Jay Harris got his first taste of international living one horizon-broadening summer in Australia while staying on a piggery as a high school exchange student. Since then, he has worked 30 years overseas as an international education specialist for universities, advisory councils and community outreach programs, making 60 trips to Jordan alone. During the course of his career, he has met many people with common interests and pursuits who had no connection to one another. “That needs to change,” says Harris. “Until it does, collaborative potential and mutual support go missing.”
Facilitating those connections is exactly what Harris is hoping to accomplish on Sunday, Oct. 2, when his brainchild, International Asheville, will provide space for members of the WNC community with global interests to meet like-minded people. Organized by Harris, hosted by Asheville’s Grail Moviehouse and sponsored in part by AvL Technologies, this event, according to Harris, is a “first-time effort to bring together some of the many international connections around WNC.” He adds: “I enjoy changing lives, broadening perspectives and reducing stereotypes. That’s what happens when you connect people and experiences across cultures and borders.”
One life Harris has changed is that of Hana, a particularly creative participant in a training program he recently facilitated for entrepreneurial women in Jordan. Hana, who was looking for a new career opportunity, noticed in several of the nearby refugee camps unused donated fabric that couldn’t be resold or recycled. With Harris’ help, Hana discovered a niche working with refugee mothers to create puppets and to perform puppet shows for the children in the camps. Shortly thereafter, Harris realized that his friend back home, Asheville native Jennifer MacDonald, had a friend who was a puppeteer in Jordan, and she introduced the puppeteer to Hana.
“These types of ‘shazam’ connections can and should happen more often,” says Harris. “That is one of the many reasons I want to bring people with international involvements and interests together in one place. There are lots of good things happening now, but opportunities go missing until they know one another and can consider collaborative potential.”
According to Harris, there have been city, state and national events and initiatives for decades promoting international and intercultural awareness. “Some cities have committees, advisory councils and even professional staff to address international and intercultural relations,” he notes. One local example is Asheville Sister Cities, Inc, a nonprofit that, according to board member Karen Korp, “promotes peace, understanding, cooperation and sustainable partnerships through formalized agreements between international cities and the city of Asheville.”
What Harris is trying to accomplish with International Asheville is a little bit different. Where ASCI is a partnership between Asheville and a handful of cities in other countries that encourages cross-cultural awareness and interaction, IA, he explains, is more of a grassroots initiative meant not only to support businesses, nonprofits and individuals engaged in making the world a better place, but also to provide an opportunity for the individuals to learn about each other, make new connections, discover useful resources and provide support for one another.
Doing great things/great things to do
Harris’ old friend Jennifer MacDonald will be the guest speaker at the upcoming International Asheville event. The Asheville-based nonprofit she helped start, Hadaya Toys, provides toys, art supplies, books and building grants to displaced and urban poor children in the Middle East with inadequate access to education and other developmental resources. When asked why she was chosen to speak at the event, Harris explains that “she is doing great things in places where help is needed. She is creative, dynamic and passionate about making a difference … and has a compelling view of how and why people can connect worldwide.”
What can you expect to happen at International Asheville’s inaugural event besides meeting lots of interesting people with surprising international connections? The first annual Global Citizens Awards will be presented to several individuals in different categories who are connecting WNC with other countries and cultures in ways that increase international awareness and encourage global perspectives. There will also be exhibits from local organizations and businesses, such as Friendship Force Hendersonville, Xplore USA and the Literacy Council of Buncombe County, as well as Sunnyside Trading Company. Sunnyside’s co-owner Will Hough is excited about the opportunity to play a part in International Asheville. A world traveler himself, he recognizes that while not everyone has experienced a foreign country, many of us are globally minded people. This event, he says, “allows an opportunity for those who haven’t had the pleasure and fortune of global travel to still have a taste, and meet people that have.” He thinks that IA has a lot of potential for WNC because “Asheville is such a creative and entrepreneurial town — an event like this is a great idea to help turn local ideas into global solutions.”
Global outcomes start with local actions
“People sometimes get so involved in their day-to-day that they don’t imagine such things happening, and don’t seek them out. International Asheville is designed to help change that. I like to think that lots of positive differences can be made as a result of networking, awareness and mutual visibility.”
“Every person in WNC is connected to other countries and cultures more often than they might consider,” Harris says. “If you do an inventory of things you wear and use, for example, you will come up with a long list of other countries. Those connections are unavoidably linked to issues like human rights in those countries, like child labor or unsafe working conditions, or to environmental issues,”
For MacDonald, those connections are also linked to solutions: “IA is really very simple. It’s a forum to put people together for collaboration and exchange on various levels. I don’t know specifically how it can heal relationships, but I do know that all healing begins with a small gesture, a personal interaction between people, even many miles apart.
“Who knows what may happen as a result of some of the relationships built through IA?” she muses. “I’m excited about the possibilities.”
For more info on International Asheville, the event schedule, local resources or hosting an exhibit, visit their website. You’ll also find information about tickets, parking, nominating award recipients and what to expect from the day’s events.