Peoria has often had an outsized impact on the wider world, despite its relatively small size. Its history is the key: Peoria’s place as the first European settlement west of the Alleghenies, its days as the whiskey capital of the world, the inventions made at the USDA Ag Lab, and the presence of global players like Caterpillar Inc.
While those impacts brought Peoria to the wider world, the mission of the Peoria Area World Affairs Council (PAWAC) is the reverse—to bring the world to central Illinois. PAWAC has been carrying out that mission for 50 years. In 2020, PAWAC is celebrating a half-century of informed, respectful public discourse about international relations and current events.
Progress Through Knowledge
PAWAC is a local chapter of a nationwide, nonpartisan network that nurtures public awareness of critical international issues affecting the United States. While origins of the larger network go back to 1918, the Peoria chapter was born in 1970.
The year was a turbulent one on the global front, with the Cold War in full swing. Proxy wars and the space race kept the world on a knife-edge of potential conflict. Violence at home and abroad rocked the public’s sense of safety. A complex, unpopular war in Vietnam polarized the American public.
In response, people sought out more information to help understand these increasingly complex times. The University of Illinois’ Office of Continuing Education founded annual conferences across the state that brought international experts to engage directly with the public.
Peorians Ruth and Zealy Holmes attended one of those conferences and were influential in bringing the concept to the Peoria area, where Joe Roach of Bradley University and Bob Ryan of Illinois Central College (ICC) brought in their organizations as co-sponsors. Two years later, the group was formally incorporated with the goal of furthering “Education in World Affairs: Progress Through Knowledge.”
Dr. J. Terry Iverson of the University of Illinois, who created those initial conferences, remembers that the change of venue to Peoria was immediately popular. “The Peoria area was very supportive of the annual conference right from the very beginning,” Iversen explains, consistently drawing audiences of 400 or more. “[PAWAC] has succeeded over the years because the community recognized the importance of international literacy at all levels and in all quarters—from high schools to international corporations.”
One of the hallmarks of PAWAC programs, then as now, is the opportunity for regular citizens to interact with global leaders who are making important decisions. Conference participants got the chance to engage in meaningful, in-person conversation with heads of diplomatic delegations and think tanks, with leaders from NATO and the State Department, with special advisors to the President and intelligence experts. Vice President Dick Cheney headlined a PAWAC conference during his tenure as Secretary of Defense. Regularly addressing the Peoria community were sitting senators and many ambassadors, such as James Matlock, the last ambassador to the Soviet Union.
From a two-day event once a year, PAWAC’s programming has grown to include monthly speakers, special events, student outreach, a film series and a book club, study groups and travel opportunities, as well as collaborations with other local organizations, such as the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the ICC Culinary Arts Institute. These events have replaced the conference with a more vibrant, year-round calendar of events.
50th Anniversary Programming
PAWAC will mark its 50th anniversary in 2020 with a series of special programming, including some of the “greatest hits” of recent years. On March 23, a spring gala event will feature Ambassador Thomas Pickering on “Current Challenges in American Foreign Policy.” A former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Ambassador Pickering holds the highest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service. He served as ambassador not only to the United Nations, but also to key allies and important global players, such as Russia, India, Israel, Nigeria and Jordan.
April will feature four PAWAC programs, including the book club’s special guest speaker, the Honorable Ray LaHood, and a return visit by Roman Popadiuk, former Ambassador to Ukraine. The anniversary continues with a special event in the fall. On September 17th, China’s Consul General in Chicago will lead a cultural exchange evening, an event which harks back to PAWAC’s beginning in 1970. China was the theme of the very first annual conference. PM
Kathryn Eissfeldt is president-elect of the Peoria Area World Affairs Council. More information about these and other events can be found at pawac.org. The public is invited to attend the anniversary events, as well as any regular programming throughout the year.