Malcolm Phillips: AN UKRAINIAN ADVOCATE
WHEN: 3 May 2015
WHERE: Arlington, Virginia
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
Q: Let’s start with some basics—when and where were you born?
MP: The 1950’s in Mercer, Pennsylvania a small town north of Pittsburgh. Most residents were of European ancestry. There was also a sizeable Amish community in the area. My family had been in the area for several generations when I was born. We were one of two local families of color. Like most small towns, everyone knew everyone else. Like most young people in a small town, you went elsewhere for fun and dreamed about getting away when you reach adulthood. I was no different. Only later did I realize just how wonderful Mercer was. Most people didn’t have much money or work at prestige jobs. We worked in factories, steel mills or farmed nearby. That’s what we did.
Q: How did your family originally get to Mercer?
MP: My paternal multi-ethnic ancestors (European, African, Native American) came from Virginia (Culpeper and Stuart’s Draft). In the mid-1800’s they began migrating to Pennsylvania for more opportunities. Steel mills in Pittsburgh and other blue-collar hard work became the employment choice for many. This trend continued with successive generations.
Older male children went to school for a short time and then took factory or mill jobs to help support parents and their younger siblings back home. High school graduation and advanced education was primarily for the girls or youngest of the kids. Older girls helped around the house and with raising their younger siblings. This was not unique to my family but common then.
They married and often had many kids—starting when young. This was a blessing that I did not fully appreciate until later in life. For example, my great-grandmother was 16 when my grandfather (the oldest of 16 children) was born. My grandparents were 17 when my dad was born. My parents were 20 years older than me. My great-grandfather lived until I was almost 30; my grandfather until I was in my 40’s. Dad passed away when I was 40, before his parents, outliving my mom. (My great-grandfather and grandfather also outlived their wives). In addition to these, I had many relatives. Someone always had time for younger ones and let us know that we were loved. I always had a sense of history. All of these made a lasting mark on my life that I am still discovering.
Q: Tell us a little about your dad
MP: My father was in the US Marine Corps. Just a few years before he joined, the armed forces had integrated. It was nice that there was 20 years between my dad and me. Although the US Armed Forces had finally integrated, America was still segregated. He was proud to be a Marine and served with pleasure. It was hard to see him not be respected even in uniform as his skin color was all some could see. He was willing to give his life for people who would not even acknowledge him as a man. I used to wonder how he could fight for a country where many didn’t see him as human. (Only many years later would I understand–and apply to my own life). He never let us see how much it had to hurt him inside. Instead, he put his efforts into being the best Marine he could. In doing so, he instilled pride in others to serve and do their best.
TV shows about and from 1950’s America (Happy Days, Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet) did not have people of color in them. Or it there were, it was usually not in a flattering light. People of color were also not in movies or popular culture much either. There were two different worlds, depending on your skin color. Segregation was law in the South. In reality it was everywhere in the North, too. Even Washington, DC was segregated then, until 1970. My dad loved people and exploring new cultures. He had a way of connecting with people, even in those days of segregation, always believing that better days were ahead. (He passed that to me).
Q: How about your mom?
MP: My mother was from Greenwood, South Carolina, the oldest of six kids. She grew up in a totally segregated society and helped raise her five brothers and sisters. One could say that she only knew how to work hard. Her father died when she was 15. Her mother wasn’t in the best health. Mom rose daily before sunrise and did chores in and out of the house. Then it was out to work at a diner before school. (Of course, it wasn’t possible for her to eat in the café). It was “Whites Only”. “Colored” folks had to eat outside–in all weather. After school, it was off to another restaurant to work. (You guessed it–not possible to eat in it either).
If this was not enough, going home meant school homework, more chores and sleep (very late at night). Early the next morning the cycle repeated. This daily routine made people mad and hate–life, people, something, everyone. That was not my mom. She told me that she couldn’t hate. (That meant that I wasn’t allowed to hate also). I wasn’t particularly fond of white people, especially in the South. Everything was separate (schools, churches, theatres, diners, beaches, parks, etc) for whites and blacks. Not only was every aspect of life separate but if not white, it meant that what was available was old, sub-standard, unsafe, or lacking in one or more ways. It was made worse by the fact that you could always see what was not available to you.
After mom became pregnant with my brother in 1960, she prayed not to go into labor off base (Camp LeJeune in North Carolina). The closest hospital for non-whites was an hour away. (Yes, even hospitals were segregated. Emergencies were no exception).We could do everything on base though. So, I wasn’t always about getting people together. In fact, I was just the opposite.
