by Ashleigh Graves-Roesler
In 2016, my husband Bryan and I answered a call to public service and applied to serve in the United States Peace Corps. We accepted placements as Community Development Volunteers in Ukraine and began our 27-month service in March 2017.
Following three months of intensive language and technical training in Chernihiv (two hours east of Kyiv), we were sworn in and assigned to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, where we will remain for the rest of our service working for two different NGOs.
Bryan works with Ділові Ініціативи (Business Initiatives), which is supporting decentralization efforts in our region. The organization is funded in part by a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) grant that offers technical training to integrated communities.
I am working with тепле місто (“Warm City”), a progressive community foundation that serves as a platform for civic activists involved in social entrepreneurship and urban development in Ivano-Frankivsk.
To backtrack a bit, prior to the Peace Corps, Bryan and I had both worked in fundraising in Indiana for nearly a decade. After graduating in 2009 with a dual M.A./M.P.A. from the then-Center on Philanthropy and School of Public and Environmental Affairs, both at IUPUI, Bryan worked in institutional giving for several large organizations including Indiana University, Wabash College, and Boy Scouts of America.
Following completion of my M.A. in Philanthropic Studies at the Center in 2009, I worked primarily in arts and culture fundraising, including for the Indianapolis Art Center and the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site.
We loved our life in Indianapolis and felt so fortunate to be part of the city’s warm and enthusiastic nonprofit community. However, we really wanted to experience both public service and international development work. Peace Corps had been on our radar as a retirement goal, but last year, it felt like the time was right in our lives to take a leap and gain this new experience.
The central component of Peace Corps’ community development work in Ukraine is building civil society and organizational capacity. Ukraine is in the middle of enormous change.
It’s a beautiful country with modern cities and access to many of the comforts of a European lifestyle. But in other areas the country lags behind its peers, constantly battling to shrug off Soviet-era malaise while making the country’s economy competitive with the rest of Europe.
It’s also in an active conflict with supposedly Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine and tensions remain high over the annexed Crimean peninsula, a painful reality that colors daily life in much of the country. However, we are continually impressed and inspired by the community-based, grassroots social activism that is pushing the country forward.
We are just about six months into this experience, and feel like we’ve learned an incredible amount in that short time. On top of learning the Ukrainian language, integrating into a new culture, and adapting to different workplace norms, we are also jumping headfirst into the new-to-us arena of international development work and international funding.
There is a huge learning curve, but the Peace Corps approaches this work very seriously and has provided us with a tremendous amount of education and resources. We are honored to work alongside the Ukrainians who are pushing this work forward; it’s a privilege to support their work in any way that we can.
Accepting that change at this level is incremental and that we can only personally accomplish so much in 27 months is the hard part.
Joining the Peace Corps mid-career isn’t perhaps the conventional choice, but in terms of professional development, I can’t imagine a better way to experience international work while still gaining experience in my field.
Philanthropy looks very different in a Ukrainian context right now, but things are changing—the NGO sector is developing and professionalizing, there is some amazing work happening with social entrepreneurship, and there is growing interest in both corporate and individual giving.
Building civil society is tough work, but I truly believe that the efforts of the next five years will help shape the future of Ukraine and its NGO sector.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.