Global affairs group calls for citizen engagement

Julia Pankova (left) and Maria Usenko are journalists from Ukraine on a Citizen Diplomacy International program. With them is journalist Phil Beck.
Julia Pankova (left) and Maria Usenko are journalists from Ukraine on a Citizen Diplomacy International program. With them is journalist Phil Beck. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 08, 2014

Do individuals have a responsibility to help shape America's image in a deeply troubled world?

Mostly definitely, says Nancy Gilboy, president of Citizen Diplomacy International of Philadelphia.

Founded amid the Cold War in 1954, the organization, which serves as a bridge among companies, governments, foreign groups, and individuals, is celebrating its 60th year with a new name - and an increasingly urgent mission to spur citizen participation.

In the 1950s, when people abroad thought of America, they might conjure "the U.S. soldier who liberated [Europe] and gave them chocolate," said Gilboy.

"Now the image is of drones. It's really very sad. So [personal involvement] is needed more than ever," she said. "The State Department can't do it on its own."

While some critics contend that U.S. policy as administered by the State Department is responsible for what they say is America's reduced standing in the world, supporters of CDI think individuals, operating "one handshake at a time," have an important role.

A public-private partnership with the city and federal governments, the group - formerly the International Visitors Council - administers the State Department's premier person-to-person exchange. It arranges introductions for foreign individuals and groups seeking business in the region. It oversees Philadelphia's Sister Cities program, and runs First Thursday, a monthly reception where residents can network with international guests.

This Thursday marks the 150th such reception.

Among the expected guests are Chilean museum officials, who are here to learn about practices in American museum management, along with the new head of the German-American Chamber of Commerce of Philadelphia. The event will be at the Marriott Courtyard in Center City from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

CDI is one of 95 such councils across the country. Their slogan: "Welcoming strangers; sending home friends."

Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Philadelphia Arab-American Development Corp., calls the group "a candle in the darkness." In his view, putting "the cost of one drone, or three Tomahawk missiles, into these programs could increase the stature of the U.S. throughout the world."

CDI identifies experts in the Philadelphia area, customizes programs, and schedules appointments. It arranges dinners in private homes for candid discussions. The idea is to expose visitors to the human, geographic, and cultural diversity of the United States.

Including Gilboy, the organization has six full-time staff and a budget of about $1.1 million, half of which comes from in-kind contributions. The remainder is made up of grants, donations, membership dues, and fee-for-service programs. Philadelphia provides office space to CDI inside the Department of Commerce at 1515 Arch St.

CDI covers eastern Pennsylvania, all of New Jersey, and all of Delaware. The part of Pennsylvania west of Harrisburg is handled by GlobalPittsburgh, another member in the so-called Global Ties network.

The bulk of CDI's work involves the State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program, which brings mid-career foreign nationals to meet professional counterparts on multicity tours, lasting up to 21 days, and pegged to an educational theme.

Trafficking in persons, water-resource management, transparency in government, and white-collar crime are just a few of the dozens of topics that brought more than 1,700 foreign visitors through Philadelphia last year to meet with lawyers, prosecutors, technology experts, and members of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The largest number of visitors, 252, were from China, followed by India at 239.

Unlike other government-sponsored exchanges, this program is by invitation only. Participants are nominated by the U.S. ambassadors in their home countries.

Yulia Pankova and Maria Usenko, two investigative journalists from Ukraine, are in Philadelphia this week on a fee-for-service CDI program under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, and arranged by Meridian International Center, a State Department subcontractor. CDI designed their program. While they are here they will meet with journalists from media including The Inquirer.

Gilboy said the experience of one visitor from Eastern Europe, who came through Philadelphia during the administration of President George W. Bush, is illustrative.

"My favorite diversity is diversity of opinion," she said. "So my favorite question is, 'Did anything surprise you about the United States?' And this guy said, 'Yeah, let me tell you.

" 'I was in Cleveland a week ago and I had dinner in the home of somebody and he talked about how wonderful the president is. His family all said lovely things. . . . Then I get to Philadelphia and two nights ago you arranged for me to have dinner with a family and they said terrible things about the president.' "

Gilboy said she asked how he felt about that. He said he was shocked, then added: "Any country that would invite me to come and hear [both positive and] negative things about the president is truly a free country.

"If this had happened in my country, I'd be in prison right now."

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1

comments powered by Disqus