Mom told all that the more people hate and do against you; the more you have to show love. I have learned over the years that she was right. It hasn’t always been easy, but this has been the guiding influence of my life. Reaching out and doing things cross-culturally was not where I was, even though my mother and my grandfather encouraged me to. She left me a love of all people, even those who may not like me or see me as a person. I have used that worldwide and can’t imagine not doing so. It gives me a heart for those who feel outcast, socially or otherwise.
Q: So, you grew up in a Marine Corps family.
MP: Although dad was a Marine; mom was the disciplinarian. It was a great childhood. We moved several times and traveled a bit in my youth. One day, my dad sketched a design on dinner napkin that allowed for modifications to permit wider use of the Sidewinder Missile. This had been desired for some time by the US Air Force. He called this “the $4 million lunch” from the resulting contract. He became a defense contractor and our lives changed much. Soon it was to the White House and meeting President Nixon (1969).
My dad was one of the first recipients and beneficiaries of Affirmative Action. (Despite the false belief in current popular media and culture, Affirmative Action was not started by Democrats). Dad was quite successful in business. His firm was known for consistently delivering quality work—on time (or before) and at (or under) budget. We had great family vacations. We spent much time in Canada. What impressed me there was how open it was to all people. It did not matter who I was. Everywhere we went, there was welcome–without regard to color. It was the same in cities and in rural areas. There was even serious consideration given to relocating there. I was happy about the possibility. Ultimately, we stayed in the USA because of the business.
Q: Where were you in Canada?
MP: It was mostly Ontario and Quebec. We camped in parks, forests and often explored with no set destination. We spent summers travelling throughout Canada–coast to coast and in the north (James and Hudson Bays). I recently went back to Trois-Rivières, Quebec (a personal favorite from my youth). Although it had been over 40 years since I was there, it was as if it was only yesterday. It reminded me of how much Canada helped me to open up to see people as people from how I was seen as a person there first. I like the fact that Toronto and Montreal are both short flights from Washington DC. Once in Canada, it is easy to get back to the countryside.
Q: What were family gatherings like?
MP: I had many relatives. Large families are not uncommon. Then their children often had big families. Family reunions numbered in the hundreds of attendees. On Christmas or Thanksgiving I was often with fifty or more family members at my great-grandparents farm. There were many generations and many relatives with great food, lots of love, much sharing of wisdom and encouragement from older members, telling family history, singing, praying, and love for all. These were very special times indeed. I will always remember them and be grateful. We still gather as able despite being literally all over the world. The numbers may not be as many now but the times together are no less special.
Q: Where did they live?
MP: Dad’s side of the family lived mostly between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cleveland, Ohio, with some in Philadelphia, New York and California. Mom’s side of the family was mostly in Upstate South Carolina, although a number had left the South for better opportunities in Washington DC and Maryland suburbs. Now I have relatives all over the world.
The summer before my high school senior year (1974), I moved from Mercer to Oklahoma City. This was a cultural transformation. Added to my life experience to that point, was becoming an Okie. John Steinbeck may not have had good things for this title but I embraced it. My self-description was “Heinz 57” –a little bit of this and a little bit of that. (I was a “mutt”). I loved coming to Oklahoma very much.
I graduated from high school in Oklahoma in 1975. We moved there because dad’s biggest contracts were at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, where everything that flies for the Air Force, including Air Force One is repaired and/or maintained. While I don’t recommend moving before the last year of high school, Oklahoma folks welcomed me and made me family. (In fact, over 40 years later I have kept or renewed many of these contacts).
Q: What did you do after graduating?
MP: I attended Rose State College (Oklahoma City) and then the University of Oklahoma (OU). Business was my first major. However, I soon changed to Soviet/East European Studies and International Relations. I chose this change of course after meeting a recent exile to America in New York City. His name was Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.
MP: There was a large Iranian community in Oklahoma, studying petroleum engineering and aviation. (The USA and Iran were allies then). There were also a number of Russians living there. Unlike the Iranian immigrants, many of the Russians thought Oklahoma was one of the last places they would be looked for. I learned Russian then. My first Russian instructor was Ukrainian. I was encouraged, challenged and able to learn much from personal experiences told to me by professors. I visited the Soviet Union, including what is now Ukraine. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience! It made me love Eastern Europe even more than I already did.
Most of the people that I met in Eastern Europe had never seen a person of color, especially if it was outside of the cities. (There were students from Cuba, Somalia, and other nations with people of colour) at universities. These students did not usually interact outside their own circles). I have wonderful memories from many trips in and through Eastern Europe over the past 40 years. That is for another time and place.
