An Interview with Angela Weck

Bringing World Affairs Close to Home
Angela Weck is executive director of the Peoria Area World Affairs Council, a non-partisan organization that strives to promote a better understanding of world affairs among the citizens of central Illinois. She also teaches part-time at the Institute of International Studies at Bradley University—mainly courses pertaining to Russia and Eastern Europe.

She received a Bachelors degree in political science and Russian studies from Iowa State University and a Masters degree in Russian and East European area studies from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Weck also completed a Study Abroad Program with the Northern Illinois University Small Business Institute and participated in an Advanced Intermediate Russian Immersion Program. She was named a 40 Leader Under Forty in 2004.

Weck and her husband have two children.

Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.

I grew up in Carroll, a small town of about 10,000 in west central Iowa. I come from a large family with 10 children and went to Catholic schools. Although Latin was the recommended foreign language in high school, I took Spanish for four years. The teacher made a lasting impression on me—not only with the language, but the culture of the Spanish-speaking world. Model United Nations and the speech and debate team contributed to my interest in the world around us and in solving its problems through knowledge and diplomacy.

I’m not exactly certain where my interest in the world comes from, as no one in my family, except my brother in the Army, has traveled outside the U.S. However, when I went to Iowa State University, I planned to continue my study of foreign languages and cultures and one day work for the government or an organization like the real United Nations. I tried to sign up for French, as it’s the international language, but the classes were full. German, Italian, and even Spanish classes were full. However, there were spaces in Russian, and I signed up. I didn’t realize that decision would change the course of my studies and future.

The Russian language teacher, Tatiana Tipton, was tough; some might even have described her as mean, but she really struck a chord with me. I never worked so hard for a low B in my life. But she was a native of Kiev, Ukraine, and really brought the culture of the then-Soviet Union to life. We established a Russian Club, ate traditional food, played typical games, and listened to Russian music. In addition, Professor Tipton led a student group to the USSR that visited Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad. I went on that trip when I was a sophomore and cemented my career goals to become a Soviet expert.

I majored in political science and Russian area studies at ISU and continued to participate in Model United Nations, among other activities. After I graduated in May 1987, I attended Middlebury College in Vermont and completed the intensive Russian language program there. I enrolled in the Russian and East European area studies program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St. Paul and finished in two years. Because of my language training, I taught elementary Russian at the university while I was a master student and then taught at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb for one year. As a member of the faculty at NIU, I audited a small business class and stumbled onto a unique opportunity.

When I was teaching at NIU in 1989, the USSR was in the middle of an intense transition from a command economy to a socialist/market economy. Mikhail Gorbachev and his associates were motivated to learn from the experience of western countries like the U.S. The Small Business Institute at NIU had contacts with the U.S. Small Business Administration and played host to a delegation from the USSR that included a Soviet deputy minister who also taught at an institute outside Moscow. Nicholas Medvedev decided on his trip to NIU to establish an exchange of students and faculty, drawing on the model of the Small Business Institute there. I participated in the first exchange and studied at the Moscow Institute for Timber in Mytyschi, Russia, for five months in fall 1990. It was an exciting and turbulent time for that country, a period that unleashed such a popular movement for change that the entire USSR collapsed just one year later and evolved into the 15 states we know today.

Following my studies in Russia, I settled in Peoria to live with my husband, Shawn. We’d actually married in 1988 while I was studying at the University of Minnesota, but it was a long-distance marriage for the first two-and-a-half years. Shawn is an engineering manager at Caterpillar, and we decided to call Peoria our home in November 1988. Since I couldn’t get the UN to change its headquarters to Illinois, I changed career plans a bit and began teaching courses in political science and conversational Russian at Illinois Central College in 1991.

In 1992, the Peoria Area World Affairs Council invited then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to Peoria for its annual conference. I attended and decided that evening that any group that could bring the secretary of defense to Peoria was an organization in which I wanted to be involved. In 1993, I also began teaching courses about Russia for the Institute of International Studies at Bradley University after the birth of my first son, Alexander. By the time my son, Jacob, was born in 1995, I also was teaching an occasional political science course at Bradley, as well as continuing at ICC. With too many irons in the fire, I decided to teach part-time at Bradley only and volunteer with PAWAC.

