As part of an ongoing series, Matt Clark, Global Engagement Manager at PYXERA Global, is interviewing leaders of organizations that belong to the Citizen Diplomacy Network, a signature initiative of PYXERA Global. The Center provides a cohesive voice for the citizen diplomacy effort and serves as a hub of best practices, recognition, and visibility, equipping organizations with tools and resources to enhance their impact and broaden their reach. The diverse work of these organizations encompasses international exchange, education, culture, and service, but they are all united in a shared vision of citizen diplomacy: advancing purposeful global engagement at a person-to-person level.
Partners of the Americas is a non-profit organization that builds partnerships in the Western Hemisphere to create opportunity, foster understanding, and solve real-life problems. As Vice President for Partnerships and Leadership Programs, Matt Clausen oversees the organization’s exchange and fellowship programs, including youth leadership, professional government, business, educational and cultural, and climate change fellowship programs, as well as the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund. He works to strengthen and increasingly interconnect Partners’ network of volunteer partnerships in order to build and deepen people-to-people collaboration between and within countries of the Western Hemisphere.
CLARK: Beyond your mission and vision statements, what overarching beliefs drive Partners of the Americas? If we asked your team members what gets them out of bed in the morning and into the office, what would they tell us?
CLAUSEN: We believe in the power of people connecting with people, working together to devise ways to creatively solve problems and build solutions together. By bringing the right mix of players – volunteers, governments, corporations, NGOs and more – to the table, we match resources, knowledge, and passion to need. Each connection is a seed with the potential to grow from personal relationship to institutional partnership. Building partnerships is not easy – it takes time and energy, much like a marriage, and often the fruit of the effort is not visible for many years. But it’s empowering to look over your shoulder and see a hemisphere of willing people and organizations at your side, sitting across dissolving borders, ready to put in the time and effort to work together toward a greater cause.
CLARK: What are the biggest challenges your organization seeks to address in its work?
CLAUSEN: Overall, we are addressing the major challenges of inequality and poverty across the Americas by building the capacity of people and organizations to work together in partnership. Our mission covers a broad array of programs in the Americas that each seek to address some of our hemisphere’s toughest challenges – food insecurity, child labor, climate change, and lack of opportunity to name a few. By combining local knowledge with resources, and empowering citizens to become agents of change, we offer sustainable solutions to local and hemispheric-wide problems.
CLARK: How are the dynamics changing in the space where you work, and how do those evolving realities demand innovative approaches?
CLAUSEN: The needs of the communities evolve, as do the responses to them and the resources available to address them. The Western Hemisphere is not the poorest region of the world, yet it remains the most unequal. As the hemispheric community of public, private, and civil society sector actors increasingly assumes protagonist roles in addressing community needs, the need to form, re-form, and adjust the nature of cross-border partnerships is constant. This is exciting and difficult work.
CLARK: What’s an example of success from your work?
CLAUSEN: Over the past two years we have worked hard to develop and lead the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund, which is a dynamic public-private partnership developed under President Obama’s signature education initiative in the Western Hemisphere. As we worked in partnership early on with the White House, U.S. Department of State and NAFSA: Association of International Educators, we had to overcome limited notions about the ways in which study abroad in the Americas could be improved to meet the workforce development needs of the hemisphere. We worked together to overcome these notions by proposing a solution, building a coalition of private and public support, showing proof of concept, communicating success, and scaling.
CLARK: How does citizen diplomacy – people-to-people interactions across cultures – shape the world we live in? What is its potential for impacting our shared future?
CLAUSEN: Citizen diplomacy – face-to-face, virtual, and interactions of all the forms we can imagine – is an intentional effort to maximize our understanding and appreciate the diversity that exists on our planet. Understanding is a precursor to effectively working together. It doesn’t mean that we agree on everything, but it does establish a basic respect, questions our assumptions, and lays the groundwork for unlikely friendships and partnerships. We strive to create an ‘understanding’ that embodies a multifaceted comprehension of how we think and set our priorities as we do. We may even stare at what shocks us and learn to convert the incomprehensible into the comprehensible, allowing us to address the root of what we cannot condone. It’s much harder to hate someone you know.
CLARK: What is an example of citizen diplomacy in action that your organization has helped to facilitate?
CLAUSEN: PLAYLEE is a youth-led program that promotes bilingualism (English and Spanish) and global competitiveness among low-income Colombian children through experiential and didactic education, improving writing, reading, listening, speaking and many other skills and abilities while learning this new language. Its name derives from Play and Learning English. The program was conceived by two Partners’ Youth Ambassadors alumni from Colombia, Silvy and Cindy Gomez. After Silvy and Cindy’s experience with the U.S. State Department-funded Youth Ambassadors program in 2012, these sisters were inspired to start an organization of their own. With only 21 graduating participants from one school in a community largely made up of a low-income and displaced population in northern Colombia, the sisters started PLAYLEE. Cindy and Silvy have since spread PLAYLEE to 10 cities in Colombia with 212 participating children ages 4 to 12, winning financial support along the way through the U.S. State Department’s Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund. This significant grant of about $20,000 USD is already being applied to build the capacity of all the young and old volunteers involved. Silvy and Cindy embody citizen diplomacy through their ability to connect people, language, and culture. I recently spoke to Silvy, and she had this to say about the project:
“Cindy and I had the opportunity through Partners of the Americas and the U.S. State Department Youth Ambassadors program to explore and broaden our worldview. That’s why we designed PLAYLEE, a project nourished by our positive experiences and aimed at sharing leadership opportunities and empowerment by way of learning English. The support in promoting PLAYLEE’s visibility and proliferating its impact is very valuable for the program. Advice, time, and resources such as funding our new website, among other forms of support, have helped us take our dream of changing the world a step further.”
CLARK: What milestones of impact do you identify as the measure of your organization’s contribution to the field of citizen diplomacy?
CLAUSEN: Fortunately, a growing number of people across the Americas are leaving extreme poverty and increasingly more and more governments, organizations and private sector stakeholders are assuming leadership in working together across borders to change more and more lives. As an organization that was built 50 years ago on the belief that partnership changes everything, and that people and organizations can work together across borders to solve common challenges, these changes in the hemisphere mean that there are more and more protagonists with whom to work toward common goals. Over the next year, I hope we can reveal the power of new partnerships that were seeded by the ideas of volunteers and other citizen diplomats, often years ago, but that now find an increasingly supportive substrate upon which they can catalyze change. This means more innovative ideas, more “South-South,” “South-North,” and “North-South” collaboration, and increasingly impactful partnerships.
Matt Clark is Program Manager at the Center for Citizen Diplomacy where he designs and implements global engagement projects to promote and celebrate person-to-person interactions across cultures. Matt has coordinated and hosted international conferences that explore opportunities for enhanced collaboration between thought leaders in K-12, higher education, community-based exchange programs, and cultural organizations. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Drake University and serves on the Board of Directors for the United Nations Association of Iowa, is Vice President of the Japan-America Society of Iowa, and represents the JET Alumni Association as the Iowa Chair.