My Russian history professor at OU was an associate of Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky, leader of the Russian Provisional Government after Nicholas II, last czar of Russia was forced to abdicate his throne. Kerensky, who lived to be 89, ended up at Harvard and Stanford. My teacher had been his aide for five years and dealt extensively with his papers. I benefitted from that by reading many czarist documents that had made it to the USA. In addition, I studied German culture, language and military history.
My German history Professor taught on the Nazi period. “I do not give zee As.” He would take points off for leaving out the umlaut. I learned much from him, though he looked like Central Casting sent him. He arranged for me to have special time in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz to be up close and personal with many unique historic records and objects.
My other OU professors included Jewish (Czech and Ukrainian), Orthodox (Serbian) males and a Lithuanian who fought for and against both the Nazis and Soviets in World War II. He was a resistance fighter and later became an Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice. All of these put up with me, my endless questions and quest for more knowledge. After 40 years, I still remember their never ending encouragement and ever so grateful. They provided valuable insight to go with my life experiences to that point from much exposure to Eastern European culture.
While at Oklahoma, I also studied in Bergen, Norway and in Aberystwyth, Wales. During the Cold War these were places where westerners interested in the USSR could meet and greet many others of like mind. It was also possible to meet with colleagues from Eastern Europe there.
I had every kind of employment starting when I was 11, working for my dad. Not taking any scholarships or loans, I paid for my own education. Dad secured an appointment for me to the Naval Academy, which I turned down. I didn’t want to be the “first black” anything. Also the US Senator who nominated me was the one who told Nixon to resign. I didn’t appreciate that he was the number three ranking senator or how much it meant to my dad and other family members who served for me to have that opportunity.
Before my dad and the relatives who served before me in segregated military passed away, I was able to share with them how much I felt bad for what my decision meant to them. Both sides of my family had relatives who proudly served in less-than equal military, experiencing much grief and open prejudice. By not going to Annapolis, or one of the service academies, I had turned down something that wasn’t even an option for them. I felt like I had not honored what they had done and let them down. Each of them, including my dad, said that their service was so that others would have the opportunities denied to them. They told me that there was nothing that I should be ashamed of and to always strive to do right and my best. That was powerful and very freeing. I don’t have regrets and managed to serve in other ways. It is not hard for me to identify with people in most any station of life.
Q: How did that work out?
MP: I was an analyst and travelled quite a bit. Among other things, I looked at children’s literature for cultural clues and took many train rides to make observations for comparative purposes. Not the stuff of movies, but I was in Eastern Europe during some important episodes.
I met many people as dissidents, social outcasts and pariahs in the old regimes who became major players as freedom came to Eastern Europe.
For example, just from knowing a Czech family from Prague with relatives in Chicago, I met and got to know well, the inner circle of Civic Forum, a key element in the Velvet Revolution that ended communism in Czechoslovakia. When I met them, they were dissidents. After December 1989, they were leaders of the country. In this number were future President (Vaclav Havel), the future Foreign Minister and the future Finance Minister. This was an incredible time!
I was in Berlin as the Wall came down and spent five months in Eastern Europe after that, teaching English and celebrating with the newly freed people of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. These nations had great hopes, from 40 plus years of hearing from the West that everything would change for the better once they got rid of their communist oppressors. They believed it. I saw the Trabis (Trabants) bringing Ossies (East Germans) to the West with the 50 Deutsche Marks Begrüβungsgeld [welcome money given by the West German government to those fleeing East Germany who made it to the West] to shop at KaDeWe [Kaufhaus des Westens]. I remember all the optimism. (They had no idea just how much had to be done to make changes).
Q: When the Wall came down and you were in Berlin? What happens next?
MP: Like many, I was tremendously excited by the turn of events and wanted to participate in this new world by going into venture capitalism. It was a dream come true! Mom passed away just before the Wall came down. I accumulated a nest-egg in the bank. But I didn’t exactly pay my taxes and do all the things I needed to do for the government. The government didn’t forget about me. I was planning to leave for Europe and went to the bank to withdraw it. But when I asked for it, I was told there was no money in my account. Although I recently had 150 thousand dollars in the bank; the IRS had seized everything. It was the lowest point in my life.
I didn’t even have cab fare to get home. Not only was I not going to Eastern Europe, but I had nothing; from a promising future to nothing. I had tumbled into the nadir of my life. I knew what it was like to live in a penthouse, literally as a millionaire. At that moment I knew what it was like to be penniless and homeless. All this transpired over a short period in the summer of 1990. I wandered around for a few weeks, uncertain of myself.
