The halls of Washington, D.C.’s Convention Center were bustling with Thanoses (or is it Thanii?), Pikachus, Ghostbusters, and yes, U.S. Department of State officials. Even though we were tough to spot, we were there to host the first-ever panel at Awesome Con on the intersection between popular arts, science, comics, culture, and diplomacy— shining a spotlight on the State Department’s innovative work meeting audiences where they are around the world.
An inspiring collaboration between the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA)and the Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs (OES), we told comics and popular arts fans all about fresh approaches to achieving long-standing public diplomacy goals –to encourage dialogue and counter misinformation, meet the demand for English language learning, and empower teachers to inspire young voices in underserved communities.
We didn’t wear costumes, except for a disguisable Avengers jacket and a mustache button-down. But our vignettes related to the fusion reactor threatening the world in “Into the Spiderverse.” Showcasing comics-based programs was our way to again step into the dimension of popular arts conventions. We helped some new audiences – including some curious fans who weren’t sure where the State Department would go with our panel and some would-be-diplomats — learn more about how intrepid federal employees in DC and around the world use comics to start important conversations about U.S. diplomatic efforts overseas.
The Collaboratory – our laboratory for collaboration – is ECA’s incubator for just these kinds of innovative programming. It partners with other State Department domestic offices and overseas posts to design public diplomacy programs inspired by new and creative ideas. From illustrators and human rights leaders using comics for public outreach, to North Korean defectors creating cartoons advocating for freedom of speech, we build relationships that make sustainable differences in how we communicate with each other. We’re not the first ones to do these kinds of programs to achieve foreign policy goals. U.S. diplomatic history is chock-full of examples where cultural “exports” like jazz, baseball, and superheroes have helped increase understanding and respect between peoples and countries. When we add in the undeniable star power of Hollywood’s ongoing devotion to comics-based movies, TV shows, animated features, and more, we know we can pique the interest of those often elusive younger audiences.
A pilot project just wrapped up that worked with local STEAM teachers in Tijuana, Mexico to use comics to engage all students, regardless of their learning style to engage their students in multimodal learning for addressing various learning preferences. The response and commitment from teachers as well as students was incredible. These schools are located just a few miles away from the U.S- Mexico border, making it tremendously impactful to connect both cultures through narrative art and expression.
In Kazakhstan, a similar initiative took Kazakhstani youth in Almaty, Taraz, Uralsk, Krugloozernoe, and Talgar through the process of designing and publishing original comic books. With the support of New York-based The Comic Book Project, we encouraged a fledgling comics community to share their stories while celebrating local superheroes— including local legendary figure Tomyris, a symbol of strength and leadership in protecting native lands. A digital exposition was published, and the teams showcased comics at the Makerfest for Kids event held at the American Space in Almaty, capturing the interest of hundreds of visitors.
We’re motivated knowing there’s still a long way to go, but that’s our Arc Reactor. Preeti’s headed to Southeast Asia, where about 65% of the population is under 35, and most of those young people access screen-based entertainment every day. I’ll be here in the Collaboratory, helping to catch the attention of new audiences by “speaking their language” in more ways than one.
There’s an insatiable appetite in all corners of the world, from both U.S diplomats and the people with whom they engage, to use these creative mediums as vehicles for inspiration to drive the next generation of global leaders. The Collaboratory whiteboards are permanently open to brainstorm ideas— whether through a splash page or spread, we’re taking this type of public diplomacy to the next level. As Stan Lee always said, “Excelsior!”
About the Authors: Manuel Pereira Colocci is a Strategic Program Designer in the Collaboratory of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Preeti Shah is a Foreign Service Officer heading to her next post in Jakarta, Indonesia.