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Wednesday, June 17,2009

Singh around the world

by Sam Singh

“Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.” It was one of the first things I said to myself when I returned from my self-funded sabbatical. I traveled to 46 countries across seven continents in a 17-month period and in many ways it felt like nothing had changed. Sure, we had elected a new president but the Michigan economy still struggled, our state legislature continued to ineptly deal with budget issues and local government still talked more than acted on regional cooperation. And while things at home stayed the same, the way the world viewed our country had changed radically.


This journey had been a long time in the making. When I was 12 years old I started to keep a “worldlist” of the places and events I wanted to experience. As I grew I thought I would see many items on my “worldlist” by taking a long-term travel trip as soon as I graduated from Michigan State University. As it is with many dreams, I set this one aside for more practical pursuits, but I never let it die.


After serving 12 years in elected office and 10 years as the president and CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, I began looking for the next challenge. I had saved enough money to pursue an executive MBA or graduate degree in public policy, which would be the logical next step. But a few years earlier a friend and I discussed taking a mid-career sabbatical to explore the world if we were ever at a point that we could manage it. I contemplated my options and my childhood dream became more vivid and intriguing. Ultimately I decided to put my career on hold and not run for re-election as mayor of East Lansing: I was going to pursue a “Masters of the World.” On Dec. 28, 2007, my journey began.

Ticking items off my “worldlist” was incredible: hiking to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp; exploring the lost city of Machu Picchu; seeing the pyramids; running a half marathon on Antarctica … . Amazing. But somewhere along the way the places themselves became less important and the experience of connecting to people and seeing America through their eyes became more meaningful. The human dynamic became the central theme in my “Masters of the World.”



The 2008 Presidential Election: a Worldwide Affair


Though I have incredible photographs of monuments like the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and the Temples of Angkor Wat, the most lasting memories came from watching the U.S. presidential elections through the eyes of world citizens. It didn’t matter what country I was in or how isolated the village I was visiting, everyone wanted to talk about the election.

During most of the primary season I was in Central and South America. I was surprised how quickly people in these countries were drawn to Barack Obama. I had assumed since President Clinton had significant international popularity that people would have been more supportive of Hillary Clinton. People were drawn to Obama’s words, his eloquence and his personal story.

Our primary system was very confusing. I spent many hours explaining to people the multi-state process and the differences between primaries and caucuses. Since the Republican nomination was wrapped up quickly, the international media only focused on the contest between Clinton and Obama. In turn, many people thought they were competing for the presidency rather than the Democratic Party nomination.

The flaws of our electoral process were apparent to people as they questioned why some states voted before others or what Former East Lansing Mayor Sam Singh volunteered in Moshi, Tanzania, with the charity Kili Kids. Singh proudly displays the Spartan flag at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,330 ft) the role of a super delegate was. A man in Argentina challenged me one night when he said, “For a country that is a champion for democracy, your country has the most undemocratic way of choosing candidates.”

As the election drew to a close, the support of the international community for Obama intensified. I was volunteering with a team of Americans with Habitat for Humanity in Bangalore, India, on Election Day. As the results were announced, local citizens would congratulate us on the election as if we had won it ourselves.

The most illustrative example of how closely the world follows our politics occurred when my father and I went to visit the small rural farming village where he grew up. As we sat with a group of my relatives and community elders the conversation shifted to the appointments that then President-elect Obama was making. They were very critical of his renomination of Robert Gates to secretary of defense since he was aligned with former President Bush. They argued that a new Indian leader would never keep leaders from the other party in their administration. I sat back and watched the conversation unfold, surprised that
this conversation was happening in such a small village in India when
most Americans would likely struggle to name the current secretary of
defense if asked.




International Volunteering: America’s Invisible Ambassadors


A major component of my travels was working with nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations throughout the world. I
was hoping to have a better understanding of the issues facing the
international community through travel, conversation, conferences and
volunteering. “Voluntouring” has become a big trend in the
international travel market. More people are taking vacations and
adding the component of volunteering to allow them to better understand
the communities they are visiting while giving back at the same time.


One of the organizations that I spent my time with was Habitat for
Humanity International. I had the opportunity to volunteer with Habitat
for Humanity in three different countries: Costa Rica, Romania and
India. Working side-by-side with nonprofit professionals and local
volunteers allowed me to connect with the community in so many
different ways. Since my journey had me moving from country to country,
I often felt disconnected with the communities I stayed in. My
volunteer stints allowed me to feel grounded in the place I was living,
learning things I would never get out of a travel guide.

