Niger. “Wow – great!” I responded. Niger. Where the heck is Niger? I asked myself as I hung up the phone with the Peace Corp recruiter and bounded upstairs to check my world map. I found it located in Africa, west of Mali, north of Nigeria.
In spite of all of the Peace Corps propaganda I’d so readily absorbed, at that moment I couldn’t have imagined how central Niger would become so much a part of my worldview just a few short months later or how fundamentally my three-year Peace Corps service would shape my life’s path.
My life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the small village of Ngamde was, in some ways, the stereotypical Peace Corps experience. I really did live in a mud house, with a thatched grass roof. The women really did wear bright colors, and there were certainly lots of kids ready for a photograph.
But I also lived in a village where my women friends spent hours a day pulling water from a 30-meter deep well. In my third year we discovered that well was the likely source of an uncommon strain of hepatitis, which I and many others in my village had contracted.
It was a village in which few families managed to grow enough food to last the year. I worked the millet and corn fields with my friends, discussing new seed varieties and crop rotation techniques (I was a “soil conservation volunteer”). Yet it was never enough, and many of my male friends left for seasonal jobs in Ghana shortly after the harvest. They sold fabric on the streets or worked in the gold mines near Kumasi. They would come back before the next planting season, often without much more than a new set of clothes for everyone in the family; but they’d earned enough to feed themselves during those months, which was something.
It was also a place where health care and education were hard to come by. We campaigned for funds for a local school in my third year, which we built from millet stalks in the field behind my house. But the closest health clinic was 18km away, a painfully long distance for a woman in childbirth to travel, by oxcart, in the deep sand. When a snake bit the granddaughter of my best friend, I had to send for a neighboring volunteer to drive her to the clinic on his motorcycle. After dropping the girl at the clinic, he had to continue on another 20km to find medicine at a pharmacy in the next town. The girl survived, but there were so many afflicted with similarly treatable conditions who did not.
When I think about citizen diplomacy, I think of these kinds of personal connections. I think about how important it is to just know each other. I had the tremendous opportunity to share my culture and values in constant, informal and personal ways. This, I believe, is the foundation for everything.
My experience furthermore awakened my sense of common humanity. I grew not just aware, but enraged, that people just like me suffered from lack of clean water, or medicine, or opportunity. This sensitivity has in turn shaped how I engage with the world and how I believe the United States should engage on the global stage.
At a time when it’s easy to feel as if the world, if not our own government, is breaking apart, I take comfort in the fact that opportunities to know others are even more accessible than when I left for the Peace Corps more than ten years ago. I like to think that today we are all much more easily positioned to act as citizen diplomats.
Today’s students are members of the most global generation yet. They don’t just connect by traveling and studying abroad, although it’s estimated that more than 250,000 study abroad each year. They meet people online. They read blogs, share status updates, and tweet. The Pew Research Center reports that in February 2010, 75% of so-called “millennials” had profiles on social networking sites, compared to 30% of baby boomers and 6% of adults ages 65 and over.
Inherent to social networking is sharing your story and your experience. It’s talking with teachers and friends. Commenting on news and trends. Spreading information and ideas. Exposing our many interests and likes. And yes, getting to know others. We can’t deny the value of physical interaction. But we similarly can’t ignore the power of the online space in building relationships, whether to replace or complement face-to-face experiences. Nor can we deny its role in inspiring action, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the response to Hurricane Katrina.
I’m not the first to comment on the power of social media, of course. But I’ll go a step further to propose that it positions us to act as not only as citizen diplomats but also as global citizens who identify with our common humanity and challenges. We’re not only interacting on a one-time basis; we’re building ongoing relationships that extend beyond our travel, study, or course. We are not only exchanging information, we are debating our common existence.
We are furthermore crafting a vision for a new world built by people like us, inherently challenging the traditional powers of states and corporations. Not only do we have the power to support peers overseas, or share information about civil rights abuses; we have the space and the obligation to challenge many of the very tenets framing our world. Concepts like justice, transparency and participation are being fundamentally reshaped by our conversations and actions. Consider the impact of Julian Assange’s releasing US government documents online, or of Wael Ghonim encouraging his fellow Egyptians to stand up and speak out against their government. No longer do states hold exclusive power over these concepts. Certainly there are as many effective practices we can reinforce as there are concepts that need reshaping.
I think back to my time in Niger and how it might have changed had I served today. I personally would have been able to connect with more Nigeriennes online, as well as with my family and friends back at home. I furthermore would have been able to connect my friends in Niger with my friends at home, creating waves of relationships that extended way beyond me. And I hope I would have inspired conversation and action among all of these people around the clear commonalities and challenges facing us all. The personal, continuous conversation would have been something powerful. My ability to do any or all of this isn’t lost, but it’s not quite as easy to create in retrospect.
Today, as I lead Americans for Informed Democracy, a national network of 40,000+ young people talking about and taking action around US global engagement, I am constantly reminded of the power of this moment. We use the best of social media to connect with peers, build relationships and take action. And by doing so, we are debating what kind of world we want to build.
I suppose every generation feels a certain sense of urgency – the belief that their moment in time is the most critical yet. Let us therefore continue to embrace how we use the newfound sense of connection and global citizenship. However you slice it, our moment could not be more urgent.
Karen Showalter is Executive Director of Americans for Informed Democracy. She previously managed Oxfam International’s Health and Education For All campaign in Mali, West Africa, where she supported the advocacy work of national organizations and founded the “Espace de Plaidoyer” activist network. She has also worked with Netcentric Campaigns, where she analyzed and supported activist networks working on the 2008 US presidential election and women’s and environment issues; the Bank Information Center, a World Bank watchdog; and IFIwatchnet, an online community of activists concerned with the international financial institutions.