By Andrew Kovach, Program Officer, Cleveland Council on World Affairs
The past year and a half has been eye-opening in acknowledging the shortcomings of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) within our own organizations and in exchanges. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have illuminated both the vast systemic inequalities and the individual, day-to-day microaggressions and prejudices that people of color and women disproportionally face. We know the world of international exchange is not immune to these injustices, whether reflected in our programming or in the operations of our organizations.
For me, this has meant considering my privilege as a white male, a concept that, admittedly, seldom crossed my mind before. Growing up in a predominately white suburb, I was often insulated from the day-to-day realities faced by marginalized groups. Attending a public university in downtown Cleveland to study international relations, I heard from many of my peers from mixed socio-economic backgrounds who were passionate to learn and interact with other cultures, but who could not afford to study abroad. At the Cleveland Council on World Affairs today, I oftentimes think back to my college classmates eager for an international experience and consider how facilitating exchanges in Cleveland can allow for a meaningful two-way exposure to another’s culture and ideas.
Throughout my nearly five years programming U.S. Department of State exchanges, I am always impressed—and humbled—by the entrepreneurial spirit of so many international participants: a Venezuelan journalist saving his per diem to send money back home to his family; a Kurdish LGBTQ participant unable to openly express himself in his community; a person of an ethnic minority from China who faced discrimination. Connecting these individuals with people in my community, some of who may not have the means to apply for a passport, has shown the life-changing power of international exchange.
The recent Global Ties U.S. Virtual Programmers Workshop (VPW) on Diversity in Exchanges featured a “Quick Reference Guide” of commonly used terms in DEIA that did not include the term white privilege, although in hindsight I wish it did. Peggy McIntosh, a U.S. scholar and activist, defines white privilege as: “The unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits, and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.” Acknowledging my privilege and listening has been enlightening, in addition to being present, I am adding my voice to conversation and recognizing the heavy lifting of promoting DEIA cannot be solely relegated to minorities, women, and others who are living this experience.
The keynote address at the VPW featured remarks from Ambassador Harriet Elam-Thomas, one of the first female African American ambassadors, who described herself as a “hidden figure in diplomacy.” She reflected on growing up in Boston during the Civil Rights Movement and the obstacles she and many people of color faced to enter the Foreign Service. Her plea that the U.S. Department of State be representative of the country it serves was a powerful reminder of how far we have come while being cognizant of enduring inequities today.
Whether by building relationships with new local resources, designing accessible platforms for participants of all abilities, or advocating for a resource to be included in a paid workshop opportunity, we all play a role in prioritizing inclusivity in exchanges. My next steps include continued involvement with the Global Ties U.S. DEI Working Group, which is the first-ever DEI group established in our Network. The longer-term efforts of the DEI Working Group will help ensure this topic is continually addressed in the Network to identify the systematic and historical shortcomings of exchanges and offer guidance on how we can do better at all levels of our organizations. As Ambassador Elam-Thomas alluded to, this is only the beginning of our collective journey to ensure that exchange programs are representative and inclusive. I urge you to join me in this effort.