided to join the Peace Corps because I believed that everyone has the power to make a difference. I still believe that today, and I believe we can help the people of Kiribati and others around the world to conquer the challenges posed by climate change.


  • 14 Apr 2018 by Michael Roman


    April 20, 2016


    This post is presented in this week’s series recognizing Earth Day, Friday, April 22.

    On 16 November 1989, Kiribati Minister of Home Affairs and Decentralization Babera Kirata addressed the general forum at the Small Island States Conference on Sea Level Rise in Malé Island. Highlighting his nation’s concern over the emerging greenhouse effect theory, he stated:

    Over the centuries the question of rising in sea level was never heard of. Our ancestors had lived happily for centuries on our islands, without fear that one day, our beautiful homes may be lost as a result of the deterioration in the environment. We in this present generation have inherited those small islands and we are very proud to be owners of the beautiful homes, which our ancestors had secured for us … The ground water would easily become saline, making it impossible to obtain potable water, and agriculture would be destroyed. The plankton upon which fish live on will disappear, and the livelihood of Kiribati people, who depend on fish, would be seriously affected. The effect of rising in sea level, accompanied by strong winds and high waves would be disastrous for Kiribati. (Kirata 1989: 2–3)

    His remarks highlighted the intimate connection I-Kiribati (people from Kiribati) have with their land. Land in Kiribati defines one’s sense of personhood; it is as much a part of them as they are of it. When I-Kiribati are born, they are traditionally born on their land. They grow up and have families of their own on that land. When their time comes, their bodies return to the land. Their spirits join the ancestors who have gone before, and together they watch over future generations of the land. Land, in Kiribati, cosmologically ties one’s past, present, and future together. If sea levels were to rise as predicted, the physical challenges for survival would be daunting. The challenges associated with Kiribati identity and personhood could very well be insurmountable.

    Experts say that the tiny Pacific Island nations, which collectively account for a mere 0.0012 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, are the most vulnerable and would be the first to feel the full brunt of global warming (Singh 2007: 1). To date, Kiribati has experienced devastating king tides, prolonged droughts, extended periods of rain, and, more recently, unprecedented cyclonic activity in the doldrums of the Pacific. Iorita Toromon describes the night that Cyclone Pam arrived in Tarawa:

    Yesterday and last night March 9, 2015, south Tarawa experienced strong winds with rough seas and high tides causing further destruction. Most of the seawalls, which were recently constructed, are now destroyed. Roads are covered with sand, gravel, and big stones from the ocean again. Residential houses along the coastal area are greatly affected by the strong waves too. Our lives are very threatened by sea level rise and we are worried about our future. Our wells, which are our only source of fresh water, have become salinized and are rendered unsuitable for drinking now. Our main food plants such as breadfruit and pawpaw are dying because of the ocean. Many workers do not want to go to work, as they stay home to rebuild seawalls from the rubble before the next high tide in a few days’ time. (Toroman 2015)

    She ends in fearful anticipation of the approaching king tide, an abnormally high tide that has become more powerful and brought greater devastation to all islands in Kiribati over recent years. She has great reason to worry, as her house was located on land that rose just a couple inches above the ocean during high tide. Most islands in Kiribati are thin strips of coral that rise, at most, just several feet above sea level. The lands I-Kiribati live on today are ancient barrier reefs that once surrounded high volcanic islands. Over tens of billions of years, these towering volcanic islands subsided below the ocean, leaving a thin barrier reef behind. Early settlers of these islands, some four or five thousand years ago, lived in a delicate balance between man and nature. They exploited their environment in its totality, and their cultures evolved in harmony with it (Macdonald 2001: 4–5). Very little has changed since then.

    I first went to Kiribati as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2000. I left home knowing very little about global warming, and when I arrived in Kiribati, I felt like I should have looked more into the subject. In my first letter home, I wrote this passage:

    It’s so pretty here, but scary too. I heard about global warming and I just wonder if it is true. Being here sure makes it seem real. But, I guess I trust the US government. They wouldn’t send us here if they thought it was a problem. I asked one of my Kiribati teachers about global warming and he assured me that it was nothing serious. He said, people have been saying that Kiribati would go under the ocean ever since the 1980s, and look, we are still here. So, Mike, don’t worry.

    Over the past sixteen years, however, the growing devastation from the impacts of climate change has worried many in Kiribati. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I rarely heard any discussion about global warming in the village. Whenever I brought up the subject, close friends and family would laugh at the idea. Friends and adopted family members would reassure me that Kiribati was safe from drowning by pointing to rainbows (an almost daily occurrence on the equator), and saying things like, “See! There is his promise in the sky, we are safe!”