The
most tangible benefit for international volunteering is that the
volunteer becomes an unofficial ambassador for their country. So many
times people in other countries have a stereotypical view of Americans
as self-absorbed travelers. Volunteering gives people the
opportunity to see a different perspective of Americans and our
culture. While I was volunteering in India, a community member
commented that there were many issues between their neighbors because
of the outdated caste system that kept people separated by social status; because we were volunteering with people of all castes it challenged the system.

My
hope is that we harness the potential of American volunteers throughout
the world. Retirees and study abroad students could be a great corps of
volunteers that help support global community efforts. As we try to
repair the image of America through the new administration in
Washington, individual citizens can become a great force in changing
public opinion. While our president is making strides in repairing our
image in the global community, there is no more powerful symbol than
Americans giving of their time and talent to support another community
in another country.



It’s a Small World After All
After
traveling throughout the world I realized that the Disney song is
correct: it IS a small world after all! I provided travel updates
through my blog www.singharoundtheworld.com
and my Facebook page. I was impressed with the international network of
friends and colleagues as I would frequently get e-mails or Facebook
posts suggesting that I should look up one person or another in major
cities around the globe. At times I would randomly bump into people
that I knew or were from East Lansing and/or Michigan State University.


I took a ship to Antarctica, departing from Argentina’s
southern tip. I wasn’t on the boat more than 10 minutes when a woman
from the boat’s catering department
came up to me and said, “Mayor Singh, is that you?” My first reaction
was that one of my fellow runners had put this young woman up to asking
as a practical joke.


As we talked she mentioned that she recently
graduated from Michigan State University and took a job on the ship
because her fiance was the ship’s ornithologist. Then it slowly came
back to me: we met the previous spring. She and her friend had
organized a campus rally called Step It Up to bring awareness to global
warming issues and serve as an educational tool on what citizens can do
to limit their carbon footprint. I was so impressed by her and her
co-organizer that I invited them to speak at the press conference where
I signed East Lansing’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocols. And now we
were on our way to Antarctica.

Another small-world experience
occurred to me during a volunteer initiative that I did with Habitat
for Humanity in Romania. One of the participants saw in my volunteering
biography that I was from East Lansing. As we talked, we found out that
I live exactly one block from where he grew up and that his father
still lives there. As he described his father, I realized that
I had a met him during door-to door canvassing for one my first
campaigns. I was surprised how often things like this happened during
my journey.



A Primer: The Middle East Peace Process


My
last few months of travel happened to be the most educational. The
final six weeks had me visiting Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Israel. It was
an incredible time to be in the region with the renewed focus on the
Middle East peace process and the historic meetings that occurred while
I was there. During my travels Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had his initial meetings with President Obama and with the leaders of Jordan and Egypt.
Along
with watching the political meetings and getting the local perspective,
I was in Jerusalem during Pope Benedict XVI’s initial visit to Israel.
There could never be a political science course that taught me as much
about the region and the current state of affairs than my personal
travels.

Having the opportunity to talk with people in these countries about the issues facing
a “two-state” solution in Israel really helped me shape my worldview
regarding peace in the Middle East. I will admit that I originally held
a simplistic view of how the problem should be solved but now I
understand more fully the complications the peace process will face.
Though I am hopeful that Obama will be able to help broker a peace
deal, I left Israel more pessimistic; the challenges will be more
difficult to overcome than the American media leads us to believe.


There is No Place Like Home


During
the journey, many people mentioned that I would struggle when I moved
back to Michigan and that I should consider relocating to a more global
city like New York or Washington, but I can't leave because Michigan is
my home. Though many in the international and national media have
written off Michigan, I know that we will be able turn the corner and
reemerge as a new state poised to take advantage of the global economy.
I am willing to push all my chips in and take a bet on the place that
gave my immigrant parents a home, financial freedom and endless
opportunities.

The journey has ended and I have been home for
three weeks, with the integration being somewhat seamless. I am taking
my experiences and learning and incorporating them into my consulting
work that I have started doing with the Lansing-based firm, Public
Policy Associates, Inc. My focus will be working with nonprofit
organizations and helping communities transition to a knowledge-based
global economy.

I don't know what my future will hold but I do
know that the past 17 months have been transformative. There hasn't
been a moment that I questioned my decision to pursue this dream. The
learning and experiences of my "Masters of the World" is stronger and
more meaningful than anything I could have learned in the classroom. I
have been fortunate to take this journey and now I need to give that
back to my community. The world famous traveler Dorothy Gale was on
target when she said at the end of "The Wizard of Oz," "There is no
place like home." She is right — it is good to be back.

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