Meaningful Engagement International

Development, Arts and Cultural Policy Consulting


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Posted on August 12, 2010 at 11:24 AM Comments comments (351)

See for the unforgettable hit list of my time this summer in the Middle East.

Yalla, On y va!

Posted on July 18, 2010 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (1)

"Yalla, on y va!" Dr. Gene, I and our Syrian cab drive were feeling optomistic and festive yelling "yalla" followed by the French "let's go! as we prepared to cross by taxi the Lebanese-Syrian border on the road to Damascus. 


For Dr. Gene (legendary doctor of jazz in case you were wondering) and myself, it was our second try to cross the border in 36 hours.  When we first arrived at the border after carefully selecting our then Lebanese cab driver under a very sketchy highway bridge based on the perceived quality of his car and his willingness to take our rate of no more than $100, we were denied. Well--Dr. Gene's multi-entry visa obtained via mail via the consul in Houston was denied due to a technicality (no end date).  My beautiful spanking-new, obtained in 20 minutes by an old-school gentleman in Washington, DC, visa had been approved in about 2 minutes which left us with a dilemma.  After several calls to our Arabic-fluent project managers in both Syria and Lebanon at about 4 am, and some kindly negotiating by our taxi man, it was determined that I would have to cross the border alone to get my exit stamp and pay the required 500 exit fee in Syrian currency and then pick up Dr. Gene again on the way back.


If my mother was alive, there was no way she could have slept well for at least a week ever thinking her daughter, who according to the natives doesn't look a day over 25, (although they are still worried that I might be in danger of missing the marriage bus-I told my Kurdish assistant I was still waiting for the limo) could  ever be entering a nation infamously described as part of the axis of terror alone in the middle of the night with a strange taxi driver. But on we went over the border.  Dr. Gene had done his best to coax pig latin from my tired brain to comment on how the driver was so lowsay compared to the dare deviled driving we were expecting as we left Beirut.  But at this moment, my slow -driving, heavy-smoking driver held my safe passage in his hands and he was looking mighty wonderful. 


I made it back to Lebanon only to have to run back and forth between the two administrative offices on that side of the border and here our driver proved invaluable. He pushed and prodded to get us the entry stamps we needed without another visa.  When you arrive via air you don't need a visa but at the border with car you do-go figure.  After an hour of navigating the now very busy border bureaucracy with everyone now knowing our bidness, we were back in Beirut in time to get a teeny bit of sleep and some important applications out the door and try again.


After stopping at the little cafe on the way where our new driver made us try some of the local specialities including an olive with the hottest, spiciest garlic I have ever tasted (no vampires in Syria clearly) we were on our way again. We shot the no man's land between Lebanon and Syria this time with the windows open and it felt like we were flying through the rugged beauty.  With some attention to the saxophone and printer at customs, we made it into Syria in time for the sunset.


The road to Damascus in the 21st Century can be a bit tricky but overall beautiful.  We were greated with real welcome both times and our drivers could not have been more thoughtful or trustworthy-with a proven willingness to go to bat for perfect strangers.  Even at the most difficult part of our crossing we were never yelled at or treatly unkindly in any way.  I am ashamed to say it probably would have been much much different back in the States.  And in fact, it was hinted that part of the wait to get visas for some of our team was due to some retaliation for similar treatment.


All in all, a nice adventure and one I would not have wanted to share with anyone else from our team.  So my recommendation.....if you plan to shoot the Lebanese border on the road to Damascus, get your visa in person in DC, find a groovy jazz man as your traveling companion and get a good driver and cross your fingers that the border crossing back home goes smoothly (with Iraq, Syria and Lebanese stamps on my passport, bets are now open for how long the entry interview back in the States will take.) Dr. Gene and I happy to be eating good food in Damascus and talking about jazz with Amr our project manager after our successful border crossing!

New Blog Blocked in Syria

Posted on July 18, 2010 at 2:12 PM Comments comments (1)

So scratch my previous blog.  I will transfer everything back to the new blog after the 25th of July but for now, seems Syria blocks blogspot (although not wordpress) and I can't get the proxxy server to work either.


So check here until July 25, 2010.


Thanks for hanging in!



