Good Public Diplomacy Starts at Home: Beaufort County, South Carolina – Cheryl Walsh

The recent shooting at a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina, is but one example of an event centered on racism and gun violence that could severely undermine foreign perceptions of Americans. That terrible attack renewed perceptions that Americans have too many guns and have yet to overcome racial tensions. Many international media outlets and foreign governments therefore portrayed the shooting against the backdrop of boiling racial tensions and a national obsession with guns.

How can we possibly change perceptions (i.e., global public opinion) about systemic social issues like racism and gun violence when there will most likely be more attacks and in more cities across our country? It makes little sense to continue investing in reactive messaging. What is needed is to create an ongoing dialogue with foreign audiences so that we can share what Americans are doing to confront these issues in their local communities between attacks.

In an effort to address such problems in their backyard, the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission has focused their energies on establishing Community Relations Councils at the county level to improve relations between South Carolina citizens of all demographic backgrounds. The volunteer organizations work to promote respect and civility, encourage cultural awareness and understanding, evaluate public attitudes, identify issues of concern in the community, and execute a program of action to earn public understanding, awareness and acceptance. Ultimately, the council’s mission is to identify problems at the local level, before they become crisis situations requiring state or federal government intervention.

In recent weeks, local civil society organizations gathered at the Technical College of the Lowcountry in Okatie, SC, for an organizational meeting to establish a new Community Relations Council for Beaufort County, South Carolina. For those unfamiliar with the geography of the state, Beaufort County includes the area between Charleston, SC, and Savannah, GA. In addition to the major population centers of Beaufort, Bluffton, and Hilton Head Island, the county is also composed of hundreds of barrier islands, including St. Helena Island.

As the managing director of the Sea Islands Society, a constituent of the Islands Society, I consider myself fortunate to have been invited to attend the planning meeting as a community agency representative. Why, you may ask, would a nonprofit organization engaged in public diplomacy participate in this sort of local initiative? Americans, and South Carolinians in particular, need to drive home the message that local communities like Beaufort County are not simply accepting these shootings as a fact of life, but are being proactive about trying to confront these issues in a variety of ways. The creation of a Community Relations Council is one small step in that direction.

Participation in this council allows my organization to serve as a good corporate citizen working with others to prevent another attack in our community. We also share a firsthand narrative about what the members of our community are doing to take responsibility for a problem that many foreign communities believe is a stain on our country. In this way, our staff is not only passively helping to resolve an issue that is a problem for American public diplomacy oversea. We are actively helping to change perception of the United States overseas.

Involvement with a community relations council is paramount to building new capacities for our staff that we can then share with the interest groups served by other constituent societies (e.g., Pacific Islands Society), thereby transferring knowledge of how U.S. local communities can resolve similar problems. We are able to develop new programs to educate foreigners about how local municipalities in island communities establish a community relations council to improve the quality of life for their own residents. Peoples overseas will be more likely to accept established programs with positive track records in an effort to resolve similar problems in their own local communities.

Additionally, experience with these councils aids in building new capacities for our staff that we can then share with Foreign Service officers through programs designed to educate them on how local communities are working to resolve domestic problems that undermine American public diplomacy overseas.

Involvement in such councils allows representatives, such as our staff, the opportunity to build new relationships within the local community. Armed with this knowledge, they can travel abroad educating Foreign Service officers on what public diplomacy is and what a local group in their community is doing to support public diplomacy. Concurrently, they have the ability to inspire or empower members of the local community not already engaged in public diplomacy or cultural relations overseas (or who aren’t aware they are, such as missionary groups) to become actively involved in U.S. public diplomacy as citizen ambassadors. Imagine the possibilities!

The council works to resolve issues that are problems for the local interest groups that the Sea Islands Society serves (e.g., women, minorities, next generation leaders, and veterans), thus improving the quality of their life. In most cases, councils in counties across South Carolina are composed of approximately 15 members representing various governmental boards, area agencies and support groups. This network of interconnected local service groups is then able to pull their combined knowledge to address concerns in their own community. Once the issue is identified, a community relations council acts as a bridge between local officials and citizens to execute a program of action to earn public understanding, awareness and acceptance. A council may be the key to assuring that fair and proper housing, education, transportation and health services are available to all segments of the population in its community. Especially when tension and conflict are resolved in a crisis situation, life for the entire community is greatly improved.

By their very definition, community relations councils foster better relationships within a diverse community through organized efforts to bring together cross-sections of people and resolve mutual issues of concern. In our community, our council is working to establish a “beloved community.” These councils may ultimately assure that the rest of the state, nation and indeed, the world as a whole will view life in each area of the United States on a much more positive note.

Note: This article was originally published by the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California on October 28, 2015.

