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Sharing American culture in Hard Places

On November 14, 2018, IPDGC hosted a panel discussion on “Soft Power in Hard Places” – looking at cultural diplomacy programs that venture into places that many other diplomatic efforts do not easily go. The panel explored the U.S. State Department's work to bring American culture – music, dance, film, art – to some of the most challenging political, security, and social environments around the world.

In her introductions, IPDGC Janet Steele noted how when she was a Fulbright scholar, she was told that she unofficially had the role of representing America.  And along with that, the responsibilities of representing America well.

The evening’s program featured presentations by media creative leader Nusrat Durrani, documentary filmmaker Ramona Diaz, hip-hop artist Jaci Caprice, and director and choreographer Jonathan Hollander of the Battery Dance Company.

All four have brought their own brand of art and culture to share with diverse groups where creativity still flourishes despite the strife and challenges of surviving in "hard places" like Iran, Venezuela, Myanmar, North Korea, Iraq, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Turkey, the Palestinian Territories, and Bangladesh.

Durrani who helped found MTV World, also developed "Rebel Music, a documentary series which featured the music produced by marginalized groups, used to spread social awareness and encourage political action. He traveled to nearly a dozen countries for this series and continues to be inspired every day by his experiences.

At a program in Iraq, Diaz described how she introduced herself as a Filipino-American and was asked by an Iraqi participant "When do the real Americans arrive?" This helped her launch a conversation about "who is a real American", which she and a Cuban-American filmmaker used to explain the diversity of the United States. Many of Diaz’s films focus on stories from Southeast Asia but with themes that are universal. She also described her efforts to encourage participants in her program, especially women,to share stories that they know rather than deferring to men in cultures where the film industry is still male-dominated.

Diaz explained her greatest moment of satisfaction is when audiences respond to her film and “really get it”.

Both Caprice and Hollander spoke of the common universal languages of music and dance in the programs that they have developed.

Jonathan Hollander

Jonathan Hollander talks about the work of the Battery Dance Company of New York City. Photo credit: Lauren Romero.

To reach people with no prior dance experience and to build bridges of understanding where they did not exist before (between North Korean defectors and South Koreans; between victims of human trafficking in Indian society; between the Roma community and others in Romania; between Jews and Muslims in Israel and Palestine; between warring clans in Iraq), Hollander developed the program Dancing to Connect, and has brought this to 60 countries.

Jaci Caprice is a firm believer in the adage that “music makes the world go ‘round” - she is currently a U.S. Cultural Ambassador to several countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, South, and Southeast Asia.  She sang a personal composition, LoveLikeWater to explain how her collaborations with artists around the world have helped build a better understanding.

Jaci performing at IPDGC panel

Jaci Clark performing "LoveLikeWater". Video credit:@thesoulstudieux

The event was attended by a large audience of George Washington students and alumni, U.S. State Department officials, retired diplomats, cultural exchange specialists, and other PD practitioners.

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