We asked Community-Based Members to share how their organizations engage their community through both virtual and in-person cultural exchanges. Nancy Hopkins, Director of Programs at the Presidential Precinct, discusses the impact of virtual exchange between students from Belgium and the United States. Gary Springer and Mary Ellen Upton of World Partnerships reflect on International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) Afghanistan alumni who previously traveled to Florida. Finally, the Cleveland Council on World Affairs (CCWA) recalls hosting Gautam Singh through a professional exchange with the Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force. These exchanges remind us of the importance of connecting and dedicating time to individuals from different backgrounds. Read more about our member’s reflections on IVLP and other exchange programs, and why exchange matters for them.
In the summer of 2020, the Presidential Precinct was invited by Meridian International Center to design and convene a virtual exchange for student leaders from Belgium and the United States. Eight Belgian university student leaders—most of whom were alumni of a spring 2018 International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) exchange focused on “Promoting Youth Leadership through Intercultural and Interfaith Relations”—met with a group of eight peer student leaders at the University of Virginia.
During their 2018 visit to Charlottesville, VA, the Belgian group explored how our community was coping, healing, and changing in the wake of the violent “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally and peaceful counter-protests on August 11 and12, 2017. One particularly impactful engagement during that visit was with Madison House, the student volunteerism hub for the University of Virginia (UVA).
For the 2020 exchange, we built upon the foundation created on the 2018 visit. Working with Meridian and Madison House, we designed a three-part exchange titled “Resilience in the Face of Complexity, Uncertainty, and Injustice” that sought to explore the “dual pandemics” of COVID-19 and systemic racism. Youth in the United States and Belgium have been deeply and directly affected by these issues in a myriad of ways, while also being on the frontline of pushing for positive change.
It was a fruitful moment to reconvene this dynamic group of Belgian leaders with their U.S. counterparts to discuss the rapidly shifting and evolving context in their countries and strategies for effective and responsive leadership. The exchange included a curated list of suggested readings and other resources, facilitated plenary conversations, and group discussions. A faculty guest speaker from UVA spoke on the “Highs and Lows: Exploring the Valleys in Resiliency” which we found to be very helpful. Additionally, we discussed a case study regarding support for refugees in the Charlottesville community during the COVID-19 crisis. A highlight was a culminating group photo project, where participants shared and discussed powerful images of resilience from their home country.
During a time when so many university students were feeling stressed and isolated, particularly student leaders who are deeply committed to tackling tough problems on their campuses and in their communities, the opportunity to share experiences, viewpoints, and strategies for thriving in the face of shared challenges was profound.
— Nancy Hopkins, Director of Programs
Editor’s note: this article was republished and expanded with permission from World Partnerships. It originally appeared online September 3, 2021 as part of an Afghan exchange alumni storytelling series.
We recognize our power to help across the globe is limited, but we also recognize the power of shared experiences. With this in mind, we want to retell the stories of our Afghan exchange alumni who have visited here, and share what their exchange experience meant to us and to them. We want to ensure that, at least in our neighborhood, the plight and the needs of our Afghan exchange alumni are not forgotten by the next news cycle.
As noted in our Network Innovation Spotlight submission, we are determined to keep in contact with our International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) alumni, establish their needs, and help where we can. We want to share their hopes of building a better nation and a better world. We also 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.
Another exchange…another evening in St. Petersburg, FL with a group of IVLP Afghanistan visitors, and a story about exchanges. This IVLP project was organized in partnership with Meridian International Center.
As a young exchange student in the United States, one of the visitors told us a story about taking part in a “Tupperware Party,” marveling at this way of gathering women together for relaxation, fun, and practical sales! This unique experience stayed with her for many years, and became an inspiration for her work in underserved, remote Afghan villages teaching women their civil and human rights. It was important to bring these women together in one place when they were at home alone. Modeled on her experience in the United States, the Afghan visitor shared how she organized evening “Cooking Parties,” creating an informal setting celebrating the culture of food and women’s rights.
Before she departed from Tampa Bay, the IVLP visitor gifted Mary Ellen Upton a bracelet she was wearing, and two other identical bracelets “to celebrate other women leaders.” Inspired by the bravery of this young Afghan woman, it would take Mary Ellen many years to find two women worthy of her bracelets.
