About the Author: Joseph Witters serves as a Strategic Planning Officer in the Office of Policy, Planning and Resources for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
I recently had the privilege to meet and talk with a roomful of dedicated citizen diplomats. When I say a roomful, I am talking about over 400 people who have gathered this week in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Summit & Initiative for Global Citizen Diplomacy. The November 16-19 event is examining how American citizen diplomats can help shape U.S. foreign relations in the 21st century. The summit, hosted by the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy (USCCD) in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State, has brought together U.S. citizen diplomats and an array of national and international experts to address current global challenges and opportunities.
The summit is a call to action to every American citizen. Whether you are interested in global health, development, higher education, music, art, dance, business, etc., there is something you can do to engage with the world.
During the opening plenary, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith A. McHale welcomed summit participants and encouraged them to continue their ongoing efforts as citizen diplomats.
“We must engage with people at all levels, in all sectors of society. And, as President Obama has stated, we must engage with them on the basis of mutual respect and mutual understanding; an engagement which fosters a spirit of collective action to address our common problems,” Under Secretary McHale stated.
“The task ahead is enormous, and it is not one that government can or should do alone,” added McHale. “If we are to do this job and do it right, we need the help and support of all our citizens. That is why the work you will be doing at this summit is so critical to our efforts.”
I have been impressed and moved by some amazing participants and panelists at the summit. In one panel, I heard an experienced military officer who had served in Afghanistan say, “NGOs in conflict areas are my heroes.” In another panel, I listened to a discussion on virtual exchanges, breaking down language barriers through crowdsourcing, and on the ever-evolving use of mobile phones. Today, more than any time in history, citizen diplomats have tools at their fingertips to connect with and engage with other cultures.
In yet another panel, I listened to the former first lady of Honduras, Mary Flake Flores, recount her story of the overwhelming support her nation received from the American people following the disaster of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. At one point, she was brought to tears as she reflected on the generosity of all those who helped Honduras in its time of need. Her story touched a chord with me, because I was in neighboring Nicaragua when Hurricane Mitch hit, and I remember helping communities to rebuild and clean up after the disaster. Any animosity or reservations they had toward me, a "gringo," immediately went out the door. I was now a brother and friend. I was a young American citizen who learned more about myself by serving others. I was, and continue to be, a citizen diplomat.
To find out what you can do as a citizen diplomat, or to read more about the summit, click here.
Related Content: Opening Plenary of the US Summit & Initiative for Global Citizen DiplomacyPhoto by Rod Oman