As the United States government brings economic sanctions to bear against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, organizations, state and local governments, and individuals across the country are also seeking ways to react. Monetary donations to relief organizations are on the rise. Consumers are shunning Russian products. States such as New Jersey have enacted legislation barring companies with ties to Russia and Belarus from doing business with the state.
The sanctions are directed at the government, but certainly affect the Russian people, which raises concerns about international relations, both in the short and long term.
Philadelphia organizations that work to foster relationships and understanding between Americans and citizens of other countries see their roles as especially vital now. “Our mission is to sustain international relationships despite the ups and downs of foreign policy” explained Siobhán Lyons, president and CEO of Citizen Diplomacy International Philadelphia (CDIP). “These exchanges are more critical than ever. Citizen diplomacy is most important when official diplomacy is failing.”
“If we sever all ties, like trade and commerce, all we are left with is guns,” said Lauren Swartz, CEO of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia (WACP). At the core of their work is education, both in schools and with adults. “We’re working on creating opportunities for people in our community to understand what’s going on,” she said. “Not to tell people what to think, but how to think about the situation.”
It’s been challenging for teachers to adapt curriculum when events happen suddenly. “Recently, we haven’t had anything like this come into existence so quickly,” Swartz noted. “Teachers are laboring over how to explain it without sparking too much fear.” For its part, WACP has been working at a fast pace to offer forums that address the conflict and to adapt some programs that have already been planned such as a talk on March 23 by Camilla Mellander, the Consul General of Sweden in New York, on Swedish-American relations. That topic will still be addressed, but she will also discuss the situation in Ukraine from the vantage point of a European Union member that also shares a maritime border with Russia.
Thus far, Philadelphia city government is mostly watching and waiting. “We are evaluating all scenarios and will make further decisions accordingly,” said Irene Contreras, deputy communications director of the Office of the Mayor. “The Philadelphia Board of Pensions and Retirement unanimously voted to divest from Russia or Russian-related entities in a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine and its people and condemnation of Russia’s acts of aggression against an independent nation.”
Chicago’s city government responded recently by suspending its sister city relationship with Moscow, which began 75 years ago in the aftermath of World War II. Lyons’ CDIP works with the City of Philadelphia in sustaining its relationship with Nizhny Novgorod, its sister city in Russia, which was established in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. She doesn’t think Philadelphia will follow Chicago’s lead, noting that although many sister city pairings are commerce related, “Our exchanges with Nizhny Novgorod have always focused on youth programs.”
Swartz at WACP hopes the City will step up in another way when the time comes. “Philadelphia has a long, proud history of welcoming refugees. It is important for our city to remember how welcoming we’ve been.”
Lyons said CDIP agrees. “If we want to spread our values to the rest of the world, the best way is to demonstrate them. People-to-people relationships are essential to our humanity.”