New Blog Address

Posted on June 29, 2010 at 8:39 PM Comments comments (1)

Its official, I have a new blog.  Beginning this week as I leave for the Middle East to support American Voices you can find my travel journal at: http//


Also check out my fellow colleagues' blogs as we head out for the adventure.

Bruce (our cellist)at or Brad (our piano teacher) at


Happy Summer!



Convention Intergovernmental Committee Election Results

Posted on June 16, 2009 at 6:46 AM Comments comments (9)


The Intergovernmental Committee Election Results for the Convention on Cultural Diversity are as follows:


By Region:


1. Canada, France

2. Albania, Bulgaria

3. Brazil, Cuba

4. China, Laos

5a. Cameroon, Kenya

5b. Jordan, Tunisia


12:48 GST. Paris.

A Magna Carta for Culture?

Posted on June 15, 2009 at 4:28 AM Comments comments (1)

The flight was delayed, minimal sleep en route, the bags were too heavy for the metro, a wheel broke on the luggage, the elevator was broken  and its hot and muggy, but when I arrived chez Mathilde on the top floor and threw open the windows to take a nap, I took a deep breath and let the smells of Paris and the view of the Louvre amidst the rose colored clouds overwhelm me and I felt home. It is wonderful to see my french family after 2.5 years and the years in Canada have greatly helped my French and so everyone has commented on my great progress and I find I can understand everything almost perfectly. 


I am sitting in the main conference room of UNESCO listening to the Director General of UNESCO make introductions as we begin to get down to business for the 2nd Conference of Parties on the Convention of Cultural Diversity. I am here courtesy of the Finnish delegation since the United States is only an observer as my country has chosen (for legitimate if not well understood reasons) not to sign the Convention.  This opportunity is available as part of the U-40 Vision Cultural Diversity 2030 Programme. Get ready...they are about to elect the Chair and rapporteur. Laos is the first state delegation to make a proposal for the nomination of Ambassador Lauren of Canada as the Chair.  He has chaired three previous intergovernmental meetings and due to the great support from the Chamber he has just graciously accepted.  Despite the incredibly procedural nature of this first day of conference (much coffee needed to make it through), none the less as a policy dork I am incredibly excited to be here.


Beginning on Friday, 50 young professionals from civil society and government gathered together to consider the potential impact of the Convention and how to improve international cooperation and promote the visibility of the Convention and its values.  As the only American (I still cannot believe my attendence here is somehow not a mistake) I find myself, as always, explaining our strange system of cultural policy and my belief that although the U.S. will never sign this document in its present form that there are many ways the U.S. could support the values of cultural diversity.


For myself, I am thrilled to be able to be in a room with 50 other people of my own generation that fully understand what cultural policy is and whom also are engaged in the same kinds of work.  We spent the last three days working in brainstorming groups and with exceptional collegial contributions some really brilliant ideas have emerged (more about that later). 


I will be writing all week but for now I am still thinking about a topic which emerged over and over this past weekend.  There was great group consensus that the idea of developed versus developing countries is a very limiting framework with which to consider cultural diversity especially since these definitions usually refer to an economic state. In fact, the question of what it means to be cultural developed is a very intriguing one and one that remains to be answered. In terms of the establishment, saliency and knowledge of the field of cultural policy, the United States could be considered to be not as developed as other nations. I would argue that in terms of culture we are all continually developing as culture is not a static state. It is from this perspective that I believe the U.S. has much it can both learn and contribute to conversations about the values of cultural diversity and international cooperation towards the goals of mutual understanding. 


Paris, France. UNESCO 10:55 am GST.

A Seat At the Table: Supporting a U.S. Secretary of Culture

Posted on January 29, 2009 at 4:46 PM Comments comments (3)


Until the demise of my mother (The Minister) last year, we had a nice tradition of practicing our southern hospitality by opening our holiday table to those that couldn’t get home to family.  As a result, over the years, I cannot tell you how many Thanksgiving and Easter dinners I have shared with theological seminarians. Ever discussed theological doctrine over marshmallow yams while dodging sharp digs from a sibling?  All I can say is, "God help me." (I must have earned a special place in heaven by now).  Inevitably, before we would cut into the intellectual meat and I started praying for deliverance, that dreaded moment would come:


“And what do you do?” 
“I do cultural policy work.”
Insert sarcastic comment by sibling.
“What is cultural policy?”
Insert cynical comment by sibling.
“Does the U.S. have cultural policy?”
Insert cynical and sarcastic comment by sibling.
“I don’t understand”…or even worse, “That’s nice.”


