For 17 days, I travelled with 20 people from 14 different countries to five different states in America as part of the US Department of State’s International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP). The first time I met them — we were at the lobby of DC Churchill Hotel — a 112-year-old beaux-art architecture in Embassy row — which, apart from its 50-year-old elevator, has been renovated to have a modern interior. It was the start of an experience which allowed me to appreciate a value in US culture that espouses unity in diversity — one that exist not only by mere tolerance but by a genuine appreciation of differences.
As I walked the streets of Washington with Khin Khin Kyaw of Burma, Kathleen Mangune, Fetoloia Alama of Samoa, Jintawadee Suksri of Thailand, we were impressed by the conservation efforts. The US Capitol was our first stop and while it was built in 1793, the infrastructure made of sandstone, marble, and iron is still as regal as when the dome of over eight million pounds was constructed. What is even more impressive was the role of private sector investment in the rehabilitation and re-use of historic buildings, incentivised by the federal government’s Historic Tax Credit — a program which has attracted more than $84 billion in new private capital and facilitated the rehabilitation of over 42,000 certified historic buildings.
On my second night in Washington, I met Adolfo Arguello Vives and Iris Alon, two classmates from Harvard Kennedy School, in Occidental Grill & Seafood, a dining institution popularly known to appear in Captain America. What is more impressive was the restaurant, rumored to have hosted all US presidents, was already over 110 year old. Rather than being the exception, it seems to me that preservation has been the rule.
After a briefing on federalism and meetings with the US Department of State Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, I grew fond of the interesting mixture of decentralization and collaboration that existed among multi-levels of government and the critical relationship between the public and private sector in accomplishing an essentially mutual priority — with due consideration to the diversity that is innate in the US culture and its history.
Washington is a multi-faceted state. In a matter of minutes, you may well be in Pennsylvania Avenue facing the White House, and a couple of kilometers further in Blagden Alley — a neighbourhood of small apartments, art murals, and century-old Gothic and Victorian infrastructure filled with hipster bars.
On one night, after six meetings, we headed to Colombia Room and there I became acquainted with one of the District of Columbia’s historic districts — Blagden. As I marvelled around the area, I saw what seemed to be a horse stable converted into a coffee shop, a Victorian rowhouse turned into a pub and a garage renovated to serve American food. While munching over Guacomole, Cerdo and Tacos de Pescado in Espita Mescaleria, a restaurant serving Oaxacan cuisine, I sat back to appreciate a juxtaposition before me — one that is able to embrace, reconcile history and progress.
IVLP is a game changer.