The unexpected gift

When the box showed up at my desk with a return address from Mexico, I was nervous. Should I open this? Just a month earlier, the floor above ours was shut down after someone sent an anthrax threat to a group with ties to a certain presidential candidate’s family charity.

Would it be safe to open it?

I hesitated. I didn’t recognize the name on the return address for the rather large box. It wasn’t suspicious in any way—just was unexpected. I think I told my coworkers to call 911 if anything went wrong as I cut open the box.

Inside, was this beautifully handcrafted wooden name plate and a thank you note from a participant in a State Department cultural trip whom I had spoken with a couple months prior.

A handcrafted gift from a cultural exchange participant

All of us were amazed at the craftsmanship and thoughtfulness of the man who sent it to me. I was one of dozens of people he met with and I have no doubt he probably made similar thank you gifts for the others he met with during his trip. We took pictures and put it on Instagram. When I left the Sunlight Foundation, I didn’t know what I should do with it.

“Keep it. Bring it home. You’ll want to remember it,” one of my coworkers said.

I didn’t realize how valuable it would become to me only a few months later as I looked through the President’s proposed budget and saw he wanted to eliminate these programs which are such a very, very small part of the U.S. budget.

I’m not going to lie, my heart sank.

I felt betrayed that they didn’t realize how impactful these trips – which are such a small part of our federal budget—are to the image of America. The exchanges foster such great goodwill toward our country. They allow people—many who wouldn’t be able to afford the visa or the price of a trip—to come to the United States, meet average Americans, and get inspired about continuing the work they do back home.

Those people who participate take back to their home countries a renewed passion for their work, as well as a love for America and Americans because they are so grateful for the opportunity.

There are so many different programs for different professions—but I’ve mainly met with government officials and journalists from different countries. The first one I participated in was back in Kansas City when a team of Egyptian journalists came through touring television stations across the United States. It was just after the Arab Spring, so while I did share with them what it was like to be a local news reporter, I learned a lot about what was happening in their country and their concerns with the poor status of international news coverage by American television news outlets. It made me more reflective about who I was as a journalist and how I was covering other countries.

When I moved to D.C., I ended up doing presentations regularly for groups traveling on these exchanges about journalism, open government and transparency. It was by far one of the best parts of my job. I met with people from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Russia, Latin America and Africa. I always agreed to take these meetings because they were such an uplifting part of my day—giving me hope that there can be peace in our world.

Last year, I was sent to Honduras to tour news outlets there and talk about what it was like to be an investigative reporter in the United States. It was a life-changing experience because I could see the source of our immigration problems up close. Poverty, corruption and gang violence are prolific. The economy is stagnant. It made me realize the complexity of the problem facing the United States that a wall won’t resolve.

My hosts at Universidad Tecnológica de Honduras surprised me with a birthday cake!

In every place where I spoke about what I did as an investigative journalist in the United States—challenging government and holding leaders accountable–someone replied “we could never do that here.”

Meaning, they would end up dead.

It’s hard not to be changed by conversations like that. It certainly made me very grateful to live in a country that values press freedom. I left Tegucigalpa feeling a touch guilty—that I got more out of the trip than I gave. I remember telling one of my coworkers about this–how frustrating it was to meet with fellow reporters who were working under such threatening conditions and not be able to do anything about it.

“Maybe that isn’t the point. Maybe the point is just that we remind people what is possible. That it doesn’t have to be like this. So they are encouraged to keep working for something better,” he said.

In the control room of one of the television stations in Tegucigalpa, Honduras

You know, he’s right. That is the point. We’ve been the shining example for centuries of what press freedom should look like. Countless journalists and government officials have come to this country and returned home with an image of what democracy looks like. I’ve witnessed first-hand participants take the things they’ve learned here and implement them in their own country.

This is why I’m worried about the message the United States is sending right now about transparency and press freedom. I’m also concerned how blindly destroying these programs will affect the United States’ “soft power” in the world.

I’ve thought a lot in the last few weeks about the journalists I’ve met. What happens to them if the State Department stops fighting for press freedom and human rights? I worry about them. But I’m also reminded of what they are doing in very challenging situations.

Inside the Kremlin in Moscow

I think of the journalist in Honduras who said, “I love it and I can’t imagine doing anything else.” That was right after she told me about someone shooting the security guard in the reception area of their building. I especially think of the journalists I met who work to expose corruption in Russia. They know the risks—harassment, jail and, perhaps, death—yet they keep investigating.

They keep writing because they believe that something better is possible. They’ve seen it.

And I guess, unexpectedly, their courage in the face of adversity has left an impression on me about what is possible as well.

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