At this time of despair and feeling hopeless, a friend who attended Church of the Apostles (COA) in Fairfax, Virginia, reached out to me. I had done consulting work at his firm as my mom was in hospice care before passing away. COA was planning an Eastern European Festival and invited me to help out. They were celebrating the fall of communism and open doors for mission work with people from East Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
I told COA that getting all those people together was unlikely; the lands and people groups didn’t like each other. They only had one thing in common–how they hated the Soviets and repression. They said, “Well, we don’t know about that—why don’t you come and help us?” From working on the festival, I found much more than a church home. They didn’t care that I had no money, had lost everything or even who I was. When I needed somebody to be there for me, Church of Apostles was. This changed my life for the better in ways that are still happening 25 years on. I will never forget that and be forever grateful.
Q: How did you come to know them?
MP: I had done worked with several church members. They had been trying to get me to come, because of the work I had been doing in Eastern Europe. COA took me in, embraced me and made me family. After working on the festival, I returned to Eastern Europe on a number of mission trips. Also I returned to seminary.
Q: Back to seminary?
MP: I had considered seminary in undergraduate college but didn’t take more than two courses. In 1991 I started again in the early days of online graduate study as I served more at Apostles and became an elder there. COA was very supportive. I would not have been able to it alone.
Q: How long did it take you to do that?
MP: Two and a half years. Apostles had ministries all over the world, including Europe. I returned to Eastern Europe often. Three years ago, I started serving at a Korean church (Mok Yang Presbyterian) that had met at COA. Now I am International Ministry Pastor at MYPC. The vision is to build a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual congregation. The most segregated time and place in America is Sunday morning church time. I still attend COA when able. It will always have a special place in my heart–no matter where I am. People worldwide have connections to COA in one way or another.
Q: How did you find the Korean congregation
MP: They needed a place to hold services while were building a church, thinking construction would require only three or four months. Several delays and setbacks meant it actually took almost a year and a half to complete. Someone had to let them in after COA had its services. It was a joy for me. I looked forward each week to meeting them, hearing from them, sharing with them. When their building was completed, Mok Yang invited COA’s Senior Priest and me to their dedication. Shortly after that, they asked for someone to speak a few times, especially with their younger ones in mind. I was glad to do so and have enjoyed it more since. They welcomed me from the start and made me feel like family. Even better, the congregation is very interested in Ukraine and Ukrainian ministry. They support me in this and also look to do more.
Q: Did the younger ones still have Korean language?
MP: Like most second generation immigrants, they live in two worlds. The younger ones know Korean but don’t use it–except at home with parents and relatives or in school or church when talking with elders as a sign of respect. While MYPC has a Korean service, I do a parallel one in English. Also, I am blessed to be part of a multi-ethnic youth fellowship on Saturdays (Korean, Chinese, Mongolian). Weekends keep me pretty busy. However, I love it very much. (It is more of the cross-culture that has been expanding all of my life).
Q: Where do the people come from?
MP: DC, Virginia and Maryland. Most come to America as college students or newly-weds. Some were born in Korea and others in the USA. First generation immigrants fear that the younger ones are losing their culture, by assimilating in American culture. I like to help them remember their culture. Sometimes it means more by encouragement from someone different
As a Soviet specialist I have many highlights. One of these was interviewing several elderly Nazis. They agreed to interviews if everything was in German. This was quite an experience for me. Some still had hate, some had regrets and one was in denial. All were impressed and also surprised that I really wanted to talk with them. (I called on all of my mom’s advice not to hate even though it took all that I had not to do so). After the interviews, was a private, once in a lifetime visit to the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, Germany adding even more to the interviews.
I witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. That experience grows in meaning as I share it with those too young to have lived it and/or living then but not present. When back in Berlin nowadays, I often go on tours conducted by young people to add a witness’s voice to the conversation, to better convey the Zeitgeist. There is so much living history there.
On Christmas Day 1989 the last section of the Wall opened. A big sign hung over it: Nur für Berliner. I was in the queue with everyone else. It made me feel so good. I arrived in Berlin two days after the Wall was first breached in November and stayed until Christmas.
That day, I left Berlin from Lichtenberg station for Prague, where I joined in celebrating mass in German (since no one knew Latin) with a priest who had been until recently been a prisoner of East German and Czechoslovak governments for his faith. There was not one word about color–just acceptance and love from people who saw only that I wanted to be with them). I do not let what people think about me prevent me from gathering experience or doing good.
Q: It sounds like you earned your divinity degree in the mid-1990s.