Yet, even after my best explanation (and it’s good even if I say so myself) at a time when I was employed by a reputable nonprofit organization, I would be met with many blank looks before everyone turned back to the mashed potatoes and their preferences between the Old and New Testament. In a decade of trying to prove that cultural policy work is remotely as important as God’s work the grand total is: Seminarians: 12 Me: possibly 2.25. 


But this ignorance is not contained to holiday dinners.  For the past ten years, when sitting around any given table, the topic of my work would come up with mixed results. Ever tried to explain the cultural policy field to a date or prospective in-laws? I wouldn’t recommend it—it’s enough to get demoted to the kids table.  At best, someone can reference the National Endowment for the Arts, the Culture Wars, or arts management.  Even with long-term friends, there is still a mystery about my work.  I have several friends and acquaintances who really believe that my cultural policy consultant “work” is just a cover for James Bond activities; until I remind them that if that were the case I would be getting paid a whole heck of a lot more and I’d be more physically fit to boot.  Abroad, with cultural policy colleagues, there is a different challenge to address: the disbelief that the U.S. can care about culture or have cultural policies if we don’t have a cultural ministry. This view is often held equally with the erroneous belief that the homogenization of culture is directly and intentionally supported by the U.S. government through the financial support of the creative industries.   


 “All this to say” (to quote my favorite Canadian expression), at this time in history when American dreams seem possible again, I would like to share mine.  I want to live in a world where just once at a table I can state simply, “I work in U.S. cultural policy” and have that mean something. Now, after ten years of passionate commitment to this growing, albeit little-known and little-understood field, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.


For the first time that I can remember, the idea of a cabinet -level representative for culture has made it into the mainstream.  Last week, newspapers around the country picked up the news that Quincy Jones was advocating for a Secretary of Culture and NPR featured a segment, “Does the U.S. Need a Culture Czar?” Support for such an idea has been building all year: In Arts Inc, Bill Ivey recommended a cabinet-level position for culture and the arts service organizations have recommended having senior representatives with a cultural voice at the White House, on the National Security Council Council and the Domestic Policy Council as well as a senior-level representative to coordinate culture. But these articles and the petition it featured just might be the catalyst I have been waiting for.




Dear Mr. President:


You have made me believe in the possibility that myself, my fellow citizens and my country can live up to our highest potential and so I ask you to please seriously consider a Secretary of Culture. This is not only to support the successful pursuit of my own happiness made possible by  continuing to work in a field I feel called to, but because the greater good of the United States depends on it.   Although, America’s arts and cultural field has certainly contributed to the cornucopia of U.S. wealth through opportunities and resources, creativity, economic prosperity, vibrant communities and a healthy democracy, we have been forgotten when it comes to having a seat at the table of governance.


Recently, a petition was started to gather support for such a position.  Please sign me up in full support! However, please also consider the following.  Do not be too hasty in your appointment. Not only because the idea of a Czar, or any dictator for that matter, gives me the shivers.  But, because, any cultural leader will need to unify and communicate effectively to both build bridges domestically and abroad.  The cultural field is broad-- stretching from the creative/copyright/cultural industries to the nonprofit sector encompassing  popular, traditional and hybrid expressions-- and as such has a variety of needs. I would be wary of a representative that emphasizes any one part of the agenda over another and so will the rest of a field that has a history of jealous competition over prestige and resources.  In the past, our lack of an executive voice for culture has kept us from many tables and prevented us from making the most of our cultural resources as policies were implemented that inadvertently affected culture without proper consideration of the consequences. Additionally, too many times the U.S. has been excluded from serious international discussions on cultural policy related issues because we do not have a representative. Thus, it is imperative that before selecting an individual, we as a nation need to carefully consider what our Secretary of Culture should actually do!


