The Rewards of International Engagement

Author: Katlyn Cotton
Feb 10, 2021

By Donovan Rypkema, Principal

I am extraordinarily lucky. In 2004, I made the decision to spend as much of the second half of my career as possible working beyond the United States. I formed Heritage Strategies International as a companion company to my domestic firm, PlaceEconomics. In the 15+ years since then, we’ve been able to work in more than 50 countries. Even in 2020 when travel was severely constrained, we managed to work remotely on training, workshops, speeches, and analytical and advisory assignments in Australia, Canada, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Just this week, I’ve realized once again how rewarding that international involvement has been. I hear from friends and professional collaborators in Yangon who, at great risk to themselves, are active in the resistance to the military coup there. A young woman I met in Russia has established a fund to aid in the citizens’ protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I’ve been able to make connections for my international students at Penn with heritage professionals in their own countries that I know but they do not. I realize the cost of the civil war in Syria to ordinary families. When I was in Syria on a World Bank project in 2011, it took 47 Syrian pounds to buy one US dollar. Today it takes more than 3000. When the Washington Post reports on Russian troop movements near the border with Georgia, I think of friends in Tbilisi and Batumi who are concerned with the sustainability of the Georgian language.

Today there are few countries where I don’t have at a minimum one person with whom I have at least a passing acquaintance (usually in the heritage conservation field).

The tragic disruption of America’s relations with the rest of the world during the Trump administration will take years to repair, but at least the repairs have begun. 

Maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned is this – governments will do what governments do – sanctions, cyberwars, trade embargos, arms sales, whatever. And there’s not much I can do about that. But it is important to distinguish the individual from that country’s leadership. Few of my international friends held me responsible for the reprehensible actions of Trump. I don’t hold them responsible for the actions of their leaders.

To read headlines and be able to think about the ramifications to a human being you know, is simply much different than just cheering or cursing some government somewhere. My knowing someone in the Culture Ministry in Iran will have no impact on government-to-government negotiations on uranium enrichment. But it does let me put a human face on the consequences. I wish more would have the experiences I have had. I’m extraordinarily lucky.

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