As an organization that strives to create a more peaceful, prosperous and stable world though international exchanges, we are horrified by Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. The San Diego Diplomacy Council (SDDC) has led our region’s people-to-people diplomacy for over forty years, forging bonds of cooperation with young leaders from over 130 countries, including Ukraine and Russia.
Our visitors are selected by the U.S. State Department by virtue of their excellence in their fields – from government to non-profit management to the private sector. Our visitors are considered future leaders of their respective nations. They come to San Diego to meet with their peers, share best practices, and foster mutual understanding. They learn about our region’s history, its complicated but friendly relations with Mexico, its diversity, creativity and innovation, and its craft beer. They leave with new professional contacts, fresh ideas, and personal ties to San Diego and leave us with new perspectives and friendships as well.
We were thrilled last November to host an in-person group of 20 enthusiastic young business leaders from Ukraine who arrived on the Ukrainian Business Leaders Program on Innovation and Entrepreneurship sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine and hosted in partnership with American Councils for International Education. In San Diego, they toured the renovated UCSD Design Lab and the Port of San Diego, met with venture investors and international business lawyers at SCMV, and attended workshop sessions, while social distancing, masking, and enduring mandatory daily COVID testing. They also shared personal stories about life in Ukraine. They lunched in Little Italy, met our members over happy hour at Mujeres Brew House, and participated in the Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure, in honor of two SDDC members and friends. And they left indelible marks on our hearts. These are just 20 of the hundreds of young leaders from Ukraine and the region who have visited our City and our hearts ache for each one of them.
We have also hosted countless young leaders from Russia through our programs, including the Russian Business Leaders Program in partnership with American Councils for International Education and the U.S. Department of State. As with our friends from Ukraine, the young Russian entrepreneurs and business leaders who visited San Diego engaged in professional meetings, but also took In-n-Out Burgers to the beach, went apple picking in Julian, volunteered, and attended yoga classes and baseball games with their home hosts. They talked about their love for San Diego culture and our democratic system. We have many friends in Russia who are also impacted by this devastating war and who want the violence against Ukraine to end.
How does citizen diplomacy matter when tanks are rolling across borders and missiles rain down from the sky? Because we know the people under those bombs and huddled in those subway stations. Whether it’s Afghanistan or Syria or Ukraine, our home hosts, members, and partners understand the importance of the many individuals who don’t make headlines but who do make a difference. And our visitors hopefully all carry with them the confidence that, despite the headlines and the rhetoric of their leaders, they have friends here, anxiously praying and hoping for their safety and for a peaceful resolution to this conflict.
These friendships and connections may not be enough to determine the outcome of the current conflict. But we believe that the friends we have met on these programs are the future business, government, and civil society leaders of their countries. Right now, some are getting their families to safety, some are leading opposition movement, some are speaking up for human rights, some are taking up arms to protect their homeland, and some can’t speak up for fear of retribution. These small investments in citizen diplomacy can feel pointless at times of war, but someday these alumni will be the ones in power: equipped with a universalist world view and connections with and empathy for their friends abroad, and ready to lead our world into a more peaceful, collaborative, prosperous time.
The power of citizen diplomacy builds the enduring foundations of trust and friendship that can inspire hope and prompt support in times of crisis, and empower resilience in times of recovery. To all of our friends in Ukraine and the region, our hearts ache for you. We look forward to the next time we can meet again. And we look forward to working together toward a more peaceful and prosperous world.
San Diego Diplomacy Council