I first visited the quaint Eastern European city of Riga, Latvia in the summer of 1989. Nestled between the Baltic Sea, Lithuania, Russia, Belarus and Estonia, Latvia represented the second stop in our People to People delegation of Kansas high school students touring the USSR. After a grim few days in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) where we were harassed by black marketeers and giant hotel cockroaches, our group languished in the friendlier atmosphere of Riga, with its intimate parks, basement nightclubs and kind, hopeful people. We went on to see several other cities in Russia and the Ukraine, but I always remembered Riga fondly.
Twenty-six years later, I had the rare opportunity to participate in a different kind of delegation to Riga, this time as one of a dozen trainers from around the world, facilitating on behalf of the US State Department. My job: to provide tools and expertise to 60 journalists from the region. The program: TechCamp. In the two-day workshop, we explored topics like digital strategy, fact checking, video editing, social organizing and security. Participants selected sessions based on areas of interest for their respective media organizations. At the end of the second day, each group of participants presented what they learned. In the process, they built key skill sets and professional relationships.
Born from Secretary Hillary Clinton's Civil Society 2.0 initiative in the State Department, TechCamps first launched in 2010. In the past five years, TechCamps have taken place in Eastern Europe, South America and Southeast Asia. TechCamp Riga represented a newly expanded program since its move into the Office of Information Programs (IIP) at State. IIP's focus, according to Senior Communications Strategist, Jamie Findlater Dredge, is to connect people to U.S. policy priorities through online and offline dialogue.
"Civil society organizations, journalists, and other key target groups are doing outstanding work on the ground in local communities. There are many low-cost technologies (such as mobiles, social media, interactive voice response, data mapping) and concepts (such as crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, gaming, micro-tasking) that have taken root in recent years and are readily accessible to many people. There is also a vibrant technology community around the world knowledgeable about these easy-to-implement technological tools. These groups do not often intersect, and TechCamp is just that catalyst they need to achieve their goals," explained Findlater Dredge in an official State Department DipNote blog post.
Pritam Kabe, Senior Program Manager, Public Diplomacy & Public Affairs described the recent program shift: "The TechCamp program's expansion was triggered in the fall of 2014, when the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel participated in a TechCamp. Like many, he immediately discovered that the 'TechCamp bug' was contagious - knowing from the start that the enthusiasm, new ideas, and possibilities for solutions could not be overlooked." Under Secretary Stengel visited TechCamp Riga and spoke about the State Department's role providing tools for journalists and combating propaganda. Sharon Hudson-Dean, Charge d'Affaires for the US Embassy in Riga provided concluding remarks about the critical role of journalists globally and opportunities for investigative journalists to make a difference.
In the State Department's Mission Statement, two functions stand out in relation to TechCamp: "foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere" and "invest in the shared security and prosperity that will ultimately better prepare us for the challenges of tomorrow." We weren't there to spread American ideas or policies. Our role was purely to provide insight based on our expertise to help prepare others. For me, it was also a learning experience about working as a trainer in a different cultural environment. Although it took a while to warm up the conversation, one thing remained clear: the people in Latvia were still as kind and hopeful as I remembered.
When I look back now on what I gained from participating as a TechCamp trainer, I realize that the Department of State is building much more than a resource toolset; they're building a global network of trained civil society leaders. As Rick Tulsky, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and TechCamp Riga keynote speaker emphasized, "persistence & creativity are your best tools." I left Riga with conflicted emotions. On one hand, the shadow of the former Soviet empire still looms and the people in the region still feel it daily. On the other hand, their future is bright and their people determined to take hold of 21st century technology for the next chapter in their story.