News / USA

Citizen Diplomats Sought for Worldwide Outreach

More than 600 attend summit in Washington

2010 Citizen Diplomat Award recipient Dr. James Rolfe examines the teeth of a young patient at the dental clinic he founded in Afghanistan.
2010 Citizen Diplomat Award recipient Dr. James Rolfe examines the teeth of a young patient at the dental clinic he founded in Afghanistan.

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The U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy says individual Americans have the right and responsibility to help shape U.S. foreign relations. This month, it hosted a summit in Washington with the goal of getting more Americans to do just that.

Being a citizen diplomat can be as simple as hosting an international visitor in one's home. Or it can involve organizing and hosting "immersion journeys."

Breaking down misinformation

Sahar Taman, a Muslim who grew up in Wisconsin, has led tours to and from seven different Arab countries over the past four years. That has included visiting multiple mosques, synagogues and churches and having meaningful discussions about religion.

2010 Citizen Diplomat Award honoree Sahar Taman (back row in red) visits an Egyptian Coptic church with one of her tour groups in May 2009.
2010 Citizen Diplomat Award honoree Sahar Taman (back row in red) visits an Egyptian Coptic church with one of her tour groups in May 2009.

"One of the things we do is break down this culture of misinformation that exists about religion," she says. "It exists about Muslims, but often exists for Muslims about other religions, too."

Taman recalls an Islamic publisher who hosted participants in her program and wrote an essay about his experience. She said he grew up believing "the Jews were the enemies," something his government and the media in his country told him.

"It was not until 2008," the publisher wrote, "when I was 63 years old, that I met a Jewish person for the first time, and I learned that they were humans, just like us.'"

Taman was one of seven people honored this year by the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy. More than 600 people from across the United Sates and 41 other nations attended the group's four-day gathering, to honor her and other citizen diplomats and talk about issues of concern.

More than a meeting

Ann Schodde, president and CEO of the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy emphasized that the summit was more than just talk.

Ann Schodde, president and CEO of the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy wants to double the number of Americans engaged in international activities within the next 10 years.
Ann Schodde, president and CEO of the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy wants to double the number of Americans engaged in international activities within the next 10 years.

"It is an initiative and it is a launch, and what we are doing, launches a 10-year campaign to double the number of Americans involved internationally, whether they are five or 95 by 2020."

Although it is difficult to say for certain how many Americans are engaged in citizen diplomacy, Schodde says the center has looked at census data for some figures. She says tallying figures such as number of Americans studying abroad or travelling outside the U.S. for business, the total is about 63 million. But, she admits, it is a "very subjective number."

Free dental care for Afghans

One of those millions honored at the summit in Washington was Dr. James Rolfe. A dentist for more than four decades, Rolfe founded the Afghanistan Dental Relief Project, which provides free dental care to Afghan citizens.

After travelling to Afghanistan on his own in 2003 and learning that most Afghans had never seen a dentist, he set up a clinic which now treats about 20,000 people a year. He also established a school to train dental assistants, dental laboratory technicians, and dental hygienists from the orphan and widow population.

"When I started this I thought, 'this is a really great project and a lot of people are going to come and help me with it,'" Rolfe recalls. "It wasn't like that at all. There wasn't money coming in and there wasn't any volunteer pool to draw from. And so basically it was a lot of hard work and money had to come from me and the work had to come from me too."

That is beginning to change he says, but he still puts most of the money from his own practice in Santa Barbara, California, into the program.

"I wanted to go and help the people because I knew I could do it," he says. "I knew they needed the help, and I felt like they had been abandoned, even by our own country."

When there are tensions between nations, Anne Schodde says, citizen diplomats can often directly address major issues like poverty, health, the environment.

"It is eminently clear that our government cannot portray American values and who we are to the rest of the world," she says. "It won't work. If you look at the power of just people working together often progress can be made on very critical issues faster."

That's why Schodde would like to see another 60 million Americans engaged in citizen diplomacy by 2020.

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