America’s Unofficial Ambassadors is a soft power, citizen diplomacy initiative aimed at countering violent extremism before it can take hold, working at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World and in the United States too.
Ben Orbach and Bill Kruvant founded the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors initiative at Creative Learning in November of 2009. Ben spent the previous 10 years—as a State Department official, development practitioner, and writer—working to build partnerships between the United States and the Muslim World on our shared interests in education, human rights, and economic opportunity. Bill Kruvant, Creative Learning’s CEO, invited Ben to Creative Learning to develop the concept of America’s Unofficial Ambassadors into an initiative that would catalyze a movement of Americans serving on a short-term basis in the Muslim World. Creative Learning is a 501(c)3 based in Washington, DC that enhances the capacity of local organizations around the world to improve the lives of people in their communities.
We send Americans to volunteer in areas of human development in communities throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Our unofficial ambassadors support local leaders who have dedicated themselves to addressing basic, universal challenges such as in education, human rights, and public health. Together, we form people-to-people partnerships that yield substantive outcomes in these important areas of human development while dispelling commonly held stereotypes of “the other.”
Our unofficial ambassadors then become ambassadors of the experience and their host community. They publish articles and blog posts about their experiences and deliver presentations on campuses, in faith communities, at schools, and at public libraries throughout the United States to help reduce stereotypes and combat extremist thinking here at home.
Each one of us has the power to make a difference – through our volunteer service and through what we say and do in our communities. Community leaders, diplomats, international development professionals, soldiers, and journalists all have unique and important roles to play in countering violent extremism, but ordinary citizens have an important complementary role to play, too. We don’t send our volunteers to educate children in war zones, nor do we expect them to write for the opinion pages of the New York Times. We do recognize, though, that extremist behavior can take hold in any place, from Allentown to Zanzibar. There is value in addressing development challenges everywhere and to sharing the first-hand lessons of these experiences with everyone.
• Increase the number of Americans who volunteer in schools and with NGOs in Muslim World countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East
• Increase the number of Americans who share their volunteer experiences in the Muslim World within their home communities.
Our accomplishments range from marginalized youth with higher test score in the Mid-Atlas Mountains of Morocco to better informed middle school students in suburban Dallas, Texas. They are wide and deep, and they are difficult to measure in the traditional manner of performance indicators. We can say though that as of August 2016, 125 unofficial ambassadors have served a week to a year in Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian Territories, Senegal, Tanzania, and Tajikistan. They have impacted the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people. Further, they have published about their experiences and delivered community presentations in more than 20 states, educating tens of thousands of Americans.
America’s Unofficial Ambassadors is the only initiative that mobilizes volunteers to build better relations between Americans and the people of the Muslim World specifically. We count on Americans of all backgrounds volunteering for a week to a year in support of ongoing projects in schools and non-governmental organizations. For example, unofficial ambassadors volunteer as English teachers, proposal writers, and website designers. They build homes with families, teach photography to children, or help raise awareness for HIV prevention.
Our model is based around the concept of short-term service and long-lasting partnerships. We offer programs for university students and graduates, for schools and educators, and for professionals in other fields. We also offer the premier resource for prospective volunteers to find a program with the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations. Our AUA Resources page offers a wealth of support to volunteers as they plan their service.