Students rehearse a play in English during a musical theater camp at the Deutsch-Amerikanische Institut in Tübingen, Germany. Approximately 100 independent binational centers contract with embassies to double as American Spaces. Photo by Sophia Kummler
By Sonya Weakley
Serving as a public voice and face of the United States in foreign countries, American Spaces are open to local residents who want to learn about America. Nearly 600 of these vibrant venues are associated with 168 embassies and consulates in 140 countries. When the pandemic suddenly put a stop to face-to-face contact, these iconic American institutions immediately pivoted to “reopening” online, taking formerly in-person programs and services directly to audiences where they were.
American Spaces vary considerably in size and type, depending on local conditions. They include roughly 90 U.S. government-owned American Centers, about 100 independent binational centers that contract with embassies to double as American Spaces, and a large group of smaller “American Corners” located within partner organizations—such as libraries, universities, and non-government organizations—that make up roughly 70% of the total. Visitors can read books and periodicals, hear speakers who have visited or are from the United States, learn English, obtain job training, learn about attending U.S. universities, access the internet, or dive into databases of international publications, among many other programs.
The Office of American Spaces in Washington—with a satellite unit in Vienna, Austria—provides training, guidance and additional funding to assist embassies in best employing these venues to support local communities.
Traditionally, American Spaces have provided an in-person experience to communities around the world, reflecting American ideals of openness, accessibility and innovation, and conveying an American look and feel, including wall-size likenesses of U.S. landmarks and recognized personalities.
In the virtual world, which expanded exponentially during the pandemic, American Spaces and embassy staff found, often to their surprise, that their programs were suddenly attracting people beyond their previous in-person reach, usually those who did not have access to one of these cultural centers in their own communities.
For example, in the 15 months before the American Center in Cairo, Egypt, closed to visitors in March 2020, 24,000 people participated in programs on site, according to Heather Ward, Foreign Service officer and the regional public engagement specialist of the Office of American Spaces who is currently assigned to Egypt. In contrast, she noted, participant numbers more than doubled to 51,000 during the 15 months after the American Center moved its programs online.
“Going virtual allowed us to reach new audiences,” said Ward. “People from distant parts of Egypt, who wouldn’t have been able to travel to Cairo, joined us online along with young people who had jobs or other commitments and couldn’t get away [to visit in person].”
In Pakistan, going virtual provided new opportunities to engage a larger audience of young people on themes such as gender inclusivity. The American Center in Islamabad began a “Women, Peace, and Security” speaker program that was broadcast bi-monthly to audiences from all the country’s American Spaces, known locally as Lincoln Corners, during the pandemic.
“The virtual nature of the program definitely helped us to extend our reach,” said Monica Davis, the Pakistan-based regional public engagement specialist. “We’ve found that more women in Pakistan are also now able to join virtual programming than in-person events, since participation does not necessarily require them to leave their home.”
The embassy’s Community Engagement Office—which focuses on preventing and countering violent extremism by promoting tolerance and presenting Pakistani audiences with alternate narratives—identified high-profile speakers for the program, including U.S. government exchange alumni, a prominent singer, and academic leaders.
“On closed Zoom groups with university students from Lincoln Corners across Pakistan, the speakers are able to talk honestly about sensitive issues,” said Davis. “Young people can ask questions about women’s rights and how to create more opportunities for women in Pakistani society—all in a judgment free zone.”
In some cases, the cost of internet data packages has been a barrier for local audiences to participate in virtual programs. To overcome this, several embassies have offered to pay this cost. In Kigali, the embassy identifies participants who need data, and a grantee-implementing partner sends the data bundle to them, according to Elizabeth Stromme, the Rwanda-based regional public engagement specialist.
“It helps youth who may not have a lot of disposable income to add data to their phones. We both pre-pay for the data and also reimburse after the program,” said Stromme. “We assume everyone needs data, so we offer it to everyone participating in a program. This does help increase the reach of our American Center programming outside of Kigali. Inability to pay for data won’t prevent them from participating in a program or series of programs.”
The Office of American Spaces in Washington has also used the virtual world to strengthen itself internally. Just before the pandemic, the office, with its training unit in Vienna, Austria, had been developing an online training system for American Spaces coordinators worldwide. It was poised to respond immediately when the pandemic hit. Following positive feedback from initial testing in Paraguay, the office created the full course of six online training modules that coordinators take on their own schedules, with live sessions provided at intervals.
As they begin reopening their doors, American Spaces are applying their new expertise in virtual programming to deliver hybrid or blended programs. The Office of American Spaces recently added training sessions on how to structure virtual programs for simultaneous in-person and online participants to its training. These programs are produced for both a live audience and a closed group on a conferencing platform, streamed live or recorded, and then posted on a public site.
Programs that engage both live and closed online audiences can be resource intensive, requiring a system that easily integrates with video conferencing systems. These systems generally include a wide-angle camera, microphones, and speakers that allow online participants to see a panoramic view of the in-person participants and interact with them.
According to Cairo-based Ward, it is best to plan the program for a virtual audience, then add aspects to engage the live audience.
“Engaging audiences in person and online shouldn’t take double the work. You build the program as if it were only virtual so that you’re sure to engage the online participants, who are harder to engage if you’re combining the two,” she said. “Then add the in-person elements.”
During Global Entrepreneurship week, Nov. 8-14, 2021, the American Center in Cairo hosted an intensive weeklong program for aspiring and established entrepreneurs that addressed marketing, project management, pitching strategies, and related topics. The event involved 200 in-person participants and more than 3,000 participants on Zoom—including viewing parties from the country’s two American Corners in Alexandria and Maadi—along with roughly 13,000 live viewers on Facebook.
“With Global Entrepreneurship Week, we made sure to assign facilitators for the online participants and separate facilitators for in-person participants. The virtual audience could ask questions and interact more easily through a dedicated advocate,” Ward said.
According to Magia Krause, the Vienna-based regional public engagement specialist who manages training, American Spaces ability to adapt to hybrid or blended programming will depend, in part, on each space’s size and resources. Conducting training in a hybrid format will help demonstrate how American Spaces can make the best of both virtual and in-person programs.
As American Spaces prepare to reopen for full programming in many parts of the globe, the experience they’ve gained in incorporating virtual elements will continue to inform how they creatively reach out to find new audiences and build ties between foreign audiences and America.
Sonya Weakley is a writer-editor at the Office of American Spaces in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.