If Travel's Our Best Teacher, Why Doesn't the US Government Fund it? (Actually, in some cases they are!)

by kelley

ACYPL's Nepal delegates meeting with Nepal’s first-ever democratically elected President, Dr. Ram Baran YadavI first met Griffin Greenberg of the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL) during a travel discussion on Twitter of all places. Now, don’t let the slightly stodgy name of the organization stop you from reading further. Upon visiting ACYPL’s website, I was immediately sucked in by its opening message and I just know you experiential travel junkies will love it too!

It was 1966...
Opposition to the Vietnam war increases especially among university students...
The Cultural Revolution is launched in China...
Americans watch the Civil Rights movement gain steam in the South...

...And in Washington, DC, a group of young leaders with uncommon foresight recognize the world is changing. They see a need for an international exchange program for young politicians that will open lines of communication and increase cross-cultural understanding and the American Council of Young Political Leaders is born.

I almost stood and applauded my computer screen right then and there, and then swiftly kicked myself for not coming up with the idea first. Working in the travel industry, I’m constantly reminded of how European Union nations promote and finance travel for their citizens much more than in the United States. In fact, they’ve even declared travel a basic human right. This always makes me wonder, when will the US government get a clue that travel is an essential factor in making this world a better place? Well ACYPL, funded primarily by the US Department of State, has renewed my hope! Need some inspiration? Read my interview with ACYPL’s Communications Manager, Griffin Greenberg.

Global Basecamps: Your organization has a long history, can you tell us a bit about how it got started?

ACYPL: ACYPL was started in 1966 by a group of young policymakers in Washington as a way of opening diplomatic channels between NATO member countries and the Soviet Union. They aimed to create an organization that, through international exchanges for future political leaders, would reinforce open communication as an effective tool for conflict resolution in a time when open war was a very real possibility.

Soon after ACYPL’s founding, the scope of our mission expanded beyond NATO-USSR relations. The leadership of our staff and board has allowed us to establish programs in a wide variety of countries.

US to China (30th Anniversary Program) delegates brave a rainstorm during their program.This year’s programs include places like Indonesia, Australia, India, Pakistan, Russia, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Africa, Ghana, Algeria and China, among others. Upcoming 2010 programs include Turkey, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Ghana, China, Canada, and Mexico. We’ve also received foreign delegations from Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Egypt, Jordan, and South Korea, and we’ll be receiving several more from Argentina, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, India and Pakistan.

Global Basecamps: ACYPL’s mission is to “to promote understanding and cultivate lasting political, economic and cultural relationships among young political leaders and policy makers worldwide.” How have you seen this play out over the years?

ACYPL: ACYPL’s successes over the years in some cases can be attributed to the current international political landscape and, perhaps just as often, they occur despite what is happening around the world between nations. Our mission -- to provide lasting relationships between delegates and understanding among their peers -- is strongly needed today, and a primary reason for this is because our programs are designed to transcend current government-to-government standings and occur regardless of the status of the bilateral relationship between the USA and ACYPL partner countries.

Global Basecamps: What is ACYPL’s travel philosophy?

ACYPL: ACYPL programs are built on a commitment to several values. We encourage our delegates to speak their minds if they disagree during discussions with their hosts abroad, but to do so politely and with respect for the differences between our cultures, history, and political contexts. Open communication is vitally important, but it goes hand-in-hand with understanding that programs are a learning experience and that a delegate’s role is never to criticize or denigrate others for what they perceive as faults in someone’s way of life.

The other side of that coin is a commitment to diversity and bipartisanship, recognizing that delegations consisting of people from different backgrounds and experiences help facilitate an open discussion of issues as well as challenging people’s preconceived notions about the world. We also emphasize the importance of communication and international cooperation as a way of avoiding conflict and achieving peaceful solutions.

Global Basecamps: Promoting international travel as a learning experience is something that we value greatly at Global Basecamps. However, we recognize that the political and economic climate of our country isn’t always supportive of this. How have you kept your program running in good times and in bad?

