Internship Highlight: Fostering Community through International Exchange

                In my thirteen months as an intern at the World Affairs Council, the impact of citizen to citizen diplomacy has redefined and widened my views on issues not only at an international level, but at the local level as well. Over the course of my internship, in researching topics and issues for visiting delegations, I discovered many similar issues prevalent within Seattle that are being addressed by individuals and organizations in inventive and meaningful ways, enlightening me to the opportunities and challenges of my own city. While facilitating these exchanges through the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), it has become clear to me that no topic is relevant to just one city or one country, rather these are universal themes, challenges and successes.

                During the IVLP proposal writing process, it is essential to be cognizant of the efforts that Seattle organizations and communities put forward to resolve issues of global concern. In writing proposals for the World Affairs Council, I have researched topics from international agricultural trade, of which Washington apples and tech play a huge role, to civic activism, an activity in which many Seattle residents regularly engage. While these topics are obvious themes of interest to international delegations, I have also submitted proposals on comic books and graphic novels, social media usage, and farmers’ markets. There are few topics on which the State Department does not engage delegations for the purpose of international professional exchange. While Seattle does not see all of the delegations that participate in IVLP, those that we host are clear representations of how international exchange can improve the local and global communities.

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International visitors leading the 2016 Pride Parade through downtown Seattle

                In June 2016, the first proposal I ever wrote developed into a program on LGBT rights for international visitors from all over the world. These visitors of the global LGBT community, many from countries where the public does not accept or is even openly hostile towards the expression of varied sexual orientations, envisioned the need for global communication to develop a public that supports the free expression of an individual’s sexual orientation. To see these diverse visitors, many of whom come from countries with barriers to the free expression of sexual orientation, discussing LGBT rights with Seattle’s openly-gay mayor, Ed Murray, was a moving experience full of powerful dialogue and practical steps towards the shared goal of social acceptance. In the proposal process, we promoted the possibility of them attending the Seattle PrideFest, the largest free gay pride festival in the United States, and viewing and volunteering in the many associated events at the Pride Parade. Hearing about the delegation’s attendance, the organizers of the Pride Parade asked the visitors to join a special group at the head of the parade marching in solidarity with the victims of the recent Orlando shooting, carrying a flag with the name of each victim. The Pride Parade organizers even acquired flags for each of the respective countries of the members of the delegation. During the rest of the delegation’s visit, the organizations with which the visitors met prompted discussions of small but concrete ideas towards opening dialogue on sexual freedom, a task that even in a socially-progressive city like Seattle seemed daunting not too long ago. Through citizen-to-citizen diplomacy, LGBT rights became a shared concern and a shared area of empowerment for individuals in Seattle and across the world.

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Discussing LGBT rights with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray

                In May 2016, the World Affairs Council of Seattle welcomed a delegation of four individuals from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt for a month-long fellowship addressing the rights of people with disabilities. These fellows, sponsored by Hands Along the Nile Development Services (HANDS), connected with organizations and individuals in Seattle working with similar concerns about identical issues. There was a shared understanding and goal for resolving issues for the blind, the deaf, and those with other impairments. The projects that two fellows engaged in through the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library intersected with the concerns that these fellows had for their own communities in Egypt and Tunisia. The Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center worked to provide another fellow with an understanding of how deaf individuals in Seattle are supported. Another fellow worked with Disability Rights Washington on projects and discussion centered on making voting accessible for all people with disabilities. The mutual beneficence of this collaboration is emblematic in the continued interviews both on Tunisian TV and French TV on the work that he has begun in his home country. With the shared concern of improving lives for people with disabilities around the world, these four fellows not only learned from their hosts about disability rights in Seattle, but taught their hosts about the opportunities and challenges involved with disability rights in their countries. With these experiences, these four visitors returned to their respective countries ready to utilize the techniques they learned in Seattle, and ready to connect with other organizations to promote disability rights on a global scale.

Seattle HANDS fellow Arbi Chouikh talks about his disability rights work in Tunisia

                In February of this year, I had the honor of overseeing the visit of an IVLP delegation from Guatemala and El Salvador on issues regarding marine conservation and anti-poaching laws. Olive Ridley turtle eggs are the center of the largest black market for animal products in Guatemala and El Salvador. Aware that the eggs are highly sought after for their nutritional value, the Guatemalan government allows poachers to collect and sell vast quantities of sea turtle eggs so long as 20% of the nest is donated to local hatcheries. Looking to change this standard, seven members of zoos and foundations throughout the two countries came to Seattle to learn from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, aquarium staff, native tribes, and even data scientists about organizing, creating and protecting coastal marine sanctuaries from all poaching. The Marine Conservation Institute discussed their work with MPAtlas.org, an online database of protected marine sanctuaries around the world and the data they collect to improve, support and create better protections for oceans and wildlife. The Seattle aquarium staff took the delegation deep into the belly of the water filtration systems and quarantine zones to demonstrate the specifics of care for marine wildlife as well as the general exhibits to demonstrate how to engage the public in topics related to marine conservation and preservation. Visitors even met with representatives of the Humane Society, the Sierra Club and Northwest Passages Consulting to discuss their joint efforts in enabling the passage of Washington State Initiative 1401 aimed at countering the sale of poached animal products.  The visitors left Seattle having arranged email contact with aquarium staff, Humane Society International, and the Marine Conservation Institute to support the development of protected marine sanctuaries in Guatemala and El Salvador and globally because, after all, the ocean and its well-being is of global concern.

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Visitors from Guatemala and El Salvador tour the inner workings of the Seattle Aquarium

                Seeing as many of the most topical and pressing issues are global, so too must the solutions devised to address these issues be a global collaboration as well. The essential portion of international exchanges is creating that global database of contacts to engage and devise solutions. Whether the concern is LGBT rights, disability rights, or marine conservation, the global community can and does have the answers. By facilitating contemporary citizen-to-citizen contact across communities, cities and countries, the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program provides international exchange that envision a world in which international cooperation is the solution. Public diplomacy is not simply about representing one’s country, but rather about committing to engage in all issues for countries worldwide. In the end, the community efforts of citizens worldwide should be the goal of international exchange.

By Alex Kegel, International Visitor Program Intern