Exchange Matters / December 7, 2021

IVLP Exchanges and Civic Engagement

Compiled by Carla Picasso, Communications Intern, Global Ties U.S.  

As local hubs for global engagement, the Global Ties Network is the domestic infrastructure for U.S. public diplomacy efforts. We asked our Community-Based Members to share how they’re building relationships, partnerships, and trust between U.S. and international counterparts through citizen diplomacy programs like the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), and how IVLP exchanges contribute to an active and engaged civil society. Jena Melançon, Founder and Executive Director of Gulf Coast Diplomacy, and Bob Leiser, Vice President of Programs at Tulsa Global Alliance, discuss IVLP programs surrounding youth empowerment and civic engagement, and Janet Kenney, Chairwoman of the Springfield Commission on International Visitors, highlights a programming involving leaders in government.  

Youth Empowerment and Civic Engagement

Gulf Coast Diplomacy

NPA: Meridian International 

Photo provided by Gulf Coast Diplomacy

Our mission is to promote mutual understanding. Social media makes it easy to communicate with people across the globe, but, unfortunately, also aids in the proliferation of othering. This is where exchanges come in. With their focus on intercultural communication, participants’ understanding of the world grows through dialogue and is not limited to quick retorts via online portals. 

Several years ago, we created our Youth Diplomats program to enhance the experience of International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) participants and help meet our mission of growing respect. We began by introducing local youth to IVLP groups through Q&A sessions. Like all teens with internet access, they have unlimited information at their fingertips. However, bringing them into contact with international exchange participants gives them a new understanding of their place in the world.   

With positive feedback from the community, we grew the program, using the IVLP to enhance it. Today, these two programs are in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. According to Youth Diplomat alumna & Lesley University junior Eden Davenport, even before the pandemic, the IVLP gives “valuable opportunities [to high school students] to experience cultural exchanges while remaining in the United States.” 

The learning continues in the virtual realm. Our April 2021 Meridian International IVLP on “Youth Empowerment & Civic Engagement” included time with the Youth Diplomats in which the visitors heard about the youths’ volunteer work and shared their own. Through interactions such as this, explains Gulf Breeze High School junior Lorelei Abell, “the Youth Diplomats program [has given] me the confidence to discuss global issues and has taught me how to ask questions.”  

We also utilize IVLP in the Classroom, an Office of International Visitors (OIV) project, to continue this exploration. We poll youth to see what global topics resonate the most and then invite IVLP alum, through OIV, to meet with them. This continued interaction has sparked the interest of Youth Diplomats in our IVLP community coffees, and we have begun seeing both current and Youth Diplomat alum at our virtual IVLP Saturday cultural hospitality sessions.    

For Gulf Coast Diplomacy, expanding our programming through virtual exchange has benefited our program. By interweaving IVLP and youth programming, IVLP participants see our culture through the eyes of teens. Youth have their questions answered by subject matter experts, and our programming becomes richer as more community members engage. We have even grown our audience, and, yes, some of our newcomers found us through social media. 

Mutual understanding cannot happen in a vacuum. Exchanges like the IVLP make a difference in our community by introducing people, ideas, and culture to each other while, at the same time, our people make a difference whenever they attend these interactions.  

We think Youth Diplomat alumna and University of West Florida freshman Isabella Brammer says it best: “Meeting with international visitors from all corners of the world has been such an awesome opportunity…. This program has widened the lens that I view the world through.” – Jena Melançon, Founder & Executive Director 

Tulsa Global Alliance

NPA: World Learning 

Photo provided by Tulsa Global Alliance

In September of 2020, Tulsa Global Alliance (TGA) hosted its first virtual International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which focused on “Youth Empowerment and Civic Engagement.” The group included eight young professionals from the United Kingdom who were alumni of the Patchwork Foundation Masterclass program, exploring new and innovative approaches to ensuring political, civic, and economic empowerment of young people from diverse backgrounds.  

Although TGA was new to virtual exchanges, working with Klaudia Gates and Nathan Finch at World Learning helped create a valuable experience in virtual programming. This experience taught us how to participate in cross-city discussions and trainings with the participants, as well as arrange virtual home hospitality.  