    I returned in May 2004 for work on my first master’s degree in on the growing HIV/AIDS prevalence rates and social stigma. Then, Tarawa was experiencing an unusually prolonged drought, and months before an unusually high king tide had washed over the land. The impacts of a rapidly changing environment were now being felt. However, most people I talked with in this largely Christian nation held onto the biblical teachings of faith and obedience. It wouldn’t be much longer before the evidence changed people’s minds about climate change. A ten-year time lapse of a village adjacent to my host family’s village, Abarao Village, is provided to exemplify the damages experienced in Kiribati.

    Ten-year time lapse of Abarao Village, South Tarawa

    Ten-year time lapse of Abarao Village, South Tarawa

    Host family elders laughed at me when I asked them about moving away from Kiribati if the situation were to become worse. In response, I would hear a chorus of, “I am from Kiribati, my land is here, and I will not leave.” The connection they have to their land is so strong that even the encroaching tide may prove too weak to break this bond.

    On the other hand, Kiribati senior secondary schools graduate thousands of students each year. Of these, a handful will earn scholarships and continue their studies overseas. Some will continue schooling at local training institutions, and a few will find employment in Kiribati. The majority of graduates will return home. For this population, the opportunity to work overseas is an opportunity of a lifetime.

    In 2001, New Zealand began accepting up to seventy-five Kiribati citizens each year through its Pacific Access Category (PAC) migration scheme. To qualify for the lottery, citizens must meet certain age, health, and character requirements. If picked, lottery winners must then obtain a job offer from a New Zealand–based employer. When employment is secured, the individual and immediate family can migrate to New Zealand as permanent residents. In 2007, New Zealand implemented a new work-based migration scheme. The aim of the Regional Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme was to fill labor shortages in the New Zealand agricultural industry.

    That same year, Ioane Teitiota, an RSE migrant worker, traveled to New Zealand with his wife. He worked in the agriculture industry while his wife worked in a rest home. During a 2011 routine traffic stop, Ioane was arrested when New Zealand authorities discovered that he had overstayed his work visa. Wanting only to extend his visa, he reached out to Michael Kidd, an Auckland-based attorney. His case took a monumental turn when his extension was denied, and Kidd argued for his stay based on humanitarian criteria. Ioane’s case unexpectedly became a seminal case in the fight for climate refugee status (Weiss 2015). Ultimately, after a four-year battle, Ioane lost and was forced to return to Kiribati with his wife and three New Zealand–born children. In its final ruling, the court stated that “a ‘sociological’ refugee or person seeking to better his or her life by escaping the perceived results of climate change is not a person to whom Article 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention applies” (Buchanan 2015).

    While the world continues to argue over the legal definition of climatically induced migrants, former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, continues to work tirelessly to tell the world about his country and to create plans for an eventual relocation. In 2014, he purchased a 20-square-kilometer plot of land on Fiji’s Vanua Levu island for $8.77 million. The original purpose of the land acquisition was for agricultural purposes, but during a recent climate change conference in New Zealand, Tong stated that the land’s main value was for international publicity and to give his people a sense of security: “People are getting quite scared now and we need immediate solutions. This is why I want to rush the solution, so there will be a sense of comfort for our people” (Radio New Zealand 2016).

    Kiribati is just one of many nations on the frontlines of climate change. My friends and adopted family members in Kiribati have silently suffered great losses in crops and houses, and they have even buried their own children because of the impact climate change is already having on the country. What happens in Kiribati and other frontline nations should be a wakeup call for the entire world, but unfortunately, few people know Kiribati exists. To help spread the news from Kiribati, a small group of Kiribati youth and concerned individuals from around the world have created Humans of Kiribati, an online showcase of stories from the frontline. Over this past year, thousands of followers have contributed toward the success of the project. International media, movie producers, foreign governments, and everyday citizens like, share, and follow on Facebook and Instagram. We invite you to help us by sharing our pictures and stories. Our goal is to teach others about Kiribati culture, language, and lifestyle. We want to build a human connection to others and have the world know about Kiribati before it is gone. Through collective global inactions, Kiribati’s time is limited. I remain hopeful that my generation will find ways to move beyond our ways of today—not necessarily because we want to but because we have to.


    “Loss” (Photo/Story: Janice Cantieri)

    “Loss” (Photo/Story: Janice Cantieri)

    On top of recently losing their wives, both of these unimane (elders) from Marakei Island just lost their land to the most recent king tide. Itiaake Teuria, 70, on the left, had to move inland with his relatives, but when he passes the place where his old home used to be, it reminds him of the life he built with his wife and the forty-plus years of marriage they spent on that land. Maneteata Ruotaake, 69, on the right, lost his house, his kitchen, and all of his trees, but he refuses to leave his land because his wife is buried here. He wants to be buried with her, even if the waves take away the land before that time comes.

