By Katie Ferman and Kaitlin Nam
Imagine. You’re a young nonprofit leader from the eastern European country of Belarus who has just been offered an opportunity to travel to the United States. Your objective: to learn as much as possible about the nonprofit sector in the U.S. and return with best practices to apply to your work back home. Of course, you have a few other things on your mind. What are Americans like? Do I have anything in common with my counterparts in American nonprofits? Or would cultural differences stand in the way of interaction and connection?
Last September, ten Belarusian nonprofit and civil society leaders had the opportunity to travel to Cleveland to find out. They were selected to come to Cleveland through the Community Connections initiative, a three-week program administered by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The program offers outbound professional exchange opportunities to the U.S. for young professionals from Belarus and other former Soviet countries. This particular group was hosted by the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, where I work as Program Officer for International Visitors Programs.
The mission of the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, or CCWA, is to engage Cleveland residents in international issues through education, exchange, and dialogue. As Program Officer, it is my responsibility to create short-term professional exchange programs for international visitors who are selected to participate in State Department exchange programs. Through our Community Connections partnership with USAID, I created a three-week program that included professional development sessions, educational exchange opportunities, and cultural activities. Embedded within the program were opportunities to discuss and explore topics ranging from fundraising and volunteer recruitment to nonprofit management and action planning. Participants were also required to construct their own action plans for community-building projects back home.
One of the most notable parts of the program was CCWA’s partnership with the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network's Cleveland chapter. While preparing for the Belarusians’ arrival to Cleveland, I learned that YNPN Cleveland was planning an after-work “Power Networking” event for their members at The Harp in Detroit Shoreway. Knowing that this could provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our participants to network with their American counterparts, I reached out to YNPN Cleveland asking if our Belarusian guests could be included in the event. Board Member MacKenzie Phillips and her colleagues in YNPN Cleveland leadership enthusiastically responded to my request and agreed that the experience would be valuable for both our international guests and YNPN Cleveland members alike.
The night of the event came, and the visitors were nervous. Upon arrival, they did not know what to expect or whether speaking through Russian-English interpreters would allow for natural, informal conversation – or whether they would be able to fit in among their American counterparts. Their anxiety was soon assuaged. Within minutes of walking through the door, YNPN Cleveland members rushed to welcome our visitors to join the networking breakout groups and worked with interpreters to create a comfortable atmosphere for cross-cultural exchange and dialogue to occur. Attendees were encouraged to mingle in small groups, allowing for more relaxed conversation where everyone had the chance to speak and be heard. Before long, the nervous tension had given way to robust conversation, and even budding friendships.
In their reflections upon their Cleveland experience, many of the guests from Belarus mentioned the networking event as one of the highlights of their program. “It is great that, in addition to visiting offices and officials, we had a chance to mingle with people casually in a different setting,” Belarusian participant, Natalia Holava, recalled. “It is very important for me to understand what makes people here tick, as well as their worries and concerns.” According to Helen Taukachova, their own communities could benefit from implementing similar networking opportunities: “We can organize a similar networking event [in Belarus] using all of our resources. We have media people in our group, as well as activists and those who know how to engage businesses.”
The impact of the networking event is not only evident in the feedback from our visitors; there were also tangible outcomes. The week following the Power Networking event, two of our visitors were invited to visit Lexington-Bell Community Center, an educational and charitable nonprofit center that empowers the residents of the Hough neighborhood through social, educational, and recreational services. As a teacher and school principal, respectively, they were thrilled to have the opportunity to tour an education center in the United States – a visit only made possible through the invitation of Lauren Bajda, one of the YNPN Cleveland members they met on the night of the event.
CCWA’s partnership with the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network’s Cleveland chapter left an indelible mark on our visitors that will be carried with them for a lifetime. Even through seemingly insignificant conversations, the opportunity to forge ties between young leaders from countries thousands of miles apart has already manifested significant impacts - including reports from several participants that they have begun using their newfound networking skills to engage community stakeholders in their projects back home. Upon their departure, visitors reflected that they were “surprised at how unsurprised” they felt about young professionals in the United States. They realized they had more in common than they thought with their American counterparts, and subsequently, like their American counterparts, that they were not powerless to create positive change in Belarusian society.
Katie Ferman is the Program Officer for International Visitors Programs at the Cleveland Council on World Affairs – a job she thinks is the best in Cleveland. Prior to CCWA, Katie spent 16 months living in Central America, primarily Guatemala. In her spare time, Katie enjoys coaching debate at Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School, serving as a member of the study abroad steering committee for Tri-C, and sitting on the board of directors for the nonprofit organization Population Connection based in Washington, D.C.