ACYPL: International travel is the most crucial aspect of what we do because many of our delegates go on to become national leaders (40 sitting members of Congress are ACYPL alumni.) One of our greatest achievements is helping those future leaders to consider their actions in a global context, understanding that US laws and policies often have international consequences that should be taken into account.

We’re lucky as a non-profit organization to have the financial support of the US Department of State, which funds our programs through its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Their generosity allows us to cover most of the costs associated with international travel.

Global Basecamps: You list many US and International government leaders as your alumni, how have they put their experience with ACYPL to use?

ACYPL: One of our challenges is to capture anecdotal evidence from our participants. However, in over 40 years of existence ample evidence does exist that serves to remind us how significant the experience can be for emerging leaders’ professional and personal lives. One former state legislator, for example, was so profoundly motivated by his trip to Russia that he gave up his seat to manage the US government’s chief development and democracy programs in the former Soviet Republics and the Russian Federation.

ACYPL’s Election Study program attends an Obama campaign rally in the days leading up to the 2008 election.Another former participant moved to Ukraine to marry a local politician she met on her visit there; later her husband became the nation’s president. In another instance, two members of an international delegation to the United States met one another on their visit and later, one became his nation’s Prime Minister while the second former delegate became his ambassador to the United States; each of them has publicly stated that their visit to the United States representing a Soviet Bloc country in the early 1980s had a profound effect on their efforts to promote the peaceful transition to democracy not 10 years later.

On the other hand, some stories are more personal; for example we have heard numerous reports of ACYPL delegates who have adopted children from China and Romania after visiting there on ACYPL programs, while even more examples exist of delegates who have utilized their newly formed relationships to develop follow-on international educational exchanges, including among teachers, doctors, nurses and fellow legislators.

Global Basecamps: What other types of benefits do your alumni report?

ACYPL: For many of our alumni, traveling with our program is the first time they’ve left the country. It’s not at all uncommon for us to walk our delegates through the process of applying for a passport because they’ve never had one before. For them, programs are often an eye-opening experience that dispels many preconceived notions about what other regions of the world are like.

Even delegates who have traveled outside America before often return with greater respect for the importance of diplomacy and international cooperation as well as a tangible connection to the country they visited. We hear often from delegates who arrive home and take an active role in reaching out to the foreign members of their community, eager to continue learning about the country they visited (many also go on to host foreign delegations that ACYPL brings to the United States.) For us, it’s always thrilling to realize that we’ve made a real and positive impact on the people that will soon become senators, representatives, governors, and ambassadors.

Global Basecamps: Can you describe ACYPL’s proudest accomplishment?

ACYPL: It is hard to pinpoint one accomplishment that we’d consider our proudest moment over the course of 40 or more years, however, some highlights include ACYPL’s Likud-Fatah joint program in Cyprus with young leaders from Israel and the West Bank in the late 1990’s; the 2004 and 2008 Presidential Election Study Programs; and ACYPL’s 30 years of exchanges with the People’s Republic of China that began soon after relations were normalized by President Carter.

As one of our longest-running and most far-reaching programs, we’re very proud of our China delegations. Our program partner, the All China Youth Federation, counts over 300 million people as its members and consistently arranges for our delegates to meet with very prominent members of the Chinese government.

In recent news, 2010 marks the first time we’ve sent a delegation to Nepal, which wouldn’t have been possible until recently due to a decade-long civil war that ended in 2006. Our delegates had the unique opportunity to interact with Nepal’s President, Vice President, and several members of the Constituent Assembly.

Global Basecamps: What else would you like the online travel community to know about your organization?

ACYPL: We’d like to encourage anyone between 25 and 40 who works in government, politics, policy, or government affairs and is interested in very low-cost international travel opportunities to check us out online (www.acypl.org) or contact us at (202) 857-0999 to learn more. We’ll be rolling out a completely new design for our website this fall with updated features and more opportunities for people to hear about what ACYPL delegations are like by talking directly with us and our alumni. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter, where we keep our friends updated on upcoming delegations, events, and other ACYPL news.

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