Issue 1, 2018. February-March

   

FROM ASTRONAUTS TO ENTREPRENEURS: PUTTING A FACE ON AMERICAN CULTURE

In 2017, the U.S. Embassy in Georgia brought distinguished Americans to speak, teach and visit with scores of Georgians around the country. Investor.ge spoke to Damian Wampler, cultural attaché at the Embassy, about the power of culture and speakers to educate, inspire and motivate.

NASA engineers, Hollywood film producers, teachers and entrepreneurs-Americans from all different careers and walks of life come to Georgia every year to talk, teach, visit, learn and inspire as part of U.S. Embassy cultural programs.

They visit schoolchildren, community centers, prisons, universities and hundreds of other places around the country.

Their visits are part of a bigger mission to explain American culture to the rest of the world, according to Damian Wampler, cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi.

"We are trying to keep America safe and sometimes that involves explaining American values; sometimes that involves making a place like Georgia stronger economically or stronger in the democracy or security spheres. My cultural programs augment that, and my cultural programs do a good job explaining what an American is," he said.

Cultural Affairs Officer Damian Wampler meets with 8 young Georgian women who went on a two-week sports and leadership program in the United States and chaperones from the Georgian Basketball Federation, Nino Guruli and George Zabakhidze.


That can be a challenge when many Americans have a hard time defining U.S. culture, and common misconceptions exist about culture in the U.S. thanks to popular TV shows and Hollywood films. But Wampler said Americans have a strong and defined culture that can be easy to find when you look for it.

"If you take just the basic things that you can measure-punctuality, a sense of ideas and feelings about nepotism, ideas about corruption, ideas about justice, you start to realize that Americans have very strong feelings and have a very defined culture," he said.

"Understanding our culture is also part of our security policy. If people don't understand why we are doing the things that we do, it makes it very difficult for us to build allies and partnerships," he added.

Wampler noted that the cultural programs help turn the larger projects financed by U.S.-government agencies into something "concrete and specific."

"The Department of Defense, international narcotics and law enforcement, border control, USAID, Millennium Challenge... there is a lot going on. For example, when USAID rolls out a multimillion-dollar project, the beneficiaries get the trainings, the partner organizations are doing great work-but it is abstract. Doing a business workshop for hundreds of people around the country is very abstract. Doing teacher trainings for hundreds of primary educators is very abstract," he said.

Americans invited to speak in Georgia "make something that is very large and abstract into something concrete and specific," he said.

The cultural projects follow "two broad goals," Wampler said: to support Euro-Atlantic integration and support peace and security in Georgia.

"Within Euro-Atlantic integration, we are focusing on supporting democracy, strengthening the rule of law and the judicial system, and supporting economic development," he explained.

Inspiration, Strong Women

A good example of such Americans visiting Georgia is Betsy Fore, an American entrepreneur who was invited to Georgia in November as part of Global Entrepreneurship week.

"I take something that is amorphous, something that is difficult to conceive, and make it real-how does somebody go from working at a retail H&M and a toy company and become a multimillion-dollar entrepreneur? What is the journey?" Wampler said.

Fore came to Georgia "to tell her story about the failures she encountered, about the strategies for her success, and she actually came and served as a consultant and consulted with entrepreneurs across the country," he said, adding that since entrepreneurship is a relatively new concept in Georgia, the U.S. Embassy wanted to bring someone young, energetic and charismatic.

They also decided to bring a woman entrepreneur to reflect the discourse that is happening in the States right now on gender equality and to help reinforce the idea that anyone can start a business.

"Women's rights and gender equality is an extremely important topic in the United States [. . .], so we wanted to mirror that. My office is a reflection of American values and what is going on there.

We wanted to make clear that entrepreneurship is not just for men, it is for women too. When women get involved in entrepreneurship, it more than doubles the opportunities for economic growth in a country," he said.

The two guests who came to honor the Embassy's 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence were also selected to inspire women-and highlight the important role women play in entrepreneurship and the sciences in America.