The Case for Embracing Subnational Identities in Public Diplomacy – Derek Bolton

Without falling into the perils of academic debate, it is safe to say that identity is central to foreign affairs and engagement. Yet, public diplomacy (PD) initiatives often fail to embrace subnational identities. This creates disconnects and gaps between PD and the populations of target audiences. If we want to create sincere and compelling narratives, we need to do a better job at developing an adequate appreciation, understanding and incorporation of local identity.

In order to comprehend the current state of affairs it helps to reiterate the basic principles behind the field. U.S. Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel stated, “Public diplomacy is a conversation. It’s people talking to people – it’s not governments talking to people.” However, contemporary approaches to PD are often undermined by their seeming insistence towards focusing on national initiatives led by national organizations that target audiences based on their national identity. Instead, what is needed are subnational initiatives led by subnational organizations that target subnational identities. And nowhere is this more so then in the Baltic Sea region.

During the Cold War, the Baltic Sea region was of great geopolitical significance. However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a drop-off in analytical attention. It was not until the last decade that the region re-emerged as one of great significance. This relates not only to its economic importance to the European economy, but also to growing concerns over regional peace and security. For these reasons, PD initiatives focused on the Baltic Sea region have reemerged as priorities for many.

To be effective, new initiatives must take seriously the need to incorporate local identities. This argument follows inline with the previous Northern Europe Initiative (NEI), whose focus was not merely on developing Baltic security in the traditional sense, but also in safeguarding individuals’ welfare. This required engaging organizations functioning on both a subnational and regional scale so as to achieve goals in, for example, energy, the environment, and public health.

Similarly, Melinda Crane writes that “Public diplomacy will be effective only if it is credible…and involves dialogue rather than preaching or propaganda.” Successful dialogue is contingent on initiatives that respect and appeal to local identities. What is required then are non-profits that, much like with the NEI, function on a subnational level and in an intimate relationship with local partners, engaging individuals on their own terms and not merely local elites or nationals of a particular state.

In this way, it becomes possible to have a dialogue that widely resonates with a target audience by ensuring not only a synergy between narrative and action but also by having a narrative that is built in coordination with the local population. By utilizing subnational non-profits it thus becomes possible to empower critical voices that might otherwise have been overlooked. This ensures that even peripheral communities are included in foreign affairs and cultural relations, forging more robust PD. Moreover these insights are vital to developing successful foreign policies.

Larger organizations pursuing top-down approaches from abroad are simply no longer well placed to be the driving force behind PD. As Matthew Wallin writes, “Governments and large corporations no longer monopolize the tools of messaging…They are often slow to react, slow to innovate, and lack the agility necessary to change at a rapid pace.”

Successful PD requires more than social media and digital campaigns, establishing media outlets, providing access to outside information (e.g. Tor), undertaking listening tours, or supplying humanitarian aid. Such initiatives lose all credibility, and can indeed be harmful, when there is a disconnect between their narrative and action, or when they fail to adequately understand the target audience. Moreover, these programs are often viewed with skepticism, as they are usually mouthpieces of governments, or are lost in the bevy of daily communications we are now bombarded with.

Meanwhile, non-profits more detached from the local level often find it difficult to fully grasp many local nuances vital to identity and engagement. The goal of PD is not merely to help others better understand your position and way of life, but to better understand theirs; their concerns, values, ideals and in general their identity. Successful PD thus requires not only listening but also understanding, again indicating the importance of appreciating local identities.

By placing an emphasis on understanding, organizations become much better placed to establish programs dedicated to empowerment and promoting shared values and ideals. Again working at the subnational level not only allows an organization to observe such overlap but they can also shift from a nationalist to a communal mindset, focusing on similarities among intra-regional communities. Consequently, in addition to finding similar values and ideals, it becomes important to recognize and build upon the fact that many sub-national groups experience similar problems, concerns, and ways of life.

Island communities serve as a case in point, providing a fruitful platform for generating understanding and cooperation between subnational groups. Rather than an organization that focuses on “Finns”, “Estonians”, or “Germans,” PD actors need to work with subnational organizations that provide platforms for cooperation and engagement between subunits of these nations – e.g. islanders. They need to find a way to connect South Carolinians, Louisianans, and Hawaiians with Gotlanders, Ålanders, and Baltic Germans. This not only helps to ensure their insights become part of the foreign policy debate, it also allows for regional integration at a subnational, communal, level. Moreover, initiatives focused on such inclusion will be beneficial to those seeking to develop more successful foreign policies in the region, as islands are now a focal point in Baltic security.

