Citizen Diplomacy Spotlight: Utopia Foundation

As part of an ongoing series, leaders from the Citizen Diplomacy Network, a signature initiative of PYXERA Global, interview leaders of member organizations working to create meaningful people-to-people connections around the world.  The Center provides a cohesive voice for initiatives that seek to advance citizen diplomacy, serving as a hub of best practices, recognition, and visibility, and 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, all united in a shared vision of citizen diplomacy: advancing purposeful global engagement at a person-to-person level.

In this post, Laura Asiala, interim director of the Center for Citizen Diplomacy joins Utopia Foundation Executive Director Lindy Bishop (LB) and Executive Director of Utopia Volunteers, Deborah Asuncion (DA), about their work driving people-to-people engagement through social enterprise and volunteerism. Utopia Foundation combines financial support and human resources (through volunteerism) to respond to disasters, extend the reach of non-profits, spur microenterprise, develop sustainable social enterprise, foster early childhood development, and prepare college students to be effective global citizens. 

Beyond your mission and vision statements, what overarching beliefs drive your organization? If we asked your team members what gets them out of bed in the morning and into the office, what would they tell us?

LB: Our founder, Paul Sutherland, makes it really clear: all citizens of the world deserve to be happy, healthy and live productive lives.  The Utopia Foundation paves the way to make that happen—and we do that by facilitating fiscal sponsorships, acting as fiduciary agent, consulting and mentoring on strategic development, offering matching grants, and giving people opportunities to volunteer on an international scale, in places like Costa Rica, Guatemala, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and Nepal.

What gets me out of bed every morning is the opportunity to innovate and help people on a bigger scale than any other job I’ve ever had before—and that’s something I share with other staff members.

What are the biggest challenges your organization seeks to address in its work?

LB: One of the challenges we tackle in our work is understanding the true nature of poverty and how to provide solutions that empower people and promote independence within a complex and often brutal environment. We seek to do no harm and hope that when a project produces results, the people say, “We have done this ourselves.”

DA: Another challenge we have is helping volunteers to understand the difference between responsible volunteering and “feel good” programs.

How are the dynamics changing in the space where you work, and how do those evolving realities demand innovative approaches? In other words, how do external factors necessarily impact the way you operate today vs. five or ten years ago?

DA:  International volunteering is evolving. Ten years ago, it hit the market and went viral among people who wanted to do service work. About five years ago we saw a peak, but the focus shifted from the communities to the volunteers and became more of a business, based on what the volunteers got out of it. Today, it’s shifted again and people are looking for outcome-based programs. They realize it’s about the work, building relationships, and organizing around the long-term needs of the community.

What is one story of success and why do you count it as such? What did your organization or your partners overcome in order to achieve the results you wanted?

LB: Harambee Toto (“The Youngest Among Us”) is a good example. Board member Maggie Sprattmoran convened Early Childhood Development experts to develop a way to support children in the Kibera Slum outside of Nairobi, Kenya. It started by using “Parent Cafés” to educate parents, but evolved beyond parental issues to resolve other issues in the community – micro loans for economic development and vertical gardening projects for improved nutrition. The Harambee Toto program is carried out with our in-country representative and trained local leaders, supported by Utopia Volunteers, many of whom are students, who are also learning from this project how to replicate and scale it in other communities.

One thing that becomes clear when you focus on early childhood development is that you can’t be successful without helping the whole community in an integrated way, with infrastructure, food, water, and sanitation. You can’t just work with one group. In order to help young kids, you have to be holistic.

Utopia Founder, Paul Sutherland, suggests that whenever we engage with other cultures and communities intending to be of service that we ask, “How can I love you better?”  This means asking people involved what they think and really listening. This proved to be so successful with Harambee Toto. The parents and village leaders have embraced new ideas and are helping one another to resolve daily challenges while elevating the priority to care for the youngest children.

What is an example of citizen diplomacy in action that your organization has helped to facilitate? Tell us a short story of one great example of citizen diplomacy in action.

DA: One my favorite success stories is our volunteer Chenoa Gachupin, a shy, conservative woman who I met just prior to her assignment in South Africa with the Dreamcatcher Foundation. In discussing the needs of the organization and the children they serve with the foundation founder, Anthea Russouw, we discovered that Chenoa is an accomplished violinist. What if we could make musical instruments and teach the children at our program in South Africa to play? Dream Catchers Kids is a well-known community program working with children and youth at risk. Thinking through the possibilities, she packed some strings, screws, mouthpieces, etc., to ensure these critical elements would be available. The children collected cans, plastic bottles, reeds and cardboard for the “production line,” and wire art crafter Yellow Eiman made sure wire was available in different lengths to tie them together. Not only did she help the children make instruments, but she taught them basic music they could remember and play after her departure. Together, they made an orchestra! The highlight was the children’s performance for their families and community. More importantly, they have continued after she returned home, and Chenoa’s work has continued. She is creating a plan to replicate this work, providing musical instruction and instruments to more children in South Africa. “Now I know what to do with my life. This program has changed me forever,” she told us.

How do you measure your organization’s contribution to the field of citizen diplomacy? What milestones of impact do you see coming in the year ahead? What is your future vision?

LB: We want to help educate volunteers to do service work effectively within the context of the culture and country in which they are working. This becomes increasingly important as we work hand-in-hand with community colleges who are just beginning to add study abroad and service abroad trips.

One example of this is our work with a consortium of Michigan Community Colleges, in order to develop service and study abroad programs. It has been inspiring to watch the success of Jim Bensley, Director of International Services and Service Learning at Northwestern Michigan College. This past year, Jim has placed 80 students out of a student body of 4,500 in service learning engagements, with seven programs in six countries. These projects require students to use and develop higher level skills—one that caught my attention was a project that the students contributed to regarding drone pilot technology. In one project, the students worked with game wardens to effectively use the technology to stop poaching in the Shamwari Game Reserve, in South Africa. A second drone project took NMC students to Costa Rica to help a banana plantation do agricultural mapping to ward off crop disease. The Utopia Foundation is now partnering with NMC and Jim Bensley on three study abroad programs in 2016.

In addition to that, we’re working with Central Michigan University to develop a curriculum based on effective philanthropy and service work abroad, including the possibility of forming an institute that will focus on successful global citizen diplomacy.

Any final thoughts on the importance of citizen diplomacy?

LB: Citizen diplomacy is about world peace. Our founder recognizes that radicalism is rooted back in childhood for a lot of people—so much of personality and relational experience is developed before age five. That’s the reason that one of our primary initiatives focused on early childhood development, because that’s where the foundation of good citizens can be developed.

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala is the Vice President, Public Affairs at PYXERA Global. Passionate about the power of business to solve—or help solve—the world’s most intransigent problems, she leads the efforts to attract more participation of businesses to contribute to sustainable development through their people and their work. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact, a community of more than 40,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace.

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