Peace Corps’ deputy chief executive officer
As seen in the Penn Law Journal
By Fredda Sacharow
The former French colony and West African nation of Benin enjoyed modern electricity when M. Katherine Stroker L’04 arrived two decades ago to teach English as a foreign language, but the service was anything but dependable.
The former Peace Corps volunteer remembers the sight of her junior high/high school students in the community of Parakou, a relatively large city about halfway up from the coast. In her mind’s eye, they are huddled under a streetlight, taking advantage of the weak rays to study the day’s lessons when the power went off in their homes.
As it did often.
“These were dedicated, earnest students who were dying to learn, kids with very little access to learning materials: just a blackboard and some chalk, and they had to pitch in to buy the chalk,” Stroker recalls.
Twenty years later, these youngsters and their singular determination to pursue an education are never far from her mind as she goes about setting policy and managing the organization that sent her 5,250 miles and light years away from her law school days.
Can an organization born of 1960s-era idealism and hope find relevance in the tumultuous world of 2018? Kathy Stroker is working to assure that it can.
As the organization’s deputy chief executive officer, the Peace Corps’ second-ranking official after Director Josephine (Jody) K. Olsen, Stroker spends her mornings, afternoons and many of her nights chewing over ways to keep thousands of volunteers on task, safe and productive far from their native land.
You might call it something of a challenge to fashion a blueprint to evacuate 125 Peace Corps volunteers from Burkina Faso during recent civil strife; tend to the health needs of a stricken volunteer in Tonga; or negotiate with the Sri Lankan government for the return of English teachers to that country.
For the Peace Corps, it’s all in a day’s work.
Established with great fanfare on March 1, 1961 by Executive Order of President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps was envisioned as a vehicle to promote world peace and friendship.
Later that year Congress passed the Peace Corps Act, mandating that the organization “shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.”
More than half a century into that mission, the organization Stroker helps administer counts more than 230,000 alumni: volunteers who have served in 141 countries to date. Currently, the largest percentage — close to half — do their stints in Africa, as she did, with Latin America and Eastern Europe/Central Asia coming in a distant second and third.
Stroker oversees some 800 staffers domestically and another 3,000 worldwide. Of the approximately 7,000 volunteers currently deployed around the globe, 63 percent
are females, 37 percent are male, and singles outnumber the married volunteers by 98 percent to 2 percent.
“We do attract a younger population,” says Stroker, who was 23 when she signed up for service in 1998; today the average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28. “A lot of them are newly graduated, looking for their first jobs,” she says.
Her work often takes her well beyond the confines of her eighth-floor office on the corner of 20th and L Streets in the nation’s capital. In recent years she has visited posts in Macedonia, Nicaragua, Benin, and Ethiopia, always on the lookout for an opportunity to reconnect with the day-to-day work volunteers are doing.
“I like to meet with the staff in the different countries, get a sense of their successes and their challenges,” Stroker says. Her own experiences in Western Africa are never far from her mind.
Analyzing risk and managing large-scale projects is hardwired into her DNA, an essential component of her professional experience in both the public and the private sectors.
In addition to defending domestic and international clients at Dechert LLP in Philadelphia and at Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., the Yale graduate also served as a foreign lecturer at the Institute of Comparative Law and the University of Paris. She also clerked for the Honorable Michael M. Baylson of the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
After working for the U.S. Agency for International Development as deputy assistant general counsel, Stroker returned to the Peace Corps in April of 2016, as that agency’s acting general counsel.
A great deal of her time is spent keeping abreast of world events. “We have a cadre of safety and security experts working for us; every post has a safety and security manager. We pay a lot of attention to news reports, to what’s actually happening on the ground, and assess constantly.”
Evacuating the volunteers from Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in Western Africa where demonstrations, marches and violence are common, was a case in point.
“Once we got the experts to weigh in, we had to think about the risks, and whether those risks are acceptable. In Burkina, the risks to our people were mounting, and we were not comfortable with leaving them there.”
So, the next challenge became finding transportation and locating temporary housing in neighboring Ghana.
Stroker counts among her legal specialties international development, foreign tribunals, and public policy, all of which dovetail with her vision of the Peace Corps’ core mission.
“We do represent the United States in a very concrete way,” she says. “We are sending American citizens to make a person-to-person connection. At the end of the day, those connections are more important to our image than the person who is sitting in the White House at any one given time.”
The United States and the world were on the eve of cataclysmic changes that Friday in October 1960, when Kennedy first floated the idea of an international volunteer organization at a pre-dawn rally at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
With his campaign heading into its final three weeks, the future president threw out a challenge to the 10,000 students assembled: How many of you would be willing to serve your country and the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world?