First of all, this conversation is more than just about investing in arts and culture financially and this position should be more than giving a posh job to a celebrity or a favored political contributor. Consider the following seven-area framework established by the Center for Arts and Culture that identifies where public policy intersects with culture along with some examples:


Access and Equity: media consolidation, net neutrality, digital divide
Community: health of communities, urban planning, public art, demographics, arts and healthcare
Education and the Creative Workforce: arts education, educating a creative workforce, creative economy, new technologies
International and Globalization: cultural diplomacy, comparative studies, cultural diversity
Investment: supporting a healthy arts and cultural field and diversity of expression
Law: intellectual property rights, privacy, immigration, language policy
Preservation: maintaining cultural resources, heritage lists, museums


Then consider: Where are some of the areas where cultural policy touches your own life?

  1. Does it matter to you what kinds of content you can access on TV, in the news or the internet? What if we lived in a world where every channel was Fox News or we couldn’t get our favorite paper?


  2. Do you care how many times you can duplicate files from iTunes or whether you can access files from the Gutenberg Project on your electronic book reader? We need to consider how much competition there should be in industries that support creative products.


  3. Do you worry about if your kids will get the skills they need to work in an increasingly globalized, competitive and creative economy?


  4. Does it bother you that companies own the majority of all creative content effectively keeping it out of the public domain in the equivalent of the Disney vault?


  5. Do you think it is important to have access to our cultural heritage?  Consider that the Smithsonian is renowned world wide because it is FREE and available to all regardless of income.


  6. Do you care that the predominant perceptions of American life are spread through, often outdated, popular cultural products that emphasize stereotypes to the rest of the world?


  7. Have you reflected that the U.S.'s reputation, prior to your election, was at an all time low because we haven't done an effective job of explaining our values?

Now that I hopefully have your attention, I want to assure you, this new Secretary doesn’t need the biggest office or the biggest budget in Washington. Woo the field by taking us seriously and considering what we actually need.   

  1. We need a point person for culture. U.S. cultural policy is completely decentralized to the point that it is harmful. American cultural policy for the most part is passive and linked to other more established policy fields. Ultimately, this does more harm than good.  Don’t be alarmed. I am not talking about replacing the cultural agencies or even coordinating all policies out of the Secretary’s office. Instead, we need a liaison with a bird’s eye view that has enough cache to work with other fields to represent the consequences of policies on cultural life. 


  2. We need to establish what our cultural values are.  Bill Ivey, your arts and culture transition guy, established an excellent statement of cultural rights; a framework that puts us more in alignment with international conversations on culture (see the book Arts Inc. it’s a must read!).  The United States needs to adopt a similar value statement on how best to serve the public interest on matters pertaining to cultural life and expression.


  3.  We need a designated key international cultural ambassador. Other nations and international NGOs want to engage with us on cultural issues and don’t know where to start.    


  4. We need to educate the next generation and provide tools to ensure the health and sustainability of our creative communities.

Consider further what the establishment of a Secretary position could do. It would give credibility to the field. The environmental field didn't take off until the EPA was established and we are poised and ready to take flight. As a field we need to transfer knowledge and provide mentors. We have a huge gap between generations and our methods of transfer are inadequate.  For a long time, our academic answer in the U.S. has been to serve arts management with a diet slice of arts policy on the side--and trust me it doesn’t taste the same.


There are so many members of my generation and younger who want to work in cultural policy but move on to other fields, arts management or generic public policy because the training and the opportunities just aren’t there.  Upon graduation, many find that it is difficult to find work in the field, even as an arts manager.  In a country that prides itself on its diversity, heritage and creativity, this is not serving our cultural community or the public interest.  Numerous studies have shown that the nonprofit sector is expected to shrink. So why are we primarily turning out managers?  We need to be turning out lawyers, creative economists, cultural demographic specialists, community activists, lobbyists, technical specialists, researchers, cultural trade and comparative experts.


The arts and cultural policy field has increasingly professionalized and maximized its interdisciplinary nature.  We are ready to be taken seriously and given the chance to fully use our resources to make the U.S. the strongest it can be. It is time to give us a real voice. 


Thank you for your consideration!


And for the rest of you…U.S. citizens, residents and foreign friends alike, if you plan on sitting across from me at any point: happy hour, a meeting, on public transportation, or at a family dinner, I beg you please, please sign this petition which can be found at this link ( And if everything goes right, maybe by American Thanksgiving we’ll have a Secretary of Culture. If so, I’ll even invite the seminarians back for dinner.  

