In 1987, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — at the time, the president of the Vermont state Senate — was given an offer that he couldn’t refuse. He was invited by the American Council of Young Political Leaders to travel behind the Iron Curtain to the Soviet Union, where he would have a chance to meet with political leaders.
“It was the high point of my pathetic life,— Welch says with a chuckle.
Welch was part of a bipartisan group of up-and-coming political leaders who were invited to be part of a delegation that toured the communist nation. The group traveled to Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — and Moscow, in addition to other cities.
“It was certainly an eye-opener for me partly because I’d never been there before,— Welch says of the trip. “You’re plunged into the world of the Soviet Union, and it’s something on your own that you could never do.—
Welch is one of hundreds of leaders who have traveled abroad with the ACYPL. The nonprofit was founded in 1966 as a nonpartisan organization designed to promote international diplomacy as a means of surviving the Cold War. The founders thought “if there was an opportunity for young political leaders to meet each other, we were all less likely to do bad things to each other,— CEO Linda Rotunno says. “It’s enjoyed bipartisan support ever since.—
The nonprofit, which partners with the State Department, sends groups of seven to nine young politicians from ages 25 to 40 to foreign nations, including China and Brazil, where they meet with politicians at various levels, union leaders, government affairs organizations and embassy officials. The organization also hosts foreign delegations.
The focus of the trips is to promote a mutual understanding. “They participate in cultural activities, outdoor activities and cocktail diplomacy, as we like to call it,— Rotunno says. Activities include everything from horseback riding to museum visits and sporting events.
As time has gone by and the Cold War has ended, the ACYPL has turned its attention to fledgling democracies and troubled nations such as Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“Every year we kind of look around the world and see what interesting is happening politically,— Rotunno says. “Are there nascent democracies that this program would benefit?— For example, earlier this year the organization hosted a delegation from Nepal, which recently became a democracy after years of chaos.
The relationships forged during these trips often last a lifetime. To date, three marriages have resulted from the trips and countless professional friendships. A recent group that traveled to the Palestinian territories was so moved after visiting a poor school that the delegates came together after their return to America and began collecting supplies for the children. Some of these bonds last a lifetime and come in handy when tragedy hits, as was the case with Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who took a trip long before she was elected to Congress.
“Mary Landrieu went to the Netherlands 30 years ago,— Rotunno says. “She met with some folks who kind of oversaw the buildings of dykes and the levy system in the Netherlands. She’s working with those folks now— to repair New Orleans.
Several political powerhouses participated in the program before being elected to Congress. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) traveled to the Middle East in 1979, while Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D- Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) all traveled to the USSR on separate trips in the 1970s and ’80s.
The delegations sent abroad by the ACYPL are always bipartisan. The organization hopes this aspect of the trip helps American leaders from both parties understand they are not that different from each other.
“The most important thing our program does is force America’s young political leaders to spend time outside of their comfort zone with people from the other side of the aisle,— Rotunno says.
Welch says the bipartisan nature of the trip was a highlight. “There’s a benefit I think in being there with folks in both parties because you get to start understanding their point of view as well, and I found that to be very beneficial,— he says. “If you work hard you can find some common ground and the ACYPL experience was certainly an example of that.—
In addition to sending Americans abroad, the ACYPL also organizes for political leaders from other nations to come spend time in America. Each group starts in Washington, D.C., before traveling through the states.
“It’s a top-down look at our national government,— Rotunno says. “There is extreme interest in this new administration.—
On arrival, the group is led on a tour of the nation by two ACYPL alumni. The program shies away from large cities, instead opting for states like Mississippi and Utah in an effort to show different sides of America.
One group recently visited the Roll Call offices, where it learned about reporting on Congress. The group also visited the Newseum and the offices of the Democratic and Republican national committees.
“The hospitality of the Americans has been mind-blowing,— said Natasha Michael, a member of the South African Parliament. “My party in South Africa is the sister party to the Democrats, and we were involved in supporting Obama. It was pretty thrilling to be with the Democrats and see the hub.—
Young leaders can be nominated by ACYPL alumni, Members of Congress, governors, state party chairmen or certain organizations that have been granted nominating rights. The trips leave from Washington and are free to participants. Thanks to a grant from the State Department, fundraising and corporate sponsorships, the ACYPL can afford to fly the leaders abroad, at which time the host nation generally pays for the rest of the trip.