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PDAA Honors Outstanding Public Diplomacy Initiatives

By Domenick DiPasquale

Creative programming, strong leadership skills, and innovative solutions to pressing social needs characterize the work of the four recipients of this year’s PDAA Awards for Achievement in Public Diplomacy.

At the annual PDAA awards ceremony, held this year at the Army and Navy Club on May 5, outgoing PDAA President Cynthia Efird noted that a record 26 nominations had been submitted for the 2019 awards, an indication of the importance of public diplomacy to achieving U.S. foreign policy objectives.

The four winners were:

Natella Svistunova, Public Affairs Officer, Embassy Belmopan, Belize;
Debra Toribiong, Public Diplomacy Specialist, Embassy Koror, Palau;
Chris Hodges, Public Affairs Officer, Consulate Jerusalem (now the Palestinian Affairs Unit, Embassy Jerusalem, Israel);
Niles Cole, Cultural Affairs Officer, Embassy Kampala, Uganda

Natella Svistunova, Public Affairs Officer, Embassy Belmopan, accompanied by Jon Piechowski, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, receives award from PDAA President Cynthia Efird for combating gender-based violence in Belize. (Photo: Alan Kotok)

Combating gender-based violence is a major Embassy objective in Belize, a nation where an estimated one of every two women is a victim. Natella Svistunova took a unique approach to the issue by enlisting the help of a local entrepreneur, Marie Sharp, whose line of locally produced habañero hot sauces (with names such as “No Wimps Allowed Habañero”) have achieved iconic status in Belize. Their collaborative approach led to the company producing a new sauce – named “Pure Love” – specifically designed with messages to counter violence against women.

To raise awareness of the issue with youth, Svistunova organized a program in local schools to design the label for the new sauce. Further amplifying the impact of this initiative, Sharp committed to send proceeds from the sale of Pure Love to Haven House, Belize’s only shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence. She personally added an inscription to every bottle label that reads in part, “Inspired by the U.S. Embassy in Belize, I am proud to launch and support this special product to help combat gender-based violence in Belize.”

With the product ready to go, Svistunova organized a high-profile event on Valentine’s Day hosted by the Chargé d’Affaires at the Chief of Mission residence. The launch, held in cooperation with Kim Simplis Barrow, the wife of Belize’s Prime Minister and the country’s special envoy for women and children, raised awareness of gender-based violence. Thanks to Svistunova’s comprehensive network of contacts, every media outlet in Belize covered the event on TV and in print, and it was splashed across social media. On her Facebook page, Barrow publicly lauded Svistunova the next day, stating “Thank you to Natella Svistunova, Public [Affairs] Officer at the U.S. Embassy, whose vision and drive brought us to this point.”

Debra Toribiong, Public Diplomacy Specialist, Embassy Koror, receives PDAA award for addressing public health and nutrition issues on the island of Palau. (Alan Kotok)

As Embassy Koror’s sole public diplomacy specialist, Debra Toribiong is by necessity a jack-of-all trades and all issues, but her special focus on improving public health and nutrition has had far-reaching success on the small island of Palau. Ranked as the third most obese nation in the world, with 56 percent of its population falling into that category, Palau confronts a difficult future managing the cost of medical care for obesity-related diseases.

To support the Embassy’s key objective of improving food security and health, Toribiong initiated a multi-pronged campaign aimed at the island’s youth that encouraged them to embrace a healthier lifestyle and diet. She worked with the Ministry of Education to redesign the school lunch program (less imported Spam® and white rice, more locally sourced fish and produce), created an innovative training program to connect school cooks with medical professionals and top chefs to prepare healthier menus, and arranged for the donation of sports equipment to increase school children’s activity levels.

Among her many other accomplishments, Toribiong has developed catchy social media posts, in the process increasing the Embassy’s Facebook followers from 2,000 when she was hired three years ago to 47,000 today. As her nominating officer, Ambassador Amy Hyatt, said of Toribiong, “she is the most innovative, creative, and dedicated public diplomacy professional I have worked with in over 30 years in the Foreign Service.”

Chris Hodges was recognized for his work guiding media and public diplomacy engagement with Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza during a particularly challenging period of changes in U.S. policy and the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. After the move, Consulate General Jerusalem merged with the Embassy, becoming the Embassy’s Palestinian Affairs Unit. As a result of these events, Consulate morale as well as Palestinian opinion of U.S. policy reached new lows.

To re-energize both the American and local staff in Jerusalem, Hodges worked with an Embassy counterpart to lead a workshop for Palestinian and Israeli staff members at which they could listen to and learn from each other, thereby enabling them to coordinate while working independently. Such efforts were critical to re-energizing and reorienting local staff members so as to maintain their usual high standard of performance during a difficult transition.

To counter Palestinian anger over the Embassy’s move to Jerusalem, Hodges enhanced outreach to Palestinians by framing the bilateral relationship as one between two peoples, not just two governments. He likewise used professional and academic exchange programs, English courses, and American Spaces to continue engaging key Palestinian audiences and to forge partnerships essential to U.S. credibility and effectiveness. Through press guidance, media outreach, and interviews conducted in fluent Arabic, Hodges highlighted the message of the enduring U.S. commitment to Palestinians.

In Uganda, Niles Cole designed an extremely cost-effective program to inspire young students, in particular young women, to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-related careers. The concept, while directly supporting Embassy Kampala’s mission goals, also expanded U.S. influence in remote, often vulnerable, and hard-to-reach communities; in addition, it countered the narrative that only China is investing in Africa.

Cole helped launch a mobile STEM lab, the “Nile Explorer.” The bus, named to honor the fact that Uganda is the source of the river Nile, travels to remote areas and stops every week to deliver a five-day program that demonstrates to Ugandan students and their teachers the benefits of an interactive educational approach. Since its inception, the Nile Explorer has visited 32 schools across 15 districts, reaching nearly 5,000 students (more than half female) aged 10 to 12.

The program has shown impressive results in the short span of six months that it has been running, with five schools buying computers to continue building computer literacy skills; more interactive versus passive learning at participating schools; and increased interest from girls in excelling in the hard science courses they had normally been steered away from, as the sciences traditionally had been seen as suitable only for boys. Such efforts have allowed the Embassy to demonstrate that while China may be investing in building Uganda’s infrastructure, the United States is building the country’s future by investing in its human development.

The PDAA Awards Committee also gave honorable mention to three other individuals who were nominated: Eveline Tseng, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer in Kabul, Afghanistan; Violeta Talandis, Political/Economic/Public Diplomacy Officer in Asmara, Eritrea; and Yolonda Kerney, Public Affairs Officer in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

The award winners were given one-year memberships in PDAA in addition to a cash award.

The Public Diplomacy Association of America (PDAA) is a non-profit organization that brings together professionals experienced in public diplomacy and foreign affairs to examine and support the nexus between the two. In addition to its awards program, PDAA also sponsors quarterly luncheons featuring distinguished speakers, publishes a quarterly newsletter, and maintains an active website. More information about PDAA is available at A list of past award recipients is available here.

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