The Arts and Cultural Policy Thesis

Posted on October 17, 2008 at 3:45 AM Comments comments (2)


The Arts and Cultural Policy Thesis

U.S. cultural policy is such a small field and I have been getting so many calls lately that I am posting this in hopes that it is helpful.  Then I can take more time to speak to individual questions and ideas. 


So, you have decided to try your hand at a thesis in arts/cultural policy. Congratulations!  Courage! Think of it as a birthing process.  Seriously.  The key word here is process-it's both creative and a lot of hard work and discipline because unfortunately these things don't write themselves.

You want to pick something interesting enough that when you wake up stressing about it in the middle of the night and you are so sick of the topic that you want to jump off a cliff that there is some small part of you that is dying to know the answer to your posed question. This leads me to my first piece of guidance.

1.      The Question:  It is tempting to try and solve world peace, or map out the entire U.S. cultural ecosystem.  Be realistic.  First, figure out what is feasible given your resources.  Don't be afraid to think interdisciplinary. Will you be able to have the access you need to individuals and/or data etc? Think about what your absolute timeframe is and don't forget to add in procrastination time.  Is this a one-term project, one year?  Consider that there will be a period after you gather all the information that you will need to process your ideas before writing.  Ultimately, your key question should be able to be answered by a yes or a no.  If not, break it down. It is almost impossible to have a question that is too simplistic. You can have secondary questions but your hypothesis needs to be very clear, concise and answerable.

2.      The Goal: What do you REALLY want to do with your degree when you are done?  What do you want to be an expert in when you are finished? If you have a longer timeframe a thesis can be an opportunity to make contacts with organizations and individuals related to the type of job you want to get.  This could lead to your first publication.  If you are having trouble narrowing the field, call the organization etc. you think you are dying to work at and ask them what questions they have that they don't have time to answer. Use them as a case study.  But don't forget to go back to step 1-is it realistic?

3.      Editing: EVERYONE needs an editor-or two or three.  Before turning in the final draft, read it out loud to yourself one last time.  At that point, you (the author) will be so close to the work it will be almost impossible to catch your own errors. Hearing your writing orally will put it into new context and will also alert you to those too long sentences (a personal flaw in case you haven't noticed).  Make sure one of your editors is outside your field.  This keeps it from being too insular and theoretical.

4.      Interviews: A digital tape recorder can be your best friend.  Also, if you really get behind you can then send out the files to have them transcribed. Need to make an international call for an interview?  I have used Skype pretty successfully and if your subject has Skype too then the call is free. Also, there is a recorder feature that you can use (but you need to get permission from the individual.) Your thesis advisor should tell you this, but if you are doing interviews you need to make sure you are following human subject protocols (this varies if you are doing internationally comparative work).  Have a one-page description of your project and its goals ready to go with your request. Respect confidentiality.  Get subjects to sign a release form (most universities require this anyway).  Plan on allowing subjects to review their quotes in the context of a final document. Most want to sound better in print than they did verbatim.  Finally, ALWAYS say thank you.

5.      Backup: Backup everything and date your drafts.  Emailing yourself the latest version is a great way to be able to access the latest from anywhere as well as to have backup copies and it is easily stored and deleted. It's amazing how much time can be lost when the writing gods decide not to bless you and it will always be when that draft is due tomorrow. Despite  knowing better, sometimes it is unavoidable. This happened to me in September so when it does happen laugh it off and fix it as best you can while you still remember.  Sometimes it ends up being even betterJ

6.      The Journey: Not too sound too cheesy but, it is a journey and a chance to take the time to really think about something. While it is an opportunity for personal growth-ah the things we tell ourselves to be able to finish-don't take things too personally.  Especially when trying to reach individuals or obtain data do not take it personally if someone does not respond to you right away.  Don't be afraid to place a follow-up call.  Haven't heard from someone? Give them a few weeks (think vacation, board meeting, election) and then send a nice but firm email with a deadline. If you are cordial, the worst thing you will hear is no.  Some people are just too busy to respond and it has nothing to do with you.  After three tries, move on. Referrals are best so if you can get someone to introduce you this is always preferable to a cold call. That said, a thesis is a unique experience and most people are happy to help if they can. 

So Bon Voyage!  Feel free to get in touch if you need some assistance and I'll do the best I can or refer you to an expert related to your investigation. But, if I don't respond right away don't take it personally.  Give me a few weeks and then try again. I'm probably just hibernating to finish my own current project.