You’re executive director of Peoria Area World Affairs Council. Tell about the organization and your responsibilities as director.

After serving as the president and secretary of the organization, I applied for and was chosen as the executive director of PAWAC in 2000, a new position created as a result of the reorganization of the University of Illinois and the retirement of Terry Iversen.

As the ED, I complete most of the functions the university previously had fulfilled. I serve as the central administrator, which means I manage the membership and mailing lists, send out program and meeting notices, and coordinate the efforts of the various committees within the organization. It’s also my responsibility to contact the various speakers hosted by PAWAC, make their travel arrangements, and coordinate the banquet and hotel arrangements for each event. Each January, I attend the national conference of the World Affairs Councils of America, to which PAWAC belongs. I recently was elected to the board of directors of the national organization; the board meeting took place in Mexico City in August. Most importantly, I serve as an ambassador for PAWAC, reaching out to a wide variety of contacts in the community to promote the mission and goals of PAWAC.

What’s the organization’s mission and goals?

Our mission is to promote a better understanding of world affairs among the citizens of central Illinois by holding public programs and fostering a cooperative educational approach to addressing key issues. PAWAC is a non-partisan organization that invites diplomats, elected officials, and experts to Peoria to address a wide variety of issues and to dialog with program participants. Our members come from a broad base in the community, with Republicans and Democrats, house wives and professionals, high school students and retirees. Our common thread is a strong interest to know more about our world.

The Peoria Area World Affairs Council has existed since the late 1960s. It started with a group of interested citizens who recognized within the first year that they wanted to build a serious organization. They invited a representative from the Office of Continuing Education in International Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to help them grow. Dr. J. Terry Iversen came on board and helped craft the annual conference. In 1972, PAWAC incorporated and has continued to evolve and offer quality programs through the years.

In addition to the annual two-day conference, PAWAC now sponsors six to eight evening programs throughout the year. We also host a scholastic bowl competition for high school students, in cooperation with the Newspaper in Education program at the Journal Star, in which all the questions have an international focus. PAWAC has hosted a series of international dinners to showcase the wonderful international cultures found right here in the Peoria area. This spring, we successfully hosted the Great Decisions discussion series for the first time.

Our organizational goals are to increase the active membership in our group and develop more fully our educational outreach programs for high school and college teachers and students. With a list of members that’s tripled in the past five years, we recognize the need to keep fresh programming ideas and plans flowing. Active volunteers who do more than attend the programs are the key to our dynamic development.

Secondly, in the post-9/11 world, it’s become more important than ever to help students learn more about the world around us and the role of the United States in it. Even without the impact of terrorism, the primary effect of globalization over the past several decades has been a significant increase in the number and types of contacts each of us has with other people from all over the world. Nearly everything we eat, wear, or drive comes—at least in part—from outside the U.S. To succeed in this “smaller world,” our students must know more about their global neighbors. This is true no matter what field today’s students enter. We must equip our students with knowledge of the world to compete in the global economy.

What are the misperceptions of the organization?

There are two misconceptions of PAWAC that concern us the most. First, people unfamiliar with our group assume we’re only for teachers. In fact, we try to hold our events at locations other than academic settings to demonstrate that all citizens are welcome and that all views are tolerated. As noted above, our membership is diverse.

Secondly, we often have a problem with our speakers, who assume they’re addressing a provincial audience just because we’re in the Midwest. But, we’re a dynamic community, with people who’ve come from and are interested in various parts of the world. Our audience is usually much more well-read and prepared than the speakers anticipate—and they’re always impressed.

What surprised you most about your travels abroad in Russia and Poland? Do think more Americans should study abroad?

When I studied in Russia, I was most surprised at how similar we are to our global neighbors. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and share common worries about money, health, education for our children, and job prospects. We all seek to take care of our families, our communities, and our countries.

