Bringing the world together JUNE, 2012
The Power of Citizen Diplomacy
“El sombrero de paja toquilla”, by Frank Justice, Program Officer
From left: Congressman John Lewis with International Visitor Mr. Ramsses Torres, Advisor to the Ecuadorian National Assembly. Mr. Ramsses poignantly presents Congressman Lewis his father’s hat.
As the group of indigenous and minority rights leaders from Central and South America made their way into Meridian International Center for the opening of their international exchange visit, an unexpected assortment of colors filled the space. The array of their Native dress, each distinct and unique, mixed in with the suits and contemporary business attire sported by fellow international participants brightened the room. There was the stunning indigo blue dress, likely handmade. Green and yellow tribal wear featured next to an outfit that was completely black from head to toe. A selection of accessories and headwear that would have made any clothing store owner proud. Yet, one particular hat stood out. Perched on the head of a rather tall and striking advisor to the Ecuadorian National Assembly, the hat was equally large and unmistakably elegant.
Its owner, Mr. Ramsses Torres, later revealed that the hat was a gift from his father and one of heavy personal significance. Referred to as el sombrero de paja toquilla in Spanish, the Panama hat is a traditional brimmed cap made from the plaited leaves of the toquilla straw plant. Ramsses was quick to point out that it originated in Ecuador and is an art form in his nation. Like many other 19th and early 20th century South American goods, the hats were shipped first to Panama before sailing off to their final destinations. The Ecuadorian president and emblematic figure Eloy Alfaro helped finance a liberal revolution of his country through the export of the good.
Throughout the course of the next three days, the hat was a constant and prominent fixture. Ramsses politely placed it on the table during professional appointments with public and private sector officials. Still, the object was so big and obtrusive that it must have been on the minds of the speakers who no doubt sensed its importance to the Ecuadorian. Then Ramsses and his fellow International Visitors met the Honorable John Lewis.
John Lewis is many things: a thirteen-term Congressman, a civil rights leader, the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the only individual still alive who spoke to the same enormous crowd on the same glorious day that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic I Have a Dream speech. Mr. Lewis is also a citizen diplomat. Over the course of one full hour, he revealed the trials and tribulations that he and other African Americans faced as they fought for equality and against segregation during the civil rights movement. He showed enlarged photos of significant moments in the struggle, including the beating he received on “Bloody Sunday” as well as his post directly behind the March on Washington pulpit. Congressman Lewis also listened. He listened to the shared challenges and setbacks that the international leaders faced in their fight for indigenous and minority rights. Maintaining a non-violent message, the recipient of the President Medal of Freedom responded by imploring the group not to be hostile, but to remain committed, to remain hopeful, to remain positive.
Congressman Lewis meets with a group of indigenous and minority rights leaders from Central and South America to reflect on his struggles during the U.S. civil rights movement and to listen to the challenges faced by the International Visitors in their quest for equal rights and participation in their respective countries.
To be a citizen diplomat one must have the urge to interact with the rest of the world in a meaningful, mutually beneficial manner on a personal level. After all, citizen diplomacy is the engagement in people to people exchange. By simultaneously connecting with every international participant on a personal level, Mr. Lewis epitomized the spirit and character of a citizen diplomat. As a disability rights leader from Paraguay explained, “I can identify with his struggle so well because I see the same things going on in my country. It is painful, but at the same time gives meaning to my fight and makes me confident that progress can be made.”
The experience inspired fervor from a Peruvian, while triggering large tears from a Venezuelan. It left the State Department program officer nearly speechless and caused the best of interpreters to lose their train of thought. Slowly, Ramsses stood up and walked towards his new friend. “I never imagined that I would have the desire to give someone something so important and personal to me, but your struggle and your story have compelled me in ways I cannot explain.” With those words, the tall and imposing advisor to the Ecuadoran National Assembly removed the magnificently woven toquilla hat from its perch and placed it on the head of Mr. Lewis. Much like the colors that filled Meridian’s halls during the program opening session, a display of emotions filled Congressman Lewis’ office. And one image, now a symbol, remained most prominently above the rest; el sombrero de paja toquilla.
Clockwise from left: PED’s four new Program Associates, Titania (“Tania”) Jazynka, Faisal Hassan, John Gorney and Madeline Vellturo.
The Professional Exchanges Division Welcomes Four Program Associates
We are happy to have on board four new Program Associates.
Emergency Preparedness in the IVLP Network
A tornado calls for going above and beyond
From left: U.S. Foreign Policy MRP participants Ms. Samantha Chaitram from Trinidad and Tobago, Mr. Alexander Gabuev from Russia and Ms. Zeynep Erul from Turkey are in good spirits while they wait out the storm at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
When working on International Visitor Leadership Programs we remain cognizant of the fact that sometimes travel can be interrupted by flight changes, inclement weather or illness, eliciting a need on our part to remain flexible when emergencies occur. This emergency-preparedness was tested recently by a program team working on a Multi-Regional Project (MRP) on U.S. Foreign Policy. It just so happened that their pre-arranged travels in April brought the group of 27 to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport at the same moment the city was met with several large tornadoes. The visitors had arrived separately from three different city splits, reconvening at the Dallas Airport in order to board one flight together to San Francisco, the group’s closing city. When the storm cancelled their flight, Meridian program team Phillip Ives and Matt Ilinitch contacted Jerry Jordan at the North Texas CIV in Dallas. Without delay he arranged for a bus to pick up the group at the airport, a huge convenience given the long taxi lines that were forming for the many stranded passengers. The MRP group members were whisked off to a local hotel while the program team worked behind the scenes with the airlines to arrange onward transit to San Francisco. Though no flights were immediately available, Katka Letzing at IIE in San Francisco and Jerry Jordan in Dallas, were able to coordinate a special program the next day that began with a teleconference connecting the group with a presenter in San Francisco, and closed with a visit to the world famous Fort Worth Stockyards. The following day, the group departed for San Francisco, where much friendlier weather awaited them. Thanks to the quick work of our very committed IVLP network, a natural disaster proved to be only a minor bump in the tracks of these international visitors.