Eight years ago I left journalism. Booted out really; laid off in 2008 with the recession. I had a severance check and an itch. What better way to say –30– to the work I loved than to drive across the US to Barack Obama’s inauguration?
So I started making plans. I would aim the Honda Passport east, driving from state to state and small-town breakfast bar to burger joint across America’s south asking folks what they thought about America and our first black president. I’d post a video every night. As I prepped for that 6,000-mile road trip to DC and back, my friend, mentor, writer and all around smart guy David Hicks provided me a quote from the poet and writer Goethe.
“At the moment of commitment the entire universe conspires to assist you.”
Poets like Goethe (and David Hicks) see things we normal humans don’t. Thankfully, the greats record their observations, helping us to glimpse what they sense so clearly. When I committed to that cross-country donnybrook, the world DID step up and help me. Mark Walker secured tickets to the inauguration, my former employers contracted for a few stories once there, my cousin Michael opened up his Alexandria home, my dear Lisa smiled her brave face and wished me well, Yvonne Andres created an entire online space and curriculum through which students and teachers could follow my progress and my posts. Many others supported me in ways big and small.
Personally, I believe positive encouragement is the most powerful force in human nature. Umm, that and really good beer.
Now I’m off on another exploration of self and world. And once again Goethe’s words prove prescient. David, Yvonne, Lisa, and an entirely new host of collegues and friends with the U.S –Russia Social Expertise Exchange www.usrussiasocialexpertise.org and the Eurasia Foundation www.eurasia.org are conspiring to help me.
As I write this, I’m flying over the Rockies, bound for New York’s JFK on this first leg of my trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. I catch a nine-hour flight to Moscow this afternoon at 5, arriving Russia’s capital at 9 am tomorrow. From there, I board a flight at 10 am to St. Petersburg, my home for a week. Then it’s off to Petrozavodsk for a week, and then a week in Moscow.
My job: Talk to people. Connect. Make friends. Share myself, my passions, my interests, my expertise. Listen. Learn. Think. Ask questions. Do interviews. Shoot video. Capture a sense of Russia’s places and people. Listen. (I repeat that one as a reminder to self.)
This opportunity of a lifetime came from left field. During the summer of 2014, Yvonne called, saying she had a need for some videos for the US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange (SEE).
She outlined the projects – an explainer about “CyberFair,” an online space where youth and educators from Russia and the U.S. can share stories about themselves, their homes, their friends and their passions. She also needed a crowd-sourced video that would act as an attention-getter for SEE.
“Sure,” I said, “I can do that.”
The explainer was pretty straightforward. I’ve done similar work as a producer of journalistic and corporate video. But the crowd-sourced video – how are we going to do that?
Now here’s where Goethe comes in again. “Crowd-sourced,” in this case, meant asking a lot of people in the US and Russia to take an interest in our project AND act on it. Titled “Opening Doors,” this video would be a musical montage of people opening their doors. I made a short how-to video, and Yvonne, her Russian counterpart Denis, and a variety of others put out the call.
People opened their doors, and videos came in. Petrozavodsk, Encinitas, Washington, DC, Mali, Oregon, Switzerland. Five-second clips. Two-minute video tours. Greetings from the corners of this smaller-every-day great big round world.
Yvonne’s friend Gary tapped his musical connections, and Pete Townsend of the band The Who, gave us permission to use his song “Let My Love Open The Door.”
And we did it. It worked. I was happy with the project, Yvonne was happy. The Eurasia Foundation people seemed satisfied. The biggest challenge was in creating both videos for English speakers and Russian speakers. I learned a lot about producing a dual-language project. And I was hooked on the vision of SEE.
Yvonne called again a few months ago.
“Would you be interested in going to Russia?”
“Yes please!” (My two favorite words.)
“Si! Por favor!”
So Yvonne nominated me as an “advanced professional” in this SEE fellowship exchange program. The exchange also welcomes “emerging professionals” — those younger upstarts with just a few years of experience in their field. About 35 Americans are fanning out all over the Russian Federation this Spring, and an equal number of Russians are visiting places in the U.S. with names like Chicago and San Diego.
In preparation for this trip, Lisa and I flew to DC two weeks ago for a meeting of all the fellows from all of the “Working Groups.” I’m attached to the Youth and Education Working Group – the group Yvonne co-chairs with Denis (her Russian doppleganger). SEE fields fellows in nine working groups to address the most pressing social issues of our time: Child Protection, Healthcare, Flora and Fauna, The Rule of Law, etc. The working groups are made up of Russians and Americans, who travel to the host city, meet their peers there, exchange best practices, soak up the culture and the language, talk, eat, laugh. In short, become friends.
Especially now, with geopolitics as they are, we must sit down and talk with one another. Cut out the middleman. No media interpretation. No government spin. Just people talking about raising their kids, working to make ends meet, who they love. And laughter – yes, much laughing, about the sweet absurdities of this modern world.
Alexandr Antonov will meet me at Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg – a person I’ve never met in an airport I’ve never seen in a city that up until a month ago never appeared on my worldview radar.
And yet, we will be great friends, because that’s what happens when people unite in common cause. They find similarities rather than differences. They find solutions. They share stories.
And that, as a storyteller and resident of the world, is life’s greatest gift.
To Goethe and this world’s co-conspirators, I say “Thank you.”