One feature of the virtual programming that stood out right away was the opportunity to participate in cross-city discussions involving several Global Ties U.S. Community-Based Members (CBMs) at once – something impossible to do with in-person programs. Mana Tahaie, a Tulsa-based consultant who has facilitated many workshops for youth ambassadors in the past, led a virtual panel on “Youth Organizing” for the United Kingdom participants and U.S. counterparts. Booker T. Washington High School student Kate Huckaby, a former Tulsa Global Alliance intern, took part in a panel discussion on “Youth in Government” with other young leaders from Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Seattle. Thanks to the virtual format, the participants were able to discuss their experiences in breakout rooms and learn from one another. In each room, two visitors were paired with a youth leader from one of the four cities. Kate Huckaby spoke with several of the UK leaders about her experience volunteering with the Tulsa Mayor’s Youth Council. 

TGA was fortunate to work with Global Minnesota to arrange a meeting with two state senators from Oklahoma and Minnesota to discuss issues facing youth in these states. The meeting was informative and lively, and the virtual space allowed both of the senators to engage with the participants, and the CBMs to learn about the challenges and successes that both communities shared.  

As this was our first experience with IVLP home hospitality, TGA staff and board members prepared questions to prompt conversation between the visitors and their Tulsa hosts, but what was surprising was how naturally the conversation flowed, even in the virtual format. TGA was fortunate to arrange virtual home hospitality for the visitors, and appreciates Daniel Regan, Stephanie Vickers, Cathy Smythe, and Mieke Epps for hosting. TGA would also like to thank the World Learning staff and Liaison Gene Vricella for aiding in making the home hospitality and entire program run smoothly. – Bob Lieser, Vice President of Programs 

Strengthening Local Government to Increase Efficiency and Effectiveness – A Project for Pakistan

Springfield Commission on International Visitors

NPA: Meridian International Center  

Photo provided by Janet Kenney

In October 2018, the Springfield Commission on International Visitors (SCIV) hosted the International Visitor Leadership Program, “Strengthening Local Government to Increase Efficiency and Effectiveness – A Project for Pakistan.” The IVLP was organized with Meridian International Center.    

A welcome committee, comprised of members from the local Islamic Society and members of SCIV, greeted the delegates at the airport. This delegation had a work hard, play hard philosophy, which included meetings with leaders of government in President Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, IL, along with informal opportunities to connect with local hosts through home hospitality programming.  

Elected City Clerk Frank Lesko is the official records keeper of the city, and gave the delegation an in-depth tour, including the City Council Chambers and the records vault. The delegates were interested to learn about the live streaming of the Council meetings and the fulfillment of Freedom of Information Act requests to better understand how this democratic process allowed citizens access to their government. 

The visitors also met with Springfield Mayor James Langfelder, the son of an Austrian immigrant and a strong advocate of the IVLP. He spent a large portion of his morning with the delegation discussing how his administration has implemented efficiency and effectiveness in government without losing the human touch. The mayor also invited delegates to an open house for the City’s Overflow Winter Warming Shelter for the Homeless, where they met with Community Relations Director Juan Huerta, himself an immigrant from Panama and now a U.S. citizen, and toured the shelter during day meals were being served. 

Springfield is a small midwestern city, and what stood out to me is how through the IVLP we’re able to host delegates from very large cities in Pakistan. The visitors expressed their surprise at and complimented the sophisticated and professional municipal operations, including Springfield operating its own water and electric power generating plants, providing self-sufficiency for the city.  

Brad Cole Executive Director of the Illinois Municipal League (IML), and former mayor of Carbondale, IL, discussed the benefits of community leaders sharing information on governmental strategies to combat inefficiencies and lack of effectiveness in government. IML is a statewide organization representing the interests of over 1,000 cities, towns and villages in Illinois. The delegates were impressed with the success that IML has had advocating municipal interests at the state level as well.  

One of my favorite parts of IVLP projects is the home hospitality event we organize for the delegation’s closing. This was an opportunity to share regional food, customs, and culture in a comfortable setting. This particular event was in my own home. Joining me were members of the community, Commissioners, Mayor Langfelder, City Clerk Lesko, and Director of Community Relations Huerta. The delegates were pleased to relax, celebrate, and continue conversations with program presenters in the Midwestern style. The evening was very memorable and, in fact, a video of the delegates singing native songs while drumming and dancing was posted on the Meridian International Center website and shared online with other Global Ties Network members.  

The international visitors established close bonds with local hosts, and I have stayed in touch with several members of this delegation. I was invited to the wedding of one of the members, but was not able to attend as I was in Washington, DC for the Global Ties U.S. National Meeting in January 2020.  

The Springfield Commission on International Visitors is an all-volunteer member organization of the Global Ties Network. As a volunteer, I am honored to serve as a citizen diplomat. – Janet Cruse Kenney, Chairman