Raise Your Voice

I’ve been deeply moved by the stories I’ve been hearing from Americans of color about police abuse and racism they’ve encountered. As a white person, I’ve tried to listen and learn from them.

Their stories were on my mind this past week when I led an online workshop for science graduate students on how to write op-ed articles. The participants came from several North Carolina universities and other states and countries. You can see some of them in the Zoom screen, above, and watch a video of my opening talk here.

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I was actually the associate vice president of news and communications at Duke. I had darker hair then, too.

Our conversation yielded some tips you may find helpful if you choose to raise your own voice now or in the future.

Several of the participants wrote about science-related topics. One described the pressures women scientists face when raising children. Another who works with the Australian parliament warned about the Covid-19 pandemic diverting resources from tuberculosis prevention there and in Asia.

Others addressed the meaning of George Floyd’s horrific murder, such as an African American graduate who feels torn between her Ph.D. studies in neuroscience and wanting to participate in protest marches. A participant in England said she’s been reminded of racism she witnessed as a girl in Liverpool. An Indian-American graduate student who grew up in Minneapolis wrote about seeing her home town with new eyes.

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The group had some amazing stories and we worked together to identify ways they could tell them more powerfully. For instance: 

  • Get to the point immediately. With an op-ed article, as with social media, you only have a few seconds to grab a reader.
  • Tie your article to something happening in the news, if possible.
  • Embrace your own identity and voice. Readers respond best to a person they can identify with. If you could just persuade them with facts, well, we wouldn’t still be arguing about global warming.
  • Make the abstract real. Use examples and details to bring your argument to life. Describe the crazy thing that happened to you last Thursday.
  • Tell readers why they should care. How will your issue affect their kids, their job or their community? 

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Most of all, speak as a fellow human being, not as a faceless expert.  Statistics and policy arguments have their place, but, as the expression goes, people don’t care what you think unless they think that you care. As I wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “Many academics approach op-eds as an exercise in solemnity. Frankly, they’d improve their chances if they’d lighten up.”

When I spoke about some of this with a group of young entrepreneurs in Moldova, while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there, I used an Oprah Winfrey speech to illustrate how we humans make sense of the world through stories. Whether you’re writing a traditional op-ed article or using another platform, the best way to persuade someone is by starting with your own truth — something you’ve lived and experienced, or have seen with your own eyes. Only then should you pull the camera back to explore the bigger picture.

I discuss these and several other ideas in my op-ed guidelines, my free online class on Coursera and a how-to chapter from an op-ed anthology I produced for the National Academy of Sciences. Maybe you’ll find these resources useful in raising your voice, too.

For myself, now that I’ve completed this post, I’m going back to listening.

Learning Moves Online

Champa and I have been learning online lately.

We used to attend classes “in person” with our local Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Since we returned from our Peace Corps service in Moldova two years ago, I’ve studied topics ranging from foreign policy to science fiction films.

That ended when the coronavirus pandemic cut short this spring’s schedule. The OLLI program at Duke University and others nationwide have been scrambling since then to provide classes online.

Next Avenue just published this article I wrote about what’s been happening. Next Avenue is one of my favorite sites, produced by Twin Cities PBS “to meet the needs and unleash the potential of older Americans.” You can read the article on their site, on the Forbes website, in this PDF file or below.

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Talking About Retirement

A podcast for librarians and a newsletter about Nepal both published stories Tuesday about my new book. A day earlier, a podcast on “career pivots” highlighted it, as have other outlets over the past month.

It’s been a strange time to release a book about travel and the Peace Corps. The coronavirus outbreak has been devastating and Peace Corps Volunteers were recently evacuated worldwide. Like many of you, I have been staying home and feeling grateful to the medical responders and others who are working so tirelessly on our behalf. If you’re ready for a distraction while we await better times, here are links to some of the stories that have appeared in places that focus on retirement and career changes, which are more numerous than I knew previously. You’ll find more links on the book’s Facebook page.

Baby Boomer Retirement

Bloomer Boomer

Born to be Boomers

Career Pivot

Retirement Wisdom

Rock Your Retirement

Second Act Stories

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These and other outlets are helping older Americans think about the changing nature of retirement and their own futures. There are good books, too, including those on Andy Levine’s list of The Best Books About Second Acts. Not Exactly Retired now appears there along with my own favorite, my sister Nancy’s excellent Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit from Your Passions During Semi-Retirement.

