Tahoe World (Tahoe, NV)
Posted on September 11, 2003
By Melissa Siig
As part of a U.S.-funded program to teach leadership skills and provide a first-hand glimpse into American democracy and culture, 10 Russian women are visiting North Tahoe for eight days to meet with community leaders and visit local institutions.
Although most of their meetings focus on the role of women in business, government and social services, the delegation met with Supervisor Rex Bloomfield, who talked about local government and issues facing North Tahoe.
The Russian women are part of the Library of Congress' Open World Russian Leadership Program, the legislative branch's only exchange. Founded in 1999 by Congress, the program brings up to 3,000 emerging Russian political leaders each year to be hosted in cities throughout the U.S. This year, out of the 57,000 Russians who applied for the program, 2,000 were selected by the U.S. embassy in Moscow, according to Marina Koval, coordinator for the Washington, D.C.-based National Peace Foundation, which administers the program. Forty percent of Open World delegates have been women.
In North Tahoe, the visit was coordinated by the local branch of the American Association of University Women, which provided the seven host families to house the Russians. AAUW also organized the tour, dubbed the "Women as Leaders" event. The group of Russians, whom AAUW branch President Karen Wagner called "a lot of heavy hitters," included university professors, journalists, nurses, and government officials. One woman was an assistant to Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader and current head of the Social-Democratic Party.
One of the group's first meetings was with Bloomfield, who provided a sort of local politics 101, breaking down the California political system and Tahoe's problems in simple terms the women could understand. Aided by an interpreter, Bloomfield outlined the area's three main issues: land use, affordable housing and environment.
"In Tahoe, sometimes our job gets complicated because everyone wants to see the beautiful lake," Bloomfield told the delegation at the Tahoe City Library on Monday. "We are constantly trying to ensure that the public has access to the beach they own."
Bloomfield also relayed the high cost of living in North Tahoe. With the average house costing $750,000, the supervisor said: "This leaves government with a problem. The people who work here can't afford to buy a house here." Most of the county's local employees live in Reno or other areas outside Tahoe, he explained.
The Russians, whose own country is a fledgling democracy, expressed interest in learning more about the U.S. campaign process. Bloomfield discussed the difference between national and local elections. While candidates for Congress or president use TV as their main medium, Bloomfield said he relies mainly on signs and mailers, sending out six to 12 brochures per election. He lamented the major role that money plays in campaigning.
"The sad part of the story is that 90 percent of the time in America, the person with the most money wins," said Bloomfield, adding that he is an exception to the rule. "I've been outspent three times and won each election."
But with a top movie star bringing global attention to the California recall election, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger's run for governor that dominated the discussion.
"I don't think Arnold will win, but sometimes voters confuse celebrity with service," Bloomfield responded after being asked his opinion about the actor. "He has a chance of winning because so many people are on the ballot and he has name recognition."
Wagner, of AAUW, said she felt the women gained a lot from Bloomfield's talk.
"I think they were excited about Rex's speech," she said. "He made it simple. I think they were getting insight into our government."
The rest of the delegation's meetings focused on female leadership. On Monday, the group met with the Tahoe League for Charity, an organization run exclusively by women, to learn about the role of women in charitable fundraising. This was followed by a meeting with Pettit Gilwee of Gilwee Public Relations to hear about women-owned companies. Gilwee gave the delegates a brochure she developed on how to start a small business.
"They were most impressed with the idea of flex-time," said Gilwee, who has two employees who telecommute. "I explained why flexibility in the work place is important, especially for women to better balance work and family."
Tuesday, the group received a tour of Commons Beach from Cindy Gustafson, Tahoe City Public Utility District Assistant general manager. Along with Lolly Kupec, a member of the Tahoe City Beautification Committee, Gustafson spoke about local government.
"I'm very impressed by the community. The people are very hospitable, very energetic," said 27-year-old Anastasia Obruchnikova, who works for Loréal Cosmetics, after her day of meetings on Tuesday. "[In Russia] I would love to have as many clubs and organizations. We do not have as much as you do here. Everybody is involved in so much here."
After a trip to Sacramento on Wednesday, La Communidad Unita Executive Director Chris Ballin hosted a Mexican reception for the women. Ballin talked about North Tahoe's Hispanic community and the role of women in multicultural services. Today, the delegation will attend AAUW's monthly meeting at Marie Sluchak Park. Sluchak, who spearheaded the park's creation, will speak to the group about women in community service.
The delegation will also attend a North Tahoe Regional Advisory Committee meeting to observe local government in action and hear from Theresa May Duggan, NTRAC chairperson, about women in politics.
Additionally, the Russian women took tours of the Women's Wellness Clinic in Truckee, Tahoe Forest Hospital, the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, the North Tahoe Arts Center and the Gatekeeper's Museum.
The Open World leadership program's $51 million runs through 2003. After that time, the program will be bankrolled by private funds raised by the Open World Leadership Center, established in October 2001 at the Library of Congress.
[Reprinted with Permission]