MS ROBBINS: Welcome. Thank you for joining us here at the United States Department of State in Washington, D.C. Today we gather to recognize the recipients of the fourth annual Citizen Diplomacy Award. The State Department recognizes that U.S. citizens and organizations can be key representatives of our country. Specifically, they can help advance the State Department’s vision to promote and demonstrate democratic values and advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.
We are excited today to honor three excellent examples of these grassroots efforts, and our thanks to the Office of Public Liaison for their work to organize the award judging and this event.
Our honored speaker today is Assistant Secretary of State for Global Public Affairs Aaron Ringel. The mission of his bureau is to serve the American people by communicating U.S. foreign policy priorities and the importance of diplomacy to U.S. audiences, and to engage foreign publics to enhance their understanding of – and support for – the values and policies of the United States.
Assistant Secretary Ringel previously served in the State Department’s Bureau of Energy Resources, where he worked to promote U.S. energy sector exports, open markets, and reduce barriers to energy trade and development.
He previously served at the Environmental Protection Agency, and also on Capitol Hill, where he served as deputy chief of staff and legislative director for former Congressman Mike Pompeo and Congressman Richard Hudson.
Of note, he served eight years in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, deploying to Iraq in 2005 as an Arabic linguist and serving as the senior enlisted leader of his reserve unit.
Assistant Secretary Ringel, thank you for joining us. I now turn it over to you for your remarks and the presentation of awards.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RINGEL: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us here today. It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the fourth annual Citizen Diplomacy Award ceremony. I’m Aaron Ringel, assistant secretary of state of the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, joining you today from the State Department in Washington, DC.
According to the State Department’s National Museum of American Diplomacy, a citizen diplomat is someone who is “motivated by a desire to engage with the rest of the world in a meaningful, mutually beneficial dialogue.” This dialogue is of such importance that in 2017, the State Department created an award to formally recognize U.S. citizens and organizations that exhibit dedication and leadership to strengthening relationships and advancing U.S. foreign policy priorities globally. Each year, we celebrate America’s great citizen diplomats who build these bridges around the world and tell our nation’s story. Citizen diplomats complement the work of the State Department to promote peace, prosperity, and national security among nations.
Before I officially present this year’s winner, Mr. Mohamed Amin Ahmed, with the 2020 Citizen Diplomacy Award, I want to thank our three nominating partners: Global Ties USA, Sister Cities International, and the Alliance for International Exchange. We had a record number of nominations submitted for this year’s award. Each nominee stood out as an excellent example of the work done nationwide by dedicated Americans who volunteer their time and energy to advance global understanding.
I also want to highlight the two runners-up to our 2020 Citizen Diplomacy Award: Tempe Sister Cities and the Sehgal Foundation. The State Department honors Tempe Sister Cities for its unique approach to citizen diplomacy that incorporates traditional student exchanges and community outreach. Since 1971, Tempe Sister Cities has actively helped U.S. students become more globally aware. Their exchange programs help to promote American values abroad, and we are grateful for their work. Tempe Sister Cities, I am honored to present this award on behalf of the State Department. Please join me in a round of applause.
Next, I want to highlight our other runner-up. Thank you again. Well done. The State Department honors the Sehgal Foundation for its innovative human rights and women’s empowerment work in rural communities in India. Their efforts lend support to the ongoing work of the Trump administration to promote Women, Peace, and Security, and we are grateful for their many efforts. Sehgal Foundation, it is my pleasure to present this award on behalf of the State Department. Please join me in a round of applause. (Applause.) Congratulations.
Now, the moment that you’ve all been waiting for: The winner of the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Citizen Diplomacy Award is Mr. Mohamed Amin Ahmed, founder, chairman, and executive director of “Average Mohamed.”
All of our nominees underwent a rigorous panel review process by senior leaders here in Washington. Mr. Ahmed’s efforts are particularly noteworthy for his grassroots approach to counter violent extremism through pop culture. We are so grateful that Mr. Ahmed decided to bring his talents to America, immigrating from Somalia more than 20 years ago. He is now a proud U.S. citizen raising four beautiful children with his wife in Minnesota.
I can tell you that Mr. Ahmed is many things, but he is in no way “average.” Frustrated by the high number of ISIS recruits originating from his community, Mr. Ahmed created and launched the cartoon “Average Mohamed” and began engaging youth worldwide in meaningful discussions about the true Islamic values and institutions, democratic ideals, and civil society. In order to directly counter extremist propaganda, he engages thousands of community leaders and students to carry messages that combat radicalism, anti-democracy narratives, and intolerance.
