These were my remarks from my presentation at the State Department on June 9, 2016
With the recent death of Mohammed Ali, news outlets and friends reviewed both the triumphs and the controversies that defined his life. So many of Ali’s actions and so much of what he said influenced audiences around the world, communicating a new image of an American athlete and activist while defining a type of social justice that was taking shape in the 1960's and 70's.
Ali knew people were watching, and listening, and he used his enormous platform to put forth a perspective that was both his and the Nation of Islam’s. The powerful ripples of his influence changed countless lives.
What Ali knew intuitively was that celebrity is a personal, non-institutional kind of diplomacy. He sought to export his own brand, knowing that while he did so he was also exporting a new and different view of the black American athlete, a new identity of sports hero, and a firm stance against a war which, in his view, was one in which people of color were killed by Americans whose soldiers were better funded, supported, and supplied.
In 1988, when I was twenty-one years-old, I took a semester off of school and enrolled in a program in Kenya. The preparation I got through the program was mainly about anti-malarial precautions and some cursory cultural broad strokes: That women had different roles in Kenyan society, what role religion(s) played, and sketches of the various ethnic groups within Kenya. As the program was conceived as an education for its students, we were prepared for what we might see or what we might encounter, but less prepared for what our presence and personal images might project, and how we could most potently manifest the best representation of an what an American was once we were on African soil.
We students spent time as a group together for several months, taking classes in Katheka-Kai, learning Swahili in Lamu, studying the biology of the Indian Ocean off of Malindi and Mombasa. But after those months, we all went our separate ways. One boy went to pursue his passion for bird watching, another to study music, one young woman went to help deliver babies in a rural hospital. Yet another woman, who eventually became a veterinarian, went to work with a roving animal doctor. I was and am a photographer and someone who was and is in love with the cultural expressions of humanity: Its myriad beliefs, cuisines, modes of music, storytelling, and art, styles of dress, ways of parenting, educating, punishing, mourning and memorializing. We humans are such an interesting lot! In 1988, the Maasai caught my eye: their beauty was irresistible to my aesthetic, and they were so deliberately separate from the rest of the Kenyans I had encountered. I was drawn to them not for scientific or practical reasons, but by human curiosity, and I was able to act on my interest because I was acting as an artist, not a scientist or a researcher.
My Swahili teacher in Lamu was Maasai, though he did not live in Maasailand. His father wouldn’t allow him to become a warrior and commanded his son to pursue a western-style education. My teacher knew another Maasai man who, like him, lived in Nairobi, and this man kept his family far away from the city, tucked into a traditional boma, or group of huts, in Maasailand. He was a father and a butcher with a shop in Nairobi, living in the city during the week, visiting his family in the south of Kenya on weekends. His family was only 46 miles away from Nairobi as the crow flies, but a million miles away in their lives’ manifest day-to-day realities. His children had never been to the city; in fact, they had never even seen a white person and when I arrived at their home, one of the kids started screaming and crying that I was a ghost, and hid in his mother’s shukas. The children also thought that airplanes were big silver birds that didn’t flap their wings as they passed overhead. The girls were not educated. My host took in orphan boys whom he used as unpaid shepherds of his cattle. The family all lived on the traditional Maasai diet of milk, meat, and blood. And whatever success the father had in Nairobi selling meat, it was not shared with his family in this little community near mile marker 46. His family did not have access to water, power, roads, sanitation, or the larger world.
My book, “Mile 46,” travels through time as I revisit my wide-eyed self at 21 and reflect on the power of personal diplomacy, on people-to-people diplomacy. I am not a student of foreign relations or foreign service, but I have been an avid traveler and an eager communicator my whole life. I wanted to connect with my hosts in Maasailand, just as I wanted to connect with the boy who was an exchange student from Italy in my high school. My instincts for diplomacy extended forward in time to November 13, 2015 when I found myself suddenly an on-the-ground representative of the U.S. in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, accidental-tourist style. Using my French and looking into the Parisians’ eyes, I listened and promised them that they were not alone. Maybe it sounds grandiose now, but in that awful moment, my words had extraordinary meaning. I heard from many of them that we, as Americans, would of course understand, would indeed empathize, with terror in our cities after our own encounters of 9/11. To be able to assure the Parisians I met that we who love freedom, who recognize the value of life and of a government that is stable and that seeks to provide protections and rights to its people, are all brothers and sisters and that the power of family is stronger than the power of fear and terror. Obviously, when extraordinary events occur, whether of terror or of celebration, the potential and need for human connection is heightened, even with strangers. Think of hugging your seatmates after the win of a shared favorite sports team, or perhaps after a catastrophic accident. We all seek to connect though ironically spend much of the rest of our time avoiding connections with strangers.
The best people-to-people diplomacy happens quite naturally in extreme circumstances. Teaching it for the everyday is the challenge.
I think the duality of a sense of global human interconnectedness and the recognition that we are all more than just ourselves, that we are indeed representatives of our gender, of our nationality, of our ethnicity, of our governments-- of our sport or business or school or creative project-- are what drive and should inform citizen diplomacy. If we take any sort of pride in what we do and what we are, that pride should extend to how we communicate the merits of those things. I want to leave people with a positive impression of America, of American women, when I travel.