MP: It was 1993. I didn’t want to do full-time, parish ministry. Instead, I worked in the secular field, the last 14 years at National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). Before that, it was the Association of American Medical Colleges, helping applicants get into medical school and the National Board (foreign doctors needing to pass American exams—many from Eastern Europe: countries with which I was familiar). I never lost touch with that part of the world.
It could have gone differently. Many times I felt like giving up, having lost everything: money, home, cars. After mom died, my friends and church members bucked me up by telling me not to feel sorry for myself. Start over, they advised. It was not the end. Most successful people have experienced failure—Pickens, Trump, Jobs. The only ones who never fail are those who never try anything. The key is to learn and go again and again if needed.
Q: Clearly, you were able to define challenging episodes as opportunities.
MP: My experiences perfectly fit serving as clergy. After the deaths of several people near and dear to me, including a spouse years ago, I tried to stay busy to dull the pain. I was afraid of loving, of reaching out again. Although encouraging others to do so, I didn’t share my own experiences—but simply kept going, trying to always have a brave face and be happy for others. Three daughters, now aged 35 to 25, have done an amazing job of reminding me of what matters and my mission in life. Family, friends and my faith worldwide helped too
Q: So, you were juggling a set of preoccupations and work-related demands when you affiliated with ASCA around 2008?
MP: Right. Sometime in 2009, I noticed that there was a welcome event for a visiting delegation from Aachen at the NRECA building in Arlington. So I popped in to say hello and inquire about any Ukrainian connections. I met this nice guy named Carl Lankowski who told me that ASCA was in the process of creating a relationship with Ivano-Frankivsk. You connected me with those working on it and I started showing up at ASCA board meetings.
Then, the Ivano-Frankivsk (I-F) Committee organized a film screening at NRECA. I was unable to attend the event, but left a Ukrainian flag at the NRECA reception desk. Committee president Chrystia Sonevytsky received it with surprise. I asked the receptionist to let her know that Malcolm left the flag. Chrystia soon called and we arranged to meet. She asked how she would know me when I came down from the office. “You will know” I replied, somewhat cryptically. I was wearing one of my Ukrainian shirts, so there could be no mistaking. The look on her face was priceless. She was even more astounded when I replied in Ukrainian.
Q: So, you had already visited Ukraine?
MP: Yes. I first visited in 1975. Since 2004 I have made over 45 trips (summer camps, missions, fun, rest and to be with family). I worked with orphans and at-risk youth and much more.
Q: How did that happen?
MP: Through Apostles. In 2004 we reached out to an organization known to one of the members of our church who was Ukrainian and wanted to find her roots. She found her ancestral region and an orphanage there. A few months later, we brought five kids from the orphanage to COA. Two of the girls stole my heart–one so much that I ended up adopting her. (She is now mom to two daughters of her own). When we first connected, I told her I would see her in two weeks. Following her visit to America, I went to Ukraine and saw her and many other children, forming lasting, growing bonds, starting in the lovely village of Strilky, 100 kilometres from Lviv
Strilky is in the foothills of Carpathian Mountains in Lviv Oblast. It quickly became one of the places that I felt the best. (I will never forget my first time—being the first person of color that most had ever seen—in person if at all). Since then, I have kept up with these kids and hundreds more in all parts of Ukraine. Over the years, another beautiful, awesome young Ukrainian girl became my daughter. There are churches and other organizations that I work with in USA, Canada, Germany and Ukraine. So, Ukraine has been part of my life for many years.
Q: Where in Ukraine?
MP: Mostly in the west, Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk. The two cities are not that far apart. In Soviet times, Ivano-Frankivsk was a closed city. The ASCA relationship brought me there. I connected with the visiting I-F delegation and followed up with a visit there. When I am in Ukraine, I visit Ivano-Frankivsk and go all over Ukraine: Kyiv, Odesa, Lutsk, Bukovel, Kolomiya, Chernivtsy and Sumy in the east to name a few places. I am very much at home anywhere in Ukraine. It is also great to take people for their first visit
Q: Your first connection was through Lesya Fedoruk?
MP: First it was Chrystia Sonevytsky here and later Lesya in I-F. In early conversations with Chrystia she expressed pessimism about her efforts to launch a functioning sister city arrangement with Ivano-Frankivsk. I had a sunnier feeling about it and tried to encourage her: it’s going to work…we are going to do this. Chrystia was surprised that the project meant so much to someone else, particularly someone who wasn’t even Ukrainian. I was happy to lend a hand in getting it going.
