Leadership.  Networking.  Promoting civil dialogue.

These are the Tai Initiative’s by-words  to promote and  nurture positive behaviors in the American-Chinese relationship.

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Sounds great, but how does it really work?  What do we do to use such concepts in a day’s work?  This week, the TI Director of Research (Ben Leffel) and Executive Director (myself) paid a visit to the wonderful, weird world of Portland, Oregon to promote civil dialogue and leadership skills and build a network of leaders; in short, to make The Tai Initiative’s goals a  reality.   We didn’t have long to watch or wait to see our hard work translate into tangible progress.  Instead, we were “wow”ed by the engagement of many Portland residents.

We arrived by rail from Oregon’s northern brother, Washington, in a train as  empty of people as the ones in China are packed.  The train ride gave us an  an opportunity  to reflect on the economic potential of the Pacific Northwest showcased by the majestic (and ocean accessible) port, situated in the throat of the mighty Columbia.  Its fleet of container giants are force-fed a steady diet of tonnage by the long-necked cranes of commerce.  No doubt many were bound for Chinese ports, where  even this mighty sight would be dwarfed.

Leadership and Networking

Soon Ben and I found ourselves having lunch with the Director of Communications and past president of the Portland-Suzhou Sister City Association.  A warm, friendly man, Bob Fraser quickly  pointed out the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) is thinking of holding its 2021 (yes, you read that right) conference in Portland. This will give Portland an opportunity to showcase its already substantial record of success in the area of urban planning for sustainable living. Though it could be a small  detail in most conversations, it is news The Tai Initiative will use for its long-term strategic planning with and is a practical testament to the wonderful power of networking subnational leaders. By sharing with Bob what we know about the changing environment in US-China relations, we soon were also sharing thoughts about the importance of good leadership skills among our various organizations, noting in particular his vision of “making a difference one meeting at a time.”

Bob, we areBob Fraser so honored to have met you; we look forward to exciting years ahead.

“Citizen diplomacy and city-level connections are doing more for branding our country’s diplomatic skills than any national department.” – Robert Fraser

Onward we marched, this time to a larger group of leaders in urban planning and sustainability drawn from Portland’s Sustainability Bureau and faculty from nearby Portland State University.  In order to understand more about the Portland-Kunming ecoPartnership program, we had asked to meet with these two offices together.  Portland is a gemstone of sustainability knowledge and has a lot to teach others! Though they are not strangers to one another by any stretch, we soon realized that by our asking to meet with them at the same time, the event also gave them an opportunity to refresh one another on the most recent developments in their innovative city’s program.  Portland’s governance and the university’s knowledge are already providing a sure foundation on which to build. What new architectures of thought might rise from this foundation?  We look forward to finding out.

Promoting Civil Dialogue

By now it was evening, and time for our primary mission to unfold.  The Northwest China Council, a premier institution dedicated to providing frequent, culturally aware, and commercially relevant community events, asked The Tai Initiative to plan a screening of The Revolutionary, a movie which details Sidney Rittenberg’s, an American, experiences in China  from 1944-1979 and facilitate a discussion afterwards.IMG_6414 small

For those unfamiliar with the movie, more information, a movie trailer and purchasing options can be  found at www.revolutionarymovie.com . We highly recommend it for anyone interested in China!

The dialogue afterward was challenging and arresting.  We shared our different perspectives on the heavy emotional and political burdens which affect how the Cultural Revolution can, and must, be made known to a wider audience.  As I sat quietly listening to our tiny group huddled in the Red Robe Tea House, I reflected on how this movie night was a “sold-out” event; only two days after the public release of the event announcement, the event organizer had received more names than they could fit in the venue.  The small space afforded was no match for the much larger level of interest this subject had gathered.  How many were not there that night who might otherwise have also contributed meaningfully to the civil dialogue?  I thought of how much room there is, in time and space, for more events to be put together for our education’s sake.  But who will organize them?  There is always more work to be done in the non-profit sector. Will you help us?

What’s in a day?  In this case, The Tai Initiative saw all three of its core strategies worked out in practical ways. We shared lessons in leadership, we brought colleagues together and expanded others’ horizons, and we watched and listened to one of America’s oldest living China experts.  He helped us examine the very meaning of humanity and our place in history.  By spending time with others, we had our horizons expanded and perspectives challenged, once again.  Looking back on all this, we became inspired to re-prioritize our multi-year plan of conference locations.  Previously, Portland hadn’t placed.  Now it seems poised as a practical possibility.