Amy Storrow lived across the hall from me in Houston, in the early 1990s. We were graduate students at the writing programs at the University of Houston. I was a poet. Amy wrote fiction and spectacular personal essays. I moved to LA after I got my degree and tumbled into public radio. Amy taught and wrote for a few years after graduation, but the poverty was grinding, so she took the Foreign Service exam, passed and joined the State Department. By 2015, she was the Director of Alumni Affairs which meant she nurtured The U.S.’s long game in soft diplomacy by staying in touch with everyone who has ever participated in a State Department funded cultural or educational exchange program.
I was commuting to DC that year, working on MoveOn.org’s podcast, The Good Fight with Ben Wikler. My travel budget allowed me to fly and stay with friends, or drive and stay in an airbnb. I alternated, and when I was couch hopping, tried to land at Amy’s as often as possible. Those visits resulted in a proposal to make a podcast series that told the story of these programs from conception to the full flowering that happened during the Obama administration. (Obama started several initiatives that reach out to Africa and the Carribean.)
For the series, I would travel to 8 countries (chosen by the state department for their strong radio cultures) over 2 years. I’d teach workshops on audio storytelling and podcasting, and interview alumni of the Cultural and Educational Exchange programs. The project was approved and the money appropriated by Amy’s department (the plan was for Amy to put half the money in a kind of escrow for the next fiscal year.) Then the election happened. Amy called to tell me that they were afraid to put that money aside because the Trump administration would take it back, so we had to spend it before the end of Obama’s fiscal year, September 30, 2017. That gave me 9 months. Except that my son’s bar mitzvah was in early February and I didn’t want to leave the country until after that event. So I went to all 8 countries in 6 months. While I was circling the globe, most nights I would write home to a select group of friends and family. In the coming weeks I’ll be posting edited versions of those letter. Watch this space.