This notion is common even if not articulated. When at a restaurant or tourist attraction and a large group is asking one of its members to step away and be the photographer, I am not the only person with the impulse to offer to snap the picture with the group intact. This is the seed of kindness, but it is also the seed of citizen diplomacy. We know the group is visiting from somewhere and that they’d like to preserve a memory from this moment. Whether it is our home or we, too, are visitors, each of us can relate to, and can accept, the gesture of a stranger who offers to help us create a keepsake that is true to the moment, and not missing one of its participants. We are also the tourists at times, and while the stranger who takes our picture may become faceless over time, as these encounters are by their nature, fleeting, the gesture of having taken the photograph has very long legs.
Before I left for Kenya, I was pretty strident about my ideas on FGM. I thought and still think that it is an abomination, and in my youthful confidence, thought I could begin to convert the thinking of people who held that ritual as a sacred and a necessary rite to pass from childhood to womanhood. But I really had no sense of just how personal those beliefs were until I was face-to-face with someone whose beliefs were so opposed to my own, and who was looking forward to her own circumcision. The experience made me far more sensitive to the one thing we humans all have in common. That is, our beliefs and customs are native to ourselves, our families, and to our larger societies and what is foreign to us is only thus because those things become ours after we have learned them through individual experience. If we remind ourselves that everyone has a framework that is built like ours but that was built with different materials, perhaps then we can attain a higher level of empathy for the foreign and unfamiliar.
One challenge to the enterprise of diplomacy is reconciling its foundation of purpose with American ideas of social justice. Both seem absolute. However, one of the great hallmarks of U.S. diplomacy has been that it recognizes this puzzle and makes constant attempts at solving it through respect and education. The stated mission of the State Department is to Create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community. This is at the heart of every American diplomat’s efforts. But at the people-to-people level, how we define “secure, democratic, and prosperous” takes on a personal dimension.
Americans are not the only people to take pride in their heritage and traditions, and “heritage” and “tradition” vary wildly across the globe. But in the face of terror, of slavery, of atrocity, there are absolutes. Americans are compelled to assert our moral authority and the world looks to us for leadership. Often our sense of authority gets complicated by circumstance on an individual level. While I was in Maasailand and faced with the event of a young girl’s circumcision, and was witness to the degradation and the aftermath of the beating of my female host, I recognized that asserting any authority would put me in danger and would likely not result in any immediate change. I began to understand that personal diplomacy, much like institutional diplomacy, must be fluid and must operate, at times, on a spectrum. By preserving my own safety then, I was able to tell my story later and hopefully influence change.
Telling stories on a micro-level facilitates discovery and engenders courage and curiosity. Fear of the unknown is natural, so making more of the world known is vital to the cause of diplomacy. Americans are traveling more and more, whether as students abroad or for business. Universities and cultural exchange programs are hopefully doing a better job every day in preparing students for time abroad. The network of cultural advisors and cultural awareness trainers is important for business, as cultural disparity, along with political and economic disparities, can make or break business relationships. Travel guide books make efforts to likewise educate the casual traveler on local customs.
The next level, though, is talking to Americans about personal diplomacy. In a country as large and diverse as ours, formed over two centuries of immigration and assimilation, and with population centers that are often their own special melting pots of flavors from across the globe, our citizenry may already feel as if it has a level of tolerance and understanding that can, at times, overestimate itself. Americans are isolated geographically from the rest of the world. Unlike Asia’s, Africa’s, and Europe’s many countries, our union of states and their individual personalities are no match for the unique cultures abroad that evolved over the millennia. In some ways, the U.S. is like a child savant: It has by far one of the most refined systems of government, rules of law, public access to education, health care, transportation, food distribution, water safety, technological and entrepreneurial wherewithal, but it is a bit of a toddler when it comes to its overall comprehension of the world’s vast cultural landscape and its place in it. Too often American tourists label things as “strange” that are merely just strange to them. Business deals can collapse from cultural misunderstanding. The ripples of unintended disrespect are passed along by anecdotal repetition which creates and reinforces stereotypes of what “American” means to other peoples. People who don’t have the opportunity to travel, and who may live somewhere isolated from diverse cultures, cannot fathom the world’s great cultural spectrum, so when confronted by new cultural realities, behaviors can be misinterpreted and misunderstandings can have lasting effects.
In thinking about the incredible possibility and potential Americans have when they do travel, whether for business or for sport, for pleasure or for godly intention, we must also think about our partners in messaging. The State Department has an outward-looking and positive mission, but perhaps one that isn’t known to every American. The networks of communication-- that is, educators, the press, social media, parents and peers-- are available. Storytelling is the greatest power communicators have. In the spirit of the State Department mission, representing and striving for security, prosperity, and democracy ought to be an awareness of every American traveling abroad or hosting a foreign visitor. These high principles should be as much a source of pride as is a local cuisine, custom, or event. Like Muhammed Ali, expressing what we believe must also be balanced with an awareness that we are being heard, that encounters we have belong not only to us but to all we represent beyond ourselves.
The attempt to reconcile the pride of uniqueness of each culture with the vastness of the world’s complicated diversity is one that we, as Americans, must strive to make. As citizen diplomats, Americans must first aspire to kindness and to demonstrate respect, while simultaneously asserting our American values. In recognizing the small ripple we establish as we shake hands, or bow, or air-kiss our way around the world, we each lay a brick in the ever-growing path towards security, prosperity, and democracy.