Foul Weather Friends

A healthy discussion is taking place about whether we should be giving money for humanitarian aid in Japan and in what form it should take.  Several people responded to my last post about kids raising money for Japan with the idea that we build school-to-school partnerships and give money directly to schools in the Sendai area needing to completely rebuild.  What more powerful way to give our kids a connection to this devastation than for them to be penpals with Japanese kids rebuilding their lives?

I would love to work on projects that build bridges between kids here and kids there.  I have spent a good portion of my career promoting international friendship in many different forms.  But I am trying to figure out how I might find a partner teacher or school principal in a region of Japan that is reeling from the trauma of such heart wrenching loss, as well as with the reality of broken roads, inconsistent power, and little if any bank and postal services.  One person I know with a friend in Japan told me that the only way she is communicating with people outside of Japan is via Twitter.  Shall I compose a 140-character Tweet inviting a partnership?  “Sorry about wave.  Can we raise funds for your school?  Will you be our penpal?”

In general, Americans are foul weather friends when it comes to promoting robust international education initiatives.  I ran the Seattle World Affairs Council’s education program in the aftermath of 9/11, and we experienced a surge of interest in our programs, building creative partnerships that served teachers and students with information and human connection related to a range of themes related to that time.  A few months later, the bad economy resulted in a significant cut in funds available for international education, and our staff eroded from five down to two.  The tempest was past.  Time to go back to basics.

The Council’s experience wasn’t unique.  Most educational programs addressing knowledge, skills, and connections related to the world are facing tight budgets that greatly limit what they are able to achieve.  As an example in Washington State, the legislature is facing a $5.1 billion shortfall through 2013, surely to result in a significant or total cut to staff and programs that promote sister school partnerships and international education in this state.  A whole range of excellent “fair weather” international programs struggle to raise enough money year to year to fund exactly the types of school-to-school and student-to-student partnerships that we wish we had in place now that we want to have a connection with schools and students in Japan.

So in light of this debate about how and when to give to Japan—or any other country about to have a natural disaster, I would like to respond with the suggestion that for every $1 we send to the Red Cross now, we send $1 to a local organization promoting international partnerships between communities here and communities somewhere else in the world.  Let’s support cross-cultural community building in fair weather so that we can extend a hand when the weather turns foul.

One of my favorite organizations, the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students, gives us an excellent example of fair weather community-building that allows us to connect with people in need when times turn difficult.  Japanese alumni of the University of Washington are using the FIUTS Facebook page to communicate real-time information about what is going on in Japan.

2 responses to “Foul Weather Friends

  1. Proud American

    I think the intention of making American children aware of the disaster that fell upon Japan is very worthwhile. However, it is extremely inappropriate, not to mention incorrect, to refer to very generous Americans as ‘foul weather friends.’ When disaster strikes anywhere, the citizens of this great country are the first to give their hard earned dollars to help others. Also, it is important to realize that right now Japanese children cannot be ‘penpals.’ They, along with their families, need to do whatever possible to survive. It is more than a bit selfish to think that these devastated children whose families just lost their homes and belongings, not to mention relatives, should make writing to anyone a priority. Expecting this is not helping their situation, and neither is expecting the U.S. to fund foreign education, when it cannot even manage its own.

    • I agree that it is inappropriate to ask Japanese children (particularly those in the affected areas) to spend time writing to American children at this time, which is why I wrote this post. I also agree that Americans are very generous when disasters strike. I am speaking about investments in international education, by which I do not mean the education of non-Americans. I am speaking of the education of Americans about the world, which would include partnership programs such as pen pal initiatives (among many others). Educating our children about the world– and helping them build personal relationships with people beyond are borders– is fundamental to our vibrant democracy and overall position in the world economy. It saddens me to see a strong interest in these programs during times of crisis even as funding for them erodes.

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