    "1...2...3... Jump" (Photo: Raimon Kataotao | Story: Mike Roman & Crystal Campbell)

    “1…2…3… Jump” (Photo: Raimon Kataotao | Story: Mike Roman & Crystal Campbell)

    Children in Kiribati are blessings to families. Adoption in Kiribati is a custom, which serves to bring people closer together through the exchange of children. The practice often serves to unite rather than separate families from one another. However, for children adopted outside of Kiribati, the dichotomy of life can be very challenging.

    For me, I would say my heart is here … with me in Australia, but my soul is in Kiribati. I have always known since I was little that I was adopted. Aside from my darker skin, I never saw myself as being different growing up. I don’t think my friends saw me as different. As I grew older, people would come up to me and ask me where I was from. They tried to guess but they never got it right—no one knew about Kiribati.

    When I told them a small country in the Pacific Ocean, I’d get, “Why are you here?” or, ”Shouldn’t you be in warmer weather?” I always just say, well I don’t know because I’ve grown up, here so I don’t know anything different. I look forward to the day I return, someday…

    "Dancing the dance of life" (Photo: Raimon Kataotao | Story: Mike Roman)

    “Dancing the dance of life” (Photo: Raimon Kataotao | Story: Mike Roman)

    Learned from elders, Kiribati dance is an art, which reflects our strong communal ties. Groups of dancers focus on the movements of their bodies. Their hands, arms, and feet move to the rhythm and beat of the song while their heads and eyes tell the story. Behind the dancers, singers and musicians perform with all their might to make the dance exciting. The whole performance reflects the unity and support our society provides to one another. The art conveys the idea that “in life there is always a time for everything, place for everyone, and amidst difficulties, anxieties, and turmoil life will still go on.”

    "What lies ahead?" (Photo/Story: Raimon Kataotao)

    “What lies ahead?” (Photo/Story: Raimon Kataotao)

    Looking toward the possibility of what our future brings and seeing this wrecked ship on shore give me butterflies. What will it be like when the next king tide hits our small island? How many houses will be destroyed when it hits? What else will wash ashore? Why do we in the Pacific have to suffer from this? Sometimes I ask myself, “What future lies ahead, and  how much longer can our motherland battle climate change?”

    "Water is life" (Photo: Raimon Kataotao | Story: Mike Roman)

    “Water is life” (Photo: Raimon Kataotao | Story: Mike Roman)

    When I returned from Peace Corps service, America was a different place. It was not home any longer—not like it was before I left. Friends and family were happy to see me, but I couldn’t relate to them like before. Striking up a conversation was difficult. They talked about movies, clothes, jobs, and money. Absentmindedly, I just stared in amazement at the amount of material things around me. Sleeping in a bed was difficult. I hadn’t slept on something soft for years, and I froze when temperatures dropped below 80 degrees. Water fountains. I. Loved. Water. Fountains. Like no one else! The water didn’t need to be boiled, filtered, and cooled overnight. You just pushed a button and drank!

    Things I cherished in the village (talking, close human relationships, and a slower-paced life) did not seem to be valued in America. It was all about going—going to work, going to school, going to appointments. Going, and most of these goings seemed to somehow revolve around money. It was a far cry from the village, where living revolved around people. People, not money, were the focus of life. When I came back, reverse culture shock got the best of me most nights. I would often cry myself to sleep, just wishing to be back home in Kiribati. Like water, Kiribati gave me life. It taught me (an American) what is important and how to truly live with others!

    Mike Roman received his PhD from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014 and is currently at the University of Cincinnati. He is a member of the RPCVs for Environmental Action.


    Buchanan, Kelly. 2015. “New Zealand: ‘Climate Change Refugee’ Case Overview.” Washington, DC: Law Library of Congress (accessed 16 April 2016).

    Kirata, Babera. 1989. “Kiribati Country Statement.” Presented at the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise, 14–18 November, Malé (accessed 15 April 2016).

    Macdonald, Barrie. 2001. Cinderellas of the Empire. Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific.

    Radio New Zealand. 2016. “Kiribati Climate-Induced Migration to Start in Five Years.” RNZ, 16 February (accessed 16 February 2016).

    Singh, Shailendra. 2007. “Climate Change: South Pacific More Vulnerable Than Thought.” IPS, 22 February.

    Toromon, Iorita. 2015. Personal communication, 19 March.