Yesterday I flew from Seattle to Washington DC, was picked up at the airport, and got to my hotel with 15 minutes to spare. I was there to accept the Citizen Diplomat Award from a huge gathering of the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV) and to help kick off their annual convention with a talk about how I see the value of travel.
Plopping my bag in the hotel room and brushing my teeth, I marveled at how someone can fly clear across the country and get there with 15 minutes to spare…exactly as planned. While many enjoy complaining, I am forever impressed by and thankful for the airline industry here in the USA.
NCIV promotes citizen diplomacy with nearly 100 community organizations throughout the United States. Working with the US Department of State, their mission is to welcome and enrich the experience of people (mostly education, business, and political leaders) who visit our country. With 80,000 volunteers spread over every state, it is an inspirational group. And to be in a big hotel ballroom with hundreds of their leaders as part of their annual powwow was an inspiration for me. There’s always something uplifting about getting committed, caring people with the same passion together in the same room.
I enjoyed giving my “Travel as a Political Act” talk, and they seemed to gobble up the ideas. Even though I may have been preaching to the choir, there is a powerful, intangible value in such a pep rally (for me, as well as for my audience).
The Citizen Diplomat Award has been given six times. Senator William Fulbright received it first in 1987 for his work in establishing the Fulbright scholarship program, which pursues the same goals as the NCIV. I enjoyed time with Harriet Fulbright, who explained to me how she was keeping her husband’s heritage alive.
In 1946 Euro-visionaries, sitting on the rubble of their bombed-out continent, were realizing that something radical — like the creation of the European Union — needed to be done to prevent another such major war. That same year, broad-minded American visionaries, like Senator Fulbright, were also thinking outside the box to help our country learn from history and help build a more peaceful world. Throughout his long career, Fulbright provided global-minded leadership here in the USA.
In preparing for my award, I read the NCIV material (see www.nciv.org) and enjoyed seeing how a group with the same mission as my own company builds understanding between cultures that have a mirror-opposite agenda. At ETBD, we work to inspire Americans to travel with a mindset that helps make them more broad-minded and come home as better citizens of the planet. Meanwhile, NCIV works to help foreigners visit the USA and return to their homelands with a better understanding of our culture. While we’ve come up with our “become a temporary local” phraseology, NCIV has their “shape foreign relations one handshake at a time” and “you welcomed a stranger and sent home a friend” slogans.
After my talk at the main event, the NCIV president, Sherry Mueller, hosted a wonderful dinner party in her home — perfectly in keeping with the style of her organization, which does most of its best work in that grassroots kind of people-to-people venue. It was a joy for me to have our daughter Jackie (who’s a student at Georgetown — just a few blocks away — and is interested in citizen diplomacy) join me to meet the NCIV gang.
In working on my Travel as a Political Act book, I’ve been thinking about the value of people-to-people diplomacy. For instance, it’s great for parents to scrimp and scrape to give their student a foreign study experience. And it’s exactly as productive for people without their own students (or lacking the income to send a young person abroad) to host a visiting student here in the USA. It accomplishes the same noble goal.
The NCIV is frank about the lowly status of our nation’s battered image abroad and the importance of fixing it. I’ve realized lately how propaganda and sensational media distorts perceptions in both directions: causing foreigners to think less of us Americans, and causing us to misunderstand (and needlessly fear) people from distant lands.
NCIV knows that improving America’s image abroad is not a sales pitch spearheaded by a government-funded PR person. (We tried that and failed miserably.) It is actually the job of our citizenry in general. I remember when France had the very bad image from its proud and chauvinistic de Gaulle era. Then the French government actually inspired its people to be less judgmental and more welcoming — and today, that off-putting French snobbery is mostly a thing of the past.
The mission of NCIV is more than philanthropy. There’s an economic rationale, as the tarnished “Brand of America” is a business concern. People who don’t like us don’t want to buy our stuff. Many NCIV-types are excited about the Obama Administration. Obama is not a quick fix, but the arrival of a new administration gives us a fresh start and a chance for the world to give us another look. As a nation and as individuals, we can share, listen, respect, bend, and work together with the rest of the world.