John Ferguson (Executive Director, American Voices)

14.05.2011 - Interview conducted by Giuseppe Collucci & Claire Bourdon

Q1. What impact do you think the American Voices program has had on the cultures that have previously had very little exposure to American culture?

I think the example of Iraq on which I focused this morning has a huge impact because we were the first cultural organization from the West of any kind or from anywhere, to come to the Kurdistan region of Iraq and work with so many young people, appear on so many TV stations... So there was suddenly a lot of information about America and things that could have been controversial like hip hop dances or Broadway singing.... I think it brought a lot of changes: some of the cultural traditions have become more relaxed over the past five years, for instance things like boys and girls dancing on the same stage. There have been more programs, bringing foreigners into the Kurdistan region that was completely shut off for a long time. In that region there was a huge brain drain throughout the last fifteen years with twenty percent of the population going to Sweden, Germany or Holland, people living as refugees. It was very isolated, out of what was going on in the world. So we walked into a situation where people were begging for some kind of normal contact: it was not about poverty, about conflict or about government but it was just about cultural exchanges, learning and having fun together. And that is what we have been able to provide.

Q2. The YES Academy consists of training programs and the organization of concerts in collaboration with local artists and performers. Many of the programs have been received with much enthusiasm on the part of the participants. However after the program and the concerts and, what sort of long term impact do these programs have?

Well, we wish we could go back more often, but the reality is that no one really cares about cultural diplomacy in Iraq. The US government talks about assisting Iraq, and assisting on a cultural level is not a priority for them, so we have to fight for it. In the ideal situation, we would set up some institutes. What we are working on now with small but important successes is to bring students to study in the United States: they study English for one year, they take private music lessons, and they play in local orchestras so they get a complete English and musical education. Then they take the skills back to Iraq and start to work for communities, trying to change things. This is an example in terms of sustainable programs that has tangible effects on individuals.
But we have been there now over five summers, and I have to say that I noticed that a lot of our students are motivated as a result of our visit: they are working harder, they know now some of the processes of preparing to study outside the country, so in a small way we have been able to stimulate the students. We have also been donating instruments and music methods; I think that helps as well.
But it is a huge project, and it is very undefended. One of the realities of Iraq is that 99% of the older generation of people working in the government grew up under Saddam Hussein's regime, and they hold their position of supporting it, even in the Kurdistan region. These kinds of people are still working for the Ministry of Culture for example. I have to deal with them all the time, and they are very corrupted. They are not interested in what we do, but only on the way they could get money from it. So there is a generation that just needs to be retired, pushed up and replaced by the newer generation. Our focus is on trying to help this new generation of teachers, cultural leaders or people who work in the ministries and give them a different vision on how things can be done.

Q3. American Voices conducted a YES academy in Iraq in July 2009. Two years later, what do you think as the main positive effect on Iraq society in this artistic and cultural life?

We started in 2007, with a different name than YES academy but the content was the same. Some of the specific things I see, for example, are music teachers using a method book in their class, a sort of after school program in music that you have in the Kurdistan region. I see conductors who take the music we give to them and play it with their orchestra. People we have trained in the States have come back to Kurdistan and the next step they take is being in charge of the orchestra. So we see the people that we have influenced moving up from being 18 or 20 years old to being in their mid-twenties and starting to be close to having a position of influence, implementing a good mentality in the country. It is an ugly violent landscape that you have to deal with; it is really unique in the world. But if you go in and try to do something beneficial for young people, you make lot of enemies from the people of power. So it is a difficult working environment to achieve our goals, but we are starting to see some results.

Q4. As you mentioned during your lecture, one of your dreams would be to bring some schools or to establish some contacts with the local Iraqi culture and to bring it to the US.  How does the organization learn about the local culture and what can you transport it to the US?
In America, there are a lot of interests, for example, in the Arabic classical music. A lot of big universities now have Middle East classical music, like mine, the University of Texas. There are professors in charge of those groups, or specialists in Turkish music, which is different. So we are talking there about bringing an Arabic orchestra for example, and then going to Boston to our conservatory to provide workshops. We are working on getting a high level expertise. In this case, we would like to bring the director of the biggest musical institute of Syria to the States to do a workshop in Boston. But we have to start small. And the other thing we would like to do is to set up a YES Academy to America, to bring specialists in Middle Eastern music, dance, theater and create a space where American students can study this art form.

Q5. Another initiative that American Voices and the US center for citizens diplomacy supports is the creative use of technology in the efforts of cultural diplomacy. In your opinion, how has the so called “digital revolution” changed cultural diplomacy?

One thing is that this web 2.0 and social networks make things much easier to organize. We can now get text messages out through Skype for example, send 300 messages together to Iraqi students if we need to communicate with them. And we also have Facebook groups and pages. We also put up all the results of our concerts on YouTube. I am working on a program to go to Eastern Libya, in Benghazi in September. It is just an idea that I had when I woke up one morning, I don't know anyone there, but I found on Facebook the University of Benghazi's English language club. So we communicate through there, and through this, I have got contacts now with a NGO that is responsible for music, dance and theater in this city. Before the days of Facebook and the Internet, it would have been impossible to make these kinds of connections without a lot of letters and phone calls which would have taken forever. But instead, within three days I found the right person I needed to speak to. A lot of our students use Facebook; most of them do not use Twitter or YouTube because of the slow downloading time. But Facebook is really the best to keeping in touch and providing guidance to participants. This way the individual teachers stay in touch as well. But we cannot do a lot of virtual work like teaching music through Skype, even though that would be wonderful. It just doesn't replace face to face interaction.

Q6. American Voices promotes American citizens to join the efforts of cultural diplomacy through citizen’s diplomacy. How do you encourage ordinary citizens to become cultural ambassadors? As we saw in your video, some of them did not know the differences between Islam and Muslim.

Everyone is on a learning curve in depending on whom you are and where you are so there is always something more to learn. In our group we have a leading expert from Eastern Texas in children theater pedagogy: she has a Master’s Degree, she has a vast experience working with kids and everyone knows her. But she had never traveled outside the States, typical of many Americans who have not been able to travel. The nature of our media is to shut the world out, and when the outside world is mentioned it is usually in terms of threats. So we do not get good, normal, unbiased information, not even from our educational system. We are isolated by the ocean, the only countries we can drive to are Mexico and Canada, and even so, I think America has very limited notions of those countries. So it is a big American problem and our media do not actively try to solve it, tending to focus on death, diseases and destruction. This woman is a good diplomat abroad, she is a very good speaker, and she motivates the kids. But the scene that you saw on the video, that was in 2008; it was her first time in a Mosque. And she did not know anything about Muslim. I like this video, it shows both the hardest and the best moments for teachers, such as getting angry with students or having some big breakthrough with them.

Thank you for your time.