By Sharon Benzoni
The Iowa City Foreign Relations Council (ICFRC) is a non-profit association of community and university people interested in learning more about U.S. foreign policy, world affairs, and current global issues. The Council provides opportunities for members to hear over thirty experts per year who may be visiting the University of Iowa campus or the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area. This past May, ICFRC celebrated its 25th Anniversary. Executive Director, Sharon Benzoni, delivered the keynote address commemorating this milestone:
The story that follows,– a quintessential road trip story– implies certain political leanings on my part. As you know, part of what makes ICFRC such an incredibly vibrant forum for the exchange of ideas, is the fact that we are non-partisan and we welcome a variety of viewpoints to be expressed, questioned, and discussed. Nonetheless, here is the disclaimer: these are my own personal views and shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of any particular political figure or party on the Council’s behalf.
That said, back to the open road…
A few months ago, I drove 909 miles through snow and ice and the poorly plowed toll roads of Pennsylvania to our nation’s capitol to witness the inauguration of our 44th president. I wedged myself into the moving sardine can that was the DC Metro that day, hopped back out shortly thereafter and walked a few miles, ran a couple of blocks in a mad dash to the elusive purple gates, and joined a crowd two million people in front of the seat of our democracy. You could feel the energy coursing through the air – a pervasive sense that were all standing as citizens to witness a historic moment. And what we heard as we listened to the words of our new President was a call; a call for every one of us to take responsibility for our future and our nation.
And I knew– I could feel -
that the middle-aged couple from Florida behind me –
and from the young girl and her mother from Atlanta beside me –
and the group of college kids from Texas in front of me -
that every one of those two million people, and the millions more watching–
from hill to mountain across the nation–
were ready and willing to answer his call.
Ready and willing to take responsibility for our progress as a nation, for our actions or inactions.
So on the long drive home through the forests of Pennsylvania and across the plains of Ohio, of Indiana and of Illinois and finally to home sweet Iowa, I thought about the nature of responsibility.
Responsibility is a funny thing. It’s not the solipsistic burden of guilt, but neither is it easy to carry. Responsibility is never something imposed upon you, but something you must willingly take up. In some ways, accepting responsibility is an acknowledgment and an embrace of your own individual agency. It is difficult – yes – but ultimately empowering, to take responsibility.
And as citizens, fellow citizens, we have the power to take responsibility at a political level and at a grass-roots level to build a better world, together. People talk about thinking globally and acting locally. And so we must. We must begin with thought. With knowledge, reflection and understanding. As Camus once wrote, “The evil that is in the world most often comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” So we strive to build our work on firm foundations of understanding. As that thought struck me, somewhere around 4 a.m. in Chicago, I thought about the role of ICFRC in building those foundations.
We all know that Iowans are remarkable people, and Iowa City is a remarkable city – a place of tremendous intellectual energy and civic engagement. We are a worldly city. A city where the not-unusual small-town phenomenon of running into a neighbor downtown has a bit of a twist – because it can lead to a discussion about Kierkegaard or quantum physics or the political situation in Tehran. And these discussions lead to increased understanding of the world, and they sometimes lead, directly or indirectly, into action.
At ICFRC luncheons, we provide a forum for these encounters to happen. Community members come together, at tables and chairs, over a meal. We gather to delve into the complexities of macro-level conflicts such as the Israel-Palestine war, learn about grassroots efforts to address problems on the ground, and explore issues such as sustainability and human rights through a global lens. We hear from – and question – experts and people in the field. We have conversations over coffee and mints with people whose opinions and experiences can provide them insight just as valuable as that offered by the speaker. We emerge with a more nuanced understanding of the world, more prepared to take responsibility for our actions as citizens in affecting politics and leading change.
When this organization began, twenty-five years ago, the problems of the world were complex. And, as has been repeated so often it’s become a truism, with the rise of information technology and globalization, we have only become more interconnected and more levels of complexity have arisen. A drop in the sales of televisions in the U.S. can mean unemployment for service workers near the Suez Canal in Cairo; it can mean the loss of income for self-employed recycling workers in China, which can then mean that our trash, which could have been recycled, is dumped into the ocean.
So if we are to understand the world and its relationships, we must dig in even more into the great global issues that face us – war and conflict, development, climate change and natural resources, human rights and social justice, the global economic system. We must have these conversations around the table, question our experts, and then we must all, individually or collectively, do something about it. Whether that is to vote with a ballot or a dollar, to get involved in politics, to support an organization making positive change, to go out and learn more or to travel or to teach or to write.
For 25 years, the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council has been a forum that fosters grassroots community activism. Tom Baldridge [the former Executive Director of ICFRC] loves to talk about the students who have found inspiration in their experiences at our events and gone on to do incredible things. I know that many more stories like this will emerge in the future. We have the privilege to be a part of cultivating the kind of understanding that will help us come together to meet the challenges of the 21st Century with a sense of collective responsibility.
Since our auspicious beginnings twenty-five years ago, this organization has had incredible leaders and members, some who are with us tonight and some who are not, but all of them will be remembered for their important work in bringing us together, as Iowans, to engage in the world. So I’d like to offer a toast: to the people of the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council of the past, the present and the future.
Sharon Benzoni is a staff member of International Programs, serving as Executive Director of ICFRC and CIVIC (Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities)