Please Speak to Strangers!

An Intergenerational Dialogue on Citizen Diplomacy

Written by Brittany Lynk and Sherry Lee Mueller

On a recent visit to Washington DC, I reconnected with my mentor, Sherry Lee Mueller, who had a strong influence on the direction of my career. Among the many hats she wears, she is a professor at American University’s School of International Service. What follows is an excerpt from our conversation on global development, and the importance at the individual level to engage with others to create shared understanding.

Sherry: It was 1963. My parents were seeing me off as I boarded a student ship to Europe to participate in an Experiment in International Living Program in Bad Godesberg, Germany. Despite the fact that I was a farm kid from Illinois who knew no one in either Germany or the group of American students I was about to meet, the last admonition my mom gave me was: “Remember, Sherry, don’t speak to strangers.” When I retell that story to people familiar with my career administering and evaluating international exchange programs, it inevitably elicits a laugh. I have made a career out of speaking to strangers and urging others to do the same.

Sherry with host sister, Gisela, in Germany in 1963 when Sherry went on her first exchange abroad. The two have stayed in close contact, with the more recent picture taken in 2018 in the Netherlands, where Gisela now lives.

Brittany: The experience seems to have been pivotal, even transformational for you. Judging by your career, you have dedicated yourself to promoting meaningful person-to-person interactions across cultures ever since.

Sherry: I like to say I have made a career promoting excellence in citizen diplomacy. We are all citizen diplomats, whether we recognize it or not. As we move through our world interacting with people in person or online, we can be responsible, conscientious citizen diplomats or, without realizing it, careless informal representatives of our country. Whether we are aware of the vital role we play in shaping others’ perceptions of our country and culture on a daily basis, we are either reinforcing negative stereotypes or shattering them by our attitudes and behavior. The internet, social media, and the unprecedented speed of communication offer the illusion of closeness and understanding. Yet it is the personal encounter that offers the opportunity for true learning and nuanced understanding. Brittany, your own work is a wonderful example of this.

Whether we are aware of the vital role we play in shaping others’ perceptions of our country and culture on a daily basis, we are either reinforcing negative stereotypes or shattering them by our attitudes and behavior.

Brittany: Thanks. That’s right—for the past nine years I have had the pleasure of working with the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program, the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). The IVLP welcomes nearly 5,000 rising leaders each year from around the world in a variety of fields to experience the United States through short-term visits.

As an International Visitor Liaison, I am in the business of making friends! My job is to accompany the groups of leaders and facilitate their program, serving as a cultural interpreter, communication link, and, yes, a highly visible citizen diplomat. I’m often the first American each visitor meets upon their arrival.

The success of the program lies in the many people—citizen diplomats—visitors meet throughout the country as they travel to four or five cities over three weeks. From bustling Boston, Massachusetts, to quaint Minot, North Dakota, visitors are welcomed by a local nonprofit member of the Global Ties U.S. network. Global Ties partners with the U.S. Department of State as a professional association for the network of large, national organizations and smaller, community-based organizations interested in hosting program participants. Together, the partners orchestrate meaningful professional and cultural experiences for IVLP visitors and other exchange participants. Not only do such exchanges benefit visitors, but they also serve to strengthen the local community through greater global connection and deeper understanding of world issues.

Global Ties U.S. has a special place in my heart, not only for the important work it does shining a light on citizen diplomacy, but also because I was an intern there the summer of 2010 when you were its President. Your mentorship over the years coupled with the exposure to the wider world of citizen diplomacy and exchange programs has been invaluable. Before reading your book, Working World, I was unaware of the many networks of citizen diplomats and avenues to become more purposefully involved.

Sherry: There are various organizations that describe themselves as networks of citizen diplomats—Partners of the Americas, People to People, and Friendship Force International come to mind. Sister Cities International (SCI) is another good example. At a recent Forum hosted by the Public Diplomacy Council, SCI President Roger-Mark de Souza described some major contributions of SCI citizen diplomats to U.S. foreign relations. They develop a web of enduring human relationships among leaders at the local level that become the context for more elaborate interactions at the national and international levels. The recent Japan-Texas Leadership Summit in San Antonio and the upcoming July 17–19 Annual SCI Conference in Houston with the theme “Cities Mean Business” are events with far-reaching impacts that bring citizen diplomats together with government and business representatives.

