The Incredible Shrinking Planet
World Affairs Council Brings Global Issues to Light with a Local Focus
Following 9/11, World Affairs Council Administrator Cyd Melcher said she was struck by how many people knew very little about the world, and how various parts of it perceive the United States.
“So many people were saying, ‘why do they hate us?’” she said of the terrorists who attacked the country. “I saw a major disconnect between what people saw and understood of the world, and what was really there.”
That realization led the World Affairs Council of Western Mass. (WAC), part of the largest international affairs non-profit in the country, to look more closely at its educational programming and how the organization could positively affect awareness of global issues among the local population.
In some ways, that’s a tall order, but it’s not a mission that is entirely foreign to the council. The WAC is one of 85 such councils across the country, and in fact was one of the first councils to form, in 1926.
Since that time, the council has provided educational opportunities for adults and students in various forms, geared toward a better understanding of the world at large.
But today, with international issues playing a role in everything from homeland security to gas prices, the WAC is redoubling its efforts in order to attract a wider, more diverse audience. Melcher said those efforts are more necessary than ever in today’s tenuous world.
“People are starved for well-informed conversation,” she said, “as well as for civil, interesting conversation. They read the headlines, and they have both the want and the need to talk about them.”
But beyond that, Melcher said conversations regarding the global economy, politics, religion, and other areas can become highly charged, and the WAC is also an outlet for conversation that includes and values differing opinions and perceptions.
“Sometimes people disagree, and disagree passionately, on an issue,” she said. “But what makes us different is that at one of our events, people are allowed to speak long enough that others hear how they feel, and begin to understand why.”
The Power to Speak
Ken Furst, president of the WAC board of directors and a principal of the Momentum Group in East Longmeadow, said there are a few programs in place within the WAC that achieve that goal, including an international visitors program, through which the council sponsors foreigners visiting the area, and facilitates meetings with various business and government officials, as well as residents of the region.
“These are State Department-sponsored guests who are here to get a better understanding of what America is all about,” said Furst, noting that while the WAC works with government-sponsored visitors and ambassadors regularly, the organization is not federally operated. “Some of these visitors want to see how local governments run, and some have more specific requests, like visiting rural schools.”
The largest programming aspect for the Western Mass. council, however, is bringing dynamic speakers and experts in various fields to the area, to offer insight into a wide array of global issues.
“We bring in speakers that are experts in international and world affairs, political and cultural issues, and topics that are timely and ongoing, such as what’s happening in Iraq and Iran, or Latin America,” said Furst. “It is an organization that promotes people-to-people diplomacy.”
In the past, speakers have included Q. Ketumile Masire, former president of Botswana, who led a program on developing sustainable leadership in Africa; Ambassador Phyllis Oakley, former assistant secretary of State, who addressed the topic of anti-Americanism; Ambassador Mark Hambley, former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon and Qatar, who spoke to the U.S. presence in Iraq; and Hugo Restall, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, who offered insight on the possibility of India overtaking China as the next superpower of the global economy.
Furst added that, as a non-partisan group, the WAC strives to book speakers who can report on many different aspects of major global issues, including foreign affairs, the environment, war, and education.
“We help promote understanding of what’s going on,” he said, echoing Melcher. “We’re not, for example, necessarily for or against the war in Iraq. The speakers may have a point of view, but we try to achieve a balance; we aren’t there to judge as much as inform.”
Speakers are put in front of the public through regular luncheons called Brown Bags, which began about two years ago and offer frequent low-cost, easily accessible seminars during the lunch hour in downtown Springfield; the WAC also hosts occasional dinners. A program called Classroom Conversations, which places speakers, including diplomats, military personnel, academics, and others in area schools, is one aspect of the WAC’s expert-led seminars that is gaining speed, Furst said.
“The students speakers address are usually high school students in the Springfield area, and our speakers have already talked to about 500 students this season,” he said, leading into another council objective that has been ramped up in recent years.
To capitalize on the growing interest among student populations in the WAC’s work, the council has expanded its academic programming to include a national offering, called Academic WorldQuest.