I was present at the formal Arlington-Ivano-Frankivsk Sister City signing ceremony in 2011. By then I had joined the board and serving as Vice-Chairman [to Chairman Karl van Newkirk]. I met the mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk and his wife at the ceremony, along with several other I-F dignitaries. There followed further Open World delegations and a student exchange. I went with the kids on the first student exchange to Ukraine in 2012.
Q: Unpack this a little for us—there are many elements of interest.
MP: Intensive preparations were required to launch the relationship. One helpful facet was the supportive positions of Arlington County Board members Walter Tejada and Chris Zimmerman. Our efforts were boosted when they went to Ukraine and visited Ivano-Frankivsk. It also helped that ASCA chairman Karl van Newkirk visited. Viable sister city relationships require both the citizen-to-citizen element, which we had, and also government-to-government connections. They visited each other’s cities, entertained each other. Regarding the citizens, from the I-F side, Lesya Fedoruk did much to line up support and navigate the official preparations. On this side, Chrystia did a lot, but there were other key players, such as Xenia Jowyk. It helped that in both cities, the governments worked well with the citizens. The process gained traction in 2010 and led to the launch in 2011.
Q: Talk about the ASCA-Ivano-Frankivsk Committee.
MP: Chrystia and Xenia Jowyk were co-leaders of the I-F Committee. Sometimes up to 15 people attended committee meetings in the formative period between 2009 and 2012. The meetings were often a tough slog of defining and assigning specific tasks. Before the “marriage” was the “engagement” period of partnering on various projects. Meetings were preoccupied with setting priorities and following through with steps to advance the process.
Q: How did you generate buy-in from ACB members Zimmerman and Tejada?
MP: We learned that Chris Zimmerman has Ukrainian roots in western Ukraine. His wife’s family is from Slovakia. When Chris found out we were working on Ivano-Frankivsk, he asked where it was in relation to Striy, a city less than two hours from I-F by car. We arranged for I-F’s mayor, a historian, to organize a visit to Striy and its mayor.
Another project bringing us together was a blacksmith visit from I-F to Arlington. I-F is home to Europe’s Annual International Blacksmith Festival. Organizers of this are also part of the I-F Sister City Arlington Committee. Olga Polubotko is one such lady. She was a chaperone on the latest I-F Student Exchange to Arlington and does much to promote growth, exchange and friendship among people worldwide. While in Arlington, she met the Aachen leaders and students, modeling the friendships of Aachen and I-F leaders and students. She and her husband Serhiy make all feel welcome and home in I-F.
Q: Did you have the sense you were pushing on an open door?
MP: Well, yes. At the end of the day this was not a tough sell.
Q: I could understand why Chris Zimmerman would have a particular interest in IF. What about Walter Tejada
MP: He liked the blacksmith angle. But the key was football (soccer). There was a team there and Walter had a longstanding aspiration to organize some sport matches between Arlington’s sister cities. In addition, the Tejadas like hiking. The area around I-F, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, are ideal for that. Walter likes the whole sister city concept anyway, so again, there was no hard sell required. When he asked me what it is like as a person of color there. I told him that I felt right at home there and visited regularly.
Q: There are some parallels between the challenges faced by ASCA’s San Miguel sister city relationship and that with Ivano-Frankivsk. Visas are an issue.
MP: In Soviet times no free travel was permitted. In post-Soviet Ukraine it was difficult to travel also for financial reasons, quite aside from visa requirements. By the late 2000s, restrictions had diminished somewhat, particularly for Ukrainians travelling in a group. Each successive US Ambassador has made it easier. We now reasonably expect to be able to arrange visas for visiting students and adults in an exchange program.
Q: So, you were aware of U.S.-Ukrainian relations in a fairly refined way, down to familiarity with individual American ambassadors and their priorities.
MP: We were indeed. Committee members enjoyed good contacts with the ambassadors and the Department of State. Initially, those on the I-F side were skeptical about our ability to pull off an exchange. It certainly helped that we made the first move by taking a group of students over to I-F. We have had two groups come from I-F so far. Participants are close and stay in contact.
Q: Go into the high school exchange a little.
MP: On our first outbound visit to I-F in 2012, no one in the group except the other chaperone, Irene, and I had ever been there before. Irene is ethnic Ukrainian and speaks excellent Ukrainian. My Russian is much better than my Ukrainian. Together we cared for a great group of kids. Our itinerary started in Berlin and continued to Ukraine. Our first stop in Ukraine was Lviv before proceeding to I-F. There were seven kids and two chaperones. Lviv was the warm-up. The five boys and two girls were blown away. We were a family for the trip and still close years after.
