This blog is for those wanting to keep up to date on all the work that the Vermont Council on World Affairs is doing around the world.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

VCWA's Annual Meeting

Phew! It’s been a busy couple of weeks here at the Vermont Council on World Affairs, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Less than a week after our annual #GivingTuesday event, the VCWA hosted it’s Annual Meeting on December 5th at the Pomerleau Alumni Center at Saint Michael’s College, which included a Speaker Series panel on refugees. The panel featured speakers Ambassador Robert Ford, former Ambassador to Syria, Sean McMannon, the Winooski School District Superintendent, and Mayor Louras of Rutland.

The Annual Board Meeting bid a warm farewell and thank you to Claudia Lovell, who is moving on from the VCWA board this year, and expressed gratitude to Eric Hanson and Bill Mares, who stepped down as co-chairs, but will remain on the board in 2017. Additionally, we congratulate Leigh Cole on her new position as VCWA board chair! The Board Meeting reviewed progress made in 2016 and brought everyone up to speed on the outlook for the coming year.


The Speaker Series panel on refugees drew over 70 Vermont community members, as well as local news outlets. The panelists discussed Vermont’s, “responsibility to provide refuge” (Louras) and the refugees who will arrive in Rutland next month; models that can be emulated in refugee integration such as that in Winooski; and the seemingly eternal international challenge of fixing the problems that create refugees in the first place. It was an incredibly informative event, and attendees expressed their gratitude to the VCWA for hosting such a timely discussion on a topic so relevant to Vermont and the world at large.

We couldn’t be happier to do what we do: bringing the world to Vermont, and Vermont to the world, and we’re excited to continue fulfilling our mission: to promote awareness and understanding of the world and its people, places and cultures through education and engagement as we head into 2017!

By Chelsea Beaulieu

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

#GivingTuesday with the VCWA

On Tuesday, November 29th, the Vermont Council on World Affairs  gathered at Hotel Vermont to fund raise and celebrate  #GivingTuesday, a globally recognized movement that supports donating to local to global organizations following the chaos of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday is a way to support to different causes after focusing on the materialism that comes with jumping on holiday deals.

The VCWA hosted a silent auction to raise money for the organization. Many local organizations donated to the cause, including Leunig's Bistro, the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, The University Mall, the Spirit of Ethan Allen, Kiss the Cook, and Shelburne Farms.  Guests also enjoyed beverages from a cash bar and tasty snacks hosted by Hotel Vermont.

Three #802Diplomats spoke regarding the impacts of #GivingTuesday, including former Burlington mayor Peter Clavelle and Ned McMahon, UVM Professor of Community Development and Applied Economics, as well as Karen Freudenberger of Vermont Goat Collaborative. The theme was giving back to organizations and for the many people in need who don't benefit from Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

Giving Tuesday brought together 802Diplomats from all over the Burlington and greater Vermont community. A huge thank you to everyone who attended the event and to those who were so gracious to donate to the VCWA. Happy Holidays!

Monday, November 14, 2016

What does it mean to be a “true” Vermonter?: A spotlight on Ambassador Robert Ford

If you know a bit about Vermont, you’re probably aware of the age-old dispute on what it means to be a “true” Vermonter. Some say you need to be born here, with at least one native parent; others argue both parents should be native, or that even several generations of Vermont lineage are required to claim Vermonter status. The debate is usually carried out in good humor, but the general consensus is that at a minimum, a person needs to have been born and raised within the borders of the state to claim this prestigious title of “true” Vermonter. Although I fit the definition I have provided, I’m going to make the argument today that to be a “true” Vermonter, one doesn’t need to prove lifelong residency or bloodlines.
In the ever-changing and globalized world we live in, a Vermonter should be defined as someone who lives here, and has brought with him a wealth of knowledge and insight from wherever he hails; someone who is dedicated to using his background to contribute positively to the growth and advancement of our beautiful state and its citizens: an #802Diplomat, if you will.

