By: Danny Davis, Intern at Niagara Foundation and Student at Lawrence University
Niagara’s headquarters bustled with lively guests and discussions last Friday as we hosted a group of European exchange students, as well as City Alderman Pat O’Connor and City Clerk Susana Mendoza.
The European college students that we hosted this morning were travelling to the United States through a program directed by the State Department in collaboration with Dr. Barb Brown, a professor of Political Science at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Each year, Dr. Brown hosts a summer institute on American Politics for the State Department. This year, Embassies in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey selected a group of twenty five students to attend the summer institute. The goal of the program is encourage dialogue and peaceful relationships with people from these countries, who have the potential to be policymakers in their countries when they are older.
The selection of these countries is significant because those four European countries have a long history of violence and hatred for one another. The mission of the exchange group is to foster civic relationships between young people of those respective countries to work towards more peaceful relationships between those nations. “This year is particularly relevant,” a student pointed out, “because it marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.”
Each student was given the opportunity to introduce themselves to Niagara’s staff and other guests. Many students pointed out that while they bonded closely with each other on the trip, friendships with people of those other countries would be unthinkable back home. However, these students were given ample time to bond and to discuss their differences and how to move past them. The students have fostered the same type of dialogue and civic relationships that Niagara attempts to create for interfaith collaboration.
However, the students came to America to learn primarily about American Politics. To enrich their studies, Niagara received City Clerk Susana Mendoza and Alderman Pat O’Connor to discuss their own involvement in local city politics. Ms. Mendoza opened by discussing her experiences with Niagara and her involvement in interfaith collaboration. Ms. Mendoza shared some of her experiences travelling as a representative of the Illinois legislature. Mendoza made a parallel between interfaith and partisan politics.
Mendoza, a Democrat, discussed her experiences travelling to Argentina and being ‘stuck’ with a Republican. Although they slammed each other publicly in debates, she enjoyed meals and friendly relations with her colleagues across the aisle when they were out of the spotlight. She argued that those are the types of relationships that need to be fostered to allow for more collaboration in the United States’ polarized political climate.
Mr. O’Connor discussed the various aspects of being a city Alderman in depth to the exchange students. Government works in a hierarchal fashion. Local governments often function like state governments, and state governments often function like the federal government. O’Connor explained the concept of a city Alderman to the students, making the analogy that while the City Aldermen are like representatives in a Congress to Chicago’s Mayor, Aldermen function like mayors to the neighborhood they represent.
Another issue that Mr. O’Connor discussed was accessibility to public education for children in Chicago. In keeping with the topic of international relations, O’Connor pointed out that people who speak different languages may have a hard time reaping the full benefits of public education. O’Connor pointed out that in some schools, Chicago Public School students speak more than thirty different languages. This makes an english-language school system difficult for non-native English speakers. For him, making non-native English speakers more welcome in Chicago’s public schools was an important goal relative to the topic of interfaith and intercultural collaboration.
The video of the presentation will be posted to the Niagara’s website in a few days for those who would like to listen to Mendoza and O’Connor’s presentations.