Exchange Matters / July 31, 2014

Reconnecting with Our Roots: Challenges for International Exchange

I recently attended the Ron Moffatt Seminar on Peace and the Global Civil Society hosted by colleagues at NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. Ron was a mentor to me early in my career. My academic background is in conflict resolution, and before I stumbled backwards into exchange work, I thought I was going to spend my career doing post-conflict peacebuilding, helping local communities around the world recover from massive upheaval. Instead, I found myself a part of perhaps one of the greatest conflict prevention undertakings ever conceived: simply helping people from around the world connect with one another. Ron Moffatt shined a light for me, taking me under his wing in the last months of his life to help me see that our work was for a greater good.

The weekend began with a speech by Albie Sachs, an architect of South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, who challenged us to “find the Mandela” within ourselves, and advised that younger generations “be as cheeky as we were when we were young. Be as bold; be as challenging.” A dinner discussion with Michael Ignatieff, Harvard professor and former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, allowed us to examine the privilege that can be both granted and diminished through an exchange program. On one hand, participating in an exchange is a sign of influence and prestige, yet on the other hand, gaining experience outside one’s home country can simultaneously make one come back feeling more like an outsider than when they left. Yet Ignatieff also noted that “the defining characteristic of human beings is difference.”

we often have no idea how many wars we prevent… or just how many lasting collaborations we create

Over the next two days, about 100 of us had incredibly powerful conversations around connecting local and global human rights struggles and peace deficits, acting to ensure that potential exchange participants don’t end up knowing more about the challenges faced in their destination country than they do in their own neighborhood. We also dove into the notion of conflict as a space for learning, allowing participants to build dialogue skills, learn to appreciate other narratives, and develop their own leadership. One speaker noted that “today, conflict resolution is friending you on Facebook.”

Yet both the discussions and pre-seminar readings hinted at a broader disconnect between the peacebuilding and exchange communities. Peacebuilders see themselves as working in post-conflict scenarios, cleaning up the mess and building out accountability structures to prevent a recurrence of violence. Exchange professionals, by contrast, see themselves as building relationships and skills to advance any number of causes, ranging from human rights to environmental sustainability to entrepreneurship. However, the anticipated rise in “rapid response” exchanges in coming years will necessitate these communities to learn and embrace each other more fully. Exchange professionals want to infuse expertise and leadership into challenging situations, while we can learn much from peacebuilding’s maxim to “do no harm” as we intervene in complex contexts.

I left the seminar experience contemplating three challenges for our field, specifcally the ongoing need to:

  • advocate for our work as a broad profession and speak to our impact with one voice;
  • integrate peace and justice themes into exchange programs at all levels, and in all disciplines and fields of practice; and
  • take a life-long learning approach to exchanges, and realize that they happen among youth, students, and professionals, and use that frame to connect current and future changemakers across borders.

Addressing these challenges means facing the reality that we often have no idea how many wars we prevent, what kind of innovation we spark, or just how many lasting collaborations we create. Some of that we can measure, but a lot of it remains just out of our grasp.

But these challenges also allow us the opportunity to step back and look at our work in greater context. We’re not just exchange professionals; we’re conflict prevention specialists, economic incubators, learning facilitators, change agents, and builders of civil society. Learning from others around the world also sheds light on our struggles here at home: the ongoing need for social and economic justice, the challenges of securing healthcare for everyone, and building the leadership of our youth. Our international work probably informs more local-level activism than headline-grabbing initiatives. Back in January, IVLP Gold Star Kaspars Zalitis and I traded a few stories on our different adventures in training police officers on LGBT issues in our respective communities. It was a brief, frankly funny, moment of solidarity that I think inspired us both.

Our international work probably informs more local-level activism than headline-grabbing initiatives.

I wept at my desk when I got the news that Ron had passed on in early 2008, just nine months after we were first connected. I was still establishing my footing in the field, but I knew we had lost a visionary who had committed himself to getting international exchange back to its roots. Our field has grown and professionalized in profound ways since the 1940s. Ultimately we’re in this work not just to open the eyes of others, but our own as well. Yes, we must continue our good works in creating dynamic exchange experiences, but we also have to constantly remember that in so doing, we are quietly shaping a better future.

Jason Terry, Global Ties U.S.