By Patricia Preston, Executive Director, Vermont Council on World Affairs
In early March, the Vermont Council on World Affairs (VCWA) joined U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (VT), Vice Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in Washington, DC as he received the George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication’s annual Walter Roberts Award for Congressional Leadership in Public Diplomacy at a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
I had the honor of accepting a grant from the Walter Roberts Endowment on behalf of VCWA to enhance international youth leadership exchanges. This grant will allow us to implement a follow-up exchange program with our Pan-Africa Youth Leadership Program (PAYLP) participants to further connect Vermont with communities beyond our borders.
Upon returning to Vermont from the ceremony, I ran into Senator Bernie Sanders, a surprisingly common occurrence at the Burlington airport. I used this opportunity to update him on the award and our organization’s work. Receiving such positive reactions from both senators reminded me of the importance of advocacy to both local and congressional representatives.
Although not every Community-Based Member represents a state where public officials are so easily accessible, there are still several ways to connect them to our work:
DO RESEARCH ON YOUR REPRESENTATIVES
When building an itinerary for international visitor programs, make it a priority to research your local and Congressional representatives. By considering their professional interests and expertise, you increase interactions and diversify the programmatic themes that connect visitors to our elected officials. Most recently, we organized meetings with state representatives who are also farmers, trade experts, refugee resettlement professionals, and women’s empowerment advocates. These programs provide visitors the unique opportunity to learn from subject experts who are also local elected officials, ultimately raising awareness of our work and increasing advocacy from our representatives.
BRING PARTICIPANTS TO THE STATE HOUSE
After a recent trip to the Vermont State House, one of our exchange participants commented on the kindness of our governor, the friendliness of local representatives, and the ease of accessing and walking around the building. Visiting the State House with groups enhances the visibility of your organization and provides insight to your representatives about the work you do. In return, it offers visitors a window into the daily lives of our public officials.
Whether you integrate connections with elected officials into your programs or set up a meeting directly for advocacy, these interactions are vital. At a time when the Administration proposes decreased funding for educational and cultural exchange programs, we cannot afford to be observers on the sidelines. We must demonstrate the importance of our work through visibility and people-to-people interactions.