“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana?” Kennedy went on. “Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”
It was a theme he would echo three months later in his famous inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you …” — and one that clearly resonated with America’s youth.
Although the specific needs of the nations the Peace Corps serves have changed over the years, Stroker is convinced the agency remains just as important today as it was at its founding.
Enumerating today’s priorities, she points to the 62 million girls globally who must fight for an education; to the malaria patients who suffer due to lack of prevention and treatment in 40 of the countries volunteers are sent to; and to the millions of hungry people who urgently need sustainable methods of food production in parched and famine-ridden lands.
As the duties of volunteers have morphed, agency policies have been altered to keep pace. One of the biggest changes occurred several years ago, she notes, when applicants were first able to request placement in a specific job, in a specific country.
“When I was applying, you went wherever the Peace Corps sent you,” says Stroker, who recalls her excitement — and trepidation — when it came time to open the manila envelope bearing her acceptance.
The acceptance letter brought the news that she was being assigned to Benin, which was unfamiliar to her.
Stroker has high praise for the updated choice policy, which she sees as a boon for people who have targeted career plans coupled with a passion to explore different parts of the world.
Potential volunteers apparently agree: “In the first full year after we changed to the choice model in 2014, we had 23,000 applicants, an all-time high for a single year, and since then the number has remained high,” she says.
The Peace Corps website now lists all open programs by work area, country, and departure date, affording applicants the opportunity to browse through myriad service opportunities to select which ones best suit their needs.
In another attempt to keep the Peace Corps relevant in the second decade of the 21st Century, the agency has overhauled — and drastically shortened — its application process. The 60 printed pages Stroker remembers laboring over — and which often took applicants up to eight hours to complete — have been boiled down to a short online application.
Stroker also noted that through its Peace Corps Response Program, her agency also offers shorter stints than the traditional two years, a move aimed at sending skilled volunteer “alumni” to help out where needed for a period of three months up to a year.
As of earlier this year, interested returnees could browse through openings for a literacy support specialist in Belize, a community health outreach specialist in Liberia, and an aquatic resource management specialist in the Philippines, among other opportunities.
Richard Sitler is a freelance photojournalist from Carbondale, Ill., who served three terms in the Peace Corps, and at the age of 50 hasn’t ruled out a fourth. Like Stroker, he’s one of the agency’s biggest cheerleaders.
“The military calls it winning hearts and minds, but the Peace Corps has been doing this for years. It’s the best thing America does in terms of foreign policy,” he believes.
He remembers a long, arduous application and interview process — “Comparable to applying to college,” Sitler says — and three months of training before being sent to the Dominican Republic in August of 1991. Alas, a mosquito-borne disease cut short his stay before his official service began.
Following graduate school for visual communication at Ohio University, and work as a news photographer, he was drawn again to volunteer, and this time it took. He lived in Jamaica, serving as an advisor to at-risk youth from 2000 to 2002.
The opportunity for shorter Peace Corps service noted by Stroker lured him back to Jamaica twice, first in 2006 to help re-open a community center in the town of Ewarton after Hurricane Ernesto devastated the island, and later in 2012 to work on a documentary for an agency in Kingston serving vulnerable residents.
Between stints, Sitler traveled the world, photographing the work of fellow Peace Corps volunteers in 22 countries in five continents for a book called Making Peace with the World (2011, Other Places Publishing).
Like Stroker, Sitler believes the agency’s real power lies in volunteers’ ability to make personal contacts, build trust, and use their finely-honed skills to tackle thorny problems.
“I was in a village [in Jamaica] that never had a Peace Corps volunteer before — very remote. A lot of the people I served had never met a white person,” the journalist said. “They had certain views, which I think I dispelled, that all Americans are rich, that we are all white, all we do all day is watch TV, and that we don’t do any physical work,” the journalist said.
As profoundly as the volunteers bring about change, they themselves are changed by the people with whom they interact, and the culture in which they serve, he says.
The roll call of returned Peace Corps volunteers, known to each other and to agency staffers as RPCVs, represents a cross-section of American life: industry, academics, the arts, and public service, among other sectors.
Among the notables are MSNBC host Chris Matthews (Swaziland, 1968–1970); author Paul Theroux (Malawi, 1963–1965); Donna Shalala, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (Iran, 1962–1964); and Chris Dodd, former Connecticut senator (Dominican Republic, 1966–1968).
Many veteran volunteers, like Stroker herself, have returned to serve in various capacities over the years.
Because the position of deputy chief executive officer she now holds is normally filled by a political appointee confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Stroker understands that she is in effect holding down the fort until that appointment takes place.
When it does, she says, she’ll happily go back to the general counsel’s office, eager to put her legal training to use once again.