A visiting group from Armenia arrived Friday in Blount County for what will be the 20th year of a weeklong program built to connect the United States and a host of other countries in northern Asia, Europe and South America.
The group will tour the county, speak with prominent leaders from the state and focus their conversation on a specific topic: anti-corruption.
Though the group that pays for the program is nationwide, with more than 40 states participating and more than 100 individual operations involved, the local effort concentrates on issues and ideas from an East Tennessee perspective.
John Randolph is executive director of the Blount County Sister City Organization. He and his colleagues helped establish the program after time abroad working for Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its collaboration with Russian nuclear operations.
On a plane back from one of their visits, Randolph said he and a colleague tossed around the idea of a sister city program. No sooner said than done, they brought their idea to a fledgling program in Washington D.C., called the Open World Leadership Center.
Founded in 1999, Open World is “one of the most effective U.S. exchange programs for countries of the post-Soviet era,” its website states. Randolph said the national cooperative has dwindled in size over the years, but that has not stopped his passion for seeing the local program through each year.
All this will center on a topic generated by the visitors in collaboration with Open World and the U.S. State Department.
“We try to let them be the ones who drive the subject,” Randolph said. “Because we can handle just about anything about our cities.”
Last year, a group from the nation of Georgia discussed environmental and sustainability issues.
This year’s group will start off with a lecture from a civics professional on Monday, followed by several other anti-corruption-theme-related presentations and discussions throughout the week.
“This theme kind of caught me off guard,” Randolph said. “It was an area that I had never thought much about until now. We know anywhere in the world there is corruption, but Armenia is one of the worst.”
Transparency International — a European organization that measures and takes action against global corruption — scores Armenia a 35 out of 100 on a corruption scale where zero is “highly corrupt” and 100 is “clean,” the organization’s site shows.
Randolph said visitors will start out by talking about schools and education and move up to discussions about law and ethics with individuals such as Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals Judge D. Kelly Thomas.
Between tours around the county and lectures with professionals, the week’s discussions are designed both to be specific, organic and substantial.
“The rest of it’s just good friendship,” Randolph said. The visitors will stay in local homes and gather Sunday night with as many as 40 other people to dissect the week.
On one of the final days of the visit, the Sister City Organization will hold a banquet to wrap things up and a final discussion about what the Armenian delegation took away from their experiences.
Randolph emphasized the importance of idea exchange, adding the experience is made to enlighten visitors and give them ideas for how to approach issues back home.
In the past, U.S. groups have visited countries overseas as well, but Randolph said the conduit of country-to-country idea and citizen sharing is currently only one way.
The charter for the Open World initiative is not currently designed to provide U.S. citizens resources to visit past foreign delegation’s countries.
Randolph indicated he hopes to see a future where that can change. He’s seen fellow sister city enthusiasts visit locales in the former Soviet Union, return home and change their own communities.
He noted two friends who started an initiative out of the Blount County Public Library’s basement, where they sent enough English books for Georgians to form a small library of their own.
“Knox County people and Blount County came together. Some professor who’s retired now said ‘I want to give my books to this group.’ That has probably been one of the best things that was done independently,” Randolph said.
For now, those who visit are not only taking back ideas to their homes, but sometimes coming to live and marry in Blount County.
Randolph said this area in Tennessee is ideal for visiting groups because it has a rich history of success. “The way we do our business, we work very closely together. We’re so good at what we do.”
The Blount Sister City’s longevity and experience proves something important, Randolph reflected: Interchange and the unique one-on-one diplomacy model shows barriers are not as high as often assumed.
“It’s all because of the commonality of people to people,” he said. “You sit down with somebody for the first time, you have dinner ... and you find out there’s no difference about who you are, as a person to a person.”
Blount’s expertise in hosting has been honed by its 20 years with Open World, but Randolph said he especially has benefited from the program’s cultural and relational benefits.
“There’s an old saying, ‘One lucky guy.’ I guess I could say that about myself.”