Apolitical. Neutral. Non-partisan. When I first realized the apolitical aspect of the International Relations Council, I thought that it must be entirely possible to separate my political opinions from the work I would do. I was supposed to be educating people about international relations—politics didn’t have to be part of it. As it turned out, it was more difficult than I could have imagined. I found it incredibly difficult to take a program and remove any hint of political angle.
I never considered myself an activist. Never once in my life. Oh, I have plenty of opinions, don’t get me wrong. I can’t share them because this is an apolitical, neutral, non-partisan blog, but ask me about my research on my off-hours, and I will be more than happy to discuss what I believe. A political scientist for the first four years of my education and a student of international relations after that, I hold definitive beliefs. But I was never an activist; I was a scholar, a writer, an academic, a researcher. I wasn’t out raising money to donate to a cause, I wasn’t waiving signs in protest of an upcoming congressional bill, and I wasn’t holding rallies in support of one political candidate or another. I don’t like arguments, which usually means I keep my political opinions to myself. All I want to do, all I have ever wanted to do, is help people. I just want to make people happy, make their lives easier. I don’t want to stand out in the streets and protest, I don’t want to go down in history, I just want to help people who need it. How is that political?
But what I found is that a “political opinion” is not solely an opinion that says, “I am a Republican,” or “I am a Democrat.” A political opinion is anything that takes a clear stand in regard to anything political; the words “Republican” or “Democrat” don’t ever have to appear to make something political. The middle line, a beige line where there was no hint of blue or red, is what the IRC asked me to walk. That balancing act proved more challenging than I could have imagined.
Now, I’m your typical 22-year-old; straight out of university, fired up, and ready to change the world. The thing about us 22-year olds is that, well, we’re 22, and it can be really hard to get people to listen to us. Balance can be really hard for us. We have our opinions and beliefs and attitudes, and we’re ready to stand for them. We can be really intense, and that can be a turn off for a lot of people. It can push people away. Hellfire and ice don’t change minds. They may start movements, but without the right balance, the movements can fizzle out and be forgotten.
I am all about making the world a better place, and I want to raise awareness for certain issues and help people. My first few days as an IRC intern, I came in and I was all, “Let’s talk about the Arab-Israeli war, let’s talk about historic intervention in South America, let’s talk about representation.” I wanted to talk about the things that needed change. When Matthew Hughes, the Executive Director of the IRC, reviewed my ideas for IRC projects, he quickly, and in my case, repeatedly, explained the importance of the apolitical, non-partisan aspect of the IRC. And I couldn’t stand it. I took no issue with Matthew or the mission of the IRC; I just believed that it was our responsibility as an organization to be a torchbearer and to lead the way to positive change.
I will tell you, however, that I understand why Matthew places such a high level of importance on the apolitical, nonpartisan aspect of the IRC. The IRC includes a wide variety of viewpoints. It doesn’t leave anyone feeling excluded by choosing a political stance that is different from theirs. The IRC provides a platform for discussion, a safe place where people can comfortably express their own opinions. Society today needs that. In a world where having an agenda is taboo because it implies that a person is incapable of considering other viewpoints, people need to know that there are places they can be honest about what they believe without being ostracized or shut down. Places that do not have agendas, places that are open forums.
"Agenda" is not a four-letter word. Everyone has agendas. I have an agenda. I have lots of agendas. So do you. Having an agenda doesn’t say anything about you other than that you have something you care about. Agendas don’t have to be political. You can have an agenda about how you think your children should fold the laundry, or regarding how your parents should set later curfews. Agendas are just what a person believes should happen, and it is their plan to make those beliefs reality.
I believe in taking a stand. I believe it is my job, in the long run, to take a clear stand and say, “I don’t believe this is right.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the IRC. I wouldn’t have been kept on as an intern if I didn’t. I believe Matthew is right. There are other organizations that take those stands, that make those statements, that have politically agenda-oriented programs. That is what I want to do with my career. But society does not have a lot of educationally agenda-oriented organizations, like the IRC. And that is why I have chosen to stay as an intern, even if there are some things with which I struggle to come to terms; I believe there is a need in society for programs like the IRC, even if such a program is what I want to do long-term.
The IRC is making a difference. It is saying that discussions are okay. It is saying that opinions are okay. It is saying that openly stating beliefs, holding beliefs that aren’t “mainstream,” and listening to the beliefs of others is okay. And society needs that. The IRC is changing how Kansas City looks at international relations, and how people look at the beliefs of others.
About the Author
Abigail Phillips is a Global and International Studies master’s candidate at the University of Kansas where she studies the Middle East, representation, and political discourse. She currently serves as a summer 2019 events intern for the IRC.