Mary Ellen gifted the first bracelet to a recipient of the U.S. Department of State International Women of Courage award. It was 2015, long after the IVLP exchange with the Afghan visitor, and World Partnerships was hosting one of the year’s Women of Courage: a Russian journalist and human rights activist. Shared Mary Ellen, “When I learned about the absolute fearlessness of this woman who covered government and military fraud and corruption in Russia, I knew that one of the bracelets had found its first courageous woman.”
Four years later, in 2019, the second bracelet was gifted to a college intern working with World Partnerships, Olivia Rovin. Olivia is an extraordinarily talented, bright, and inspirational young woman who is a warrior in her fight with childhood cancer. We were extremely fortunate to have Olivia with us that summer, and to see her recently honored as a 2021 Global Ties U.S. Emerging Leader. “After working with Olivia for the summer on a large Police Professionalization Program with Mexico, I knew that the second bracelet had found its courageous woman,” said Mary Ellen.
Added Mary Ellen, “I couldn’t have been more honored and humbled to meet these three women, and in a very meaningful and unforgettable way, share the Afghan bracelets that will forever link us with each other.”
Exchanges matter because they connect people with people, and sometimes, with people they will never know, but who are inspired to carry their story forward. Our hearts remain with our Afghan women leaders.
— Gary Springer, President & CEO, and Mary Ellen Upton, Executive Director, World Partnerships
Cleveland Council on World Affairs
This article was republished with permission by the Cleveland Council on World Affairs. It was originally published online July 9, 2020. This is an edited version; read the original version here.
Each year, the Cleveland Council on World Affairs (CCWA) coordinates professional and learning exchanges – sponsored by the U.S. Department of State – for emerging leaders from around the world. As a result of the meetings, conversations, and experiences the international visitors have here in Cleveland, they are inspired to make a difference and take action in their home communities.
CCWA hosted Gautam Singh from New Delhi, India, in October 2019 for a four-week fellowship, where he was embedded with the Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force. Gautam’s work in New Delhi revolves around policy, research, and advocacy on issues facing women and children, including human trafficking and sexual assault. The opportunity to shadow detectives with the Task Force enlightened him on local efforts to combat trafficking and build social service partnerships. Here, Gautam reflects on his time in Cleveland and how this fellowship, made possible through the Professionals Fellows Program for Governance and Society sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and led by World Learning in partnership with CCWA, contributed to his professional development.
Since my return from the United States, my life has seen an upswing in professional growth, as well as personal development. I was entrusted by the Delhi government to conceptualize and execute three new initiatives on human trafficking, cybercrime, and safe shelters for survivors of violent crimes. My experience in Cleveland came in handy and I was able to replicate many initiatives experienced in Cleveland here in Delhi. These initiatives were in the final phase of planning when the coronavirus crisis hit and we hope to execute these in the near future.
The coronavirus crisis drastically affected our work priorities. We have been engaged in relief and mitigation measures to fight this crisis. My experiences with community empowerment measures in Cleveland by the Renee Jones Empowerment Center and Salvation Army provided a fresh perspective on my personal response to the crisis. I was able to organize community action and facilitate relief to marginalized communities, which suffered job losses during the lockdown and, as a result, were in dire need of food and shelter. Slowly, we have begun to get back to normal, but it will now forever be the ‘new normal.’. I am confident that we will all come out of this stronger and better.
Every moment spent in Cleveland is memorable to me. The facilitation by CCWA staff and my mentor, Sergeant James Mackey, was smooth and considerate. I never felt out of place. The four weeks went by effortlessly and by the end I was heartbroken to leave. Our initial days were beautifully designed by CCWA, which included interactions with some of Cleveland’s prestigious institutions and also home hospitality dinners with local families. Be it the initial orientation weekend organized by CCWA, the holistic fellowship designed by Sergeant Mackey and his team, or the leisure time spent with everyone, I cherish every single experience.
My fellowship placement with the Cuyahoga Regional Human Trafficking Task Force deserves a special mention. I will forever be indebted to Sergeant Mackey and his team for treating and looking after me as one of their own. I met many of the agencies working to combat trafficking in Northeast Ohio, including visits to local prisons and courts, the Federal Court, shelters, major hospitals, and even witnessing a full two-hour autopsy. I accompanied the team on a serious raid, which involved multiple law enforcement agencies and saw firsthand the stressful situations officers encounter in their work. I will miss our lunches where the entire squad would take me out to a new food joint every day. Another special mention goes to the CCWA staff for personally reaching out and taking us out for ice cream!
— Gautam Singh, 2019 CCWA Professional Fellows Alum, and Andrew Kovach, Program Officer, CCWA