Mr. Ahmed, as Assistant Secretary of State for Global Public Affairs, it is my great pleasure to present you with the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Citizen Diplomacy Award. Thank you for your contributions at countering extremist messaging by engaging youth worldwide to think critically and appreciate democratic values. Please join me in a round of applause. (Applause.)
Well done, sir. We’re all very proud. Thank you. I’ll now turn it over to Mr. Ahmed to share a bit more about his work.
MR AHMED: Thank you, sir. You know all I did was make a bunch of foreigners go to sleep and drink free coffee at Global Minnesota so this award is amazing. (Laughter.) With the IVLP Program, all I did was make people sleep.
But let’s talk about “Average Mohamed.” “Average Mohamed” is a counter-ideology platform. We created this platform in 2014 because we were getting propaganda avalanche. ISIS, al-Qaida and al-Shabaab were sending up to five messages to our community here in Minnesota trying to recruit them into extremists. And there was no response.
And we started creating the response because we felt that the (inaudible) democracy is something that we have to defend. We started this premises on the premises that we understand that in this democracy a citizen – a citizen – has the right to stand up and defend their values. So we started talking, and all of a sudden Global Minnesota calls me and says we have foreign dignitaries to the International Visitor Leadership Program who want to talk to you. I said okay, let me talk to them.
Now let me tell you why this is the most important outreach I’ve done, because when I spoke, I spoke to 60,000 kids in the last six years. But when I speak to IVLP, when I speak to women leaders from across North Africa and Middle East, when I speak to clergy, activists, foreign government agents, when I speak to press from foreign countries, this is a point of contact which they go back to their communities and they speak to millions.
So this is what the State Department is doing. This is pure asymmetrical means of fighting extremism. This is the most effective way because we are empowering, because when we talk to these people we tell them, look, how do you leverage social media? This is how you do it. How do you talk to your community? This is how you do it. How do you engage your community in terms of kids? How do you go back to them and tell them, for example, suicide bombing is un-Islamic principle, meaning that suicide bombers go to hell? Or how do you go tell them how women’s rights is important even though (inaudible) Islam, the man and woman are equal, but in opportunity they are equal? How do you go about telling your community the things that matter?
Well, I am blessed. I am blessed because I’ve lived in a country which is also. This country called America taught me by the natives certain values. Let me tell you one of these values: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Straightforward.
I came to America and I found these values here. The natives taught me that. And I as an immigrant latched onto it because then it serves our values. And when we talk – when we go out and speak to people, kids, or we go out and speak to media, and we go out and speak to International Visitor Leadership Program people – they understand that on those bases we are engaging them – life, liberty, opportunity, freedom. You will find all this in democracy, in secular democracy, which beats theocracy, which beats communism, which beats dictatorship. These are our values. And because these values serve us so well here in America, we want to export them to the world, and we engage the world with it.
So I am grateful for this award, again, for putting foreigners to sleep, and I am happy. This is the – the State Department saying so. But I want you to take one step farther. We are a mom and pop organization. We are in need of resources. And finding resources has been a little bit more difficult. So if the State Department feels within it that they need to help us go global again as we have done with millions of social media messages, as you have done with 60,000 kids, where we – whereby we train West Africans, East Africans, Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians to do the same program and the same model, we will really appreciate your help.
Deputy Secretary Ringel, I’m putting you on the spot, so I’m counting on you to deliver for me. Again, this is impressive. Think about this. I’m a black man. I’m a Muslim. I’m a Somali. I’m an immigrant. I’m a father and I’m a proud Minnesotan – they don’t brag about Ahmed, but I do for – on behalf of Minnesota. This is something I’ll tell you: America is a great country. Let no one tell you anything different. You’ve just got to love America, because in America you can be anything you want to be. And today my children sit behind me because I wanted to show them that what this country means to us, and my mother is here because she has been pushing me and telling me do good in this world, and all the goodness comes out of me comes from this woman here.
Now, thank you so much for this award. You’ve just go to love America. That’s all I can say. You’ve just got to love America. (Cheering.) Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RINGEL: Shukran, Mr. Ahmed. That was truly inspiring and I really appreciate these inspiring remarks and all the hard work you do. You clearly embody the spirit of a true citizen diplomat and we’re extremely grateful for your commitment to the future of our great country.
With that, I am going to conclude today’s ceremony. Thank you again to our nominating partners for the outstanding slate that they sent this year. Thanks to those tuning in, and congratulation to our award winners and two runners-up. Be well and thank you. God bless.