A bridge to the world will keep America afloat
A friend recently sent me a photo of a menu board in front of a London restaurant, but instead of a listing the daily specials, it read, “All Americans must be accompanied by an adult.”
I’ve had my fair share of overseas friends share their disappointment and befuddlement with the American people and our recent election. With the help of the Internet, differing opinions are firing from all corners of the world — not only from media outlets, but from citizens fueled by passion and strong convictions of what this country should represent.
In a world that is so tightly interconnected by social media and technology, it is imperative that we take advantage of our robust lines of communication — not only to those living on the other side of town, across state lines, or even on the opposite coast, but to those who are oceans away.
With the uncertainty of our U.S. foreign policy in the face of a new administration, now is a critical time for public diplomacy. The more we connect directly and listen to individuals from other countries, the more likely we are to understand society as a whole.
No matter what side of the aisle you stand on, there should be a great deal of concern over the divisiveness that the election has caused among our citizenry. There is a large amount of fear at play: fear of being ignored, fear of being targeted, and fear of the unknown. This unknown can represent the future of our country, but for many, the “unknown” are the cultures that ebb and flow around the world. In order to mend this fear, we must connect — we must build a bridge.
President-elect Donald Trump has stated that his “foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else.” In order to do so, one would want to take into account the strategic impact that engagement has, and recognize that the bridges we build today not only lay the foundation for tomorrow’s diplomatic opportunities, they safeguard our security and national interests over the long term.
I have been fortunate enough to witness firsthand the power of cross-cultural collaboration. In 2009, my wife Tracy and I started the Open Hands Initiative (OHI). With the mission of promoting greater understanding and goodwill between the United States and its global neighbors, OHI provides training and leadership development for motivated young adults as well as opportunities for diverse sets of individuals to work, across cultures, toward solving some of the world’s most complex challenges.
Our initiative has sponsored exchanges and projects on five continents, in countries including Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Colombia, Myanmar and Lebanon. We believe that productive exchanges in areas of mutual interest open lines of communication and build stronger relations between our citizens in the United States and citizens in countries around the world.
Through my work with OHI, I have learned that no two narratives are the same, and that’s a beautiful, essential concept to accept and utilize. To tell the important story of Egypt’s Arab Spring, and to spotlight Myanmar’s transformation under a reform-minded government, OHI helped facilitate programs that brought together young journalists.
The fellows traveled, examined and captured changing political landscapes, the crossroads of tourism and development, labor rights and natural disaster aftermath through their writing and photography. With their diverse lenses and the ability to watch, listen and learn, these fellows helped to highlight the common thread of our journeys.
Even our children are capable of lacing our narratives. In 2010, the Silver Scorpion comic book series was developed by American and Syrian disabled youth as part of OHI’s Youth Ability Summit.
More than a superhero, the Silver Scorpion serves as tool to promote tolerance, inclusion and equality for the disabled, most importantly by employing a cross-cultural, diverse approach. These children are shining examples of the benefit of fostering international friendships. A Syrian family with a disabled child has many of the same hopes and fears for their child as a family in Texas.
Now with our country in its own political storm, Americans have to consider what their role will be during this time and beyond. While many may agree with the sentiment written in white chalk on that menu board, the letters thick and heavy with disappointment and judgment, we must stay committed to our basic values as Americans: freedom, openness and generosity.
It is clear that cooperation of governments, civil society and the private sector is necessary to a healthy, productive evolution of our society, but the everyday citizen is essential in creating innovative solutions that transcend language, politics and religion. We must commit to the infrastructure of our planet and build bridges between people of all nations, dispelling misconceptions and misunderstandings. This will happen through meaningful dialogue, listening and seeking out our similarities despite our differences.
The work that we do together changes hearts and minds, forges stronger security alliances and cements valuable economic partnerships. Today, there is an urgency to mend the divide and find strength in collaboration and understanding. As Indian politician Indira Gandhi said: “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.”
It is my hope that despite our anger and fear, we can unclench our fists and take a step forward. Private citizens are not powerless in bringing about change, and they have a responsibility to extend an open hand — whether it be to our neighbors here in the United States or people around the world.
Jay Snyder served as a member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy under the Bush and Obama administrations. Snyder has served as the public delegate to the 55th United Nations General Assembly. He is currently the founder and chairman of the Open Hands Initiative.