An Interview with Joel Rubin, Peace Corps Costa Rica

The following is the transcript of the Interview of RPCV Joel Rubin who is running for Congress. Interview was conducted by Breanna Lenio, PCtoPolitics Press Director & Founder/Chief Editor for Ant Hill Live

Featured image is from RPCV Audrey Scott & Daniel Noll of Uncornered Market

Joel M. Rubin

Running for: Maryland’s 8th Congressional District

Served in: Santa Cruz Guanacaste in Costa Rica

Years: 1994-1996 

Breanna: What made you want to serve in the Peace Corps?

Joel Rubin: “I’ll never forget when I interviewed for Peace Corps. It was a three-hour interview in the Boston Regional Office. I couldn’t stop talking about how excited I was. And it’s because I truly wanted to do service overseas and help heal the world. Tikkun olam is what we call it in Hebrew, which means ‘to heal the world.’

“I grew up in a household that was very much international mindset. We were always focusing and thinking about foreign affairs. I went to Hebrew school and I remember spending summers in Israel. And I always did public service in high school and college. I felt this desire to further blowout these feelings of commitment to community, public service, connecting with people overseas. I was getting a teaching degree in addition to my politics degree, and I wanted to push the edge of what I could do.

“Tikkun olam is the Jewish ethic of healing the world. And when I got to this Peace Corps interview, I remember continuing going back to Tikkun olam and what can I do as an individual to help make the world a better place. And the Peace Corps provided an avenue for doing that. How could you not do that?”

Breanna: Tell me about a Peace Corps experience that left a mark on you.

Joel Rubin: “The one that jumps right to mind was towards the last half year of my service. At that point, I had really gotten into my pace. I had been there for a year and a half, spoke the language fluently, knew the community, and people knew me and why I was there. It was a rich time of productivity. That’s when you really hit your stride, at least I feel. It takes a year or so to really get into it and know what you’re doing.

“It was at this time that I helped to create a summer camp for kids during their summer break. None of these kids had extra curricular activities at all. They went to school, maybe played soccer, did work around the house, or hung out. I felt like we should be doing more. And as an environmental education volunteer, I engaged people and we built a month of four different sessions a week of summer camps. It was an environmental camp for a week for each of the groups. We got funding from a local ministry, and I helped to recruit the staff and develop the program.

“I think I still have the t-shirt from it. Just going around and talking to parents and kids in the village, and seeing the kids so excited. Then getting them there, bringing them teachers, and having them do the learning, and realizing that I could, through partnership, make something that would be of an indelible kind of mark on their lives. It was one of those things where I’m now in touch with the kids through Facebook. They’re 20 years older and many of them send me messages and ask if I remember ‘club ambiental’ [environmental club] and these things I did with them. There were a lot of different experiences that I remember. Let me give you one more.

“This was really interesting. We called it ‘Dia de la basura,’ [garbage day].” We probably should have called it something different, but we went straight to the point. We had our kids in the town with the environmental club clean up the whole town, do environmental projects, make trash cans, paint them, put them around, make signs, do public awareness. And I was able to recruit a group of Canadian high school kids that were in one of these programs in Coast Rica. I worked with an NGO [non-governmental organization] in addition to being in my village. The NGO helped us get to those folks and brought them in.

“I went back a few years ago and some of the trashcans were still there, and the kids were talking about them. It’s these things. I think you take it up a notch of working with the kids at the time to help them to experience things that we take for granted here educationally, like camps or volunteer work. These were things that were not in this village. And I think in a lot of places in the developing world, it’s not something a part of the normal course of events. As someone who was in an education program, though I did a lot of other side projects with agricultural groups and schools and whatnot, I think the core thing at the end of the experience is are you helping the people who you’ve touched in that period to expand their view of what they can do in this world, are you bringing in resources to help them. I know they expanded my view of what I can do in this world. And I’m honestly blown away by how many of them are now teachers, they went to college, some of them engineers, you know? They have professional careers. And we’re in touch! I’d like to think at some level, by engaging them in how education can be impactful and empowering, it gave them a sense of what they can do with their lives. There were so many experiences, and they were just all so great.”

Breanna Lenio: In what ways has your Peace Corps experience motivated your political career.

Joel Rubin: “It’s everything. Politics is an extension of public service and public service is an extension of doing good in the world. And, if you are committed to engaging in helping people and you want to really make an impact, you can do it in a whole bunch of different ways. For me, I felt like politics, what they are saying in Washington, the intellectual fights back and forth, those things do make an impact in the real world. And for me, I had this epiphany moment in the Peace Corps about this idea of being engaged at some level in politics or policy. And I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it mattered in particular while I was in a classroom teaching and looking at this textbook. I don’t recall the exact details of it, I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, this textbook is horrible.’ Thinking, who is making these decisions? It’s these people in the capital who are making up decisions for this textbook for this real village to have to use.

“And I thought, I think I want to be in the capital at some point. And, boom. I want to be there because I think I can do it better. I can help make it work well. Politics at the end of it, in Washington, in government, is at its core affecting the whole country, hundreds of millions of people. Everything we do here in Washington in general, it is impactful on people who we will never meet. So there’s a real humility that I gain from the Peace Corps from seeing it on the other side. I didn’t quite get it growing up in Pittsburg, I just watched it on television or read about it, but I felt it being in a developing country in the countryside about what a government and capitol does.

