“I’ve been really impressed by how much we can accomplish just by locking people in a room for two days,” said Natalie Komrovsky about the 2014 US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange Conference sessions titled “Toward Sustainable Partnerships” that took place this fall. Natalie, a program manager at the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund and a member of SEE’s Child Protection Working Group, was one of the 107 dedicated Russian and American social experts at the conference, all of whom continue to believe in the value of engagement and exchange between the two countries despite the current challenges.
During several sessions taking place between October and January, members of SEE’s nine diverse thematic working groups gathered once again to discuss the advancement and expansion of their collaborative and mutually-beneficial initiatives. They hailed from distant places as varied as Montana and Kamchatka as well as the metropolitan centers of Moscow and New York.
For some participants, this conference was an entirely new international experience. “This is not only my first conference, but truly my first venture outside the borders of my home country,” said Sergei Tabunov, a new Education and Youth Working Group member from Tolyatti, Russia. “For me, everything was new. New country, new people, new emotions… I feel like I’ve really learned a lot.”
For others, the conference offered a chance to apply the knowledge acquired on their SEE fellowships. “What I learned during my fellowship completely changed my perspective on migration and migrants,” explained Valentina Chupik, a long-standing member of the Migration Working Group and a 2014 SEE fellow. Now Valentina hopes to use her new perspectives toward a new project of the working group, in which the members will develop informational resources that will benefit the work of migrant rights advocates.
Amid plenary presentations, capacity building trainings and individual working group meetings, the second part of the conference featured a distinct moment – a special presentation by members of the Media Enabled Musketeers Linkage Project. That initiative connected journalists with people with disabilities in order to create documentaries about disability issues. Jon Novick, the maker of the insightful “Don’t Look Down on Me” film, presented his work, which has drawn over 2.7 million viewers on YouTube. He spoke about his experiences making the film, as well as about those of other Russian and American filmmakers with disabilities who produced poignant works illustrating the struggles and triumphs within their lives.
The sustainability of the working groups was the central theme of the conference, as the groups discussed their long-term objectives, plans for greater independence, and the overall impact of their activities. Keeping the goal of sustainability in mind, some of the working groups chose to expand upon previously initiated projects, while others chose to explore new directions.
The Higher Education Working Group decided to continue their focus on US-Russian university partnerships in 2014-2015, which they will pursue by expanding university networks across borders while increasing exchange and communication between institutions. “That’s something we want to increase: the number of partnerships and the strength of those partnerships,” explained Erin Weeks-Earp, a PhD candidate at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.
The Child Protection Working Group will continue to develop lasting connections for youth in foster care, and to identify how child welfare systems in the US and Russia can best adopt effective ways of preparing youth for the transition out of state care. Similarly, the Education and Youth Working Group will continue to expand upon their existing Cyber-Fair and Open Door projects by assessing the most effective innovations for engaging youth in both countries. The Rule of Law and the Community Working Group will use previously developed tools to continue educating communities on how to hold police accountable to civilian oversight.
The Public Health Working Group chose to move from last year’s focus on migrant health to a design and implementation of a mobile technology (mHealth) pilot project. The new activity will communicate health information to people with substance abuse issues in Fall River, Massachusetts and St. Petersburg, Russia. In this new initiative, the group will rely heavily on the strategic Roadmap for mHealth Interventions for At-Risk Women, which was developed by the Health and Development Foundation and SSTAR as part of a 2014 SEE Linkage Project. The Gender Equity Working Group will provide stakeholders in both countries with the most creative and holistic models for dealing with domestic violence.
Similarly advancing new project goals, the Community Development Working Group will combat the perceived lack of an entrepreneurial mindset within many small towns and rural communities in the US and Russia by using technological tools to better engage community members. And the Flora and Fauna Working Group will improve the capacity of wildlife refuge managers to minimize conflicts between local communities and the animals living in the wild the wildlife and the local communities.
Working members departed the conference sessions with a renewed sense of purpose and optimism for the future of effective partnerships between the US and Russia. Reflected Lev Gorelov, an Education and Youth Working Group member and Project Developer in California, “SEE continues to be “a bridge that tries to bring two countries in opposite parts of the world together and reach a common understanding.”