Pennsylvania Chapter Brings UN Understanding Home by Connecting Local Organizations

September 20, 2011
Something interesting is happening in central Pennsylvania. People of different backgrounds with diverse interests are getting together and talking about the same thing. The real surprise is that they're not talking about Penn State football. They're talking about the UN.

The Centre County Pennsylvania chapter of UNA-USA hosts an Area Council of Organizations, a local off-shoot of the national Council of Organizations (COO), a program of UNA-USA. At the national level, COO connects organizations with interests in the UN and works to increase understanding of the UN's work and mission. In Centre County, the same thing is being done at the local level.

In the spring of 2005 after prompting from the National Office of UNA-USA, Norma Keller and Donald Cherman, both former presidents of the chapter, began thinking about a way to get local organizations to focus on the UN. Norma analyzed the list of cooperating organizations at the national level and found out how many had local chapters. The local entities were then invited to plan and discuss an annual theme and to attend a series of meetings. From June to November, the groups would discuss the theme, contribute to a project and plan an end of year dinner.

Six years later, the chapter is working with over 20 other community groups on the same endeavor. Themes are recommended by the chapter Board of Directors and then agreed upon by the partnering organization's representatives. Themes focus in some way on an issue being dealt with by the UN. The theme this year is water, the theme last year was human trafficking, and in previous years the themes revolved around the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). According to participants in the local program, through the annual event and the regular discussions on the theme, awareness is raised in the community about the issue as well as about the UN.

The area COO has increased the overall profile of the UN in central Pennsylvania. According to Keller, "Where I live it is a large rural conservative county. If it were not for my chapter there would be no attention on the UN." Working with other groups further increases that attention. "People will pay attention if 17 organizations are focusing on the UN and our chapter has been the catalyst for that. It has been a domino effect" says Keller.

Participants corroborated her claims. Connie Schroeder represents the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and stated that given their focus on women's and girl's issues, they can increase their awareness of how certain global issues are impacting their mission. For this year's theme of water they are particularly engaged because of the crimes often committed to women while traveling for water in developing countries. Through discussions and e-mails across groups, organizations can discover that others in the community are doing similar work. As Keller stated "we have the opportunity to help other organizations learn from each other."

For Rotary, which works on well projects throughout the world, they get to inform others about what they are doing to increase access to clean drinking water. Speaking to the larger value of partnering on global issues at the local level, local Rotary President, Cathy Brown stated "It is very easy to live in a small community and focus on that community. What this does is it lets you live beyond your community. It allows you to take a much broader view of things."

Participants have also stated they gained a greater understanding not only of world issues, but of the role played by the UN in those issues. According to Schroeder, awareness of the UN's work on the MDGs would not have been possible locally without the Area COO. It was the issues themselves that have drawn people in however to learn about the UN's role. "The connection is that they are human issues. Clean water for individuals is a human issue. It is quality of life for an individual," says Brown.

Issues are not the only draw of this group however, as ease of involvement increases the chances of participation by representatives from other groups goes up as well. Many of the representatives hold leadership positions in their own organizations aside from career and family obligations. Strong leadership is also of note. Undoubtedly, this program would not have been able to prosper without the hard work and dedication of Keller and the rest of the Centre County Chapter of UNA-USA.

The mission of UNA-USA is to educate Americans about the work of the UN. The Area COO in central Pennsylvania is certainly doing that, but it is also helping to strengthen a community and to increase that community's sense of awareness of the outside world. While keeping in mind that similar programs must be simple and easy to become involved in, other chapters would be wise to replicate this initiative.

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