Lesya Fedoruk came to Lviv with a bus for the group to reach Ivano-Frankivsk. From that point on, we were not allowed to spend any money—our hosts assumed all our costs. We enjoyed great accommodations; we were well fed. They took us to a ski resort at Bukovel, a very nice resort. Europeans who can afford to go anywhere—Germans, Austrians—come to this resort. Two of the co-owners’ daughters were part of the exchange. They put us up for three days there and then reciprocated by visiting Arlington with the inbound group. Our I-F hosts had a program of activities for us, including rock-climbing. They insisted on buying our train tickets when we went to Kyiv. They wouldn’t let us buy anything. Departure was very hard—many tears around.
MP: Wonderful–borscht, varenyky (perogies), holubtsi (stuffed cabbage), grilled meats and kabobs, etc. Then there were activities, like “cosmic bowling,” The kids got to be just kids together. They bonded instantly and still keep in contact–three years later.
Q: How old were they?
MP: They were teens. The youngest was 15; the oldest was 19. In Europe, teens are able to move about without parental supervision. It is a different world for them. The Ukrainian families took our kids in completely. You sensed a high level of trust. We were treated like family everywhere we went. The kids got to experience much culture and history.
Q: You visited Kyiv as well?
MP: Yes. We flew back home from Kyiv. The kids got to experience Kyiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, the Carpathians, Lviv, and Berlin. We spent two days in Kyiv and visited Maidan and of course many other places of interest. A highlight was a boat cruise on the Dnipr River. When Ukraine was going through the struggle for freedom in winter of 2013/14, the kids had seen many of the places that were on the news daily.
Q: How long a trip was it?
MP: We did all of this in two weeks. Nine months later, in the spring of 2013, most of the kids from I-F’s host families made a reciprocal visit to Arlington and stayed with the corresponding host families here and others. That visit included outings to Baltimore and New York City. The group did all the touristy things. A good time was had by all.
Q: There was also a group from I-F visiting in the autumn of 2014 as I recall.
MP: That’s right. Their visit overlapped with the inbound Aachen high school student visit in October. They still talk about that experience. I hear from kids from both groups. I was invited to many events associated with that visit. This time was “off the hook” as the kids say today.
Katie Scruggs has been on ASCA student exchanges to Ivano-Frankivsk, Reims, and Aachen, Her family hosted again. (We could not do exchanges without the families who have stepped up to help in one way or another: hosting, driving, cooking, etc). The Scruggs house in Arlington was a popular place for the kids in both exchanges. The backyard was nice. There was a music room where they could play music as loud as they wanted, dance, chat, play games or just do nothing but be together. It was truly a multi-national experience and awesome to behold.
You had a mixture of German, Ukrainian and American kids together, doing s’mores, playing music, girls talking about the boys, just cutting up, all the things that teens do. You saw that at the farewell party for Aachen when the three groups combined. Best of all, you could not tell which nationality the kids were when together. They have not forgotten those experiences. To me, that’s Sister City in a nutshell.
Q: It was unprecedented bringing the groups together like that.
MP: Tom [Skladony, director of the Aachen inbound exchange] mentioned Julius, the black American participant. His mom was very pleased with the exchange. She is a single mom. Julius goes to Wakefield High School in Arlington’s low income area. Yet, he went on the Aachen outbound exchange. He was very popular with the girls in Germany. They all wanted to see him when they came to Arlington also. (His experiences took me back 40 years, with many great memories). The kids all loved each other. If Ike [President Eisenhower] were looking down, he would be satisfied. That’s what it’s supposed to be all about. Of course, we’re not just student exchanges, but that said, we do them very well.
Q: Was it helpful to have another sister city to model ideas for the relationship with Ivano-Frankivsk?
MP: Oh, definitely. And where do we go from here? People have asked about launching additional city relationships. I would have liked to have seen the relationship with Cochabamba take off, as the largest concentration of Bolivians in America is in Arlington County. But all four elements must be present for it to work—civil society and governments on both sides—and that hasn’t been the case yet—at least not all four at the same time.
At present, ASCA is not actively looking for other relationships; however, we are open to new possibilities. I look for San Miguel to develop further by helping ASCA and Arlington get more news in English. They have a website in Spanish. I am excited at the possibilities. It is so great to see the energy and passion they have and how much they do for San Miguel community.
Q: You have already made the transition to talking about the ASCA Board, so let’s continue in that vein. When were you elected to serve on the board
MP: I think it was 2009.
