On a mild November night in the suburbs of Denver, nine Botswanans, Namibians, and South Africans found themselves huddled around the warm glow of a backyard campfire, roasting marshmallows into tragically blackened sugar crisps.
“So tell us, Garrett, why exactly are these sweets called s’mores?” asked Nangula, a public policy researcher from Namibia.
“I…uh…I guess it’s because they’re so tasty, you always want to eat some ‘ore?” I responded, obviously reaching for the answer.
The group ribbed me playfully. “Garrett, you’re supposed to know these things!”
For a brief moment I thought, I am supposed to know this! How could I doubt the answer to such a basic question!? But then with an earnest chuckle I responded, “Well, one of the best parts about you all being here is that I get to learn more about my own culture!”
And as silly as that response sounded, it couldn’t have been more correct.
Since 1993, El Pomar has partnered with the American Council of Young Political Leaders to host 60 delegations from more than 40 countries, and Fellows have had the amazing opportunity to introduce participants to state and local government, politics, and American culture. From November 5 to November 10, we hosted a delegation from Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa with a particular focus: An ‘elections exchange’ centered on the 2016 presidential race. With this goal in mind, our team of Fellows built an itinerary meant to teach the delegates all they could ever want to know about an American election. We didn’t anticipate how much we ourselves would learn.
Over the course of five days, our varied slate of meetings included an impressive tour of ballot processing at the Denver Elections Division, an electrifying conversation about American freedom and third-party campaigns with Libertarian Senate candidate Lily Williams, and a fascinating overview of state level elections with Secretary of State Wayne Williams. At the local level, the delegates enjoyed rich meetings with Mayor Suthers, county commissioner candidates, El Pomar Trustees, and political activists.
The delegates were just as diverse as the meetings, ranging from conservative, gun-owning cattle farmers, to policy advisors and activists critical of capitalism and the United States government. These differences across the speakers and delegation members, while provoking intellectual tension at times, propelled conversations that changed hearts and minds of both the delegates and American hosts by the end of the week. There were delegates who expressed that fears about certain groups of people had been disproved, and there were Americans, like me, who critically examined their own political lives for the first time.
Five days of learning, philosophizing, eating, and laughing alongside young political leaders from Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa was truly transformative. Hearing the delegates’ questions in meetings and watching their eyes glued to the results on election night emphasized how America’s national elections have global significance.
Perhaps even more importantly, I gained perspective about myself and my country’s place in the world. I had the chance to reflect deeply on my role as a citizen and to appreciate our unique form of representative government that rests largely on individual responsibility and neighborly goodwill. I was also reminded of how thankful I am to enjoy freedom and democracy.
The Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki once stated, “International cultural exchange is impossible—therefore we must try.” I agree wholeheartedly. The improbability of seeing beyond one's own cultural context—and the growth that accompanies that glance—is exactly why it must be undertaken.
And now as I reflect upon the whirlwind election, deep conversations, and cherished moments around the campfire, I can’t help but be reminded of one particular line of the hopelessly tacky Dean Martin song “A Marshmallow World”:
The world is your snowball, see how it grows…
From ACYPL I’ve learned exchange doesn’t simply open one culture to another. It opens both cultures to the world. And for that world growth—that improbable human glance both into and beyond one’s self—I’m truly thankful.