As public diplomacy has evolved within the present model of globalized engagement— which includes the increased participation of global civil society and people-to-people connections— the role of citizen diplomacy has taken on increased prominence. With the civic empowerment that the globalized world offers for people-to-people engagement borne out of cultural diplomacy, American Voices has been at the forefront of citizen diplomacy through its work in cross-cultural engagement.

Since 1993, American Voices has been conducting citizen-led cultural diplomacy as a means to foster people-to-people connections.  Founded with a focus on bringing American music and culture to the recently independent nations of Central and Eastern Europe, American Voices has expanded its mission towards supporting youth through cultural and educational programs in nations emerging from conflict or isolation.  In recognition of its work, the U.S. Center for Citizen Diplomacy (USCCD) selected American Voices as a “Top Ten Best Practices Organization” in 2010.

Over the years, American Voices has found that the uniquely American art forms that have emerged from the intermingling of our myriad ethnic and folk traditions have been popular mediums for cultural engagement.  Country, Hip Hop, Broadway and Jazz are among the best ways we have to communicate the best of what America is as a nation to the rest of the world.  We have sought to use cultural diplomacy as bridge to connect global citizenry in a unique sphere of shared cultural meaning through the arts, music, dance and theater.

American Voices’ cultural diplomacy programming provides expertise and support to young musicians, dancers and actors, and promotes cultural understanding and communications among people and nations.  From Central Asia to Central America and from the Middle East to East Asia, American Voices has taken its unique brand of cultural engagement programs to nations in transition.  Through our work creating a public sphere for people-to-people cultural engagement, American Voices has presented concerts, workshops and summer youth performing arts academies in 110 countries on five continents.

Working with both public and private partners and sponsors, American Voices conducts its flagship cultural engagement program, the Youth Excellence on Stage (YES) Academy program as a means to further accessibility and understanding of American performing arts and culture.  The YES Academy program was launched in 2007 to connect and inspire youth in areas of the world that lack opportunities for cultural exchange and dialogue with the United States.

The YES Academy program provides high-quality professional training and performances in some of America’s great cultural genres, including Broadway, Jazz, Hip Hop and Classical Orchestra to works to inspire and motivate youth artistically and train future teachers and leaders.   Through the Yes Academy program, we are able to offer creative outlets of empowerment to the lives of so many vulnerable youth from countries in transition.

At its core, the YES Academy model is a form of citizen diplomacy based on multicultural artistic collaboration.  The YES Academy embraces citizen diplomacy as it brings American teachers and volunteers who are proficient in American genres of music, dance and theater to conduct performance and professional training to countries throughout the Middle East and Asia.  These performance academies create valuable people-to-people engagement as it provides training in youth leadership and empowerment through cultural expression.

Moreover, YES Academies have provided teacher training and institutional capacity building for both partners and participants. To further the ability for local participants to train and attain higher proficiency in the various arts, American Voices has used the YES Academy program as platform to donate of hundreds of thousands of dollars of dance, theater and music supplies, music method books and scores and instruments to our project partners in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Pakistan.

As we have found over the years, the effects of this cross-cultural engagement are mutual.  As members of our faculty educate and empower aspiring young performing artists, they are themselves empowered as citizen diplomats.  Both teachers and students are shaped and affected by their experiences teaching in places that most Americans only know by headlines.  The YES Academy model has proven to be life-changing for both teachers and participants alike.  Beyond providing artistic skills, training and opportunities for youth in the Middle East and Asia, YES Academies also affect perceptions of American culture and American citizenry by creating a space in which cultures are shared.

Citizen diplomacy conducted through artistic dialogue remains one of the most powerful and potent ways of dispelling mistrust and transcending political divisions.  Through the YES Academy program, American Voices creates a platform for citizen diplomacy that provides much-needed expertise and support to aspiring musicians, dances and actors, as well as enhancing cross-cultural understanding and communication among peoples and nations.

John Ferguson is the founder of American Voices and serves as its Executive Director.  Trained as a classical pianist, John was inspired by his musical cultural exchange tours to create American Voices in the early 1990s in response to the need for quality American cultural programming in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the Soviet Union.  In the years that followed American Voices expanded its mission to focus on the Middle East and Central and Southeast Asia.  In 2011, American Voices was chosen by the U.S. Department of State to administer the American Music Abroad international touring program.