In a future post, I’ll share coverage from outlets less focused on retirement, like this interview on Peace Corps Worldwide.

Visit the book website to see reviews, trip photos and more, along with links to indie bookshops, Amazon and other places where you can order Not Exactly Retired in paperback or electronically. If you’ve read and enjoyed it, please post a review online!

Most important of all: Stay safe, everyone.

Help the Evacuees

More than 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers from around the world arrived recently in North Carolina and other states after being evacuated because of the coronavirus.

They need our help — and they have something to teach us.

The volunteers have returned to Greensboro from Ukraine, to Raleigh from Malawi, to Cary from Panama and to Asheville from Ethiopia. They’ve come from South Africa, Guatemala and elsewhere — 61 countries in all. It’s the first time the Peace Corps has evacuated its volunteers worldwide.

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The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, like its counterparts across the country, has been organizing to assist the evacuees, few of whom have jobs lined up. They don’t receive unemployment benefits and their health insurance is temporary.

Of course, millions of other Americans are out of work, too, wondering how they’re going to buy food and pay their rent. The Peace Corps evacuees share this economic stress along with having suddenly left distant villages where they were assisting teachers, organizing health projects and working in other ways with some of the world’s poorest communities. Now, after a difficult trip, they’re back home, maybe still under quarantine.

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Volunteers evacuate from Senegal. From an article and video by Paula Ospin for “The New Yorker.”

They may not be ready yet to focus on a job hunt or to hear how lucky they are to eat barbecue again. Many of them didn’t want to be here, at least not yet.

I can only imagine how they feel. When Champa and I returned to North Carolina from our Peace Corps service in Eastern Europe two years ago, after months of preparation, we needed time to readjust to things as simple as drinking water from the tap. We were happy to be reunited with our family and friends but missed our Moldovan friends.

Peace Corps Volunteers are renown for their resilience but those who were just evacuated could use some help. Even with everything else going on, other Americans should look for ways to assist them. The Peace Corps itself needs political support and resources to respond appropriately. (An online petition calls on the federal government to provide the evacuees with appropriate benefits.)

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Photo taken in Los Angeles International Airport by PCV JaKyah Beatty during a layover on her trip from Fiji to Houston.

In return, these newly returned volunteers have a valuable perspective to share at this moment of worldwide anxiety.

They’ve just been living alongside people in other countries, so can help us see how the world is more connected than “us” and “them,” especially during a global crisis. Our country is not alone in facing extraordinary medical challenges and economic disruption, and it has greater resources than the countries where volunteers were serving.

The Peace Corps also exemplifies the human power of service, as millions of North Carolinians have been demonstrating recently, most notably with our heroic medical teams and first responders. More broadly, people across our region have been stocking grocery shelves, working at pharmacies or just staying home to reduce transmission rates. They are ordering meals to support local restaurants, checking on elderly neighbors and helping in other ways. The crisis has brought out the best in them.

In other words, Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t different from other Americans. They are just one example of how we all can enrich our own lives while serving others.

Champa and I began our Peace Corps service when we were 63 years old. We were among the hundreds of older Americans who join every year. The two of us ended up having a life-changing experience and feeling like we accomplished a lot. Thus, a final lesson, especially for people nearing retirement, which is to be unafraid about redefining your life and following your heart to pursue the Peace Corps or some other dream. As I discuss in my new book, you never know what might happen tomorrow.

Like a quarter-million Americans since President Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961, the volunteers and trainees who just came home answered our country’s call for service. I hope people in North Carolina and across the country will reach out, thank them, lend a hand and then listen to their stories. 

A ‘Second Act Story’

The Second Act Stories podcast has just published a new episode, “At 63, He Joined The Peace Corps and Moved to Moldova.”

If you ever wondered why I would walk away from a wonderful job and friends at Duke, you’ll find the answer here. Host Andy Levine asked great questions and even spoke with Alisa from our Moldovan host family.

I don’t plan to share all of the coverage of my new book, but Andy tells our story especially well in just under 20 minutes.

If you are an experienced podcast listener, you can connect to the Second Act Stories podcast on Apple Podcasts (for iPhones), Stitcher (for Androids), Spotify, GooglePlay, iHeartRadio and others. If you are new to podcasts, you can listen to this episode directly from the Second Act Stories website. While you’re there, check out some of the other “second acts” Andy has profiled, as well as his Best Books About Second Acts and other resources.

For more information about my new book, a book website has ordering details, blurbs, photos and other information.

