Building Virtual Bridges

By Anne Stevens & Mike Bezos

First as an exchange student, and later as a U.S. Ambassador, Chris Stevens was the kind of man who developed close relationships with people from every walk of life, all over the world. These experiences influenced his outlook and instilled in him a deep sense of compassion and collegiality, earning him the esteem of people everywhere he went.

In a world grappling with the tragic consequences of growing polarization and misunderstanding, we need more people like Chris — global citizens who are motivated to understand and accept differing views, and who know how to work together in pursuit of a brighter future.

We can help our future generations develop the courage to expand their thinking, question their own beliefs, and exchange their views honestly. We have an important opportunity to reduce the likelihood of future tragedies like the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and more recently, the bombing in Europe, when we foster greater understanding, respect and goodwill across our global community

This is why we’ve joined forces with the U.S. Department of State, the MacArthur Foundation, and the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and others to establish the J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative, which will focus on increasing cross-cultural understanding and respect between young people in the United States, the Middle East, and North Africa.

A central component of this initiative is called virtual exchange, which works by using technology to empower young people from different cultures to participate in a kind of global classroom, where they regularly exchange ideas, work on projects together, and develop relationships built on mutual respect.

Through virtual exchange programs, Syrian refugee students in public high schools in Jordan can meet with young people in Kentucky and New York via real-time facilitated, video conferences to collaborate on projects about their identities and values, and to help tackle complex global challenges together.

Although relatively new, we know virtual exchange can be a powerful tool to connect young people who may never otherwise meet, fostering positive change and goodwill.

In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the very first grant awarded by the Bezos Family Foundation was for a project connecting young people virtually in the United States and Iraq. The opportunities to use virtual connectivity to bring people closer together have only grown since that time, and have the potential to broaden the minds of young people in communities across the United States, the Middle East, North Africa, and around the world.

While we have made some important progress, there is still incredible misunderstanding and intolerance in the world. We must expand opportunities to leverage the power of virtual exchange. We must spend the time and effort necessary to make it as powerful as possible, integrating it into our education systems to connect young people from different cultures and backgrounds.

It will require learning, exploration and leadership.

Internet connectivity is poor in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and even in parts of the United States. Schools on both sides of the exchanges will need time and resources to make the initiative’s promise a reality. We will need new technology and support for schools and educators to embed virtual exchange into their curricula. That’s why the Stevens Initiative will also fund projects to improve the quality and expand the reach of virtual exchange.

Through virtual exchange, we can democratize access to opportunity, cultivating a generation of global citizens who have the skills and experience to build a safer, more equitable, and more prosperous world.


Anne Stevens, sister of Chris Stevens, is a pediatric rheumatologist in Seattle and an Advisory Board member of the J. Christopher Stevens Fund, a Stevens Initiative Founding Partner. Mike Bezos is the vice president and co-founder of the Bezos Family Foundation, which supports the Stevens Initiative. Mike is also a Trustee of the Aspen Institute.

Housed at the Aspen Institute, the Stevens Initiative is a collaboration between the family of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens; the J. Christopher Stevens Fund; the U.S. Department of State; the Bezos Family Foundation; the MacArthur Foundation the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Algeria, and Morocco; and Twitter, Microsoft, GoPro and Mozilla. Learn more at www.stevensinitiative.org.