“I thought diplomats were all older white men, it was so great to see women and young people today while visiting the Embassy.”
This comment by a young, female Somali student from Malmö, Sweden struck me as the core of the challenges for cross-cultural outreach: battling misconceptions and putting a compassionate human face on diplomacy.
The Embassy team has been working tirelessly and effectively to organize authentic meetings and discussions with young people from diverse backgrounds. The point is not to talk at them, but to listen and listen some more. Such an event was organized yesterday to open up the Embassy doors to Somali high school students, let them ask questions of the Ambassador, tour the Embassy, hear what diplomats do and just connect on an authentic, people-to-people level.
I attended the lunch portion of a half-day program, and was thrilled by the open level of communication, laughter and conversations going on. I sat with four sharp young women who told me of their dreams of becoming a nurse, how they wanted to go help people in the Horn of Africa or the things they both admired and disliked about images and pop culture coming out of America. I know that it’s not always easy to be frank with older “authority-type” figures especially in what can be an intimidating setting— a U.S. Embassy— but the Embassy team created such a warm, welcoming setting that made everyone feel comfortable and able to really share their views.
One recurring theme we picked up was a lack of role models. One young man told us that he had chosen vocational training to be a plumber although it’s not where his passion lies only because he had no one to go to for professional advice or any role models that “look like him” to give him motivation.
This topic blended into an evening discussion that same day by the nascent Embassy Youth Council, called “You Tell U.S.” The goal of this dynamic initiative is to bring a diverse set of young Swedes together and once again, to really listen. We gather roughly once a month over chips and soft drinks, and the theme of each evening is not set by the Embassy but by the young guests:
What does it mean to be Swedish? What is the relationship between national identity and cultural or religious identity? How can we make newcomers feel like they truly belong? Is it possible to compare Swedish and American models when it comes to integration, or are we coming from fundamentally different foundations?
These were a few of the fascinating questions that we debated with the help of Kadra,
a young Somali grass-roots community leader from Minneapolis, Minnesota who Mark had actually met with on his trip to visit the Swedish and Somali diaspora in Minnesota earlier this month. Kadra helped lead the discussions by describing the entrepreneurial spirit of the Somali community in Minnesota as well as the challenges for her organizational efforts, which included a lack of role models and a need for institutionalization.
What ensued was an incredibly vibrant discussion among a group of Swedish youth political leaders, entrepreneurs and activists both immigrants and non-immigrants that went on far beyond the two hours initially set aside for the evening. Toward the end, the conversation took an introspective turn as each of us discussed what it meant to be a Swede, or to be an American. Couldn’t people in a certain nation agree to be diverse but also agree to have shared national values, like democracy or individual freedom?
Despite both consensus and wide disagreements, the evening demonstrated that part of the answer lies in the discussion. And I look forward to learning more from these talented young people at the next “You Tell U.S.” evening.