“For me, I needed to be part of that system and maybe I can do some good in it. So I studied public policy and I came to Washington to work. The evolution has been to run for office because of a belief that at the end of the day, it’s the elected officials who have the greatest ability to really make strategic impacts on how our government works. And I can bring my experience of having done real things in the government, real stuff that impact people directly, into the possible office. I have that wisdom of those experiences just like I did from Peace Corps and bring them into the discussion. Because people don’t take it seriously. We have a lot of politicians who are in office and it’s all about ego, they really don’t care about what they’re doing. It’s all about how to get a better rise out of a poll, a little more money from a group, or to get on TV more often. I can tell, because I’ve been on TV as an activist, and in some of these political arguments, I can tell by the way someone is talking that they’re trying to figure out how get on TV. And now as a candidate, I see that there’s a reason for it. But that’s not the point. The point is to try to make positive change.

“So, for me, the political stuff is an outgrowth of public service, but understanding as well that we have a real responsibility as candidates and elected officials to get it right. People out there do actually notice and pay attention. People are angry with our political debate right now, and I wasn’t happy twenty years ago looking at a textbook from the ministry of education.”

Breanna Lenio: How would you say your Peace Corps experience distinguishes you from other candidates in this race?

Joel Rubin: “I’m the only person in this race who actually spent a couple of years as a volunteer working with communities in need on a daily basis and trying to make positive change in partnership with the people. Didn’t come at it writing a law for them, didn’t come at it teaching them from a distance and then walking away, I didn’t come at it from broadcasting about them or selling them something. I’m coming at it from having worked in the field with people. And that is something I take every time I am engaged in any policy debate or fight.

When I ran a solar program at the energy department, my attitude was about how do we engage the local government, the business community, how do we build a real program. And I gave a talk at the US chamber of commerce in March 2001 about that program, talking about it. It’s about engaging community to make things happen in the real world. I think that’s an experience skill set that is very unique in this race.

“We have a lot of politicians and elected officials in this country who don’t have real world experience. I think we all bring different things to bear in this race, but what the Peace Corps did was teach me about how vast and challenging the issues are and how humble one has to be. And you know, I sometimes talk to people asking for campaign contributions and you get a whole bunch of reactions. Sometimes donors sound like they have no clue about what’s going on out there. Sometimes the media sounds like they have no clue, sometimes candidates sound like they have no clue. I’m not omnipotent, but I’ll tell you, once you’ve lived in a developing country with your hands and your feet and your heart and your sweat on a daily basis, you understand how much work there is that has to be done. I think that’s what sticks, and I believe that’s unique. I think Peace Corps volunteers bring that with them in every occupation they follow, nursing, teaching, business – you name it.

“For me, in the political world, it taught me that when I helped start J Street to take on APAC and the Jewish establishment positions on Israel, which were not allowing for a vibrant political debate about American foreign policy in the Middle East, I didn’t feel nervous. Because that’s nothing compared to what people have to go through in a developing world. And I felt like I’m going to bring my Peace Corps attitude to this fight, which means I’m going to dig in and we’re going to fight, because we’re going to get something done that builds a peaceful world.

“You do that with the right approach and you try to bring people in and not exclude them, but you understand that in doing that, it’s going to be hard. But I’ve been through harder, I’ve seen harder. I didn’t have it as hard as the woman who had five kids in a one room shack, you know? She had it hard, right? And she was my around-the-block neighbor in the village. So, I didn’t have it hard compared to them. I was still safe and taken care of, we had the Peace Corps infrastructure behind us. I think when you bring that in with you, all the fights you have, like testifying to the Benghazi committee. I did that because I felt like our government people who are working everyday on behalf of the American people were being treated horribly by politicians who have no clue about what it’s like to serve the American people. So I’ll stand up, take shots, and attack. That’s fine, because in the back of my mind I know there are people in a village who I worked with 20 years ago who are cheering me on.

Breanna Lenio: PC to Politics wants to inspire other RPCVs to run for office, what advice do you have for RPCVs along these lines?

Joel Rubin: “It’s a total extension. When a Peace Corps volunteer thinks about their life and career, they have to remember that they can do anything. It does take hard work. I’m running for office, but I didn’t just leave Peace Corps and run for office. I’ve been working for twenty years, about 15-16 here in DC. It’s a lot of work. Not always easy, not always good, some highs, some lows. I think it’s the resilience that we develop over two years of service that is sorely lacking amongst our elected officials. You need resilience to deal with the pressure that comes at you from both directions – on issues, for example. You have to maintain a center and a focus to deal with these things.

“When one serves in the Peace Corps, they go through an internal transformation of really understanding who they are as people. It kind of centers you. And we don’t have a lot of politicians who are centered; we have a lot of politicians who are trying to figure out what the polls say they need to do. Those motivations are destructive to our country’s government, the health of our democracy, and our society.

“So I think Peace Corp alums, RPCVS, must be competing for public office, because we need people like them who are centered and have gone through a personal transformative experience. We need people who have worked on the ground, who can bring that kind of wisdom and humility into office, so that they can be there for the tough fights and stand up to the pressures that are inevitably going to be presenting themselves to candidates and to members. Veterans do a great job of that, too. There are people who’ve done service who stick to it.

“It’s really easy to be expedient as a politician, to just figure out what people what you to say and do. It’s a lot harder to actually tell people what you stand for and get their support. You don’t just do one thing. You listen, but you stay true to your center. And I think Peace Corps people have that sense of center.”

Joel Rubin, Peace Corps Costa Rica, is running for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District






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