Part of creating a better future includes cultivating an understanding of the world beyond our domestic and international borders. Technology has closed the gap in our ability to communicate with one another across oceans and continents, but there is still work to be done to bring us closer to understanding world affairs and our role in how they unfold.
Local nonprofit Colorado Springs World Affairs Council is an organization devoted to increasing that awareness. It is one of more than 90 autonomous members of the World Affairs Councils of America and operates as a non-partisan organization with a vision for creating the understanding that “the world happens here,” as its motto states.
To facilitate engagement at the community level, CSWAC offers a variety of educational programs, including speaker events that feature experts in policy, global affairs and international thought leadership. The topics they present are varied: diplomacy, culture, finance, conflict, policy and national security, and more. Through these presentations, CSWAC educates the local community on the global issues that have an impact on their daily lives, even if the connection is not obvious or direct.
“Our work is important because informed citizens hold elected officials accountable, understand the global context in which we operate as citizens and professionals and are equipped to engage in civil discourse and recognize disinformation,” says Karen Burghart, executive director of CSWAC. She adds that there is no other organization like CSWAC in the greater Colorado Springs area.
CSWAC also does K-12 outreach. In addition to providing support, guidance and information to schools interested in hosting world affairs competitions and young diplomats clubs, CSWAC also hosts an annual high school symposium that focuses on current and relevant international topics. Activities include small group discussions, a topical film screening, a debate and a keynote speaker. The 2020 virtual symposium, titled “The Role of Diplomacy in Sustaining America’s Global Position,” included a keynote address by former Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley who served as the United States diplomat to the Republic of Malta.
“We are incredibly proud that over the past several years, we have reached over 4,000 students,” says Burghart. “This student experience exposes young people to the world and allows for students to imagine their global impact.”
Burghart says that the organization doesn’t just provide substantial educational value, it also provides economic value to the community. Each year, the organization operates as a group of “citizen diplomats,” inviting international guests to the city of Colorado Springs to enhance the image of the city and country in the global community and, hopefully, use those positive interactions to increase understanding and improve global relations in the long term. International guests stay in the community and visit area attractions during their visit, engaging with residents and investing in the local economy.
“We’ve grown our international visitor exchange program nearly tenfold. In 2018, our total economic impact from our exchange activity was $253,787 and this is going to grow as we continue our work.”
Like many organizations, CSWAC has struggled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and is working to innovate so it can continue its outreach in the community.
“We are working hard to retain and grow our membership and provide the same quality programs across the board,” says Burghart. “Memberships, sponsorships and donations, and community partnerships are vital for us. Volunteers who have a passion for our work are a must-have as well.”