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Thanksgiving, service and citizen diplomacy

November 27, 2010

Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued Oct. 3, 1863, is an eloquent invitation to—even in the midst of the trauma of the Civil War—count one’s blessings. It is an admonition to appreciate the accident of birth or acquired citizenship that enables one to call the United States home. In these challenging economic times it is so easy to take this gift for granted, yet this is an appropriate time to reflect on the fact that 60 years ago we elected John F. Kennedy president. In his inaugural address he reminded us: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

One answer to that profoundly important question is that we can serve as citizen diplomats. Citizen diplomacy is the concept that the individual citizen has the right—even the responsibility—to help shape foreign relations “one handshake at a time.” Whether interacting with foreign nationals in the course of our daily activities or through participation in deliberately planned international exchange programs, we can make a tangible difference.

Here in Indiana, the International Center of Indianapolis provides Hoosiers wonderful opportunities to interact with the foreign leaders who participate in the U.S. Department of State’s International Leadership Visitor Program. Through this program, Hoosiers can network and exchange ideas with emerging leaders from different countries, as well as showcase Indiana’s finest industries and innovations to the world.

A recent example of such opportunity was a workshop that took place when a delegation from South and Central America came to Indiana to explore grass-roots democracy and citizen participation in the U.S. political process. During their trip, the delegates visited a sociology class at Martin University, where they received a warm welcome and learned the involvement of young African-Americans in the political process through the class’s passionate engagement. The students’ determination to vote in midterm elections, their aspirations for a better future, as well as their personal struggles all left a great, deep impression on the delegates.

I can keep telling more wonderful stories like this for days. I could not express enough how much I appreciate all the invaluable contributions that our participants, like the students at Martin University, have made to promote Indiana’s citizen diplomacy. As we give thanks during this holiday season, let us also take a moment to reflect on President Kennedy’s query and ponder the ways we can contribute to U.S. foreign relations “one handshake at a time.”

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Diane G. Thomas
President and CEO
International Center of Indianapolis
 

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