I visited Russia just weeks after the U.S. became involved in the first Gulf War in 1990. I found myself in a conversation with some women worried the U.S. and her coalition forces would go to war directly with Iraq, pulling the USSR—at that time an ally of Iraq—into a larger conflict. Although I argued the U.S. was only concerned with protecting the sovereignty of Kuwait, it wasn’t until I told the women that my brother was with the U.S. Army in Kuwait and that we worried about his safety that they began to believe me. They began to share stories of their sons and brothers who had only recently returned from Afghanistan, and the discussion became one of mutual concern for loved ones rather than one of the politics of governments.

When I visited Poland in 2003 as part of a Leadership Mission through the World Affairs Councils of America, we were the guests of the Polish government. We heard from various sources, both governmental and non-governmental, about their exciting ascension to the European Union and what that would mean for their future prospects. Again, they talked about the same common worries—but with hope mixed with anxiety that membership in the EU would improve conditions for Poland.

I learned Poland has a somewhat unique world view. Poland sits between western and eastern Europe and has been crushed in the past because of its geographical location. They look west for their future economic prosperity but can’t completely “forgive and forget” the Germans’ atrocities of WWII, particularly the Holocaust. However, they keep their eyes turned to the east as well to maintain friendly relations with Russia and the other new states of the former Soviet Union. Poland is willing to serve as a mediator between east and west, primarily because it serves the country’s own security interests to do so.

Without a doubt, more Americans should study and travel abroad. Even a week’s bus trip through pastoral Ireland gives an American a different, fresh perspective on the world. Because students will be working with people from all over the world in nearly every chosen profession, study abroad programs should be a mandatory part of every college degree program.

There’s another side to Americans studying and traveling abroad that’s extremely valuable. Many people around the world have a warped sense about Americans—usually what they learn from their leaders or garner from the worst of our television programs. Personal contact with us often dispels those negative images, just like my conversation with those women I met in Russia. We benefit from showing our better side to our global neighbors, just as we benefit by learning more about the rest of the world.

How would you encourage students to become more politically involved?

I believe it’s absolutely necessary for our young people to become politically involved, locally as well as nationally, but we older people should be involved as well. It worries me how little Americans know about our own government, our history, and our rights and responsibilities as citizens of the greatest power in the world today. Students should be encouraged to learn more about today’s pressing issues—not just scan the headlines or catch 10 minutes of nightly news—and they should learn how to voice their thoughts on the issues. We all have opinions, but the key to political involvement is forming educated opinions and learning what to do about them. Courses that incorporate problem-solving activities, mini-debates of current issues, writing letters to the editor, volunteering in political campaigns, or working for non-governmental organizations should be encouraged for all students. And these activities should be encouraged across the curriculum, considering some of the hottest political issues today involve environmental and genetic issues.

Do you see more or less of an interest in international affairs with area citizens?

I believe there’s a constant, strong interest in international affairs in this community. Because of the area’s major employers like Caterpillar and the hospitals, we continue to draw a diverse, global population to the Peoria area. People are able to get information about the world from a wide variety of sources—not the least of which is the Internet. But those sources offer only passive information. Engaging diplomats, elected officials, and other experts in dialog and being able to hear their views first-hand and ask them questions like we do at PAWAC programs is a much more exciting way to learn about international affairs. As we’ve heard about the arts lately, learning about world affairs “live and in person” is much more exciting.

How can Americans be encouraged to better understand and develop tolerance of other cultures? Schools?

Americans often are criticized for having a superiority complex, and the term “ugly American” has been bantered about for years. There are many ways we can develop a better understanding and tolerance of other cultures, and we can do so without even leaving the area. Since Peoria has such a beautifully diverse population, there are numerous festivals where participants can develop an appreciation of another culture through experiencing its music, dance, and food. I encourage everyone to visit the ethnic restaurants in the area for another grand experience. Schools should feature a different world culture on a regular basis. It could be as simple as having ethnic food in the cafeteria and ethnic music piped over the intercom during lunch period during the first week of each month.

