In times of darkness, the United States has advanced its diplomatic solutions to foster support for democratic values around the world. In 1940, amid a global wave of fascism and the early years World War II, newly appointed Coordinator of Commercial and Cultural Affairs for the American Republics, Nelson Rockefeller, created an exchange of journalists from Argentina to the United States. In 1948, new legislation codified the role of public diplomacy and citizen exchanges in U.S. foreign engagement and the one-off exchange of journalists officially became the start of what we know it today as the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). To date, the IVLP has welcomed over 225,000 alumni, changemakers, rising leaders, or experts in their various career fields to the United States to share professional best practices and to exchange cultural values.
As my team and I at Cultural Vistas celebrate our 10th year implementing the IVLP, I am reminded of our similar origins as an organization. Although we emerged several decades later in the 1960’s, our goals to create bridges between nations and build mutual understanding for a more peaceful, collaborative, and shared future remain the same.
Exchange programs alone can seem small-scale, but by equipping our participants with new or expanded networks, resources, and ideas, we help them become “multipliers” in their fields and within their communities. When I first started at Cultural Vistas in 2012, I was continually inspired by the idea that, through our programs, we were affecting one person, one exchange, at a time. It felt very personal and tailored. But soon after joining the organization, I realized that what our alumni do after their exchange experiences can produce the most exciting outcomes of such programs. With IVLP, we certainly see the multiplier effect across many professions.
Read on for a few of my personal highlights witnessing democratic values in action through IVLP participants.
Promoting Equal Access
The first project I ever managed was a for an individual from Australia, Stella Young. A journalist, comedian, and disability rights activist, she arrived for her IVLP in July 2014 like a whirlwind of energy, ready to absorb and experience as much as she could of the United States in three short weeks. One of her legacies that has stuck with me was her ability to open the eyes of the able-bodied (including me) to see how difficult it is for people with physical disabilities to get around in society.
During her IVLP she visited Austin, Texas. While eating at a local restaurant one afternoon, she went to use the bathroom and realized the latch on the handicapped stall was too high for her to reach. The stall was not actually constructed in an accessible way. She very politely brought this up to the restaurant manager, who immediately went in with an electric screwdriver and fixed the door for her. She recalled being totally surprised and pleased with the quick response. The manager also appreciated the awareness she brought to the situation.
Stella was never afraid or embarrassed to speak up for herself and others in need of equal access. In large and small ways she left an indelible impact on many people across the world.
Promoting Gender Equality in Business
As one of eighteen members of the 2015 WEAmericas IVLP cohort, Peruvian Rachelle Olortegui came into the program unsure of what to expect and focused on building up her company, EcoInca Superfoods. Over the course of her three-week experience, she learned that – as an entrepreneur – she still had a lot of room to grow and develop. She also realized she had an opportunity to impact people in a positive way, particularly other female entrepreneurs who tend to experience more obstacles.
Once she returned home, she started working with members of the Peruvian government and other business partners to expand sustainable agriculture and to promote the ancient products that Peru and the Andean region have been known for since the time of the Incas. She has since become an advocate for sustainable agriculture in Peru and the wider Americas region and an example of female leadership in business. In 2018, she was invited to a Summit of the Americas event on women’s economic empowerment where she had a chance to discuss these and other issues with Ivanka Trump, who headlined the event. She also became a brand ambassador for the Inter-American Development Bank’s Connect Americas initiative.
In a recent conversation with Rachelle, she mentioned that being on a program like the IVLP “shines a light on your purpose.” It shows you what you can do and what you need to do to get there. For Rachelle, she needed to feel “good financially, emotionally, and spiritually” before moving on to other things. With those three requirements now checked off, she joined some of her WEAmericas IVLP alumna to create the WEAmericas Foundation whose purpose is to provide a network and systems of support and resources for female entrepreneurs who are looking to scale up their businesses. She currently serves on the Board of Directors as Vice President of Global Operations. As they build up their capacity, Rachelle says they aim to offer online classes, scholarships, and a channel for members to share ideas and offer mentorship.
The Power of Free Speech and Media
More recently, Dr. Mohamed Wardany, Head of Media for the Al Azhar Islamic Research Center (AIRA) in Giza, Egypt, participated virtually in an IVLP for journalists who focus on foreign policy and international audiences. Over the course of the program, he and his colleagues from around the Middle East explored the different ways news outlets, universities, think tanks, and government agencies at the federal and state levels promote and protect the right of free speech. They also debated journalistic best practices and efforts to maintain integrity amid a time of instant information-sharing through digital networks and the spread of misinformation.
Upon returning home, Dr. Wardany has jumped into a project between the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Al Azhar Islamic Research Center – 30 Days of Kindness. This is the first project his institution has engaged in with the UNHCR, and it aims at assisting displaced populations during the winter months by “leveraging social media networks and influential figures” in both the Arabic and English languages to galvanize citizens to support vulnerable communities through the provision of basic necessities.
Empathy, kindness, and humanitarian assistance are just as much a part of the Islamic faith as the Christian faith or, more generally, American values. Through his expertise in media and communications, Dr. Wardany and his team are building digital networks of kindness across the region. For more information on this great initiative, you can view a recent interview (in Arabic) here.
Cultural Vistas is proud to continue as an implementing partner of the IVLP and to be supporting the work and ambitions of so many rising leaders and changemakers. We remain committed and energized towards working for a better, though not perfect, future. We recognize the importance that relationships, networks, and new ideas play in our work and that of our partners and alumni.