Thanks Andy, and thanks to my sister Nancy Collamer, the author of a terrific book on Andy’s list and an inspiration for mine, for bringing us together.

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A Free Speech Festival

At the very moment President Trump was announcing his European travel ban on Wednesday, Champa and I were returning home from a two-week trip to Europe.

We didn’t expect to be there during a pandemic. When we flew to England for our nephew’s wedding, coronavirus was just beginning to appear in Europe. As we then traveled by train to London, Paris, Belgium and Amsterdam, it kept spreading.

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We enjoyed visiting the Eiffel Tower and other attractions without waiting on lines, but we were concerned about what was happening to others and relieved to return safely. We’re now staying at home as a precaution.

At this moment when the health and financial news is so grim, and our thoughts are with everyone affected, let me offer some relief with a post about a time and place that already seem far away: Amsterdam’s Dam Square this past Sunday.

As Champa and I walked towards our hotel near there, we heard boisterous chanting and cheering from what turned out to be a demonstration for International Women’s Day. The crowd was huge and full of energy. We saw countless homemade signs in Dutch, English and other languages. Here are some that caught my eye:

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As soon as the Women’s Day protesters marched away from the square, a new demonstration and concert began. This one was for the human rights of Indonesians, who were once colonized by the Dutch. 

IMG_4269That was on the main stage. Elsewhere on the square, a man set up a display in support of the Palestinian people. A few steps away from him, another protestor defiantly held up an Israeli flag. 

IMG_4268In another direction, several Falun Gong protestors stood beside a booth with large signs condemning Chinese oppression of their religion.

IMG_4277Meanwhile, tourists snapped photos of the historic architecture, tour guides led groups and police officers observed patiently. Marijuana smoke wafted from “coffee shops” beside the square and prostitutes posed in windows of the nearby Red Light District.

It all illustrated why Amsterdam is renown for its tolerance.

When we returned to Dam Square two days later, we encountered yet another group of protestors. This time it was Tibetans condemining the oppression of the Chinese govenrnment and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama.

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Champa and I enjoyed Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House and other famous spots, but Dam Square was the most memorable for us. We loved being in the middle of this festival of free speech and democracy.

I hope such trips become possible again soon for Americans. For now, we all need to focus on the more serious business of saving lives at home and around the world.

Keep Dam Square in mind for when that day comes — and if you’re lucky enough to travel there, be sure to bring a sign.

Africa in the Attic

One of the world’s great private collections of West African art was hidden until recently in the Durham attic of two returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Reggie and Celeste Hodges. Now they’re donating to North Carolina museums many of their hundreds of masks, statues and other precious objects. It’s a remarkable story, which I tell in this article just published by WorldView, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association.

Click to open a PDF copy of the article.

Learn more at Reggie and Celeste’s website.

 

Put Us to Work

When Champa and I returned to Durham after serving abroad for two years in the Peace Corps, I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to continue volunteering in my own community.

I assumed there were local nonprofit groups that could use my professional skills, especially for free. When I called around and searched online, though, I couldn’t find a good match. IMG_0539Eventually, I created an informal volunteer role for myself with the North Carolina partnership program that assists Moldova, where we served as Peace Corps volunteers, and I resumed volunteering at Urban Ministries, but who knows what I missed?

I am not alone. Across the Triangle and more widely, many older Americans now view retirement as much more than leisure. They consider it a second act, a new life stage of personal growth and service that may last for decades. These retirees are still sharp, still active, and a tremendous potential resource for nonprofit organizations that could tap their expertise in various fields.

Too often, however, communities regard their older residents in an outdated way — as a group requiring assistance rather than as an asset to recruit and empower. 

I became curious about what I encountered and began talking with people in our area who are involved in one way or another with older adults or volunteering. IMG_2256Over the past few months, I’ve met with our local volunteer center, Activate Good,  the United Way, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke, Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, local senior centers, the governor’s office, county officials, a retirement community and many others. (Here’s a list.) I’ve also talked with Encore.org and people around the country.

These are wonderful and impressive people — caring, thoughtful and professional. They are working hard on missions such as helping retirees obtain medical care or promoting volunteerism broadly.

Generally, though, older volunteers are only a small part of their missions, which were established before the big shift began in how Americans think about retirement.

