“If ordinary Russians and ordinary Americans put their heads together,” Eurasia Foundation president Horton Beebe-Center said, “they can help each other solve problems that affect their daily lives in material ways.”
On September 26-27, 2013, Russian and American experts in four fields gathered in Arlington, VA, for the first half of a two-part conference hosted by Eurasia Foundation’s US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange (SEE).
Entitled “Building New Networks,” the conference gathered working groups in Child Protection, Community Development, Higher Education, and Public Health to determine specific issues to address in the coming year and then devise projects to help achieve their goals.
“This program gives us an opportunity to move forward together and understand how to be helpful to each other,” said Marina Mikhailova, Community Development Working Group co-chair and director of the Arkhangelsk Centre for Social Technologies “Garant”.
The working groups brought together both long-term and new members to design projects that expanded on past efforts and also reached in new directions.
The Public Health Working Group, which focused last year on tobacco cessation throughout the US and Russia, chose this year to concentrate on the issue of access to health care for migrant workers. Over the next year, the group will create a recommendation plan that takes into account the social dimensions at play, and will disseminate it among practitioners, researchers, educators, and community and religious leaders.
Jonathan Becker, Vice President for International Affairs and Civic Engagement at Bard College, conveyed that the Higher Education Working Group “came up with a detailed plan on how to help develop relationships between Russian and American universities in a variety of ways, “be it through dual degree programs, research, student exchanges, or faculty exchanges.”
“We hope that [the project] will have a legacy that will allow these partnerships to grow well beyond the [project end] date,” elaborated Carter Johnson, the Higher Education group’s co-chair and Russia country director for American Councils.
Hailing from Khabarovsk to Arkhangelsk in Russia, and from Fremont, Ohio to San Diego, California in the US, the working group members came from diverse backgrounds, working under different laws and social circumstances. But participants were able to leverage these experiences to their advantage when coming together to find solutions to specific issues that exist in both countries. For the Child Protection Working Group, that priority area is connecting older orphaned youth with families and mentors and continuing to build models to support better transitions to adulthood.
The Community Development Working Group will build support for local entrepreneurship in small communities. “We want to look at the local assets of a community,” Deb Martin, director of Community Development for the Ohio-based WSOS Community Action Commission, Inc., explained, “whether it’s agriculture, timber, or whatever the region may have, and figure out… how to involve local businesses and support the region to develop products that can be exported outside of the region to bring money back in.”
Producing replicable models that transcend socially and culturally specific factors to address common issues is at the heart of every SEE project. “Our urban planners can solve the same problems whether in Detroit or Nizhny Novgorod,” said Svetlana Makovetskaya, director of the Center “GRANI” and a member of SEE’s Steering Committee. “Our main goal is to give concrete examples of successful practices and concrete results of supported programs.”
New to the program this year are SEE fellowships, which will be awarded to over 70 Emerging Professionals and Advanced Practitioners. Through exchanges of up to eight weeks at host organizations in Russia and the US, fellows will further working group goals and gain professional experience abroad.
“Despite differences …between …our two countries,” Beebe-Center said, summing up the program’s mission, “citizens can gather together and come up with smart ideas that have meaning to them and their communities.”
All of the working group members benefitted from SEE’s unique model of exchange and partnership-building. “It’s a great example of collaboration where experts from different countries are able to work on important common issues for their countries,” one Russian participant said.
With their plans in place, working group participants will now begin to implement their projects. In the meantime, SEE’s eight other working groups will meet on October 17-18 for the second part of “Building New Networks,” to strengthen and create new avenues of cooperation among Russians and Americans in diverse array of sectors.