Not your typical cultural exchange

United States

May 27, 2009

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    Leah Hazard/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Leah Hazard/Mercy Corps

There’s some work Mercy Corps is obviously associated with: humanitarian aid, economic development, and disaster relief. But there’s some work we do that’s more surprising to people... even those familiar with us as an organization: peace and conflict resolution, youth programming to promote global citizenship and… cultural exchanges?

Last week, Mercy Corps partnered with the All China Youth Federation (ACYF) to support a week-long program on social entrepreneurship and innovation. The program took us from the Nike Campus to the coast – from the Columbia River Gorge to Timberline Lodge. And as part of this, I found myself in a park in Lyle, Washington, witnessing a cultural exchange between future Chinese leaders, the members of the River Peoples, and citizens of Lyle.

The evening was full of surprising images: one of the ACYF participants from the minority Buyi ethnic group from China’s Guizhou province, conversing with the oldest living relative of Chief Joseph. She shared that she too, came from a minority group. A gentleman who can only be described as a Chinese-Tibetan Frank Sinatra serenaded the crowd before Native American dancers performed on the sidelines of a traditional salmon feast for tribal elders and Mercy Corps’ ACYF guests. Tribal leaders explained the Native American history of genocide in the United States, as members of the ACYF listened attentively. Meanwhile, the citizens of Lyle managed the details behind the scenes, making sure the event ran successfully.

The story was not a simple one. But somehow the Mercy Corps visit of 18 Chinese leaders prompted the traditionally standoffish citizens of Lyle and members of the local tribes to organize a cultural exchange to share food, traditions and friendship.

Our disaster relief efforts remain at the core of our efforts, but our side projects are certainly powerful as well.