The Center for Citizen Initiatives (CCI) began its life in 1983 with the hope that ordinary Americans could insert themselves into the nuclear arms race and bring about a constructive relationship with the Soviet Union. Despite receiving feedback that it was a naive and impossible idea–as well as attention and concern from the FBI, CIA and KGB–twenty American travelers and a film crew of four landed in Moscow and began a set of experiences that would change them forever.
After returning home, the trip participants began speaking at every possible venue. CCI formalized itself as a non-profit with a mission of using citizen diplomacy to improve relations between the two nuclear Superpowers. Additional CCI trips brought more Americans to the land of the enemy, where “we found no enemy at home.”
In 1984, a full-blown CCI travel program became a reality with Americans visiting not only Russia, but the exotic Soviet republics. Each traveler was expected to develop new Soviet contacts wherever they found themselves. Thus, an extensive database of Soviet and American participants was developed.
Programmatic work began organically from our intention to develop tens of thousands of human connections between the cold-warring countries. We began learning what Soviet citizens needed in the 1980s. Alcohol-related issues were rampant. Thanks in part to support from the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, CCI began bringing delegations of American AAs to Soviet cities, leading to AA being planted across 11 time zones.
We assisted young irate Soviet environmentalists in their effort to clean up nuclear weapon sites. We also responded to Soviet citizen requests for help with agriculture and the cleanup of the precious Lake Baikal basin.
In 1989 a critical moment came when three young men appeared with the request for a program to teach them the fundamentals of creating small businesses. Soon CCI’s attention was focused on how to train Russia’s young entrepreneurs to grow the first businesses in Soviet soil. The results were astounding. CCI developed and ran five different business training programs between 1989 and 2009 for some 6500 Russian entrepreneurs who were hosted pro bono by American civic clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.) in over 500 American cities in 45 states. Thousands of American companies stepped in and provided training.
By 2010 most of our funding had evaporated. We gave up our headquarters in San Francisco. All that remained was our orphanage program: Angels for Angels. Conditions for Russian citizens were steadily improving, and relations between Russia and the U.S appeared to be stable. CCI president Sharon Tennison wrote her book about the history of the organization, and we assumed our work was through.
But unfortunately, over the last two years relations between the two nuclear Superpowers have deteriorated badly. As 2016 opens we find ourselves again facing the possibility of an unthinkable nuclear conflict. Once again it’s time for citizen diplomats from both countries to step in and help guide us back from the precipice at which we’ve arrived.
We begin our new mission armed with the knowledge that our original efforts in 1983 produced magic and miracles beyond anything we could have imagined––and with the belief that 99% of Americans and Russians genuinely yearn for good relations between our two nations. There is no problem between the peoples of our countries.
We only need to overcome our distrust and fears, and rebuild the proper relationships to guarantee security for both nations.