International educators are united by a passion for bringing people closer and turning the foreign into the familiar. Many of them also connect through their awkward moments and misunderstandings in international exchange that later turn into humorous stories. As the opening plenary speaker for the NAFSA 2014 Annual Conference and Expo, award-winning actress Anna Deavere Smith read excerpts from interviews with international educators, telling tales of surprise weddings in Thailand and confusing bathrooms in Korea. These lighter experiences make it easy to examine differences and find commonalities across cultures, but Deavere Smith later presented some darker themes to show that unity and humanity can be found in unlikely places.
For her one-woman show Let Me Down Easy, Deavere Smith conducted more than 300 interviews on three continents, including conversations with Rwandans recovering and rebuilding from the genocide. She also mentioned the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. Both countries established formal systems to bring atrocities to light, allowing those who had been wronged the opportunity to forgive the perpetrators and those who had committed crimes the chance to apologize. In order to rebuild their societies, these countries needed to develop a way for the people to move on and work together.
To show that these challenging situations are not unique to certain parts of the globe, Deavere Smith shared a story based on a conversation with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) from her performance On Grace. Using Lewis’ words, Deavere Smith told the story of police chief from Montgomery, Alabama, who apologized for the inaction of the city’s police department in the 1960s when Lewis and other Freedom Riders were harassed by mobs. The police chief was not part of the department at the time and had no involvement with the events, but he understood that his predecessors failed to do their duty and felt compelled to ask for forgiveness.
Deavere Smith’s message highlighted the power of forgiveness, especially given the gravity of these situations. Offering or asking for it can help to remove all obstacles to connecting at a basic human level, accomplishing the same goal that international educators have through very different circumstances. Deavere Smith sees both exchange and reconciliation as fundamental to building a more peaceful future, and she urged attendees help show the world that more of the former leads to less of the latter.