In Iowa, 'citizen diplomats' are building global relationships

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Recent executive orders have proved that our new president intends to translate the rhetoric of the election into policy, and I think that I am not alone in feeling that we are in the early days of a new era in our nation’s history. I have worked with international students both at the University of Iowa and St. Ambrose University over the past seven years, and President Donald Trump’s order placing a hold on entry into our country for citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and permanently blocking the admission of Syrian refugees hits very personally.

As the initial rush of exasperation passes, I think many of us turn to the question of what to do next.

How can we assure doubting observers that we still are a welcoming and open-minded place; that we are curious and respectful of their cultures, and that we are eager to learn from each other?

For the past 30 years, the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities has been doing just that — bringing groups of emerging leaders from around the world to Eastern Iowa to learn, share and together become more informed people. I think that now, perhaps more than at any time in its history, the work of CIVIC is critical in countering a divisive message and maintaining positive and peaceful relations around the world.

Groups of young leaders come to our community through the State Department’s flagship program for intercultural exchange — the International Visitors Leadership Program. Through this program, our embassies and consulates abroad select talented young professionals to tour the United States, learning from experts in their fields here and meeting “regular folks” along the way.

These groups spend around two weeks in the U.S., visiting a number of cities for three or four days each. CIVIC is responsible for organizing the visits to the area. Over the years, we have developed an outstanding reputation on the IVLP circuit because the feedback from our visitors is extremely positive. Our visitors appreciate experiencing the “real” America found in the Midwest and feel warmly welcomed by a small army of volunteers who do everything from airport greetings to home hospitality dinners. Last year we hosted 126 individuals through 21 programs. This week, we are hosting journalists from Turkey and Russia.

There is certainly a “feel good” factor in CIVIC’s work, but we cannot reduce these encounters to something warm and fuzzy. Visitors on this program have gone on to become prime ministers, Cabinet members, elected representatives, top journalists and business leaders.

Having experienced America firsthand, their perceptions of our policies are inevitably altered by the knowledge of individual Americans who welcomed them into their lives. CIVIC calls this work “citizen diplomacy,” and it is truly that important — we are diplomats here, at home, for these people who will forever be changed by our interactions.

Whether you have a dining room table that can host dinner for 12 or just time and willingness to walk our visitors between meetings, you can do something to show that America is not a monolith. We are a great diversity of voices, and currently some of those voices are sending a message that does not reflect the values of many of us. You can be part of ensuring that visitors to Eastern Iowa hear that other perspective — your perspective — and it might just change the world for the better.

Learn more about becoming a member, volunteering, or sharing your expertise with our visitors at iowacivic.org

• Jennifer Blair of Iowa City is a CIVIC board member.

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