Q: And you were elected chairman of the ASCA board when?
MP: That had to be 2012. I said I was not going to do it twice but renewed to serve until 2015.
Q: What impressions can you share about how the board has worked over the past five years, since you have been serving on it?
MP: It is good that each sister city is represented by its committee president on the ASCA Board and attends meetings and answers questions about developments. In this way, we strive to keep everyone up to date. When we have had budget questions or questions about programs, this has been helpful.
We have missed an annual meeting or two, but are now scheduling one for June. We have not connected well with our membership. The Board has also suffered. Those events brought new energy and ideas. As vice-chair, it was nice for me to only have to worry about chairing the meeting in the absence of the chairman, or undertaking specific projects. I have enjoyed serving as chairman, especially when connecting directly with our sister cities, when, for instance, I am in Aachen or Ivano-Frankivsk, or at the German or Ukrainian Embassies
At our 20th anniversary event in May 2014, the enthusiasm of each of the four embassy representatives for the sister city concept and for our relationships was great. I have regrets about not having been able to accomplish everything I wanted. We are making progress, slowly, in updating our website. We have re-launched our membership drive. We missed some annual meetings and holiday parties. I am excited about the future though.
Q: What is your favorite ASCA memory during your tenure?
MP: That’s easy. It was the Ukraine Student Exchange program and afterwards. Seeing the cities working together, seeing the kids and their parents enjoy their interaction, their camaraderie. Black and white kids from Arlington with German kids from Aachen and Ukrainian kids from I-F all together—one night eating bratwurst, the next night borscht–a first time experience for many. They went to the Kettler hockey stadium for skating. To connect with people from around the world—visiting Reims, Aachen, Ivano-Frankivsk, seeing a plaque, a marker that refers to our sister city partnerships, realizing that all of this is only possible because of the work of people and committees who believe in Sister City. Those really mean the most.
Q: What are the challenges that you see going forward for ASCA?
MP: At present the question of how to continue with student exchanges is taxing us. Are we placing too many restrictions on them? Will Arlington Public Schools be more accommodating? Especially if ASCA is not just exchanges, how do we build membership? How do we create programs of interest to constituencies beyond kids and parents? Beyond the content of our message, how do we get our message out so that more people hear it and respond to it? It’s a big world, but it’s getting smaller all the time. How do we do more and do it better? I’m not even sure what “better” is. There is also an issue of generational turnover. How can we involve and promote younger people in defining, managing and leading our programs?
Q: The demographic realities of Arlington County will probably influence what comes next. The San Miguel committee, which you have mentioned, has a special relationship with San Miguel. Aachen is quite different. Our programs reflect the County’s diversity. That said, should ASCA be trying more aggressively to promote opportunity for the non-affluent?
MP: The issue is also one of geographic presence. While we are not actively searching for connections in Africa or Asia, we should be open to them.
Q: Perhaps that brings us to the final area we should explore, namely the future of the sister city idea. When Eisenhower articulated it in the 1950s, we were in a different world with respect to transportation and communication. One might ask, sixty years on, in the world of CNN, whether the physical connections foreseen in sister cities have maintained their relevance.
MP: I don’t think the sister city idea has been eclipsed or has seen its day. The basic notion of people-to-people connections continues to be valid, above all because it provides the avenue for getting to know each other. When we remain separate, inhabiting parallel universes deliberately or accidentally, we end up making false assumptions. These lead to wrong motives and ascribing wrong motives to the other. You begin to believe that the other cannot understand you or wants to understand you. Misunderstandings can lead to war. Bringing people together is best. With knowing someone is understanding their sensibilities, their red buttons. What to you may be an inconvenience or annoyance, may be to them a major insult. This is always important to know.
The beauty of the basic sister city design is that it also involves local governments, which may be able to channel cooperative relationships. We need that even more today in the 21st century, despite instant communications and social media. Sister cities sometimes function when other channels between societies are closed. It may sound idealistic, but what is the cost to pursue it?
Sister cities provide a way to talk to people who have different experiences. In the absence of those links, you can’t get to know others. Lots of good things flow from them. It is hard to hate someone you know. In World War I the national leaders were family; cousins set out to slaughter cousins. Talking and learning about each other is always better than not doing that. And so I think there is still a place for sister cities in this world. If people start when they are young, for example through student exchanges, and there are opportunities to continue when they are older, as with commemorations of peace after mutual carnage in past wars, we can understand the past and avoid repeating tragic mistakes. That’s why I still think there is a place for sister cities.
Q: That’s a closing exclamation mark. Thank you, Micha for this interview.