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Citizen Diplomats: Changing America's Image 'One Handshake at a Time'


A public opinion survey taken at the beginning of this year [Jan 14-15] by World Learning and the Aspen Institute shows that Americans are concerned about their reputation abroad. Of the more than 1000 Americans polled, 88 percent said they believe it is very important that other countries have a favorable opinion of the U.S.; 77 percent said Americans working or studying abroad could have a positive impact on that opinion. The U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy has the same philosophy. VOA's Susan Logue reports the organization hopes to encourage more Americans to take an active role in improving our image abroad

"It's been proven that whether people come to the United States to visit or whether Americans travel abroad, the face-to-face connection is powerful," says Jessica Rowe, a consultant with the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy.

The organization has set a goal of increasing the number of face-to-face connections people around the world have with Americans. "There are thousands of people doing it now," Rowe says. "We want millions of people to become engaged in it."

Donna Tabor is among those people who are "doing it now." A former TV producer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Tabor got her first taste of citizen diplomacy as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua when she was 57. Twelve years later, she is still living there.

As a full time volunteer for Building New Hope, she has founded educational and vocational programs for barrio children and says she can't imagine doing anything else. "It's a creative endeavor. It's spiritual in some ways. It just builds upon your soul," Tabor says. "To feel that you have one little part in changing the world and making it better, why wouldn't anybody want that?"

Tabor was one of six citizen diplomats recently honored by the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy. Each received a $5000 cash donation for the non-profit organization of their choice.

Jillian Poole, founder of the Fund for Arts and Culture, was also honored. Her non-profit organization has been helping cultural institutions in Central and Eastern Europe adjust to market economies since 1991. "When the Wall fell, suddenly governments saw more pressing priorities than the arts," Poole says, "and there was this general feeling of 'We can't do anything.'" With years of experience in arts management and development for organizations like the Kennedy Center, Poole was happy to share her expertise.

She believes she has also changed perceptions of Americans through her volunteer work. Poole says she has been in meetings where a European will say with some exasperation, "Well, you Americans!" But Poole, who was born in England, responds, "What is an American? America is such a wonderful amalgam of people."

People like Anjali Bhatia, the daughter of Indian immigrants. At 19, Bhatia was the youngest honoree.

Discover Worlds, the student-run non-profit she founded three years ago, matches Rwandan orphans with young Americans who can be long-distance friends, and provide them with funds for school and healthcare.

"It's not just people donating money," Bhatia says, "but they are sponsoring an orphan who will write to them. They're thinking of a friend they have there." The Rwandans, she says "are thinking of someone who is giving time to them, and sponsoring their education and health care."

Tarik Daoud was honored for, among other things, his volunteer work with Detroit's International Visitors Center. Born in Iraq, he came to the U.S. as a teenager and ended up staying.

Now the owner of a major car dealership, Daoud has led a number of international delegations. He believes American citizens can change perceptions "one handshake at a time."

"I think it is the responsibility of every person in this country to be a citizen diplomat," says Daoud. "We cannot let the government do all of the work. That's impossible."

Tom Gittins, a consultant with the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy, agrees and says anyone can be a citizen diplomat. "Not everybody can travel, but a lot of education can be done in classrooms, pen pals for students," Gittins says.

Some people, like those involved in international business, may not give it much thought, but he says, "they are citizen diplomats, whether they know it or not."

Like the recipients of the first National Awards for Citizen Diplomacy, Gittins believes one-on-one, face-to-face encounters will change perceptions of Americans around the world.