If we make a small effort to experience cultures other than our own on a regular basis, tolerance becomes second nature. My children are so accustomed to visiting the ethnic festivals and restaurants that they’re comfortable around people with accents who dress and look different than we do. In fact, when my 11-year-old heard a nursing student at Bradley express her distress that she had to attend the international fair to get course credit—and that she “never wanted to be around people not of her race ever again”—I had to explain what her racist comment meant. But he still didn’t understand how she thought she could get through life without living around all kinds of people and that she should learn to get along. I confess I was quite proud of him.

Do you believe the instant reporting of world affairs through the Internet and television helps Americans with global understanding, or can it be a hindrance to real issues?

People need to remember that media are businesses. For the overwhelming majority of media outlets, they’re less biased by a political slant than they are by profits. They race each other to present breaking news to draw one’s attention and, therefore, one’s dollars. Instant reporting on television—and even the Internet—can be as much a hindrance as a help. While many of us want the latest breaking news, rumors and innuendo take very little fuel to spread like wild fire, especially if a supposed news item seems to fulfill our deepest fears of another group of people. And we’re very much a sound-bite kind of society. If the news media outlet doesn’t take the time to present the full story, we often don’t go searching for the rest of the information. For example, we in America have had a deep dislike for Saddam Hussein. When some media indicated he may have been directly linked to the 9-11 attacks on the U.S., many Americans accepted it. How many of us still believe Saddam was directly responsible? We must be responsible citizens and make the effort to learn the full story—not just the buzz words and sound bites.

In your opinion, what’s the most critical threat to American society as we know it?

In my personal opinion, the greatest threat doesn’t come from the world around us. I’m afraid we’re endangering our own future with what I would characterize as our abandonment of personal responsibility, which is related to our unwillingness to learn more about the issues. As a society, we seem to spend considerably more effort looking for someone to blame for a problem rather than looking for a solution. We blame schools and teachers for low test scores but hardly consider how much—or, rather, how little—homework children do versus how much X-Box they play. We blame the lack of Christian prayer in public schools for the demise of social standards but ignore what behaviors we adults give them as examples to follow.

Unfortunately, this is true of global issues as well as domestic issues. We’ve criticized the United Nations for being too bureaucratic and corrupt rather than trying to address the growing issue of anti-Americanism around the world. Many Americans blame the outsourcing of jobs for the decline in the American economy, yet they’re quick to get in line for the latest sale at Wal-Mart. It’s clear we’re able to identify our problems, but we can’t simply throw around accusations and blame. We must offer constructive, educated solutions and be willing to work together to solve the problems—both those at home and in the world.

What’s your best resource to understanding world affairs?

For me, the two best sources for understanding world affairs are the journals Current History and Foreign Affairs. Current History takes a regional approach with each issue and explores what’s happening there from a number of angles. Foreign Affairs offers articles submitted by some of the countries leading experts in world affairs. Both journals are written with expertise, but at a level most readers could easily understand.

What programs/topics would you like PAWAC to bring to Peoria in the near future? What plans do you have for the future of the organization?

I’d like PAWAC to take a closer look at Latin America in the near future. With other, more pressing issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we seem to have nearly forgotten about our neighbors to the south. However, immigration, employment, outsourcing, and free trade agreements mean we can’t afford to ignore our relations with Latin America.

I’d also like to take a closer look at Africa. The chronic famine occurring there right now, coupled with the AIDS pandemic, eventually will draw down the entire world. At minimum, we’re all diminished as human beings if we do nothing to help. But the global economy also will suffer from the drain of human life and resources, making this an important issue to address.

By planning more events throughout the year in addition to the annual conference, PAWAC hopes to build a reputation that central Illinois is a place that’s knowledgeable and interested in the world. PAWAC wants to actively take part in the greater effort to establish this area as a world class community that attracts the “creative class” to come live and work here. A strong world affairs council is a key element in that effort, and we plan to continue to work with educators and average citizens to provide quality opportunities to learn about world affairs.

If you could solve one of the world’s issues in the next year, what would it be?

If I could wave a magic wand, I’d settle the Israeli-Palestinian problem. It seems as though many of the tensions of the region can be linked back to this key problem. The solution clearly isn’t going to be easy or it already would’ve been achieved. Hence, the magic wand. But I’d love to be able to provide a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state in the very near future. TPW