Groups work to bring world to Pittsburgh and vice versa

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When someone asks Steven Sokol to explain what the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh is and what it does, he has a boilerplate joke: "On a good day, we are a think tank. On a bad day, we are event planners."

The reality is somewhere in the middle.

The council, located Downtown in the BNY Mellon Building, fulfills the role of a foreign policy think tank by organizing a wide range of activities to bring members of the international community together, and as a result, it organizes lots of events.

"Our focus is on informing the Pittsburgh community about international issues and why they matter," said Mr. Sokol, president of the independent nonprofit that just turned 80 years old.

The World Affairs Council is one of several local organizations working to provide bridges to connect the Steel City with people from around the world and vice versa.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has been bringing international performers and visual artists to Western Pennsylvania for 27 years. Its Distinctively Dutch Festival will showcase Holland until mid-spring.

At least half of the modern dance companies that come each year are international companies, said Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Downtown organization, which has 80 full-time employees and a $50 million annual budget.

"We recently had a group of artists from Iceland with their art on display at the Wood Street Galleries," he said. "Now a Norwegian artist is featured there.

"We also operate the Children's International Theater Festival, which specializes obviously in young audiences. This spring, it will feature groups from the Netherlands, Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom."

The trust recently featured Cuban artists performing in the Cuban musical group Buena Vista Social Club, artists with the Handspring Puppet Co. from South Africa and the theater company Spirit of Uganda.

The trust's International Festival of Firsts focuses on contemporary works from visual and performing artists from around the globe.

"We do this obviously to provide international exposure for our Pittsburgh-based audience," Mr. McMahon said. "But also because we believe these kinds of programs enhance Pittsburgh's reputation around the world as an international city.

"It's a two-way process," he said. "We experience their artistry in Pittsburgh, and at the same time, they take experiences of Pittsburgh back to their respective countries."

GlobalPittsburgh, headquartered on Smithfield Street, Downtown, with five employees and a $250,000 budget, is another local organization bringing the world to Pittsburgh.

Formerly known as the Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors, the 52-year-old group hosts international delegations sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. It also works to connect international students and new immigrants to each other and to local residents through dinners and other activities.

"As a result of the meetings we arrange in the Pittsburgh area, it is our hope that an ongoing linkage will be formed with our foreign visitors and the locals they meet here," said Gail Shrott, director of the International Leaders Program. "We have examples where that has happened.

"We link experts to talk about issues of common concern. These visitors come from a variety of fields," Ms. Shrott said. "They are environmentalists, professors, economists. We are known at the Department of State for consistently hosting high-quality meetings."

The organization played a big role in helping to stage the G-20 summit here in 2009 and then 2010's World Environment Day. It also plans delegations of about 700 visitors each year and has about 400 host families.

GlobalPittsburgh's acting executive director Donald Bonk said one thing that sets his organization apart is that it manages hundreds of home stays for its visitors.

"We put international professionals and student visitors in contact with people who host them in their homes for weeks and months," Mr. Bonk said. "We do this in order for them to learn more about our country and region on a personal level."

He said an educational partnership run by the organization helps market the region as a destination for international students. And the first Thursday of every month, GlobalPittsburgh rolls out a welcome mat, holding events that are a chance for international residents and people interested in international people and events to network at a restaurant.

The World Affairs Council, for its part, serves two distinct audiences: students and professionals.

Its 10 employees, who operate on a $1 million annual budget, bring speakers to high schools and some middle school classrooms throughout southwestern Pennsylvania to talk about contemporary foreign policy issues. The group also connects students in the region with students from other countries.

One of its flagship programs is the International Student Summit, which in the past has focused on topics such as cyber security and civil liberties and how the international community responds to international disasters as well as global water issues.

For the professional community, the World Affairs Council organizes briefings by outside experts on hot topics and current news. Those gatherings frequently occur over breakfast or lunch. Informal evening events at cafes, bars and theaters are held to reach younger professionals.

"The council has the potential to make a significant difference in Pittsburgh by exposing the successor generation -- high school and college students and young professionals -- to international issues so they can succeed in the global economy of the 21st century," Mr. Sokol said.

"Not only does the World Affairs Council serve as Pittsburgh's window on the world, the council can also serve as the world's window on Pittsburgh by helping to showcase and highlight some of the impressive projects and innovations this region has to offer."

In October, the council will host about 1,500 people ages 18 to 28 from around the world for the One Young World Summit, which will be held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The four-day event will touch on global issues such as education, sustainable development and global health. The summit was previously held in London and Zurich.


Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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