The January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol sent shock waves through the international exchange and educational communities. Members of the National Capital Area Chapter (NCAC) of the Fulbright Association were particularly stunned by the event. Because the NCAC chapter represents Fulbright alumni in the Washington, DC region, many of its members work in areas and with organizations that focus on policy, government, and international engagement. Some members work on Capitol Hill.
As supporters of international engagement, many NCAC members have strong links around the world, often in the communities where their Fulbright experiences were held. After January 6th, international family and friends of members reached out sharing concern and worry about what happened. These were uncomfortable conversations as times, in that the U.S. has historically represented itself as a beacon of democracy and rule of law. International friends raised questions such: In light of the events on January 6, has the U.S. now changed? Is the United States still the model of democratic engagement and civility?
The NCAC board held an event on January 26, 2020 by Zoom to allow its members and others supporters of international exchange to share their feelings, reactions, and most importantly, consider what strategies might be used in responding to how the assault was viewed. Some 60 individuals participated in the Zoom call.
The attendees were divided into four breakout rooms, each hosted by a NCAC board member, tasked with engaging their group with questions, including:
1. How did the assault on the U.S. Capitol impact their view of American democracy?
2. What are the implications for international education and cultural exchange?
3. What actions can the Fulbright community take collectively and individually to counter the images and impressions from the assault, including racism, White privilege, and anti-Semitism?
4. What specific steps might be taken in the short and long terms?
The conversations were honest, passionate, and included specific observations and recommendations of actions.
This was strong sentiment that the acts on the U.S. Capitol are anathema to core American values. The racism, bigotry, violence, and lawlessness witnessed do not represent values held by Fulbright grantees. The group felt that our community needs to speak fervently against the events that took place.
Specific recommendations were wide-ranging. Some focused on U.S. policy and programs that might be implemented including a domestic Marshall Plan targeting needed communities in the U.S., a program of “reconstruction” that might look at the chasm between specific groups in the U.S. divided by social economic and culture/race, and establishing international dialogues and conferences on civility and democracy. Participants also felt there was a need to hold transgressors accountable for their actions on January 6 and to advance education about racism and White nationalism in the U.S.
Individual sentiments included feeling “scared” and “traumatized” by the events. Some noted the contrast with the nonviolent protests from the Black Lives Matter movement, and how this group’s form of action represents what Americans seek when raising their voices peacefully. Several members commented on the polarization in their own communities in the U.S. and the difficulty in discussing the election and political views. Members were shocked by the apparent incitement by the former president of the crowds that day. The events were thought of as a “stress test” – but with the order returning afterwards.
NCAC is considering a second event. Not only was there overwhelming interest in continuing the discussion and holding a second conversation in the future, but even more so now with the international repercussions and the dismantling of fragile, democratic states that are unfolding quickly in front of us. A frightening and shocking reality of this is Myanmar, a recent ally to the Fulbright and international community, which seems to have succumbed to a military coup on February 1, by their false claims of electoral fraud in their democratic November 2020 elections and with what sadly seems to be their plans to successfully abolish a decade of freedom in this once hopeful, forward looking country.
– NCAC President David J. Smith (Fulbright, 2003-2004, Estonia) (with NCAC board member Vanessa Victoria, [Fulbright, 2019-2020, Myanmar])