The Montana World Affairs Council is extending its educational reach, bringing more programs to more students while lining up distinguished speakers for the state’s voting-age citizens.
Fourteen years after the council was founded, it has sponsored more than 300 community and classroom programs, reaching more than 6,000 students and educators across the state.
It also has developed the third-largest Academic WorldQuest competition in the nation, attracting students from the far-flung corners of Montana.
Now, with its eyes on the future, the council is looking to grow what former U.S. Ambassador Mark Johnson started back in 2000.
“Bringing our programs to students is something we believe strongly in and plan to do more of,” said council board chairman Bob Seidenschwarz. “We’re here to provide the citizens of Montana with information that wouldn’t be available if we weren’t doing this.”
This week, John Dau, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” is slated to speak before hundreds of Missoula high-school students. Seidenschwarz, who called it a first for Missoula, said Dau will then give a community lecture, adding his name to the council’s growing list of distinguished speakers. They’ve included foreign diplomats such as Afghanistan Ambassador Tayeb Jawab and João Vale de Almeida, head of the European Union delegation to the U.S.
“It’s critical to have an informed citizenry,” Seidenschwarz said. “It’s what separates us from the monkey. It’s our job to bring in the policy experts from the economic side, the political side and the social side, and look at these seismic shifts taking place in our world.”
Seidenschwarz and Johnson have also ramped up the council’s public outreach this past year, hosting dozens of interviews with national and international experts over KGVO’s Talk Back Radio.
From the Arab Spring to human trafficking, the weekly interviews have become a popular part of the council’s new platform to help Montanans better understand the complex world around them.
“Ukraine, Russia, Syria, the Islamic State, Iraq, North Korea, China, Ebola and global warming – these are things that overwhelm the average person,” Seidenschwarz said. “It’s our job to find the experts to help keep them informed.”
The council is also pushing beyond the classroom. Business luncheons now connect business and community leaders with global experts and resources, and University of Montana interns are now logging 75 hours per month.
While the council remains non-political and doesn’t endorse candidates, Seidenschwarz said, it does look to inform voters.
“The people we elect will be making decisions on policy, and if they don’t understand – and I can promise you some of them don’t – then how do we as a citizens make a decision on who to vote for?” Seidenschwarz said. “They’ll represent us in Washington and make decisions on legislation or funding for U.S. involvement overseas. That has a direct impact on all of us, so far-away events do matter.”