As the Baltic region continues to grow in importance, fostering regional integration and ensuring voices in the region are not only understood, but also represented, in foreign policy will be of ever more significance. These goals will be best achieved by supporting subnational think tanks well positioned to acknowledge and incorporate local identities, allowing for robust and successful PD. The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review already recognizes these insights on a global level. Now, we need there to be funding allocated to put these words into action across the Baltic Sea region.

Note: This article was originally published by the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California on October 7, 2015.

How Funding Nonprofits Benefits Public Diplomacy – Michael Edward Walsh

Small businesses are at a key advantage when competing for federal contracts. When contracts are less than $100,000, the contract is automatically set-aside for small businesses so long as two or more small businesses can fulfill the contract. While this does not guarantee that a small business will be awarded the contract, it does mean that only small businesses may compete for the contract (“total small business set-aside“) or some reserved portion of the contract (“partial small business set-aside”). When contracts are over $500,000 ($1,000,000 for construction), all contractors must submit a subcontracting plan so that small businesses are allocated work under the contract.

In addition to these traditional contract vehicles, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs provide small businesses with billions of dollars of early stage capital to develop products which have the government and commercial potential. Although many small businesses focus on developing commercial products under these programs, SBIRs and STTRs also provide an important source of funding for small businesses interested in scientific and technical problem-solving. As the National Institutes of Health points out, both programs foster disruptive innovation by helping small businesses break into the federal research and development (R&D) arena, create life-saving technologies, and stimulate economic growth.

Unfortunately, non-profit organizations engaged in public diplomacy and cultural relations cannot benefit from the majority of the small business programs offered by the federal government. That is because they are not organized for profit. For this reason, they usually do not qualify for these programs even if they meet the other applicant requirements. This in turn prevents non-profit organizations engaged in public diplomacy and cultural relations from competing for hundreds of millions of dollars in potential funding each year.

If we want to realize the full potential of American public diplomacy and cultural relations, we need to draw some important lessons from small business programs. First and foremost, we cannot allow federal contracts and grants for public diplomacy and cultural relations to be dominated by large nonprofit organizations. We must therefore ensure that small nonprofit organizations are given some preference during the contracting and grant making process. This means setting aside small contracts and grants for small nonprofit organizations. And, it means requiring large nonprofit organizations to bring smaller nonprofit organizations aboard as partners on larger contracts and grants.

Second, we must ensure that federal contracts and grants for public diplomacy and cultural relations are not monopolized by nonprofit organizations based in Washington DC and other major metropoles (e.g., New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles). Perhaps more than any other field, public diplomacy and cultural relations are shaped by our social and cultural biases. As arguably one of the most multicultural countries in the world, we must therefore make it a priority to promote the development of sub-national nonprofit organizations and national non-profit organizations based in places like Cheyenne, Lafayette, Savannah, Puerto Rico, and Līhuʻe. Over the last few decades, Small Business and Historically Underutilized Business Zone (HUBZone) set-asides have served as important mechanisms for ensuring the widespread geographic distribution of funds allocated to commercial businesses through federal contracts and grants. Similar mechanisms are now needed to promote the wider geographic distribution of funds allocated to nonprofit organizations through federal contracts and grants for public diplomacy and cultural relations.

Third, we need to promote greater diversity and equality in American public diplomacy and cultural relations through new mechanisms that privilege nonprofit organizations led by women, minorities, veterans, and the next generation of foreign policy leaders. In the commercial sector, set-asides for veterans, women, and socially and economically disadvantaged individuals have worked alongside small business set-asides to ensure that a fair proportion of federal contracts and grants are allocated to specific demographic groups identified by Congress. In this way, the federal government helps to promote diversity and equality in leadership and ownership in the private sector. Similar mechanisms are needed for non-profit organizations engaged in public diplomacy and cultural relations, especially those founded by minorities (e.g., Gullah), residents of U.S. territories (e.g., American Samoa), and the next generation of foreign policy leaders (e.g., individuals under 40 years of age).

Fourth, we need to find new contract and grant vehicles for promoting innovation on public diplomacy and cultural relations by small subnational or national nonprofits located outside of Washington, DC and other major metropoles that have been founded by women, minorities, veterans, and the next generation of foreign policy leaders. Unlike the SBIR and STTR programs, such innovation would not center on the creation of commercial products. So, the SBIR and STTR programs could not serve as models for these new contract and grant vehicles for promoting innovation on public diplomacy and cultural relations. Nevertheless, many lessons can be gleaned from the SBIR and STTR programs. One of the most important is that the federal government has been able to foster disruptive innovation through these specialized innovation contracts for small businesses. Perhaps no field is in need of disruptive innovation more than public diplomacy and cultural relations. We therefore need to reallocate some of the existing public diplomacy and cultural relations budget to support such disruptive innovation by small nonprofits through something like a Small Non-profit Innovation Research Program for Public Diplomacy and Cultural Relations (SNIR-PDCR) Program.

