Yesterday (Saturday September 15, 2018), we bid farewell to the six Open World delegates from the Republic of Georgia that were visiting here in Madison for the past week. This lively group of young professionals was hosted by the Friendship Force of Wisconsin-Madison who planned and implemented the cultural and learning experiences expected in the program. All of the delegates stayed in the homes of Friendship Force members as well as attended dinners and events at the homes of other members throughout the week. Over the past couple of years, I’ve written about some of our Friendship Force experiences and involvement with the Open World Leadership program. To recap a bit, Friendship Force is an international cultural exchange group focused on promoting understanding, cultural education and citizen diplomacy through homestay travel and personal friendships with people around the world. Friendship Force is a non profit with clubs in over sixty countries on six continents and over 15000 members.
Open World is a non-partisan international exchange agency in the US Legislative Branch of government and operated under auspices of the Library of Congress. It was founded by Dr. James Billington after he accompanied President Reagan to the 1988 Soviet Summit in Moscow. After a successful pilot program in 1999, since 2000 this initiative has brought over 27,000 current and emerging young leaders from the former Soviet bloc countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and others to communities in the US for topic based learning and cultural experiences. It’s a cost effective way for up and coming leaders to learn and see US values and democratic institutions in action.
Georgia is located in the Caucasus region on the dividing line between Europe and Asia. It’s bordered by Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south, Azerbaijan to the southeast and the Black Sea to the west. It was part of the Soviet Union after WWI until 1991 when it declared it’s independence from Russia. Internal strife and conflict continued until the Rose Revolution in 2003 after which leadership improved and economic stability returned. In August 2008, the Russo-Georgian War followed a period of worsening relations with Russia. The war was short lived, only five days before a cease fire was agreed upon. Since then Georgia has looked to Western Europe as a model of development and is seeking admittance to the European Union and NATO. It’s government is a representative democratic form with an popularly elected head of state. Georgia is similar in size to the US state of West Virginia, it’s capitol and largest city is Tbilisi, and the country has a population of about 4 million people. The economy is fueled by agriculture with an emphasis on the making of wine. Tourism is becoming more important especially in resorts along the mild Black Sea, skiing in the winter and historical sites throughout the country. Georgia serves as conduit for oil and gas between Azerbaijan and Europe.
With that as background information, allow me to introduce you to the Georgian Open World delegation. In the photo below, from the left Tornike (aka Toko), Mariam (Mary), Teona (Teo), Tamar, Anano (the facilitator), and Giorgi (George). Mariam, Tamar and Giorgi work in the Tbilisi City Hall, Tornike and Anano work for NGO’s (Non-governmental Organizations), and Teona is a reporter for Georgian public broadcasting. This young and energetic group came to Madison to learn more about urban planning and environmental sustainability.
We met them at the Madison airport after their two day stay in Washington, DC where they had an orientation and did some touring of the major sites.
After retrieving their luggage, we took them to meet their host families for the week.
The first full day was dedicated to cultural programming. First they attended the pre-game Badger Bash that they really enjoyed. They especially liked that people of all ages gathered to cheer on their favorite sports team.
We then took the group on a walk through the University of Wisconsin campus, up State Street to the Dane County Farmers Market that covers all sides of Capitol Square every Saturday morning from late April to early November.
After a leisurely stroll around the Square sampling cheese some of the other goodies available in the market, we toured the State Capitol Building.
After the tour was completed, we took the elevator and stairs to the observation deck of the Capitol to overlook the City of Madison. It was nice and sunny but very windy, regardless lots of photos were snapped!
Later that day, we had dinner at the home of one of the hosts where we sampled some Georgian wine and churchkhela, a candle shaped candy made of thickened grape juice, nuts and flour. It’s sometimes referred to as the Georgian Snickers! It is said that during WWII, Georgian soldiers survived on churchkhela because it was compact, full of energy and didn’t require refrigeration.
Sunday was a free day until later in the afternoon when we had a potluck picnic at a local park for all Friendship Force members and invited guests to meet the delegation. In this photo, the delegates introduce themselves to the crowd. They were all very fluent in English so no translator was necessary.
Monday through mid-afternoon Friday consisted of meetings with representatives of governmental agencies, university faculty and private developers to learn more about urban planning and environmental sustainability from many different perspectives. I had the good fortune to be their driver for a few days of their programming and was able to sit in on some of their sessions. The first stop was at the Madison Central Library for a talk by the Madison City Planner and the Manager of Facilities and Sustainability for the City of Madison. This was followed by a tour of the LEED Gold certified remodeled library.
Lunch was taken on the Memorial Union Terrace with Paul Robbins, Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies asking a lot of questions about some of the environmental issues in Georgia. The group then made their way to the nearby Science Hall on the UW Campus to learn more about the work of the Institute.
After those interesting discussions, we drove to the University of Wisconsin Arboretum located within the city limits of Madison. We attempted a walking tour of the Arb, as it’s known locally, but were driven inside by the hordes of mosquitoes that have emerged due to the recent flooding! Jennifer, our guide, gave them background on the development of the arboretum and answered their many questions. And even schooled them on the different types of mosquitoes!
That evening, the delegates and their hosts were guests for dinner at the homes of Friendship Force members. I heard that a good time was had by all. I have to say this is about the happiest group I been involved with. In the morning when I picked them up, they jumped in the van and began talking in their native language (Georgian) which was followed by lots of laughter, apparently they were teasing and telling stories on each other, all in good natured fun.
Our morning started with a stop at Congressman Mark Pocan’s office and a meeting with one of his staffers. Their curiosity and interest was on full display.
Later that day, we went out to the campus of Epic Systems, a privately held medical software company based in the Madison area. Their software holds the records of between 60% and 65% of all hospital and clinic patients in the US. Epic employs about 9000 people on the Madison campus. Of interest to this group was the development of the campus buildings, all with themes to differentiate one from the other. First we started off with a general tour by one of the staff. Epic is known for supporting local artists so there is art work of all types in every building.
Later in the afternoon, Steve Dickmann, Epic’s Chief Administrative Officer talked about the planning and development of the campus infrastructure.
When Steve asked them if they had any additional questions, they asked if they could tour the recently constructed Harry Potter buildings, he said “of course” and off we went! We knew we were in the right vicinity when we saw the King’s Cross tube station!
The rest of the week was devoted to visiting Dane County government and sustainability staff, a day with a private developer on the East Washington corridor, Sustain Dane, an evening with Peace Corp volunteers who once served in Georgia and Senator Tammy Baldwin’s office. The week ended with a farewell dinner at the Nakoma Country Club where there was a lot of talking, sharing and reminiscing.
Whenever the delegates gathered there was always a lot of laughter, it’s happy culture!
The program ended with the delegation (well at least the some of them) singing a song for the group. They and we had a good laugh!
What a fun group of young leaders of the future. Me thinks Georgia is in good hands!
Until next week, travel safe.