Network Innovation Spotlight / September 30, 2021

Creating a Framework to Tell the Stories of Exchange Alumni

By Gary Springer, President & CEO, World Partnerships, Inc.

Beginning in 2011, World Partnerships welcomed hundreds of the new generation of leaders from Afghanistan to St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay region through the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Among them were elected leaders, journalists, educators, poets, women leaders, civil servants, scientists and leaders of civil society. The Tampa Bay region was also the destination where Afghans joined their neighboring countries of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, Nepal and India for projects such as journalism, media, and regional trade arrangements. For these visitors, particularly those from Afghanistan, the Tampa Bay region was their place of respite in the midst of ongoing conflict in their homeland. Afghan visitors shared their hopes for the future and have left a lasting impact on those of us in the Tampa Bay area.   

As the U.S. evacuation began in mid-August, we learned very quickly that some of our Afghan alumni had no choice but to leave. Many others and their families remain in harm’s way. We are determined to keep in contact with our IVLP alumni, establish their needs, and help where we can. We recognize our power to help across the globe is limited, but also remember the power of shared experiences. 

With this in mind, we want to tell the stories of these Afghans who have visited here, what their U.S. experience meant to us and to them. We want to share their hopes of building a better nation and a better world. Additionally, we want to remind our Tampa Bay community of how we have welcomed Afghan IVLP visitors with open arms. Our hope is that we may be so welcoming once again.

Our storytelling framework was straightforward:  

  • Timely: We began our story series during the first week of the US evacuation mission.  
  • Topical: With Afghanistan in the news suddenly and constantly, there was renewed public interest in knowing more about the country.  
  • Local: We frame each of our stories to emphasize the local angle – These are real people. This happened here in Tampa Bay. You were part of their experience in the United States. 
  • Personal: When you spend as much time as we did with our Afghan visitors, there is so much more to these stories than we can tell. We determined that each of the stories would not identify any of the visitors in order to protect their privacy and safety. Our photographs show only the Americans that were part of the story, and do not identify the program name or date. 

We quickly discovered that these stories resonated with many of our Tampa Bay community partners, our IVLP colleagues, our alumni from other countries, and our Afghan alumni themselves. In fact, we saw more direct engagement with these stories than we ever see with everyday posts related to our IVLP programs. We found that this “proved the concept” that we need to turn to storytelling as the centerpiece for a new communications strategy. As the old TV show tagline said… “There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This is one of them…”

Storytelling is part of the connective tissue that brings cultures together, that sustains bonds of friendship, and that gives continuity generation to generation within our communities, our IVLP network, and with our alumni. All of us have so many stories along the way of the IVLP exchange journey. We need to tell them!