U.S. 'citizen diplomats' honored for volunteering abroad

By helping improve lives around the world, they rebuild the America's image abroad.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Face to the world: Donna Tabor, a documentary filmmaker who works in Nicaragua, has been honored with the National Award for Citizen Diplomat.
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    Anjali Bhatia: The New Jersey resident was honored with a National Award for Citizen Diplomacy for her work with kids in Rwanda.
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Donna Tabor never thought of herself as any kind of diplomat, associating the word with government emissaries "getting $200 haircuts to take expensive plane rides to meet with their counterparts from other governments."

But this week the former television producer from Pittsburgh was honored along with five other Americans for her accomplishments as a citizen diplomat: an ordinary American taking America's best qualities abroad through activities that improve lives and promote understanding.

In Ms. Tabor's case, a vacation in Nicaragua in 1992 led to a "passion for changing the world" that today has her helping Nicaraguan farmers send shade-grown coffee to the US while managing a gourmet restaurant with young former gang members and drug addicts.

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Among the other Americans honored: a young woman from New Jersey whose student-run organization works to improve the lives of young people in Rwanda while also developing American students' understanding of Africa; a Montana mountain climber whose chance stay in a remote Pakistani village led to construction of a school – and a life dedicated to expanding education in Central Asia; and an Iraqi-born businessman promoting Arab understanding of America and opportunities for Arab-Americans.

"Maybe we all can't be the ordinary citizen doing extraordinary things like our honorees, but there are simple things we all can do to be good global citizens and engage America more with the world," says Ann Schodde, executive director of the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy in Des Moines, Iowa, the organization bestowing the honors this week.

"In fact in an age of globalization I'd say it's not just a right, but a responsibility."

If that last comment conveys a sense of urgency, it may be because America's standing in the world is deteriorating at a time of heightened globalization. For a growing number of experts, this image problem can never be fully addressed by government action but also requires individuals to realize they are America's face to the world – its front line of diplomats.

The concept of the American citizen diplomat goes back at least as far as Benjamin Franklin, who took the story of a nascent American republic to an intrigued Europe. But it was not until the mid-20th century, when America became increasingly concerned about the competition for minds posed by communism that the idea really began to bloom.

The Fulbright scholarships for higher-education exchanges established after World War II promoted this idea, but it was President Dwight Eisenhower who put it center stage by holding a "summit on citizen diplomacy" in 1956. "If only people will get together, then so eventually will nations," he said.

Today, the concept is getting fresh attention – in part because recent government policies, from the Iraq war launched without United Nations approval to the rejection of the Kyoto accords, are seen to have damaged America's image abroad. But it is also getting attention because of the recognition that even if the government were to put much more resources into image-building, it is the millions of Americans engaging with the world daily who can potentially make the biggest difference.

The honorees, who received their awards at a summit on citizen diplomacy in Washington this week, did not set out to be "citizen diplomats." It was something they found they were doing anyway through their activities.

"For me it started with a BBC report on Darfur that really shocked me," says Anjali Bhatalia, who, as a 16-year-old in Kinnelon, N,J., set up an organization called Discover Worlds to help kids in Rwanda. Three years later, she has established a network of sister schools linking Rwanda and the US.

Initially unconscious of the diplomatic dimension of her work, Ms. Anjali says she knew she wanted to "get beyond the looking-for-a-résumé-type activity." "Like a lot of students, I wanted to make a real difference."

Greg Mortenson, the Montana mountain climber, is interested in expanding education opportunities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially for girls. With his organization, Pennies for Peace, Mr. Mortenson has built 64 schools in those two countries and co-written a national bestseller based on his experience, "Three Cups of Tea," that has drawn packed halls when he speaks around the US.

"That tells me that people all around the country are really yearning for a different way of doing things in the world, I sense in these conversations a longing to do something besides fighting terrorism [with war]," Mortenson says. "People really light up at the idea that education might be a better way to stop terrorists."

Several of the honorees say they are aware their acts may seem "extraordinary" to many people. But Khris Nedam, an elementary school teacher from Livonia, Mich., whose students raised money to build schools in Afghanistan, says Americans should focus on the "ripple effect" of even a small gesture.

"My students started with the idea that kids like them needed a school, then that expanded to a clinic and a deep-water well that [three years later] were all up and running," she says. "It just blossomed."

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