Citizen Diplomacy Spotlight: AbdelKader Education Project

As part of an ongoing series, Matt Clark, from the Center for Citizen Diplomacy at PYXERA Global, is interviewing leaders of organizations that belong to the Citizen Diplomacy Network. The Center provides a cohesive voice for the citizen diplomacy effort and serves as a hub of best practices, recognition, and visibility, equipping organizations with tools and resources to enhance their impact and broaden their reach. The diverse work of these organizations encompasses international exchange, education, culture, and service, but they are all united in a shared vision of citizen diplomacy: advancing purposeful global engagement at a person-to-person level.

The AbdelKader Education Project (AEP) builds global citizen diplomacy and respectful engagement between cultures using educational resources to increase understanding about the Middle East and Islamic culture. AEP promotes the legacy of Emir Abdelkader, a humanitarian, ethical leader, and religious scholar of the 19th century who advocated for values such as integrity, intellect, humility, and compassion that transcend culture and faith traditions. Kathy Garms is Co-Founder and Executive Director of the AbdelKader Education Project, and John Kiser is Co-Founder of AEP and the author of Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abdelkader.

CLARK: Beyond your mission and vision statements, what overarching beliefs drive your organization?

KISER & GARMS: In our shrinking world where religious identity is a growing source of conflict and where tolerance, respect, and compassion are in short supply, AEP provides an antidote to the ignorance, distrust, hatred, and fear that permeates our troubled world. We offer global education and outreach opportunities that counter negative perceptions of Islam and provide a compelling Muslim role model for today, Emir Abdelkader. Upon his death in 1883, The New York Times eulogized, “The nobility of his character won him the admiration of the world … He was one of the few great men of the century.”

We believe that intelligent people of goodwill can change their thoughts and perceptions when provided with credible information. Education can make a difference in changing hearts and minds. As essay winner Ben Bernatz states, “In Emir Abdelkader, I found a counter-example from many of the beliefs about Islam that are a part of the political and social discourse of our nation.”

CLARK: What are the biggest challenges your organization seeks to address in its work?

KISER & GARMS: Our biggest challenges include intolerance, ignorance, and fear about Islam and Muslims. We have the added challenge of introducing global education content to an education system already steeped in information that challenges even the most talented leaders. Global proficiency is important in education, yet our essay contest is currently viewed as an extra-curricular activity. Integrating the essay contests and AEP curriculum with core subjects in the classroom would enhance cultural competency.

We have learned that partnering with educators, who share our focus on supporting a broader vision of humanity, helps break down the barriers that are often hidden in our paradigms of education.

CLARK: How are the dynamics changing in the space where you work, and how do those evolving realities demand innovative approaches?

KISER & GARMS: AEP provides history relevant for today’s troubled world. Anti-Muslim sentiment has grown to create an urgent need to stem the tide of Muslim demonization. It is essential that educators address Islamophobia and begin the dialogue in their classrooms to prepare students to become a vital part of our global society. We continue to create educational tools, materials, and curriculum while increasing our outreach based on Emir Abdelkader’s legacy as an ethical leader, statesman, and humanitarian.

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CLARK: What is one story of success and why do you count it as such?

KISER & GARMS: The Abdelkader Global Leadership Prize essay contests have proven to be successful based on testimonies from participating students. When provided with credible information, student’s hearts and minds can be opened to better understand Islam’s diversity and complexity.

University of Iowa student Brandon Jennings wrote, “The Abdelkader Education Project offers students a chance to engage with a narrative of history not often discussed in Western classrooms … Abdelkader’s legacy provides a useful model for how global relationships might be rethought and restructured to better suit us all. Only by learning lessons from our shared history, from men like Abdelkader, can we hope to move towards a happier, more prosperous future.”

AEP encompasses a broader reach as we continue to build our support network across the United States and beyond. Our programs are developed as needs and funding allow. Relentless communication and dedication have kept our compass setting steady and has moved our gauge of success toward its goals.

Dr. Robert Shedinger, an Associate Professor of Religion at Luther College, recently told us, “As a judge for the high school Abdelkader Essay Contest, I know first-hand that this contest really has the desired effect of engaging students in the process of interfaith and intercultural conversation. What could be more relevant in the contemporary world?”

CLARK: How does citizen diplomacy – people-to-people interactions across cultures – shape the world we live in? What is its potential for impacting our shared future?

KISER & GARMS: No matter where we call home, we are all on this earth together. Each person matters as we build a better world and education is key to building bridges of understanding between and among all cultures and faiths.

The annual AEP Forum is a quality citizen diplomacy and networking opportunity for all who attend from both far and near. It honors winning essay students who give voice to the impact of what they learned about Emir Abdelkader and how it impacts their lives in addition to our global society. The Forum is part of a constituency building process that shares the essay experience with the larger world and has attracted media attention from Algeria to Japan.

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CLARK: What is an example of citizen diplomacy in action that your organization has helped to facilitate?

KISER & GARMS: Dr. Ismael Chikhoune, President & CEO of the U.S. Algeria Business Council, invited us as cultural ambassadors to participate in the 2014 Algiers International Trade Fair with the United States as the Country of Honor. We appreciated the opportunities to galvanize Algerians to join and become leaders in our AEP efforts and to engage U.S. corporate representatives in the Abdelkader conversation. We met with U.S. Ambassador Henry Ensher, which ultimately led to the embassy funding the Arabic translation of Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abdelkader, in order to reach a wider audience. Another result of getting to know our Algerian friends was welcoming an Algerian delegation to our 2015 AEP Forum in Elkader.

Citizen diplomacy continues online as one of our AEP Facebook friends recently said, “Emir Abdelkader’s legacy if exposed and explained can pave the way to a better understanding of Islam and tone down the rise of Islamophobia, especially in western societies. Thank you for the tremendous efforts you’re making to perpetuate ideas of tolerance and brotherhood through the Abdelkader Education Project.”

CLARK: How do you measure your organization’s contribution to the field of citizen diplomacy? What milestones of impact do you see coming in the year ahead? What is your future vision?

KISER & GARMS: Expanding AEP’s reach across the United States and beyond in its education and outreach continues to influence citizen diplomacy. Milestones of growth and impact in the coming year will be seen in increased: number of essay participants; organizational alliances; curriculum downloads in schools; presentations; and participation at our AEP Forum. We anticipate deeper commitments with other like-minded organizations.

Essay winner Jonathan Carrillo-Lopez traveled from Phoenix, Arizona, to be part of our AEP Forum. He spoke from the heart and captivated the audience with his acceptance speech that included, “Ultimately, I would like to thank the visionary and dedicated people who diligently work for the execution of this program, its foundation is an aspiration for global understanding. Leaders who devote their lives to spreading global awareness are responsible for our ability to freely interact with all people and consider them equals, and for creating a world where borders between countries mean less and less, and will eventually mean nothing.”

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