To prove my point, we are going to take a look at Ambassador Robert Ford, the recently retired U.S. foreign service officer who now calls St. Johnsbury, Vermont his home. A diplomat in the official sense, Ford was born in Denver, Colorado, but for much of his adult life, was based out of the Baltimore and DC area. After graduating with his master’s degree in Advanced International Studies from Johns Hopkins University, he served in the Peace Corps in Morocco where he experienced his first immersion in the Arab language and culture.


Beginning in 1985, Ford served for the U.S. government, with assignments in Cameroon, Bahrain, Algeria, and Iraq, among other states. His position as the U.S. Ambassador to Syria rounded out his career in foreign service. Ford’s departure was punctuated with measured differences between his and the U.S. government’ visions for foreign policy in Syria. Readjusting to civilian life, Ambassador Ford has embraced the opportunity to speak his mind on U.S. foreign policy in regards to the crisis in Syria in interviews, special appearances, and in his position as a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Ford has also become engaged in issues relating to his expertise in his new home of Vermont, the state he and his wife, Alison Barkley (also a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer), fell in love with after several years of renting a vacation home here. In addition to speaking at the Vermont International Film Festival’s screening of “A Syrian Love Story” (sponsored by the VCWA), Ford has become engaged in the refugee resettlement process in Rutland, advocating for a compassionate and open-minded reception of the soon-to-be new Vermont residents from Syria.

While there has been pushback on the decision to welcome those seeking refuge from the disastrous Syrian civil war, evidence shows that Vermont is already, albeit very slowly, moving in the direction of greater racial and ethnic diversity. Do we fight this inevitable change and then get left behind as the world adapts to these shifts around us? Or do we embrace the transformation, upholding Vermont’s reputation as a progressive and innovative state that it has been known as since its inception?

Ambassador Robert Ford, while not a textbook Vermonter, embodies the spirit of what it means to hold that distinction. Times have changed since Vermont became the first state in the Republic to outlaw slavery, but we have the opportunity to continue our legacy of being inclusive social trendsetters on the right side of history, as the entire world becomes increasingly globalized every day. Part of this inclusivity entails expanding our definition of who is allowed to boast the title of “Vermonter” to those who help move our state forward with this vision in mind.

Ambassador Ford, with the extensive international experience he carries and has been using to the benefit of our state since he settled here, qualifies as a “true” Vermonter, as does anyone who lives here and demonstrates a dedication and commitment to advancing Vermont in its values, while ensuring it stays abreast with the challenges and opportunities of the modern world. Ambassador Ford is an #802Diplomat in every sense of the phrase: who else do you think is worthy of sporting the title of a “true” Vermonter?

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Syrian Love Story featuring former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford

On Sunday October 23rd, members of the Vermont Council on World Affairs and the Burlington community gathered at the Vermont International Film Festival to watch the screening of A Syrian Love Story. The event was sponsored by the Vermont Council on World Affairs who organized a reception with Syrian food and a Q&A with the the former US Ambassador to Syria before the film’s screening.  

The former US Ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, Robert Ford, spoke on his experiences in Syria and the challenges the country faces today. When asked why he resigned from the position 2014, he said "Why did I quit? Because we wouldn't put more pressure on the Syrian government." With the rise of the civil war in Syria, the then Ambassador Ford was asked to return to the United States in 2012 to protect his safety.
The documentary A Syrian Love Story, follows a Syrian family over the span of five years and their expatriate journey during Syria’s political upheaval. The film intimately reveals the stresses and anxieties the refugee family faced, including a strained marriage, identity crisis, severe depression. In a time where refugee families are seeking asylum in the United States, its message was clear to the audience: that the challenges for refugees continue beyond the violence in their home country.

"The documentary hit me powerfully, the sense of helplessness they felt...something that we should remember when they come to Vermont." Former Ambassador Ford to Syria Vermont International Film Foundation.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Infrastructure on the Cheap(er)...

Written by Eric Hanson, VCWA Board Member

There are not too many cities that can build expensive subways or other mass transit systems today. China may be the exception but the rest of the urban world is stuck with impossible parking and bumper to bumper rush hour commutes. 

