Last week, eight leaders from the tiny island nation of Cabo Verde, located 385 miles off the coast of West Africa, toured New Orleans, aided by three Portuguese interpreters, with the goal of gaining insights into how our city handles sexual violence against women and girls. Their stay was coordinated by New Orleans Citizens Diplomacy Council (NOCDC), a nonprofit with a mission of fostering professional relationships between New Orleanians and foreign leaders, and funded by the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Last year, NOCDC hosted 524 program participants and initiated more than 3,000 points of cross-cultural engagement, sharing best practices and taking part in myriad cultural activities.
“Participants are chosen after being nominated by their communities to the U.S. embassies in their home countries,” stated Program Manager Kelley Ponder. The visiting groups can include “NGOs, government entities, local businesses, and professionals ranging across a wide spectrum of occupations, such as lawyers, doctors, nurses, judges, and human rights activists. In addition to professional meetings, visitors have opportunities to explore New Orleans and meet with locals through home hospitality or one of the many receptions held around the city,” Ponder added.
Cabo Verde, for example, is just beginning to establish a justice system and support services for victims of sexual violence. Its citizens have been recently shocked by increasing reports of sexual violence perpetrated against very young children and by ongoing reports of domestic violence. Until now, the country has relied on nonprofits, international organizations and volunteers–including doctors and lawyers–to coordinate and fund shelters and repatriate victims of trafficking.
“This delegation met with leaders of public‑private partnerships to learn about comprehensive efforts to address domestic violence,” Ponder explained. Over the course of five days, NOCDC held meetings with the New Orleans Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit, New Orleans Health Department’s Domestic Violence Prevention Program, Kenner Domestic Violence Court, Metropolitan Center for Women and Children and New Orleans Family Justice Center.
At their final stop at the Family Justice Center, they met Program Director Eva Lessinger, Amanda Tonkovich, LCSW, and Andrew Mahoney, MSN, RN, SANE-A (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner). Lessinger explained that the Family Justice Center began with just a few staff members and it took time to build important relationships among law enforcement, district attorney, social workers and health care providers to establish a holistic approach.
Ms. Lourenca Lopes Moreno Taveres expessed an urgent need to convince lawmakers and government officials of the immediate importance of addressing these issues.
Examples of other recent NOCDC exchange groups include Colombians looking to learn techniques to sustain cultural initiatives; officials from the Philippines focused on methods for peacebuilding; healthcare providers from the Kyrgyz Republic researching treatment protocols for tuberculosis, among others.
New Orleanians can become involved with Citizen Diplomacy Council by hosting dinners or attending members-only events, including receptions, cooking demonsrations, and “Diplomacy Nights” or even taking visitors sightseeing.
“Home hospitality gives the visitors a window into local culture and cuisine. Visitors often show their appreciation with a small gift from their home countries,” says Susannah Coolidge, NOCDC executive director. “Members have received items ranging from wooden carvings, books, scarves from the silk road, and musical instruments.”
NOCDC membership offers myriad opportunities to practice foreign languages and develop long-lasting relationships with people from around the world.