Youth Engagement at the Sister Cities International 61st Annual Conference

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Student participating in the Parade of Flags on July 14, 2017.

Youth Engagement at the Sister Cities International 61st Annual Conference

The idea of “citizen diplomacy” captures the notion that community influencers play a monumental role in creating genuine relationships and friendships abroad which help further foreign policy interests that advance global priorities.  Sister Cities International, the largest network of citizen diplomats in the world, was created at President Eisenhower’s 1956 White House Summit on Citizen Diplomacy.  Eisenhower’s vision for a network that fosters bonds between people from different communities around the world remains just as important in today’s interconnected world as it did 61 years ago.  

The theme of “Global Communities for World Peace” was the central focus for this year’s Sister Cities International 61st Annual Conference in Virginia Beach.  The conference brought together dozens of citizen diplomats from across the country to attend dynamic sessions on digital infrastructure, building local partnerships, developing arts and culture programs, peer-to-peer fundraising, creating and sustaining exchanges, and youth engagement. Over three days, the conference successfully engaged globally-minded people from all walks of life to explore the impact that comes from strong international relationships. 

Alongside the conference, Sister Cities held a Youth Leadership Summit (YLS) for students ages 14-18. This summit was designed to engage the next generation of leaders through site visits, speaker sessions, and peer collaboration -- and introduce them to the world of international affairs, while stimulating effective problem solving and leadership skills.

Through a specialized diplomatic simulation moderated by Dr. Alison Mann, Public Historian at the State Department’s U.S. Diplomacy Center, 86 high school students from the United States, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Italy were able to put their foreign policy and negotiation skills to work.  The U.S. Diplomacy Center is the Department's forthcoming museum and education center dedicated to telling the story of American diplomacy. Diplomatic simulations allow students from the United States and around the world to learn about a global issue -- then play the role of diplomats working to solve an international crisis.  By using creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration, students were able to proceed through a “Crisis in Our Oceans” scenario toward a common goal together.

One student commented how “[t]his really showed how simple communication mishaps can cause many problems in solving the problem.”

Another wrote, “Continue this program!  As a student who’s about to study international relations, this simulation opened my eyes.”

Students participating in the USDC Diplomatic Simulation.

As part of this year’s Sister Cities International Conference, I represented the Office of Public Engagement (OPE) and moderated a panel on youth engagement. The panelists were Paula West, International Relations Division Director, City of Phoenix - Community and Economic Development & President/CEO of Phoenix Sister Cities and Sherry Lee Mueller, Ph.D, Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, School of International Service, American University. The panelists discussed how the Department and Sisters Cities engage with youth.

The Office of Public Engagement (OPE) connects the Department of State to domestic audiences, directly engaging the American people to explain the Department’s policies and priorities at home and abroad.  OPE engages youth through briefings, conferences, and other events in Washington, D.C. and around the country, as well as through several programs such as Hometown Diplomats and Foreign Policy Classroom that provide opportunities to start a dialogue about the important value of diplomacy and its tangible impact on young Americans. 

We know youth engagement is vital to the success of meeting and solving the global challenges of today and tomorrow. Today’s young people are already active, globally-minded citizens, who are becoming increasingly inspired to find ways to become true citizen diplomats and expand their world.

Through citizen diplomacy networks like Sister Cities International -- our youth can find many ways to explore different cultures, enhance their skills, participate in internships, study abroad, and connect with their communities.

About the Author: Irina Karmanova serves as a Public Affairs Officer in the Office of Public Engagement.

Editor's Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.

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Irina Karmanova

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Irina Karmanova serves as a Public Affairs Officer in the Bureau of Public Affairs at the Department of State.