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How to Make a Difference Abroad: A Review of Kate Otto’s “Everyday Ambassador”

DJIBOUTI (CJTF-HOA PAO) -- Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Gabriel Zisk scrubs the walls of a local school during a Community Assistance Volunteer project in which servicemembers and civilians assigned to Camp Lemonnier began preparing the school for painting. Volunteers spent about four hours March 26 cleaning the Nagad School's exterior, which will eventually receive a fresh coat of blue and white paint. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Austin M. May)

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Gabriel Zisk scrubs the walls of a local school during a Community Assistance Volunteer project in which servicemembers and civilians assigned to Camp Lemonnier began preparing the school for painting. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Austin M. May)

By Oren Litwin

In March 2006, President George W. Bush gave a speech in Cleveland, Ohio, about his foreign policy. During the question and answer section he was asked, “[F]rom the grassroots level, how can we… promote the cause of freedom and liberty for all peoples throughout the world?” That is, how can ordinary citizens work to make the world a better place? Bush answered, “[T]he best way you can help is to support our troops,” thus totally missing the point of the question. There is a growing sense that true change in the world needs to come from the drive and energy of ordinary people, working in ways large and small to solve the problems around them. The question is, what is the right way to do so?

In her new book Everyday Ambassador (Atria Paperback), Kate Otto lays out a program for young people seeking to make a difference. Otto wrote the book after a decade of volunteer work in places like Indonesia, Ghana and Tanzania, building off of her own experience and her observations of other young Americans engaged in volunteer work or study abroad.

She herself, and the legions of college volunteers whom she observed later, ventured out into the world filled with visions of all the good they could do for the disadvantaged, but did not start by listening to the people they ostensibly wanted to help. As a result, Otto writes, “foreign volunteers often create more problems than we solve.… [They are] supremely socially conscious citizens who have everything it takes to change the world—except a strong capacity for relationship development, which is the foundation that all social change is enacted upon.”

Why do young people find it so hard to do real good? For Otto, part of the answer is in what she calls a “disconnectivity paradox.” Our increasing use of powerful technology and social media is causing our social skills to atrophy. This is not an anti-tech jeremiad; much of Everyday Ambassador is spent discussing how social media can be used for social change.

However, Otto argues that our use of tech is teaching us four specific bad habits that breed social isolation. First, the urge to multitask harms our ability to focus on a single problem or conversation. Second, social media and adaptive web-search ends up creating an informational echo chamber that leads to polarized opinions, in politics and culture. Third, the convenience of technology and social media especially lead to self-centeredness. Fourth, our powerful tools inadvertently teach us impatience with the delays and complications of real life.

In response, Otto identifies four social skills that together can make someone an “everyday ambassador” — someone who can “transform good intentions into positive actions through strong relationships.” These skills are focus, empathy, humility, and patience. If you can master these skills, you can bring about powerful changes by communicating with other people, being receptive to what they actually need and to what you are capable of providing them.

“Rather than crossing borders of nation-states, everyday ambassadors cross borders of comfort zones, amending the communication lapses that are so prevalent in our environments, both online and offline,” she writes. Importantly, Otto emphasizes that one can be an ambassador not merely between different countries, but also between different social groups in your own community or even individuals. The skills of communication and listening are powerful in a multitude of settings, and most of us can do the most good in the places that we live.

Each of the four skills is given its own chapter, discussing the powerful trends in our society working against its development and then providing a gentle program for its cultivation. For example, Chapter 3, on focus, begins by describing the “Fear of Missing Out” that leads to distraction. Otto then lists strategies such as shutting off your internet during periods of sustained work, or at least “keep[ing] the number of tabs you have open to a smaller number than usual.” Then she discusses the idea of “presence” in interactions with real people, and the importance of focusing on specific concrete tasks rather than vast objectives such as “equal education for girls.” Each chapter ends off with a series of “inner reflections,” “outer reflections” and “action steps” meant to help train the skill in question.

Throughout the book, Otto provides case studies of social activists who have done exceptional work by building deep relationships with the people they seek to help. (In many cases, the reader is directed to the companion website, which has a staff of writers and is clearly trying to become a community for activists.) The case studies show the power of listening and building relationships, rather than charging onto the scene with assumptions of what the right answer is. The last forty pages of the book are made up of profiles of allied activist organizations written by the activists themselves, which range from the self-congratulatory to the genuinely moving.

Reading the book, I was struck by the contrast between the inspiring achievements of the highlighted activists, and how seemingly basic some of Otto’s prescriptions were. For example, her advice includes such things as minimizing the number of active screens on one’s smartphone, reading over an email carefully before sending it, and reading “at least one full news article per week” rather than skimming. Are things so bad at colleges today that even bright people who want to change the world have to be told these things? If so, Otto is providing a desperately-needed service; still, I wonder if her expectations aren’t set too low, perhaps to broaden her potential audience.

Because Otto’s program of personal development is geared to such a basic level, the advice she gives is elementary. I was hoping for a reading list for readers who wanted to learn more about topics discussed in the book like mindfulness, meditation, or conflict resolution; unfortunately, Everyday Ambassador does not provide such a reading list, nor does the accompanying website. Having a list of resources would be a great help for the well-intentioned young people Otto seeks to reach. In particular, I think that Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson et al., is invaluable for anyone seeking to develop the negotiation and conflict-resolution skills discussed in Chapter 5.

It is worth noting that of the activist programs featured in the book, all those with political implications tend to the left; politicians such as Cory Booker and volunteers for the Obama campaign are highlighted. Similarly, in the few places where Otto speaks of conservatives in passing, they are portrayed as bigots at worst (as when “socially conservative parents embracing their child’s interracial marriage” apparently merits special praise), and at best as essentially passive actors subject to the vagaries of their information sources. For example, in Chapter 1 Otto parallels “a Democratic leader following Republican constituents on Twitter for the purpose of staying in tune with a wide variety of perspectives” with “a conservative voter not defriending liberal friends on Facebook to incorporate a constant infusion of different perspectives.”

The one exception is a passage in Chapter 7, where Otto describes encountering cogent gun-rights arguments from social activists who were unexpectedly pro-gun. Her unconscious stereotypes of gun owners were challenged, and she was left with greater understanding of the subject even if her convictions remained the same. Yet the brief narrative only serves to highlight the lack of such political dialogue in the rest of the presentation. In a book about understanding different points of view, this unconscious slant is ironic and will turn off some readers. Since Otto repeatedly states and clearly believes that our growing political polarization and resulting habit of “othering” is harmful, perhaps she can encourage more acts of everyday ambassadorship across political divides as well as material ones.

In spite of these caveats, Everyday Ambassador delivers an important message and provides a beginner’s roadmap for those who want to train themselves in the skills needed to cross the world’s divisions. College students driven to change the world but with no clue where to start would benefit from reading this book. I hope that for Kate Otto, Everyday Ambassador and its accompanying web community represent only the beginning of a richer project.

Oren Litwin is a Political Risk Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He is an expert in non-state actors and just war theory, and he has extensive professional experience in financial advising, investing and alternative finance such as crowdfunding.