But there are rays of hope. Curitiba the capital of the Southern Brazilian state of Parana is a very progressive place. As early as the 1960s it started designing a fast bus solution that is now being copied by others. On a recent trip to Colombia and Ecuador I saw versions of the Curitiba system in Bogota, Medellin and Quito. 

Curitiba went the ‘modest initiative’ route, closing off some streets to traffic and creating fast bus corridors from the downtown to the suburbs. The buses run very frequently as often as every 90 seconds in rush hour.

In addition, they redesigned the on-off experience (see picture below). They raised the bus station from ground level to a height where you just walk into the bus, like a subway. Also, they put in a pre-boarding pay systems so there is no on board collection of fares. You pay when you enter the station. When the bus arrives people get in and out and the bus is off again within 15 to 20 seconds. There is one ticket price ($0.25 or $0.75 U.S. depending on Bogota, Medellin or Quito) no matter how far you travel. Finally they integrated the city’s trains, trams and gondolas (spectacular views) with the buses so everything runs on one coordinated system.

The whole thing works but it does require a lot of planning (deciding which streets to close off) and figuring out where the best corridors are. The systems in Bogota, Quito and Medellin are such a success that at rush hour you are packed in like a Tokyo subway. But you get where you are going fast!

Anyone who visits a big city in a developing country has to come away wondering how much pollution all those long haul trucks, buses, motorcycles and cars with no emission controls produce. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 15% of all worldwide man made carbon dioxide is caused by transportation.  More rapid transit systems like Curitiba, Quito, Medellin and Bogota, along with (and this is a big if) better emission controls on those pollution belching buses, would go a long way to improving everyone’s lives.

The Road Less Travelled

Written by Eric Hanson, VCWA Board member

Colombia and Ecuador are not the most popular South American tourist pick. They don’t have the same allure as Carnival in Rio, or Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. But they still have a lot to offer. With diverse climatic regions (ranging from the Amazon to 19,000 foot volcanos to Pacific coast beaches) they are “biodiversity hotspots.” Colombia has more plant and animal species per square kilometer than any other country in the world. And then of course there are all the Spanish Churches, Aztec and Incan ruins and vibrant cities.

Colombia has recovered from the worst of the drug days of the 1990s (even though you can still visit the Pablo Escobar museum in Medellin!). A peace treaty with the FARC is now in the works. Both countries have oil which is both a blessing and a curse. Too much black gold means you can put off the heavy lifting of nation building. Oil is the major export in the region. Colombia is doing better now than Ecuador dealing with the decline in crude prices but both countries are stable and managing. 

I spent 12 days in Bogota, Medellin and Quito and all three are worth a second visit. I am a Lonely Planet guidebook aficionado and they describe well all the sights and sounds. I will add two offbeat observations here. The first is about money. Colombia uses the peso which has depreciated about 25% the past year against the dollar. This makes their coffee and oil exports more profitable but also means imports from the developed world are pricier. Ecuador does not have its own currency. It dollarized back in 2000. This means they use the same bills and coins we do here in the U.S. (They also enthusiastically use the Sacajawea dollar coin, something that has not caught on here). Dollarizing has pluses and minuses. The plus is that investors are assured of a stable currency. No chance of a local currency collapse in Ecuador. But the downside is dollarization ties many prices and interest rates to the U.S. A gallon of gas and the price of a McDonald’s Big Mac are about the same in Quito as in the U.S. This is fine for the wealthy but not for the poor. There is a lot of shopping now by Ecuadorians across the Colombian border. Prices are cheaper there. Diapers have replaced cocaine as the trade of choice so to speak!

My second observation has to do with art and panhandling. Colombia and Ecuador are full of street musicians, rappers, break dancers, etc. But there are still surprises (picture below) Two street performers here tie a rope to a telephone pole and when the light turns red they run across and connect the rope to a hook on the other side. One performer jumps up on the rope and starts juggling. The other mounts a unicycle, balances a ball on his head and juggles with the other. They do this for 20 seconds or so, then jump down, disconnect the rope and run through traffic collecting money. I have seen a lot of street performances – but not this. Needless to say I left a BIG tip.