For instance, our local volunteer center does great work but is also busy with high school students and many others. Websites such as VolunteerMatch and organizations ranging from AARP to RSVP serve important roles, too. Yet many older residents still fail to connect with worthy organizations that could benefit from their experience in writing grants, preparing budgets, building websites or managing staffs. 

IMG_2248To be sure, many retired citizens do serve as volunteers — teaching literacy classes, building homes with Habitat for Humanity and much more. Some volunteer through  their religious organization or a former employer. Many retirement communities and senior centers have their own volunteer programs, often with a focus on serving the needs of other retired people.

We need to be more strategic about this, as some communities around the country have demonstrated. A leader of the Encore Boston Network told me about their system to train older volunteers, match them with organizations and provide ongoing support. He described similar efforts in Phoenix, Denver and elsewhere. Many of the volunteers take on assignments that draw on their special expertise. Springfield, Missouri has an impressive Give 5 program that brings groups of retired people on a bus to local nonprofits, helping them find one to match their interests.

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I don’t mean in any way to downplay the many people, of all ages, who are generously rolling up their sleeves across our region to deliver meals, comfort the sick and more, or the excellent organizations that work with them. But as more and more older Americans look for new meaning in their lives, communities like Durham that attract them should recognize their good fortune and act deliberately to match them in meaningful volunteer roles, which would also help retirees avoid social isolation.

The opportunity is compelling and I am optimistic we can take advantage of it. As I’ve discussed it with local leaders and stakeholders, they’ve generally been responsive and enthusiastic. They see the possibilities. Several key players are interested in trying to make Durham a leader in this arena. Everything I’ve encountered so far reminds me why Champa and I are lucky to live in such a progressive and caring community.

If some older folks prefer to just play golf or tend their gardens, they’ve earned that choice. The two of us enjoy traveling and spending time with our grandchildren, too. But we also want to continue the spirit of volunteerism we found so fulfilling in the Peace Corps.

We’re not the only ones. Put us to work.

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One Year Back Home

Family, weddings, classes, projects, trips, a book and 73 episodes of Game of Thrones. 

That’s what Champa and I have been doing since we returned to Durham from our Peace Corps service in Moldova one year ago this month.

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We were especially busy initially — buying a car, restocking our kitchen and so forth — but our biggest challenge proved to be readjusting to the country we were so proud to represent when we left in mid-2016. We served for more than two years with the mission of helping others and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Then we came home to a new president who insults foreign allies and demonizes immigrants. It’s been a tough transition.

IMG_1385Of course, we’re thankful to be reunited with our family and friends. We’ve reveled in things as simple as driving or drinking water from a tap. Yet we still miss Moldova, every day. We made such good friends there and we now interact with them only on Facebook or with an occasional phone call.

IMG_0868Champa and I didn’t expect our transition to be so hard. We’d traveled a lot. We’d remained closely connected to America while we were gone. I’d served in the Peace Corps previously and she was born in Nepal. So how hard could it be? We didn’t fully appreciate that America wasn’t the only thing that changed. We’d changed, too.

I’m not the same person I was when I walked away from a conventional job four years ago to pursue a new life of service and adventure. I’m now 66 and no longer want a full-time job. Nor do I want to be “retired.” Instead, I continue to explore a third path, this time back in our home town. During the past year, I’ve been refocusing my energies on three new activities:

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  • North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova (above).
  • An initiative I’ve undertaken with others to encourage retired people to pursue volunteer opportunities. 
  • A book manuscript I’ve written about our recent adventures and what it means in today’s world to be “not exactly retired.”

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I also traveled to Romania to help teach a workshop on vaccines (above) and took two excellent adult-education courses with OLLI. Champa’s been working in her garden, pursuing art projects and spending time with family and friends. 

We also attended four beautiful weddings and took short trips both domestically and abroad. We renewed our subscription to UNC’s Playmakers theater series and, after living without a television for so long, we binge-watched movies and television shows we’d missed, including the entire Game of Thrones series. (Bran won the throne, really?)

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Most important, we welcomed a seventh grandchild to our family a few weeks ago.

So life has been good this past year and we know how fortunate we are to be able to say that, just as we were in Moldova. As I’ve begun pursuing this new phase of “not exactly retired,” I’ve been surprised to discover how disorganized our community is in taking advantage of older Americans like me who are eager to share their skills and enthusiasm to address social needs. I think it’s possible to make it much easier for them to do this, both in North Carolina and more widely. In future posts, I’ll be writing more about how I’ve begun working with others to address this opportunity.

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Join us on the journey.

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