Virtual Exchange Alumna: "I don’t want to speak on behalf of the community, I want to uplift them. That is what it takes to be part of a diverse community."

October 01, 2020

Over the past two decades, nearly 25,000 young people from around the world have taken part in Soliya's dialogue programs, representing a diversity of thoughts and experiences that have informed our values and elevated our virtual exchanges. Today, we are proud to share the first in a series of interviews with past participants who have become agents of positive change within their own communities. We're excited to explore their journeys, amplify their stories, and celebrate their impact. 



Earlier this year, Salma Elbeblawi, Chief Program Officer of Soliya, interviewed Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson, who participated in Soliya’s flagship Connect Program in 2011. At the time of their conversation, she was a Chief of Staff for a U.S. State Senator. 

[The interview has been edited for clarity.]

Salma Elbeblawi: When did you participate in the Connect Program? What was your school, major, and course?
Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson: Georgetown University, Culture and Politics track; a “Cultural Diplomacy” course with Ambassador Cynthia Schneider in 2011.

SE: Do have any particular memories or specific moments from the Connect Program?
SCJ: There were participants from the Philippines, Jordan, France, Thailand, and Yemen. Religion and the role it played in government and culture was a major topic. One participant from Yemen told a story about a Muslim tradition, and another participant from Thailand said they didn’t do it. We broke it down and discovered it was cultural. How Muslims from Yemen experience the world and how Muslims in Thailand do so can be completely different. Noticing the diversity in Islam was really eye opening.

SE: In 2011, was the Arab Spring a topic of discussion?
SCJ: Yes, it was a major topic. Our group included another American participant from my class, and we demonstrated that even Americans have different views. He was a military strategy minded person, as he was part of the Reserved Officers Training Corps commissioned by the United States Armed Forces.  I approached issues from a diplomatic angle. My views opened their eyes to the fact that not all Americans are the stereotype.

SE: Have you traveled anywhere in the Middle East?
SCJ: I have been to Turkey, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt multiple times. I was actually supposed to be in Egypt now for a wedding, but, due to COVID-19, plans have changed.

SE: Did you meet any of the other participants face-to-face?
SCJ: I kept in touch with a few people on Facebook mostly. Later, I met the participant from Jordan by coincidence through a mutual friend when she ended up living in Arlington, VA. She’s now friends with all of my friends there, which is very cool.

SE: Do you ever think back on your experience with Soliya and the Connect Program? Does anything come to mind when you travel?
SCJ: Absolutely. I’ve been to about 20 different countries and have friends in many countries. But when I was traveling in Serbia, I didn’t know anyone, and I wanted there to be a way for me to see what Serbians think. How do Serbians view the world? That’s what made Soliya so unique. I wish there was a format similar to actually have conversations with people around the world and talk about current events. See what it’s like in Venezuela with the government in chaos right now or hearing from people in China as coronavirus was spreading into a pandemic. If we’re able to ask questions and have respect for other people, it would clear up so many misconceptions and miscommunications.

SE: Can you tell me about your current position?
SCJ: I’m the Chief of Staff for a U.S. State Senator. I handle a lot of team organization, relationship building, writing legislation, and connecting with different people. Foreign affairs helps me make more comprehensive and inclusive domestic policies, and I think about different perspectives when writing laws.

SE: Sounds like you’re describing greater empathy, how different laws affect different people. How would you evaluate yourself in terms of empathy? Do you believe empathy has an important value?
SCJ: Absolutely. In today’s current situation, it’s frustrating for me that people have to experience something personally to believe someone else’s story. I’m an African-American woman. There’s been times in DC, times at Georgetown, when I’ve been targeted by police. If I tell my story like that to people, I hope people believe me and want to do something to make it better. There’s still such a majority of people that don’t believe others because they haven’t experienced that themselves. My family, they’re not immigrants. They were forced during the slave trade, so, different type. But, there’s a lot of immigrants leaving war-torn countries or economically impoverished countries, and they’re coming to America for a better life. For people to target them just for this, it’s concerning to me. Muslim, or Sikh, or Latino, or LGBTQ, we need some policies in place that protect all people. I don’t need to identify as LGBTQ to know that they’re persecuted, to know they’re being discriminated against in society. I know that. I believe people. And I want to make policies that help people.

SE: Is global curiosity an important aspect of how you make decisions or define your world view? Do you feel that you have a global mindset?
SCJ: Do I speak up for the community when something is happening against them? Absolutely. When it comes to let me share what the Muslim experience is like –– that I don’t want to do. I don’t want to speak on behalf of the community, I want to uplift them. I believe, that’s what it takes to be a part of a diverse community. From what I’ve spoken with to Chinese people and people of Chinese descent, I can come up with my own conclusion of how I think someone in China would conceive the coronavirus. But I don’t want to speak on behalf of someone from China, without actually asking them and getting their input. I want to hear it first hand to be open and receptive to what they have to say first.

SE: Have any of your professional decisions been affected by the Connect Program? Was there a specific moment you felt was a result of something related to your Connect Program experience?
SCJ: Conflict Resolution can be sterile. Person A mad at person B, how do we resolve it? Seeing and hearing other peoples’ interpretation of another religion/culture or even their own informs communication and can clear up misinformation. To have open dialogue and respect, you have to step out of your comfort zone and look at the world from the other person’s perspective. I am a liberal Black woman working in an 85 percent conservative white area, and I am still able to communicate. It’s a skill I had to build, and I utilize it frequently. I’ve always wondered what my trajectory would be if I didn’t have Ambassador Schneider’s class through which I participated in the Connect Program. What type of politician would I be? Would I be as empathetic? What type of friend would I be? Would I have a diverse group of friends? The Connect Program definitely laid some sort of foundation in my life.

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