WorldQuest is an annual competitive quiz open to public high school students on both regional and national levels, which charges them with answering questions on current events, geography, and world leaders.
The WAC formed a school partnerships committee, chaired by member Daphne Hall, and opened the competition to Springfield high schools in 2004. This year, the winning team, from the High School of Science and Technology, has advanced to national-level competition, to be held in Washington, D.C. this month.
The council’s academic efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last month, the agency was presented with the 2006 Carol Marquis Award for School Excellence at the national conference of the World Affairs Councils of America in Washington, D.C. The award was given for outstanding growth and development of the Council’s educational system over the past year, and Furst said the honor added some significant weight to the council’s efforts.
“Because of our increased activity educating students, we were recognized for our educational programming, and recognized for the growth in the program,” he said. “It proved that we don’t have to be the biggest group to be noticed. We’re smaller than most councils, but we have a good group of people.”
Melcher added that the educational aspect of the WAC’s work has been the area of which she is most proud.
“It benefits both adults and students,” she said. “Students who are involved become more aware of the world on a deeper level, and I’m also impressed by how many adults change their opinions of high school students.”
The Opportunity to Listen
Moving forward, continued education — not only of students, but of the adult population — will remain a key objective for the council. To that end, the WAC will be zeroing on some key issues over the course of the year, such as the importance of global issues to common business practices, the ever-changing workplace, and the global economy.
That, Furst said, will also allow the council to take a closer look at the region’s business community, and how the council can better integrate itself therein.
“There’s a lot of information given out through the council regarding trade between us and foreign countries, and knowing and better understanding the countries they’re working with helps local businesses,” he said. “We’ve had meetings on the outsourcing of goods in the U.S., for instance, at which we looked at the pros and cons.
“People may not like to hear about the topic of outsourcing,” he continued, “and they might not like the fact that so many goods are being made in China. But that’s not going to help us. Understanding why, however, will. That allows us an opportunity to make that knowledge work to our advantage.”
Furst said the council would also like to better promote its unique networking opportunities, which include international contacts and resources both locally and abroad, available for members’ use.
“We have access to diplomats, non-governmental organizations, libraries, and other sources,” said Furst, “and we can also refer to our database, which includes academics, world travelers, exporters, former Peace Corps volunteers, language experts, and native-born citizens of a number of countries.”
To create stronger relationships with local businesses, Furst said the council hopes to promote membership at an employee level among various companies in the area, and also boost the WAC’s number of event sponsors.
Currently, about 35 businesses and organizations are involved with the council on various sponsorship levels, ranging from benefactors to patrons to basic members. Those outfits include colleges, banks, advocacy groups, foundations, and both public and private companies of varying sizes and industries.
The Need to be Heard
Even with such a wide gamut of services and members, however, Furst said the council still struggles with recognition in the area, of both its name and mission.
With a board that is entirely volunteer-based except for Melcher, the WAC’s sole paid employee, translating its mission can be a challenge, and outside of some specific circles, Furst said, there are still many businesses and individuals in the area still unaware of the World Affairs Council or why it might be relevant to their businesses or daily lives.
“We use all means we can to get better-known, but sometimes we think we are the most well-kept secret in the area,” he said. “What’s important is that we always have our mission in the forefront of our minds — to keep the population better informed on what’s going on in world affairs, so they get a better understanding of the world as it gets flatter and smaller.”
Melcher said that flattening of the world is the result of all politics indeed becoming local, along with business trends, environmental concerns, and societal issues.
But flattened as it may be, the world is still a very big place. Melcher said the act of conversation, as simple as it sounds, opens many doors that lead to more awareness and intuitiveness of complex issues that are relevant worldwide — and through knowledge comes understanding.
“If we’re asked what the best result of the World Affairs Council is, I’d have to say it’s people taking a greater interest in the world around them,” she said. “If someone gets into the habit of reading the New York Times a few days a week to stay current … I’m happy with that.”
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]