By ROBIN RAUSCH
The city of Eau Claire lies in the heart of Wisconsin's dairy land, where they claim there are more cows than people. It is not the sort of place one expects to hear the animated voices of women speaking Russian. But for a week this past July, Russian was heard in the corridors of the county courthouse as well as the aisles of the local Kmart, when the citizens of Eau Claire hosted a 10-member delegation of Russian women leaders.
The women came to Wisconsin under the auspices of the Open World Program, an exchange program sponsored by Congress and managed by the Center for Russian Leadership Development at the Library of Congress. Open World has brought some 5,000 emerging Russian leaders to the United States since it began in 1999. They came to learn about American democracy and the free enterprise system under one of eight program themes: economic development, education reform, environment, federalism, health, rule of law, women as leaders, and youth issues.
The Russians' Eau Claire program was administered by the National Peace Foundation (NPF), one of the principal education and practice organizations concerned with conflict resolution and peace-building. The local branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) designed the visitors' local program, which focused on the topic "Applications of Democracy–Communities Responding to Citizen Needs." AAUW members also handled the logistics of the women's schedule, including meals, lodging in the homes of area residents, and local transportation. AAUW is the oldest and largest national women's organization devoted to equity, education and positive societal change.
The Russian women, emerging leaders in their fields, represented a wide variety of professions. They were given the opportunity to meet women holding similar positions in Wisconsin's Chippewa Valley, an area encompassing Eau Claire, Menomonie and Chippewa Falls. Throughout the week, unlikely scenarios unfolded that would have been unheard of not so very long ago.
The head of the village council of Krutoyarsk and the director of the Women Voters' League of Krasnodar discussed local politics with elected women officials from the Eau Claire County Board, City Council and School Board.
A former newspaper editor, now president of a charity in Penza, questioned reporters from the Leader-Telegram and Wisconsin Public Radio about freedom of the press in America.
During a tour of the regional Wal-Mart distribution center, the director of two retail food stores in Samara asked a Wal-Mart official for information on employee benefits.
The program manager of a non-governmental organization resource and training center in Bashkortostan shared concerns about fund-raising with the director of a local women's shelter.
At the University of Wisconsin's Stout campus, the head of a women's education foundation in Saratov learned from faculty members how the university's connections to international business bring the global market to the community.
The women, who speak little English and communicated through an interpreter, discovered they had much in common with their American counterparts.
Eau Claire's recent history also provided fodder for study. Its population of 62,000 has worked hard to recover from difficult economic times. The community struggled with the loss of hundreds of jobs when the local Uniroyal tire manufacturing plant shut down 10 years ago. Today they are at work revitalizing the downtown area in an effort to reverse a trend of suburban flight. The Russian women learned how the former Uniroyal plant was turned into a small business incubator and is now operating as a home to several small businesses. They heard about a locally-owned credit union that had proposed building a new headquarters on a site earmarked for a public park, and the compromise that was negotiated.
Program Coordinator Kerry Kincaid, program vice president of the AAUW Eau Claire branch, and Project Coordinator Sarah Harder, president of the National Peace Foundation, co-facilitated the week's meetings and activities. They took great care to make sure all sides of the issues were presented and created a safe environment for discussion and exchange of ideas. Harder, who has worked extensively with women in Russia, stressed the importance of developing their leadership potential. "I believe that Russia's future lies with its women," she said. "In Russia it is primarily women who struggle daily to tie together the human strands—for family, elders, the sick, children, for education and community. In very personal ways and against the odds, they build upon hopes for the future—not because this is plausible, but because it is their only choice."
This trip was the first time any of the Russian delegates had traveled to the United States. The destination of Eau Claire proved to be particularly serendipitous for one participant. She had harbored a fascination with the Mississippi River since learning about it as a schoolgirl, and vowed many years ago that someday she would see it. When the women were offered the opportunity to visit the Mississippi River town of Alma, her wish finally came true. She was so excited that she called her family back in Russia to tell them the news.
The hospitality of Eau Claire's citizens is also sure to be remembered for a long time. The van driver who served as chauffeur during the women's stay managed to squeeze in a few unscheduled shopping trips, find room for all their packages, and still get them to dinner on time. After a tour of the Swiss Miss plant, officials sent each of the Russians home with a gift box of their new pudding product when the women asked if they could buy some to take back to their children. One host family turned their home over to the Russians for an evening so they could relax and get to know one another, unencumbered by the need for a translator.
By week's end, the women were overwhelmed by the amount of information they had received, yet extremely grateful for it. At a final debriefing, they said they were impressed with the collective energy of women in the United States. Many expressed a desire to sustain the connections they had made during the week. Most of all, they wanted Americans to come to Russia—not only to experience Russian hospitality, but also to see how things are done in their country. Russians have something to show too, they explained.
Open World Program delegates are chosen from a wide range of political parties and ethnic groups, and more than a third are women—a high proportion compared to typical Soviet-era exchanges. The program's purpose is to foster understanding between the United States and the Russian Federation and to assist Russia's democratic and economic reforms. Open World participants have been hosted in more than 800 communities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Most stay in the homes of host families. The program does not require participants to be able to speak English, and interpreters are provided.
Librarian of Congress and Russia expert James H. Billington, whose vision of a program for young Russian leaders inspired Congress to initiate the Open World Program and who chairs the Center for Russian Leadership Development's Board of Trustees, said recently, "Now is an especially important time for Americans to reach out to the Russian leaders participating in Open World. People-to-people diplomacy at the local level can definitely reinforce the new partnership that seems to be developing between our two great nations." For more information on the Open World Program, see openworld.aed.org/.
Robin Rausch, a specialist in the Music Division, was a Leadership Development Program fellow in the Center for Russian Leadership Development.