Thursday, May 16, 2013

Talking About America

U.S. Embassies around the world provide a variety of services in the countries in which they have a presence.  There are the programs that immediately come to mind when we hear about the roles of embassies--consular services for American citizens, the issuing visas to host country citizens wishing to travel to America, and of course working with the local host country governments and militaries to implement U.S. foreign policy.  There is a lesser known, but equally important, component to the work U.S. Embassies do in each of their host countries that gets to the heart of what America is all about.  The Public Diplomacy division of the State Department operates a program that sends Americans out into their host country communities to talk about American culture and share what it means to be an American.  The Speaker's Bureau program reaches beyond the typical politicians, diplomats, and business leaders who interface with the international community by allowing Americans the opportunity to meet with the ordinary citizens of the country. Through this program Americans from the Embassy, employees and spouses alike, go out into local schools and community groups to share a bit of their homeland.   Discussions may focus on American specific holidays and traditions--Independence Day, Earth Day and President's Day are popular topics but educational opportunities in America, popular culture, business and economics, and the electoral process are other popular issues host country residents want to hear about.  Volunteers may speak on these standing popular topics but any aspect of American culture that they are knowledgeable about and excites them is up for grabs as a discussion topic.  The Speaker's Bureau seems to be especially popular here in Albania where every aspect of American culture is observed and emulated by ordinary Albanian citizens.  I've known about this program since we arrived in Tirana and this past week I finally joined the ranks of a Speaker's Bureau speaker.

As a part of their international week, the Memorial International School of Tirana, housed in a former Communist-era school building, was looking for speakers to come talk to their students about their home cultures.  Not feeling excited about any of the potential topics that were timely (I loved the idea of talking about women's history but since this isn't women's history month the subject felt a bit out of date), I selected my own that is near and dear to my heart.  My presentation on volunteering in America would not only discuss the importance of volunteering for both volunteers and recipients but would also discuss how our Embassy personnel has volunteered in Albania and provide my audience with a list volunteer opportunities for them right here in Tirana.  I was excited about my topic and I hoped my audience would share in my enthusiasm.  After all, regardless of where I have been living, I've always made an attempt to volunteer and I'm not alone in my efforts.  In 2011, over 64 million Americans volunteered the equivalent of $171 billion in U.S. dollars in time and in-kind donations to their communities.  Now that is giving back!

I used to speak to large groups on a regular basis but it had been a long time since I spoke formally in front of a group and much to my surprise, I found myself a bit nervous at the prospect of addressing my audience.  The forty or so slouching youth sitting in front of me wearing bored expressions on their faces did little to ease my discomfort.  I opened my presentation with a YouTube video which seemed to reel in my audience -- or at least earned a round of applause.  Most of the audience seemed to warm up to the topic as my presentation went on. Of course there was the group of boys sitting in the back of the room who made faces and threw things at each other for the duration of the entire presentation.  (I guess this behavior is not unique to American culture; boys around the world strive to look cool and disinterested when there are girls present).  I received a few questions and some polite applause as my presentation concluded so all in all I'm going to assume I did alright.

Did what I say make an impression on my audience?  I'm not sure.  What I do know is that I shared a little piece of America with this group of teens and perhaps one or two of them will in turn volunteer in their own communities.  And if they do, my message was a success.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this candid account. Much appreciated, and will be cited in my Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review (next edition).