Philanthropy Roundtable believes the American spirit has always been generous, with neighbor helping neighbor to uplift entire communities. To propel further investment in entrepreneurial approaches that strengthen communities, we are highlighting leaders and initiatives that cultivate civil society and support the values that transform lives.
“When is the last time you’ve had a meaningful exchange with someone from a different region, socioeconomic level or political party?” This was the question the late writer Tom Wolfe posed to an audience of young professionals in Manhattan in 2014.
After a moment of reflection, he challenged attendees, in the next month, to engage with others, to help broaden their perspectives and to expand their understanding of the world.
Unfortunately, many American high schoolers are currently unable to meaningfully engage with people who look, sound and think differently about the world. Given limited resources, access or knowledge of how to interact with various individuals or communities outside their own, our country’s youth are facing a dearth of meaningful, vibrant exchanges.
This reality is what led David McCullough III, founder and executive director of The American Exchange Project (AEP), to pose the following question to American youth: “What’s your least favorite thing about where you’re growing up?” The consistent response was: “I feel like I’m growing up in a bubble, and I’ve not seen life on the outside.”
McCullough had spent months traveling across the country to broaden his understanding of different lived experiences in America, and he envisioned a new path forward. In reflecting on this experience, he says:
I learned out on the road that you really can’t understand our country until you go out and see it and learn a little bit about the lives of Americans who are really different from you. You need to experience it firsthand and build relationships in communities far away from your own. And I realized it could change the lagging civic culture in America if more kids could have this experience.
Enter The American Exchange Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to expand American teenagers’ understanding of and experience with diverse communities across the country, including people of varying socioeconomic status and cultures. The organization is providing a way for high schoolers to “see life on the outside.”
AEP brings together high school students in rural and urban areas, middle America and the coasts – and in doing so, the organization is exposing this next generation of voters to perspectives and ideas that challenge, encourage and foster the development of their value system before they embark upon college and career.
Launched in 2019, right before the pandemic, the organization’s goal is to connect high school seniors with others so they can experience a new culture, a new way of life and have a fuller picture of America and its citizens. Through a one-week summer cultural immersion experience, a group of teens share meals, stay with host families, engage with professionals in fields of interest and engage in volunteer service. After the conclusion of the exchange, the organization creates alumni groups to foster continued learning, community building and value sharing.
The organization’s pilot exchange last summer sent 20 students between Palo Alto, California; Wellesley, Massachusetts; Lake Charles, Louisiana and Kilgore, Texas. Jake Merritt, a program participant from Wellesley, said the experience changed his way of thinking:
The program fundamentally altered the way I look at my fellow citizens. My trip and the people I met – now great friends and mentors – broke down a lot of preconceived notions I had and showed me how much I had to learn, and how much I’m eager to learn. It was also a blast! And now I still wear my cowboy boots around Wellesley.
This summer, the organization is expanding the exchange to over 40 towns in 20 states, with further growth planned for the next three years.
Ever the visionary, McCullough looks ahead and is encouraging the Roundtable network and others across the country to “imagine if these trips were a sort of civic rite of passage or, better, a graduation present for every single American high school student. That’s our goal. To make this a reality for our nation’s teenagers, and in doing so, create a more connected country.”
If you are interested in helping to accelerate this organization’s impact, please go to https://americanexchangeproject.org/ or reach out to Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Esther Larson. America’s future is bright, yet dialogue, refinement of ideas and commitment to our country’s values and principles is fundamental to our future.