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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Remarks to the Association of Binational Centers (ABLA) Conference

Judith A. McHale
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Keynote Address
Cali, Colombia
July 26, 2010


Thank you so much. It is a great pleasure to be in Cali this morning to speak with you and to be part to of what may be the largest and best ABLA conference ever.

JoEllen Simpson and her staff deserve congratulations from all of us for the fabulous job they have done in organizing this event and putting together such superb agenda. I also want to thank the excellent team at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, including Public Affair Officer Mark Wentworth, Cultural Affairs Officer Rex Moser, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer Hilary Renner, and Information Resources Center director Gloria Morales. I know there are many others who contributed to ABLA 2010 and we are grateful to all of you for your outstanding efforts.

One of my first speaking engagements, as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, was at the meeting of Binational Center directors last summer in Washington. That was most appropriate, for you are leaders in the important effort to promote mutual understanding between citizens in your countries and the United States. I did not know what a “BNC” was before I became Under Secretary, but now I am one of your biggest fans. We are very lucky to have you as partners, and we are proud of the long history of State Department and USIA support for BNCs.

We know that BNCs operate as independent, autonomous institutions, and we understand that your independence is a great asset for the work you do. And we know that together we form a team that is stronger than either of us could be alone – a team that exemplifies the value of public-private partnerships.

Today, in this age of social networking and a borderless economy, of transnational threats and technological promise, we believe that when we form partnerships with individuals and with institutions like BNC’s, around the world, we have a better chance to find solutions to the problems which confront us and to seize the opportunities which surround us. This is the insight behind President Obama’s vision for how America should interact with the world.

We are building American leadership for the twenty first century by asking people what they want to talk about with us, listening to their responses and engaging them on subjects in which they are interested. Our efforts are guided by the simple premise that reciprocity --- social political and even commercial --- creates goodwill.

It is this power of leveraging human commonality that drives our work at the State Department as we endeavor to carry out President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s vision to renew and expand America’s engagement with the world.

We believe that there are no limits to what we can achieve together if we can find ways to lower the walls which divide us – to eliminate the barriers of national boundaries, of racial and religious stereotypes, of language, and, of economic and social disparity.

You are all part of this endeavor. The BNCs make valuable contributions to the building of these relationships through your work, every day and across this continent. And the alumni of your programs – the men, women, and youth who participate – become part of this network of relationships through their own achievements in every field. Your alumni include well-known political leaders, athletes, cultural figures and business leaders as well as talented students and young professionals who are destined to be the future leaders of their societies.

For this reason, we have strengthened our grants program in support of BNCs. This year we doubled grants to BNCs, providing over $1.3 million to more than 30 different BNCs in 15 countries. These grants cover infrastructure and equipment, library collections, and -- for the first time -- cultural programs. In addition, we committed another $1 million to help BNCs in Chile and Haiti following the terrible earthquakes in those countries. This unprecedented level of support reflects just how important we think BNCs are to achieving our common goals.

And we are continuing our efforts to find new and innovative ways to expand our relationship and support your work. Earlier this spring, we established a number of working groups, as part of our efforts to create a new strategy for American public diplomacy. The working groups evaluated our public diplomacy programs and initiatives, suggested areas for improvement, developed new concepts and approaches, and provided us with over 250 ideas and recommendations.

The Working Group on American Spaces supported my view, as I said at the BNC Conference last year, that “we need to move beyond the walls of our embassies to speak with people from all backgrounds and walks of life.” We particularly need to find ways to engage with young people, a job you do so well every day. The Working Group looked at a range of options for public diplomacy “American Spaces” outside embassies and BNCs were a crucial component of its work.

One result of this Working Group’s deliberations was the decision to establish an American Spaces office in the Bureau of International Information Programs to support the growth of American Spaces, including BNCs, as centers of learning and showcases of America. We plan to have that office up and running in the next few months and we will be in touch with our Embassies and the BNCs to explain how that office will help serve your needs.

The Department of State’s public diplomacy bureaus are also developing innovative projects under our Strategic Framework for Public Diplomacy that will support three areas of importance to you:

  • The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, through its Office of English Language Programs, is developing a multi-media online English program targeting 14 to18 year-old audiences. We envision a state-of-the-art, flexible and interactive program that tracks students’ progress in English as they move through the online environment. We hope that this will be a valuable tool for our BNC partners.
  • Your libraries that specialize in information about the U.S. are what make you true binational institutions, and we want to help you bring those libraries into the 21st century. In addition to the grants I mentioned, we are pleased that we were able to invite 20 BNC librarians to participate in training at ABLA this week. The Bureau of International Information Programs is also developing an exciting worldwide Virtual Library with a core collection of electronic journals, e-books, and multimedia materials. Your students and other BNC users will be able to access these collections to enhance their English learning experience and increase their knowledge of the United States and our shared values. The Virtual Library will be largely in English, but it will also include Spanish and Portuguese materials. We hope to launch the project before the end of this year, and will be sure to work with your librarians to maximize its reach and effectiveness.
  • Thirdly, we are giving the EducationUSA advising centers at many of your BNCs additional tools and funding to modernize their operations. This year, for the first time, ECA provided posts in Latin America with funding to support advising centers, and most of that will make its way to you. The funds will support social media, as well as promotional materials with a new, more modern design. Your Regional Educational Advising Coordinator can help you take advantage of this opportunity that should better promote both your advising center and your BNC.

I want to conclude by expressing my deep appreciation for your creative collaboration with our embassies and for the results you have achieved. Let me cite just a few examples:

  • BNCs in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and Montevideo are serving as generous hosts of our new science corners, which are connecting U.S. science and scientists with their counterparts in this region. Montevideo inaugurated its science corner by having Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin speak to a large audience via DVC.
  • BNCs here in Colombia, together with the Embassy, are conducting a range of innovative programs. Since 2007, BNCs in Medellin, Manizales, and Cali - and soon to include Periera - have organized jazz camps in which American visiting artists teach jazz workshops to university and high-school students, give free concerts, and participate in music festivals. What is so impressive and typical of your entrepreneurial spirit is that the BNCs work together to solicit support for these camps from local businesses, universities, and government offices, and have obtained the majority of the funding to expand this project and reach larger audiences each year.
  • With Embassy support, the Casa Thomas Jefferson in Brasilia has conducted a teacher training program for public school teachers since 2002. And it is now working with fellow BNCs in Sao Paulo, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, and Rio to create a standardized teacher training curriculum for public school teachers countrywide. The Embassy plans to use it to expand teacher training to other BNCs. I know that BNCs in Colombia, Peru, and Costa Rica, among others, have also supported public school teacher training for English, and this expands the reach of the Department of State’s English teaching efforts in a way we could never achieve on our own.
  • Monterrey, Mexico provides one more example of the ability of BNCs to grow and meet the needs of their communities through public diplomacy: it will soon offer a Bachelor’s degree in teaching English as a foreign language.

I wish I had time to recognize the work of every BNC, because I know you all have great stories to tell. But here at ABLA you will have many opportunities to share best practices. Our very strong contingent from the Department of State, probably the largest ever at ABLA, wants to contribute to that process. I am very pleased to see here our Regional English Language Officers, Information Resource Officers, and Regional Educational Advisors based in Latin America, as well as representatives from the Bureaus of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Educational and Cultural Affairs, and International Information Programs.

I know you will all return home with many new ideas and a renewed motivation to carry on the work of promoting mutual understanding between your countries and the United States. You can count on my support and that of all the talented public diplomacy professionals who work with me back at the Department of State. Thank you again for giving me this opportunity to meet with all of you. Thank you very much.

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