Note: This article was originally published by the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California on September 15, 2015.

Moving Away From DC: The Power of Local Nonprofits – Keiko Ono

Over the last century, public diplomacy has reinvented itself many times over. Whatever the case may have been in the past, public diplomacy is now widely accepted to include the work of certain nonprofits. At a minimum, it includes those nonprofits whose mission is to bridge the various divides between their local community and those overseas. These nonprofit organizations might even be said to be at the forefront of public diplomacy and cultural relations in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, these nonprofits face a wide range of challenges when engaged in such activities. In the United States, one of the most unfortunate is the pressure to base their operations in Washington, DC. Although there are a number of good reasons why some nonprofits choose to base their operations in the capital, there is no good reason why so many of these nonprofits have done so. We therefore need to take a step back and ask why this is happening.

Consider the 2015 University of Pennsylvania think tank rankings. There, we find that nine of the top twenty international think tanks and nonprofits are based in the United States. And all but two of these organizations are headquartered in Washington D.C. The rankings also reveal that within the United States, sixteen of the top twenty domestic think tanks are based in Washington D.C. While not all of these nonprofits are engaged in public diplomacy and cultural relations, many are.

Why are so many of our nonprofits engaged in public diplomacy and cultural relations are based in the capital?

Let me put forth what seems like one reasonable hypothesis. The geographic concentration of these organizations around the capital might be closely correlated with the lack of support such nonprofits on the periphery often receive from local officials and others in their respective locales. The apparent apathy is concerning. For if local officials are not interested in supporting global initiatives, where can nonprofit organizations with a global focus gain traction? The answer, of course, is Washington, DC.

If this hypothesis holds, does it then follow that this lack of support from local officials really is a problem? In other words, does the concentration of nonprofits around the capital negatively impact American public diplomacy? I believe that it does, for a couple of reasons.

On the one hand, the lack of support from local officials for nonprofits contributing to international issues outside of the capital undermines the very diversity that defines American public diplomacy. If participation in public diplomacy is limited to persons and organizations in a handful of cities, countries – particularly multicultural ones like the United States – risk sacrificing the power of plurality that organizations and communities in the periphery offer.

On the other hand, the saturation of nonprofits with “influence” in international issues also results in narratives and initiatives being tied to the same biases, values, and judgements. This threatens the very diversity upon which strong democracies are built. Without the range of differing opinions nonprofits outside the political loci offer, the country’s capacity for engagement and representation on international decisions is severely limited.

For the past two years, my experience in a leadership role at an international nonprofit seems to support this hypothesis. Our nonprofit’s mission is to respect, inspire, promote, and empower islanders around the world. Since our founding, we have focussed mainly on islanders in the Asia-Pacific. Unfortunately, our organization has found it incredibly difficult to garner any support for our programs from our local officials on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina (where we are based). Despite multiple attempts to reach out to the mayor and the elected members of the town council, we still have yet to receive any support from these local officials. Instead, we have had to rely on the support of national officials, including our elected officials in United States Congress. In practice, this means that we have had to mostly rely on Congressional staff working in Washington, DC.

Of course, I cannot speak for all nonprofits. That would require a major research project – one that I think is long overdue. Instead, I can only speak from my own experience – although I very much doubt that we are the only American nonprofit engaged in public diplomacy and cultural relations to face such challenges.

From those experiences, I think that we desperately need to redress the disconnect that persists between local officials and nonprofits engaged in American public diplomacy and cultural relations, so as to ensure greater representation (and therefore legitimacy) in these fields.

Although local officials will always need to be focused on their immediate surroundings, they must take a step back from what may bring more votes to the ballot box and see the bigger picture. If anything, we must recognize that the boundaries of “local” and the mechanisms by which we measure the impact of our decisions are outdated if we continue to believe they are bound by our respective communities and geographies.

If we want to unlock the power of the periphery in American public diplomacy and cultural relations, local officials need to become champions of local nonprofits with a global focus. In doing so, they will help pave the way for a broader discourse in public diplomacy – one that will ultimately aid in revitalizing the relevance of rural communities in public diplomacy and thus expand civic engagement across the whole country.

If local officials fail to accept this challenge, I believe that the strength and appeal of American public diplomacy and cultural relations will suffer as a result. It is only by creating an environment in which nonprofits engaged in public diplomacy and cultural relations can thrive in local communities around the country that the United States can ever hope to realize the full potential of American public diplomacy and cultural relations. The distance of nonprofits on the periphery from major cities needs to stop being misunderstood as a disadvantage. Instead, it is time for local officials to champion local such nonprofits as a necessary nexus in the ever-shrinking gap between communities around the world.

Note: This article was originally published by the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California on August 31, 2015.