The Many Faces of Citizen Diplomacy

Here at the Iowa International Center we believe in the concept that every individual has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape U.S. foreign relations, “one handshake at a time.” Now in my third month as executive director, I love reflecting on the numerous handshakes I’ve already shared and the promise of so many more.

This month I had the pleasure of attending the Greater Des Moines Partnership Multicultural Roundtable & Reception where participants experienced courageous conversations about immigration and diversity topics. I attended a Sister States reception honoring Governor Terry Branstad on his appointment to the role of Ambassador of China; the Governor has a decades-long relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping which began during an international exchange. I was heartened to see new Iowa immigrants and native Iowans standing together during the Day without Immigrants march. I was inspired to watch our international visitors connect with Iowa professionals who shared common interests in such as topics trade, solar energy, higher education, digital learning and human rights.

Here at the Iowa International Center, my staff and I practice citizen diplomacy daily hosting international visitors from around the globe, but we also conduct citizen diplomacy whenever we reach out to our refugee and immigrant neighbors through language and interpretation services and our online Welcome to Iowa web site.

Citizen diplomacy still rings true
For me, one of the most poignant images in the past month was a photo of the statue of Liberty with a banner reading “Refugees Welcome” hanging on the base. Those who hung the banner were no doubt breaking National Park regulations, but the message? Here at the Iowa International Center it still rings true.

There have been dramatic changes in the ways in which Iowans have responded to refugee and immigrant families. Today we have a new opportunity to respond. Because of injustice in a travel ban or heartbreak caused by recent changes to US immigration policies, there is much work to do. We are more committed than ever to:
• Helping families learn English, so they can get jobs and communicate with their children’s teachers.
• Providing a 24/7 emergency interpretation line to make sure information is clearly communicated in medical or safety crisis.
• Employing interpreters and translators to make Iowa a welcoming place.
• Building an ESL curriculum specifically to assist preliterate students.

Wondering how to help?
Protest, march, pray, and then get busy. It’s the action – the doing – that sparks change and impact. Write and call your elected representatives. Encourage others to speak out. Take a few extra moments to connect with an immigrant in your community. Smile and listen to others who may not look or speak the same. Get out of your comfort zone! And finally, donate your time or write a check to help Iowa International Center make a bigger difference.

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