This past week the Public Diplomacy Council hosted a very special event centered around cultural diplomacy.
PDC member and American pianist Pauline Yang shared her musical outreach during public diplomacy visits organized by Ambassadors in Japan, Ethiopia, and Portugal. Her stellar presentation was inspiring and a breath of fresh air when so many virtual events seem to be purely about politics.
U.S. Embassy Tokyo
Pauline’s PD visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo explored the role of music in U.S. cultural diplomacy. Joined by a number of Japanese high school and college students with a long-standing interest in foreign affairs, she performed a short concert that was followed by a lecture and workshop that engaged students in developing their own cultural diplomacy project ideas which were then evaluated by Pauline and embassy staff. She then played a concert that included a piece with a Japanese singer at the residence of Minister-Counselor of Public Affairs, Margot Carrington. It was through this experience that Pauline had the opportunity to meet some of the local arts scholars, learn about Japanese music, and interact with her audience afterward at a dessert reception that the Minister-Counselor hosted in Pauline’s honor.
U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa & U.S. Mission to the African Union
Pauline describes this PD visit as “a life-changing trip” filled with a number of public diplomacy events. She did radio interviews with the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, Afro FM, and Real Talk Radio USA. She participated in multiple “coffee conversations” at the U.S. Embassy with students who were interested in studying in the United States. She had the honor of performing with Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard on the flute and meeting people in the community, including Ethiopian pianist and composer, Girma Yifrashewa, and children who were inspired during the concert (this being one of Pauline’s favorite parts). One of the scarier experiences for Pauline was having been asked to teach a master class at a jazz school. Having no experience playing jazz, she worked with students on their piano playing and repertoire and was touched by how much interest there is in learning an instrument in this part of the world.
U.S. Embassy Lisbon
As the Embassy and the Terras Sem Sombra Festival searched for an American pianist, Pauline was the perfect person for the job. She did a number of public concerts, having some of the most interesting venues that included the Residence of the U.S. Ambassador, the main theater in Cascais, the National Palace of Queluz in Sintra, and even an olive oil factory in the Alentejo countryside. This PD trip was also unique in that the Festival combined music and biodiversity as their outreach approach to cultural diplomacy.
Since the initial trips to these three fascinating and very different parts of the world, Pauline has taken subsequent trips and hopes to continue to do public diplomacy visits post-pandemic.
Following Pauline Yang’s opening remarks, participants discussed best practices in cultural diplomacy. Using breakout rooms, different small groups had the opportunity to describe a cultural diplomacy activity that they have planned or participated in and why it was successful. This led to an array of exciting conversations that could have gone on for hours. Here are some of the cultural diplomacy activities described by different PDC members:
Rising Professional Volunteer Coordinator Aaron Franke shared his experience as a Peace Corps in China where he planned an event with a pumpkin carving contest. He highlighted the power of partaking in an activity that all participants were aware of but had never done. Overall successful cultural diplomacy activities can be more engaging by being hands-on rather than just a presentation.
PDC member and professor Dan Whitman shared a story about serving in Mali at a time when the United States was trying to foster closer relations with Muslim nations shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In spite of all of the State Department’s efforts to improve relations, trust and understanding seemed elusive. Finally, the PD section in Timbuktu invited Mary Spear, a renowned American fine art professional, to help curate a special art exhibit showcasing works produced by local female painters. When the local imams noticed the art display, they suddenly approached the Americans for closer dialogue. Prompted by an appreciation for art and culture, the clerics’ positive reception of the State Department’s gesture of goodwill led to an important new phase in the US-Mali relationship.
Rising Professional member Brittany Lynk spoke about the rising importance of culinary diplomacy, it’s rising importance, and how food can be used to connect. Having shared an article entitled Culinary Diplomacy: Breaking Bread to Win Hearts and Minds the group attributed its current rise to Americans being more open and interested in trying global foods.
PDC member Jim Kelman spoke about a USIA training in New Zealand that included an American wine and cheese reception for the Wellington Diplomatic community, Soviet and Chinese diplomats. The U.S. Embassy played Casablanca to stimulate discussion, afterward U.S. diplomats were paired with a Soviet diplomat. Overall sub-themes of the film reinforced American values to share with guests.
Overall the resonating theme of this event was: cultural diplomacy is a useful and effective way to open doors, mitigate conflict, and start conversations. As Pauline so nicely articulated
“The power of public diplomacy is about the long term goals that might not always be so immediately visible when achieved because it takes time. It’s building the relationships and building brick by brick to lay a foundation and that’s ultimately what creates trust.”
Olivia Chavez is currently the Graduate Fellow for the Public Diplomacy Council. Originally from San Diego, CA Olivia completed her undergraduate studies at San Diego State University. She is a Return Peace Corps Volunteer who served in St.Vincent and the Grenadines from 2017-2019. Olivia is a graduate student at American University pursuing an M.A in Political Communication as a Coverdell Fellow in the School of Public Affairs.