Making an Impact

Selecting a speaker is part of the challenge. While there is a bureau in Washington that can help Wampler find people to invite to Georgia for cultural programs, he said cold-calling, e-mailing and brainstorming, as well as personal contacts, help him to find the perfect people for the program.

For example, they located Fore through a network of acquaintances. Meagan Ward, a Detroit-based entrepreneur who came as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, came up during a brainstorming session: a colleague of Wampler was from Detroit and had read about Ward's female-only workspace initiative.

The decision to bring former U.S. astronaut Heidemarie Martha Stefanyshyn-Piper for the 16 Days of Activism program was tied to the larger target of supporting STEM education for women in Georgia.

"Sometimes we are very specific and targeted to meet a very specific goal, a specific economic goal," Wampler said.

"The Millennium Challenge Corporation has these massive programs to support vocational education and higher-education degrees in science, engineering, math and technology, and we wanted to bring someone who embodies that, and that is Heidi," he added.

The guest programs are also inspired by requests by the Georgian government, at times. Five people connected to the film industry have come to hold trainings and workshops with colleagues in Georgia, in part due to the Georgian Economy Ministry's request for assistance in supporting the local film industry.

Creating the individual's schedule in Georgia is also an important part of the program.

"Most of our speakers are in very high demand, so we sit down and decide.Basically the key thing is to decide what kind of impact we want to have in Georgia [. . .] [S]ome of our events are public and they are on our Facebook page, but some of our events are private. We take some of our speakers to prisons. We have, for example, Meagan Ward, who met with women who were in a domestic violence shelter or had just gotten out of a domestic violence shelter," he said.

For some guests, like Stefanyshyn-Piper, the team is able to create events around the individual's visit.

Cultural Affairs Officer Damian Wampler gives remarks at a photo exhibit in honor of Women's History Month at the Tbilisi History Museum, with the Embassy's Cultural Assistant Tako Rtveliashvili

"For Heidi, we built three things around her because fewer than 50 women have been in space, so this was a huge deal," he said.

Stefanyshyn-Piper was able to judge the winning inventions from a space hackathon that the Embassy helped create with a local NGO, pairing two-member teams (each consisting of a man and woman) of college-aged students interested in science.

She was also able to attend rocket camps in three cities in the country and to speak at a leadership event for girls in Batumi.

Before Stefanyshyn-Piper arrived, the Embassy had already hosted four NASA engineers as part of other cultural programs.

Plans for 2018

Wampler said that his office is working on several projects for this year, including training for emerging documentary filmmakers.

"Last year, we funded a grant on teaching minority youth to make documentary films, and we want to continue this. We are looking for a grantee to implement a project where there will be 16 high-school-aged young women filming documentaries about women in their communities. The result will be 16 documentary films of women in different professions, in different areas," he said.

There are also plans to provide training for NGOs, to help them make narrative films to promote their work.

Other scheduled speakers include a female chaplain.

"She can talk about religion in America, life in America, what challenges she faced when she chose her profession . . . [W]e want Georgians to understand religion in America, our faiths and culture, because it is complicated," Wampler said.

In addition, American female police officers will be in the country as part of a regional police conference, and one will remain in Georgia to speak with communities.

Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation: Grants for Ancient Georgian Monuments, Culture

Through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), the U.S. Department of State supports eligible countries around the world in the restoration of ancient and historic buildings, assessment and conservation of rare manuscripts and museum collections, preservation and protection of important archaeological sites, and the documentation of vanishing traditional craft techniques, indigenous languages, and traditional forms of expression such as music, dance, and languages. Created by the U.S. Congress in 2001, the AFCP permits Ambassadors to submit proposals for one-time or recurring projects that assist countries in preserving their cultural heritage.

So far, the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation has provided financial support to more than 640 cultural preservation projects in more than 100 countries. This accomplishment represents a contribution of nearly $26 million toward the preservation of cultural heritage worldwide.

In Georgia, the AFCP has funded more than 14 preservation projects worth more than $1 million, including a 2013 grant for USD $600,000 to preserve the Gelati Monastery, a registered UNESCO World Heritage site. Preservation projects have spanned large segments of Georgian cultural heritage from folk music to architecture and art to archaeology.