Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Columbia Heights is the most popular place in the world for returned Peace Corps volunteers!

We all know that Columbia Heights is a diverse and vibrant place -- that extends to folks coming back from the Peace Corps, who have chosen the neighborhood more than any other place on the planet to move to once their overseas service is done. I think that speaks well of the area -- lots of young people, lots of people from all over the world, and lots to do.

Chris Robinson of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington (RCPV/W) got in touch with us about it, and we asked them some questions about why the area is so popular, and how people can learn more about the Peace Corps.

I have some ideas why our area is popular for returned Peace Corps volunteers, but why do you think it is?
To see why Columbia Heights is such a popular neighborhood for RPCVs, it helps to understand why the region attracts so many of us to begin with. It's all rooted in the history of the Peace Corps. While many of the first volunteers were drawn from the University of Michigan, there existed a sizeable cadre of Washingtonians, Virginians and Marylanders who answered President Kennedy's call to service. These folks, growing up in close proximity to the nation's political, military, and diplomatic institutions, were especially sensitive to the rising tensions of the Cold War. Kennedy's programs provided an outlet for those who supported his world-view.

The early agency was shaped and managed by a handful of Kennedy aides led by his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver. Shriver was a supremely-talented administrator, and within a few years the Peace Corps had over 15,000 volunteers serving abroad. He also hated bureaucracies. Resolving that the growing agency could avoid that fate, he instituted a rule preventing anyone from working there for more than 5 years, forcing them to draw new talent from the expanding pool of returned volunteers. Working at Peace Corps provided entrance into the federal system, and RPCVs were soon setting down roots in the region.

Is the neighborhood especially popular with volunteers who lived in a certain area, or just in general?
Your typical returned Peace Corps volunteer is friendly and resourceful. They're tough to discourage; some are downright fearless. I can't tell you when the first one moved to Columbia Heights, but I'm sure that they settled in quickly. Surely the composition of the neighborhood, with its mix of ethnicities and languages, was a welcome find. When you're in the field, your quality of life depends on how well you get along with your community. You learn the language, you eat the food, you meet the people, and you live the life. I think that Columbia Heights helps us remember the world, and the role we play in it.

Sentimentality aside, our population largely follows the trends of the last decade. RPCVs move to the area for jobs or education. They tend to be young and adaptable. They are interested in geopolitics and current affairs. Columbia Heights offers reasonable rents, good transportation infrastructure, and a vibrant social scene that favors cross-cultural experiences. In recent years, a housing listserv was circulated and we've grown an active Facebook group where new arrivals can ask questions about places to live and receive trusted advice and offers. We also have a lot of foreign service personnel who have purchased property, but live abroad, and choose to rent to RPCVs.

What are other areas that have a lot of returned volunteers?
Here's an interactive map that shows where our members tend to live. We use it to plan events and predict attendance. As you can see, Columbia Heights is ground zero, followed closely by Mount Pleasant. Adams Morgan, Petworth and Shaw are also popular neighborhoods, and we're gaining ground along Florida Ave. and in Capitol Hill.

Do you have events in Columbia Heights? How can people get involved?
We hold 4-5 events every month, which are broadly divided between social events, professional development panels and community service projects. 

Meridian Pint and The Wonderland Ballroom are popular spots for our monthly happy hours, which are open to all, and we love to come out and meet the neighborhood on Columbia Heights Day. Each year our members vote on a local charity to support, and in 2009 it was the Latin American Youth Center, which is located on Columbia Road. Last year, we worked on a few projects with the Faircliff Plaza Community Center and Housing Counseling Services, organizing an Environment Awareness Day for kids and conducting mock job interviews and resume reviews with adults who are learning English. 

Our events are always listed on our website and publicly syncable via Google calendar. All are welcome to join us and we're always open to suggestions on what to do next. Our [most recent] event was our Holiday Party on December 14. It always attracts a diverse mix of generations and backgrounds, all getting together to have fun and help out a local organization that works with immigrant kids. 

And if someone is interested in the Peace Corps, what's the best way for them to get more information? Can they talk to RPCVWs? 
If you're interested in the Peace Corps, your first stop should be their website, The process is lengthy, so in the meantime, prospective volunteers are welcome to join the community, come to events, and use our Facebook group to meet individuals or pose general questions. If you don't live nearby, the National Peace Corps Association hosts a massive social network and can quickly connect you to a mentor in your area. Choosing to venture way out of your comfort zone for two years and live in a world that is by no means safe or fair is a decision that should not be taken lightly. I recommend speaking to as many RPCVs as you can find, and I guarantee you can find them in Columbia Heights.


Jess said...

Nice interview! But how do you know that CH is the most popular with RPCVs? I've always heard that about Mt Pleasant but assumed that it was an assumption that got repeated as fact. Is it a guess, based on NPCA members' mailing addresses, something else?

RPCV/W said...

Chris here!

RPCV/W has 1,242 active members. Though it's optional, 718 of them provide an address in the DC area, which I converted to coordinates and mapped.

When we draw a vector over the respective neighborhoods, we find 326 data points in Columbia Heights and 221 in Mt. Pleasant.

So, by our math, Columbia Heights is #1 and Mt. Pleasant is #2. Our data comes from our members, some of whom registered through NPCA and some of whom joined us independently!