MISSOULA – The Mansfield Center at the University of Montana is seeking six Montana sports professionals to serve as citizen ambassadors in a youth sports diplomacy program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The exchange entails an all-expense-paid, two-week exchange in Laos in March 2016, and the opportunity to work with sports professionals from Laos traveling to Montana later that year.
Funded by the SportsUnited Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. State Department, the Mansfield Center project uses sport to support underserved populations in Laos, including ethnic minorities and youth with disabilities. The team from Montana will draw from its expertise to share ways that sports can play a role in youth development at the grassroots level, while promoting technical proficiency among coaches, administrators and officials. The program will help build teamwork and self-discipline in youth that can lead to success in other aspects of their lives.
The Montana team will experience both professional and cultural activities during its Laos exchange. While working with K-12 schools and associations supporting youth, the group also will learn about the culture and history of Laos by traveling to the capital city of Vientiane and to the northern mountainous region featuring the mysterious Plain of Jars.
“Given unique constraints in Laos, sports provide an ideal vehicle through which to enhance cross-cultural understanding,” said Deena Mansour, Mansfield Center program director. “This project helps youth develop important leadership skills and achieve academic success while promoting respect for diversity and developing understanding of environmental issues. Our program reaches both youth as well as those who design and manage youth sports programs, with a focus on soccer, traditional native games and adaptive sports.”
The Mansfield Center was selected to implement this program in part because of its emphasis on sport and the environment. Sports activities have the power to unite people around projects that can positively influence the environment and local communities. Montana participants will engage youth and youth influencers in the practices of environmental sustainability through programs addressing clean water, conservation, recycling and other key issues.
Though greatly separated by distance, Montana and Laos have a surprising number of commonalities. Both are landlocked, feature rugged, mountainous terrain and share industries, including agriculture, forestry, electricity generation and mining. Both have environmental concerns related to water, deforestation, eco-tourism and recycling. Each is home to significant communities of indigenous peoples.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. conducted massive aerial bombardment in Laos to disrupt North Vietnamese supply routes, dropping more than 2 million tons of bombs. An estimated 30 percent failed to explode, resulting in the world’s largest contamination from unexploded ordnance. Villagers regularly are injured by accidental contact; 40 percent of those disabled are youth.
“Montana is also uniquely tied to this region because of the work of smokejumpers in Laos during the war,” Mansour said. “As a result, the Mansfield Center found the program theme of supporting youth with disabilities to be particularly relevant.”
The Mansfield Center is an established partner in SportsUnited programming, having created a similar exchange in China in 2014. China traveler and Paxson Elementary School health and wellness teacher Glenn Moffatt said, “These programs are a unique opportunity to connect youth across the world. For the China exchange, Paxson kids raised $570 to buy sports equipment for a partner school. This fits right in with preparing our kids to compete in a global economy and build mutual understanding between such different cultures.”
Sports diplomacy has emerged as an integral part of efforts to build relations between the U.S. and other nations. This type of diplomacy uses the universal passion for sports as a way to transcend linguistic and sociocultural differences, and bring people together. Participation in sports teaches leadership, teamwork and communication skills that help young people succeed in all areas of their lives.
The SportsUnited Division was created to increase dialogue and cultural understanding between people around the world through sports. The division’s use of sports as a platform exposes foreign participants to American culture while providing them with an opportunity to establish links with U.S. sports professionals and peers. In turn, Americans learn about foreign cultures and the challenges young people from other countries face today. SportsUnited has involved thousands of people from over 100 countries in sports exchanges. The Mansfield Center is the sole recipient of SportsUnited grants in Montana.
Sports diplomacy is one of many ways the U.S. government follows U.S. law as regulated by the Fulbright Hays Act of 1961. The act requires the U.S. government to increase mutual understanding between the people of the U.S. and the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange, and thus to assist in the development of peaceful relations between the United States and the other countries of the world.
The SportsUnited grant is one of seven State Department grants run by the Mansfield Center to benefit our community, including the American Youth Leadership Program funding the travel of Montana high school students and teachers to Thailand, and the Professional Fellows Program supporting an exchange of professionals in NGO development.
“These programs help further the Mansfield Center’s mandate to engage people from across our state in global connections,” Mansour said.
UM’s Mansfield Center promotes better understanding of Asia, U.S. relations with Asia and ethics in public affairs in the spirit of Sen. Mike Mansfield (1903-2001) and his wife and life partner, Maureen Hayes Mansfield. The center houses programs that focus on the peoples and cultures of modern Asia and ethics in public affairs – the core interests and hallmarks of Sen. Mansfield’s career.
For more information on applying to become part of the exchange, call Mansour at 406-243-2713 by Friday, Oct. 9. For background information on the program, visit http://eca.state.gov/programs-initiatives/sports-diplomacy or http://umt.edu/mansfield.