We hear every day that our 21st century world is more global and interconnected than ever. We know that our economies are dependent on one another and that we can share information in the blink of an eye.
As an alternative to collecting “friends” on social media and boiling every thought down to 140 character sound bites, many of us wonder how we can harness the power of this new interconnectedness to truly engage in meaningful interactions that lead to a deeper understanding of people and cultures different than our own.
Advocates for citizen diplomacy believe that every individual has the right and responsibility to interact at a person-to-person level with others around the world to improve relationships and enhance mutual understanding across cultures.
In an increasingly complex world, citizen diplomacy is a simple concept that has a tremendously meaningful impact on the world. At the end of the day, relationships are about people—whether they are relationships with family, co-workers, or friends around the world. Average citizens, who every day choose to act with responsibility and tact to create mutually beneficial relationships with others, not only benefit by increasing their own global fluency and friendships, but also create social and economic capital for our communities and our nation. If you don’t think you’ve had an opportunity to be a citizen diplomat yet, you have the power to become one today.
Nearly 10 years ago, a group of citizen diplomacy advocates met to discuss a problem in America—our country’s image around the world was declining and too few Americans were embracing cultural exchange and people-to-people engagement or ‘citizen diplomacy’ as a way to change those trends. For Americans who wanted to learn more about other cultures or be globally engaged right here at home, there was no central resource from which to find an opportunity that fit their interests. The U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy (USCCD) was founded in 2006 to bring together thousands of resources for global engagement in one easily accessible location and shine a national spotlight on the citizen diplomacy movement. Since then, we have built a national database of 2000+ organizations that provide opportunities for Americans to be engaged, convened a national summit attended by participants from 39 states and 41 countries, granted national awards to highlight the great work being done to inspire more individuals to action, and built a growing following of citizen diplomats all over the world.
When we talk about the idea of citizen diplomacy, many U.S. citizens might immediately think of the Peace Corps or college study abroad programs, two great examples of ways to be globally engaged. But the opportunities to engage as a citizen diplomat are much broader than that. Citizen diplomacy is everywhere. It takes place spontaneously on the street and in our airports when we introduce ourselves to the person sitting next to us, seizing an opportunity to learn where they are from, where they are going, or perhaps to extend a warm welcome to our country. It happens whenever someone reaches out in kindness to offer assistance, help with directions, or to understand a sign or menu in another language. It happens more deliberately when a teacher invites a cultural ambassador into the classroom to engage children in storytelling, music, or food from another culture and each time someone offers to welcome and host an international visitor or student—for a tour of their city, a cup of coffee, dinner, or an extended stay in their home.
The U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy was established to put interactions and learning opportunities like these at the center of our cultural awareness in the United States. In a globalized world, we must all act as global citizens. (Here are 10 simple ways to become a citizen diplomat in your own backyard.)
Why Become a Citizen Diplomat
Citizen diplomacy is more than a feel-good activity—there are many practical reasons why it’s increasingly important. Employers today value cultural fluency and global experience more highly than ever before. As multinational corporations seek to expand into frontier markets, they seek leaders with global savvy to guide their strategy development. Ángel Cabrera and others make this point well.
But there’s more to being a citizen diplomat than just landing your next job. By choosing to actively represent your culture to your friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, you are influencing their perception of your culture as a whole. Americans sometimes get a bad rap for being culturally insensitive and the only way to undo this stereotype is by contradicting it, one exemplary citizen diplomat at a time.
In Des Moines, Iowa, where USCCD is based, students in our public schools speak 80 languages at home, a 500% increase over the past 20 years. That’s 80 different languages in a Midwest American city with a population just over 200,000. We no longer need to travel to find new cultures, languages, and customs. We just have to be curious (and diplomatic) enough to go out and seize the opportunity to engage. By becoming a citizen diplomat, you have the power to change how your country and culture is viewed in your own back yard and around the world.
If you’re interested in finding ways to become more culturally engaged right now, you should start with the USCCD program search. This database encompasses more than 2,000 U.S.-based organizations that provide opportunities for Americans to be globally engaged—either at home or by traveling abroad. Users may search these more formalized opportunities to be globally engaged by area of interest, U.S. state, country, or age group. You can also learn more about specific cultural exchange opportunities, like the Japan Center. The start to your cultural journey is only one click away.
A Lifetime of Diplomatic Moments
Global citizen diplomacy isn’t a single experience; it’s a lifetime continuum of opportunities to learn and enhance your cultural competency. While it’s never too late to become a citizen diplomat, the earlier we are exposed to other cultures, the easier it is to be more globally fluent, increasing the connectedness of our diverse, global community.
Whatever your motivation, USCCD challenges every individual to choose a reason to be globally engaged and take action. Begin each day with the intent to connect positively with someone from another country or culture. Look up from your smart phone every so often and recognize the opportunities to interact with others throughout your day. Smile, say hello, and take a moment to intentionally connect with kindness, compassion, and friendship. Pay attention, offer assistance, share your table at the coffee shop with someone new, ask a question, and listen—both to understand and to learn. You can be a citizen diplomat in these ways and more—read about other actions you can take here.
Act locally with global perspective. Act globally with local perspective. Act often. Act like a diplomat. Share the impact of your experience to inspire others on one of our forums. Then act again.
When you’ve had an experience as a citizen diplomat, we hope you’ll share it with us—we want to help you tell your citizen diplomacy story. By doing so, you’ll encourage others to think creatively about how they can become more culturally engaged, contributing to a smarter and more truly connected world. Our new campaign, “You Had me at Hello” , aims to do just this. I hope you will take a few minutes to visit us online to watch a collection of warm greetings from around the globe and see how easy it is to connect with others from different cultures. You can continue to engage and follow the conversation at #helloworld.
It’s that simple.
Diane Rasmussen serves as Director of the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy (USCCD) division, working with the CDS management team on strategic direction and implementation of the USCCD mission. Diane leads initiatives designed to engage more citizens in programs that build global fluency and leadership capacity, and shine a spotlight on stories of impact to inspire others to action.
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