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Citizen diplomats

Russia has a big drinking problem and in 1983 — at the height of the Cold War — Sarah and Jack Seybold of Ashland dove into the middle of it, creating the first 12-step sobriety program in the country and, their main goal, making friends with Russians in an attempt to avert looming nuclear war.

"We had to do something," says Sarah Seybold, a mental health nurse. "The threat of nuclear war was in the foreground. We all had children. So we started these citizen diplomacy trips, trying to meet Russians person-to-person. I went 14 times."

Patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous (but unable to use its branding), a group of Americans called themselves Creating a Sober World and the program took off. Drunkenness was so pervasive and socially accepted that few Russians had any idea they were alcoholics, Seybold adds, until they heard recovering Americans tell their stories and say "...and I am an alcoholic."

This and many other citizen diplomacy trips — most in training Russians in small business and capitalism — got going because of the efforts of Sharon Tennison, creator of the Center for Citizen Initiatives and author of the new "The Power of Impossible Ideas: Evidence That Ordinary People Can Accomplish Extraordinary Feats Even in International Relations."

The book, says Tennison, is "a blueprint for what citizens can do in hot spots and we were the first to do it." It needs to be shared with ordinary people, she says, because a lot still needs to be done in hot spots such as the Middle East.

Tennison tours the Rogue Valley March 5 through 8 and will tell her story in Ashland on March 5 at Lithia Springs Rotary, at 7 p.m. on March 6 at Peace House, and at 7 p.m. on March 7 at Bloomsbury Books. She is seeking additional speaking engagements at schools, churches, service clubs or other spots.

Her citizen diplomacy took thousands of Americans on bridge-building journeys behind the Iron Curtain at a time when such trips were considered extreme security risks, Tennison said, and special visas had to be secured to even walk on the streets or talk to anyone.

"We had increasing concern about the nuclear arms race. We had kids. The governments were counter-productive. We had to start talking to the people over there. We had this notion in our heads that they had horns and tails. It was crazy."

Tennison took 24 people, including three from Ashland, and a PBS crew, who shot 40 hours of film. If Russian officials thought they were spies, they got over it, said Tennison, in a phone interview, when they saw how naive and friendly the Americans were. Soon, they were approaching people in parks, markets, churches, schools and being invited to their apartments for dinner, "though they were careful not to be seen doing it.

"It was such a mind-blowing experience. The country was dark, ugly and unrepaired but the people loved us. We found no enemies. The Russians were quiet, didn't know if they should talk to us."

The citizen diplomats met lots of regular people, including artists and psychologists who were very curious about what Americans were thinking and doing, says Ashlander Carol Hwoschinsky, who went four times.

"We had to sit and listen to lots of mid-level bureaucrats and regional directors of something or other, who were so heavy-handed and stifling as they lectured us for hours about how wonderful the Soviet Union was, but the regular people were so happy to see us. They thought we were great. I fell in love with them."

Tennison "spearheaded these trips and pushed her way through everything," says Hwoschinsky. "I think the trips had an influence on the fall of the Soviet Union. They couldn't keep these ideas and people out."

Ashlander Jan Boggia went to Russia because she felt the "evil of Soviets had to be much exaggerated.

"We were pretty innocent. We wanted to see what life was really like there. It was very heart-wrenching. You can't know a place till you go there. It was in fact repressive, but also much freer in many ways. It raised my empathy and made me not trust our government and media."

As part of the Medford Rotary, Dr. Doug Smith has made many trips to Russia and helped sponsor her projects.

"Sharon's work has been absolutely critical to maintaining understanding between the peoples of Russia and the U.S., person-to-person," he said, adding that Russians have a mentality of guardedness and suspicion, but "she very easily overcame that by being forthright, willing to negotiate and not making hollow promises. She found what they wanted and listened, instead of telling them."

Two years after trips started, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, says Tennison, and he was very sympathetic to the citizen diplomacy efforts, as well as sobriety, and soon banned drinking at state functions.

The U.S. State Department had tried to discourage Tennison in early years, but when the Berlin Wall came down, they came to her for her extensive contacts, she says, and soon Russian entrepreneurs where making trips here to learn how business and money work in a free economy.