Serving as a public voice and face of the United States in foreign countries, American Spaces are open to local residents who want to learn about the United States. Nearly 600 of these vibrant venues are associated with 168 embassies and consulates in 140 countries.
Visitors can read books and periodicals, hear speakers who have visited or are from the United States, learn English, obtain job training, learn about attending U.S. universities, access the internet or dive into databases of international publications, among many other programs.
When the pandemic suddenly put a stop to face-to-face contact, these iconic American institutions immediately pivoted to “reopen” online, taking previously in-person programs and services directly to audiences wherever they were.
American Spaces vary considerably in size and type, depending on local conditions. They include roughly 90 U.S. government-owned American Centers; about 100 independent binational centers that contract with embassies to double as American Spaces; and a large group of smaller “American Corners” located within partner organizations, such as libraries, universities, and non-governmental organizations, that make up roughly 70 percent of the total.
The Office of American Spaces, based in Washington — with a satellite unit in Vienna, Austria — provides training, guidance and additional funding to assist embassies in best employing these venues to support local communities.
Traditionally, American Spaces have provided an in-person experience to communities around the world, reflecting American ideals of openness, accessibility, and innovation and conveying an American look and feel, including wall-size likenesses of U.S. landmarks and recognized personalities.
In the virtual world, the directors of American Spaces and embassy staff who oversee them found, often to their surprise, that their programs were suddenly attracting people beyond the usual in-person reach, to people who did not have access to one of these cultural centers in their own communities.
For example, in the 15 months before the American Center in Cairo, Egypt, closed in March 2020, 24,000 people participated in programs on site, according to Heather Ward, a Foreign Service Officer and the Egypt-based Regional Public Engagement Specialist from the Office of American Spaces. But in the 15 months after it closed, 51,000 people participated virtually.
Future programs will be designed from the ground up to reach both in-person and virtual audiences…Hybrid is about meeting audiences where they are.Heather WardRegional Public Engagement Specialist
Prior to the pandemic, American Spaces increasingly relied on each other to pool resources and ideas and share programming responsibilities. This emphasis on networking gave them an advantage in transferring the staff’s programming skills to the virtual world.
In Uruguay for example, the Alianza Cultural Uruguay-Estados Unidos, one of the country’s independent binational centers that is also an American Space, had a long-standing tradition of collaborating with other binational centers in the region and had already started broadcasting programs to live virtual audiences on social media channels. In the face of the pandemic, Alianza stepped up to offer this expertise to improve the network capabilities among the region’s nearly 100 binational centers.
“With the pandemic, Alianza realized it was crucial to share best business practices to address the economic crisis binational centers faced” due to the impact on their private operations, according to Marcela Serra, the American Spaces coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo.
With a grant from the Office of American Spaces, Alianza created a set of five online, self-accessed course offerings identified as “One Brand, One Network.” Nearly 100 staff members from binational centers in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua took the courses.
The Office of American Spaces also launched a full-scale virtual training program combining self-paced learning in Canvas, an online learning platform, with occasional live meetings to share best practices and reinforce digital skills, according to Magia Krause, a Foreign Service Officer and the Regional Public Engagement Specialist who directs the American Spaces unit in Vienna. To date, over 1,000 American Spaces staff have participated in the virtual training, with 95% reporting increased confidence in offering virtual programs.
As they consider reopening their doors, American Spaces are aware that hybrid — in-person and virtual combined — programs are a way to retain larger audiences. The trick to doing this, according to Cairo-based Ward, is to plan the program for a virtual audience, then add aspects to engage the live audience.
When Secretary Blinken visited Cairo in May 2021, he cited the American Center Cairo’s creativity in turning the challenges imposed by COVID into wins that expanded programs and reached new audiences to advance key priorities, Ward said.
“Programming will not return to the status quo ante,” added Ward. “Future programs will be designed from the ground up to reach both in-person and virtual audiences. These changes will allow the center to support thousands of new audience members — especially in outlying areas across Egypt — and leverage a wider group of volunteers. Hybrid is about meeting audiences where they are.”
About the Author: Sonya Weakley is a writer-editor in the Office of American Spaces in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.