Brittany: Is that similar to the work of PYXERA Global, the nonprofit where you serve as a board member?

Sherry: Absolutely! One reason I enjoy my work as a member of the PYXERA Global Board is that they promote citizen diplomacy in a unique way. Their Global Pro Bono practice matches groups of talented corporate employees with development projects both abroad and in the United States. They orchestrate programs that are a marvelous blend of citizen diplomacy and corporate social responsibility.

Brittany: One thing that strikes me about the nature of citizen diplomacy is that it can be deliberate or spontaneous. People who know they are citizen diplomats move through the world in a specific way, intentionally making connections with others. Organizations with networks of citizen diplomats often institutionalize the concept and build it into their mission statements. These actions are deliberate.

Then there is spontaneous citizen diplomacy: Amir, the Lyft driver who strikes up a conversation with my visitor about her experience growing up in a refugee camp as an ethnic minority on the Thai-Burma border and his as a Turkish migrant to San Diego; Granny Pat, who offers to snap a photo of my visitors posing near a rock formation on a hike up Pilot Mountain, leading to a friendship; and Bill, who treats a whole table of my women visitors in STEM fields to peach cobbler in Greensboro, North Carolina, because he wants them to experience “an authentic southern meal,” which leads to him connecting them to his granddaughter, who wants to be a scientist.

Granny Pat, speaking with a group of international visitors at Pilot Mountain in North Carolina. The visitors were participating in the 2018 Hidden No More: Advancing Women in STEAM Fields program, a special partnership of U.S. Department of State and 21st Century Fox.

These unexpected moments of spontaneous citizen diplomacy are the moments visitors remember about the United States, and are often the moments that change perceptions, winning America friends for life. One recent visitor from Sri Lanka said, “I was warned about the cold, distanced nature of Americans, and was surprised to find extremely friendly, large-hearted, non-judgmental people.”

Sherry: I have written about spontaneous versus deliberate citizen diplomacy and very much appreciate both types. It reminds me of an article I read recently in the New York Times Magazine, Rick Steves Wants to Save the World, One Vacation at a Time. In it, the traveling guru expounds on the necessity of travel as a way to practice and experience citizen diplomacy, saying the tiniest exposure to the world outside your own “wallops your ethnocentricity,” “carbonates your experience,” and “rearranges your cultural furniture.” He has been onto something important for years, and in February 2009, we at Global Ties U.S. honored Steves with our Citizen Diplomat Award for his exceptional work in connecting Americans with the world via travel.

In this age of ultra-nationalism, citizen diplomacy is a tool we can all use and practice as individuals to counter the messages of division all around us. It is not new. Nearly a century ago, right after World War I, Elihu Root wrote about the need for popular diplomacy in the first issue of Foreign Affairs ever published:

“Political demagogues will seek popularity by public speeches full of insult to foreign countries, and yellow journals will seek to increase their circulation by appeals to prejudice against foreigners. … They will practically cease whenever the American public really condemns and resents them. … That will come when the American more fully understands the business of international intercourse and feels a sense of the obligations which it incurs by asserting the right to control the conduct of foreign relations.”

Brittany: In short, please, talk to strangers! It’s your right, and your obligation.

Feature photo courtesy of USAID (Global Health Fellows Program II).


Co-Author Brittany Lynk

Brittany is an International Visitor Liaison with the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). In this role, she has accompanied over 650 visitors to over 70 cities in nearly 40 states. Hailing from rural Minnesota, she had never been on an airplane before starting college. She has since explored nearly 90 countries, working in Albania, Dominican Republic, Nepal, and South Africa for organizations such as USAID and ThinkImpact.

Brittany currently lives full-time out of her suitcase, and enjoys biking, hammock camping, reading, jigsaw-puzzling, and doing freelance graphic design work. She recently became a Tour Director with Tauck’s Ireland and Great Britain tours.

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