This summer, The IRC in Dallas partnered with the George W. Bush Institute to be a part of their Liberty and Leadership Forum. This program serves as a means of advocacy training for “men and women active in education, health, politics, human rights, journalism, and other fields” in preparation for Myanmar’s journey towards democracy. While the future of democracy for Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is uncertain, it is the Bush Institute’s belief that this program will provide select Young Leaders with an extensive knowledge base that will be beneficial to democratization.
This year’s Forum came to a culmination on Monday, June 26th at a graduation ceremony hosted by Former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. The IRC and other community partners joined the Institute for a celebration of the Liberty and Leadership Forum’s background, purpose, and success. The Class of 2017 graduates participated in a panel discussion about their experiences in the program. The staff of the Bush Institute and the Bush Center graciously extended the invitation to 13 IRC staff members and 7 Burmese refugees connected to the IRC. The invitees ranged from former residents of refugee camps and clients all the way to current employees and the Executive Director of the IRC in Dallas, Donna Duvin.
The Class of 2017, the third in the program’s existence, consisted of 20 Burmese Young Leaders from various backgrounds, positions, and of many notable accomplishments. The curriculum is meant to complement their previous education and prepare them for further leadership opportunities upon returning to Myanmar. It focused on “the principles of liberal democracy and economic freedom, lessons from other democratic transitions, and practical... management skills”.
The evening concluded with a ceremony to honor the graduates. The existence of programs such as the Liberty and Leadership Forum succeeds when they partner with agencies like the IRC that serve to provide individuals with the ability to empower themselves. Such partnerships will continue to create influential, passionate advocates that will better the world by advancing the values of freedom and democracy wherever they may be.
A core component of the Liberty and Leadership Forum is a final week of site visits in the United States. This year, one of the site visits was a panel consisting of representatives from local agencies to discuss how they were promoting pluralism while also balancing its challenges. On this panel were Donna Duvin, Literacy Achieves Executive Director Sarah Papert, and CEO of Heart House, Lenita Dunlap. Each of these agencies discussed their commitment to providing refugees and other vulnerable individuals with the building blocks they need to succeed in America, all while preserving their cultural traditions.
These agencies value diversity and believe that it should be supported and celebrated. Their work focuses on investing in individuals on a personal level while also recognizing the importance of calling attention to the larger issues their communities face. By reaching out to elected officials and striving to make an impact on the policy that guides them, they are lifting up voices from all populations.
The Bush Institute and the Presidential Center in Dallas designated the IRC as an integral part of the Liberty and Leadership Forum’s Site Visit component. This event allowed the Young Leaders to visit a school in the community, as well as be engaged in a panel consisting of Burmese refugee high school graduates, a teacher, and a moderator from the IRC. Through this site visit and informational panel, Young Leaders were able to see how pluralism is incorporated into education in the United States, and even how they could put the concept to work in Myanmar.
The students spoke about maintaining their cultural identity, how they promote tolerance and acceptance, and the impact of organizations like the IRC and the programs of the Bush Institute that allow for continuous cultural exchange in a safe environment. The participation and input of refugee students during the Site Visit proved to be valuable to the Young Leaders, as their shared experiences and values left a lasting impression in their discussions of ethnic inclusivity, cultural identity, and the immense worth education holds for each one of them.
The IRC in Dallas also served as one of the agencies participating in the job shadowing component of the Forum. By shadowing other staff and organizations aligned with their field of interest, each Young Leader received the opportunity to gain new insight and ideas they can apply back at home.
The IRC had the privilege of hosting Class of 2017 Young Leader Saw Htoo Eh. Htoo Eh currently holds a position with the Free Burma Rangers back in his home country where he focuses on relief, medical care, and crisis intervention. Htoo Eh was able to learn about the IRC’s methods for addressing domestic violence and how they promote mental health through specific programs through observing and interviewing members at the IRC.
The new perspective he gained from the models and procedures in place that address the cultural stigma associated with mental health, as well as the domestic violence response measures used by the IRC, were helpful in developing new strategies he could implement in his work in Myanmar.
The collaboration between the Bush Institute and the agencies participating in the job shadowing aspect of the program allow for mutual education amongst the participants, reiterating the fact that learning and informational exchange between nations is an ongoing process.
Story by Dima Alhesan and Sydney Cerza