Exchange Matters / February 15, 2024

45 Years of People-to-People Exchanges

By Heidi Knuff, Executive Director, San Diego Diplomacy Council 

Editor’s Note: February 16 is Citizen Diplomacy Day, a day first recognized by Congress in 2011 to commemorate our organization’s 50th anniversary and our Network’s important role in building people-to-people connections through international exchange. In celebration of this day, we asked leaders from across the Global Ties Network to reflect on how citizen diplomacy humanizes the world, both locally and globally, and why this work matters. 

Heidi (left) speaks at the organization’s 45th anniversary kickoff. All photos provided by San Diego Diplomacy Council.

This year, the San Diego Diplomacy Council (SDDC) proudly celebrates 45 years of connecting San Diego to the world through the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) and other citizen diplomacy and people-to-people exchange programs. 

SDDC began in 1979, during the Cold War, when the United States used the soft power tool of citizen diplomacy to strengthen our relationships with allies and reduce tensions with Soviet sympathizers. At the time, IVLP programs stopping in San Diego often highlighted our large military presence. 

Forty-five years later, we are now in an increasingly multi-polar world. Our work still strengthens democracies, reduces tensions, and builds friendships. However, we have refined our local programming, enhancing opportunities to not only teach, but to learn from our international visitors. While we still highlight our local military presence in some of our programs, we also highlight San Diego’s robust innovation sectors, entrepreneurship programs, social services, binational collaboration, artists, athletes, breweries, and more.  

In partnership with the U.S. Department of State, this year we have hosted wheelchair basketball players from Romania, social media influencers from the Republic of Korea, and climate scientists from Japan, among others. SDDC serves as a dynamic hub where individuals come together to bridge cultures, nurture understanding, and foster lasting relationships that transcend borders, reaffirming the invaluable role of grassroots diplomacy in shaping a more connected and peaceful world. 

IVLP wheelchair basketball players from Romania engage with U.S. students.

The San Diego Diplomacy Council team is honored to serve and partner with the San Diego community. We provide a platform for local leaders, changemakers, and visionaries to connect with their global counterparts, while exposing them to new ideas and diverse perspectives.  

Over the past few years, we have deepened our commitment to engage a wider and more diverse cross-section of our community. We now run high school summer camps to inspire next generation leaders, especially those historically underrepresented in the field, exposing them to educational and career tracks in international affairs, international business, and diplomacy. We revised our membership requirements to allow anyone to join our organization with a donation of any amount to reduce barriers for community members wishing to serve as citizen diplomats through our work. We also expanded outbound travel opportunities for our community because we know how much international travel and exchange can impact one’s worldview. 

We are proud of the evolution of our organization over the past 45 years, which would not have been possible without steadfast support and partnership from the U.S. Department of State and the Global Ties Network. We eagerly look forward to how we will evolve over the next 45 years, knowing that our work is an important tool for fostering global peace.

IVLP social media influencers from Korea gather at Chicano Park.