Be a Citizen Diplomat in Austin, Texas

When Jen Fox traveled to Slovenia to work with displaced teenagers through Volunteers for Peace, she was met with a cold reception.

“As the only American, I was first confronted with anti-American sentiments from some of the other international volunteers, particularly the belief that all Americans are xenophobic,” she says.

“The stereotype was really shattered when I further explained that I planned to spend the next several months taking classes in Croatia about ethnic reconciliation and democratization in the area, and had planned to travel throughout the entire Balkan region.

By the end of my time as a volunteer, I had not only transformed some of my fellow volunteers’ preconceived notions about Americans but created some really good friends and future traveling companions,” Fox says.

Experienced travelers know they can counter the stereotype of the ugly American when they’re abroad by how they interact with people, but you can also practice what’s known as “citizen diplomacy” here in Austin.

The idea is that people-to-people contacts are just as, or even more, important than government-to-government ones in fostering international relations. Proponents say that people who come into contact with citizens of other countries have an opportunity — and some say responsibility — to positively affect the image of what they represent, whether that’s America or Austin.

Fox has continued to act as a citizen diplomat at home. Between working for a state legislative office and traveling, she volunteers for the International Hospitality Council of Austin, which offers opportunities to reach out to foreign visitors. Volunteers may host a dinner for a visiting official or mentor a foreign student.

The International Center of Austin is another resource for citizen diplomats.

“We not only represent ourselves, but we represent the culture we live in, the state that we live in and the country that we live in,” says Jerry Mitchell, director of the ICA, which promotes Austin internationally. “Foreign visitors often gain their impressions about us from meeting only a few people. And if those people are friendly and outgoing and tolerant and open-minded and helpful, then that’s how they perceive Austinites, Texans and Americans.”

The ICA’s latest focus is on helping Austin businesses prepare for the 2006 World Congress on Information Technology here in May. It offers cross-cultural communication training for businesses such as hotels whose workers are likely to come in contact with visitors from a variety of countries who will come to Austin.

Even though “citizen diplomacy” has a serious sound, it can also be fun.

When Fox was a student at Texas A&M University, she and her friends helped host exchange students from Mexico, Germany and Switzerland.

“Not only did we teach them about Aggie culture and traditions, and life in College Station, but they taught us all sorts of things and introduced us to new foods, drinks, music and more,” she says. Another tidbit of information she learned: at least one Frenchman thinks the sexiest phrase in the English language is “garage key” maybe because it sounds like French.

Pas mal, eh?