Opening the world
In 2003, Greg Bartz of the Rotary Club of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, got a call from a Rotarian he knew. “He needed someone to drive some Russians down to the federal courthouse,” Bartz remembers.
Bartz took the delegation of five Russian judges and a translator to the courthouse in Minneapolis, where they attended meetings, talked to American judges, and learned about how the U.S. judicial system works. The group spent a total of five days traveling around the region, visiting state and county courts. Their trip was part of the Open World program, founded in 1999 by then-Librarian of Congress James Billington.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Billington “felt that young Russian leaders would benefit from meeting their American counterparts and seeing how the free market and democracy work,” says Natalia Kunzer, Rotary’s Open World program officer. And he saw Rotary as a key partner in making his vision a reality. He recruited the organization to help administer the program in the United States, with clubs across the country organizing visits and hosting delegations.
“Open World is the best-kept secret in Rotary,” says Kunzer, adding that many people have never heard of the program. “And it’s unusual because Rotary International is a grantee organization, not a grantor. We receive the grant to fund this program and reimburse clubs for the expenses of participating.”
Since the Open World Leadership Center was founded 20 years ago as a congressional agency, the program has brought delegates to the United States from places such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Uzbekistan. Rotary clubs in 280 U.S. cities have hosted nearly 4,000 of the program’s more than 29,000 total delegates.
Delegations typically spend 10 days in the United States, beginning with two days in Washington, D.C. In their host city, they participate in programs related to a specific field, with time built into the schedule for tourist and cultural activities. The exchanges are geared toward the exchange of knowledge; last year, 31 delegations learned about subjects including energy efficiency, women in politics, pediatric trauma, rural tourism, smart cities, and watershed management. Billington’s original vision focused on three main areas: accountable government, social and health issues, and special education, which remain at the core of the program today.
Rotary clubs in Russia and Ukraine have started to participate by recommending delegates. For 10 years, the White Bear Lake club has worked with the Rotary Club of Krasnoyarsk-Yenisei, Russia, building a relationship that has resulted in collaborations beyond the Open World program, including between the University of Minnesota and Krasnoyarsk State Pedagogical University. It has also resulted in lasting friendships. “In my club, I have a waiting list to host participants,” Bartz says. “My club loves hosting. We have very dear friends in Russia now. From my perspective, it’s been life-changing and very fulfilling.”
Bartz has seen tangible results of this exchange firsthand. “In the White Bear Lake high school, they have a room where kids with special needs can make greeting cards,” he says. “They’ve got embossing stamps and decorative things. They make these greeting cards and sell them. And at one of the schools I visited in Russia, they’re doing that now.”
According to Kunzer, this is the kind of collaboration Rotary is aiming for. “There is a relationship we’re trying to create between Rotary clubs,” she says. “It’s a golden opportunity to engage clubs in other countries.”
After Open World, I had a lot of ideas. I wanted to share my knowledge with other people.
Another club that has taken advantage of that opportunity is the Rotary Club of Winfield, Kansas, which hosted delegations nominated by the Rotary Club of Novosibirsk-Initiative, Russia, in 2016 and 2018. These exchanges focused on alternative energy and helping visually impaired children. “Before we can participate in the Open World program, we have to make a project proposal,” says Ekaterina Tashlykova, a Rotarian and ophthalmological surgeon from Novosibirsk. The Novosibirsk-Initiative club proposed building a “sensory room” in a local kindergarten for visually impaired children. So in 2015, she and five other delegates traveled to Missouri to research how American schools and workplaces had created such rooms. When they got back to Russia, they refurbished a room in the kindergarten with new windows and fresh paint and equipped it with a range of activities for the children. “Now the students can play with sand, for sand therapy. They can listen to music. They draw and touch different materials. We made a special space for sensory equipment,” she says.
The next year, the club sent a group to research alternative energy, with an eye toward building a smart “eco-house,” for which the club is still raising funds. More recently, a group came to the United States to research retinopathy of prematurity, an eye condition affecting some prematurely born babies. The Novosibirsk City Clinical Perinatal Center had a facility for early detection that needed updating. In the United States, the delegation visited the neonatal intensive care unit at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, heard presentations on telemedicine, heard lectures by ophthalmologists, and toured Envision, an organization that helps blind and visually impaired people.
After returning to Russia, they reorganized the medical center’s early detection room, added a new therapy — an intravitreal injection that helps prevent further retina degeneration — and improved screening and treatment. “After Open World, I had a lot of ideas,” says Tashlykova. “I wanted to share my knowledge with other people. I think other delegates had the same feeling. It’s a big opportunity for people who want to reach for something.”
For those who take part in Open World, the personal connections are often as important as the professional ones. “I don’t want to get too fluffy here,” Bartz says, “but I’m looking for world peace. And how do you do that? You do it one person at a time. That’s something that Rotary gives us: the opportunity to have relationships with people who live elsewhere and speak another language and maybe look different. But we’re all the same in the end. Rotary is our connector and that’s a fabulous thing.”
— FRANK BURES
• This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.