In the fall of 2001, Andrew Rabens started his freshman year at Harvard University intending to study social psychology. As he watched the World Trade Center’s twin towers fall during his first week, his horror bred fascination with the role of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa.
Convinced that an increase in cross-cultural exchanges could minimize future acts of extremism, Rabens shifted his focus to international relations.
More than a decade later, Rabens, a special adviser at the State Department, contacted U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East with a simple request: Select the top political movers and shakers between 18 and 35 in each country to participate in a 10-day program promoting youth empowerment and leadership.
Fifty-five were ultimately selected. He welcomed them at the San Francisco International Airport last October to the inaugural Active Citizen Summit.
“From the beginning of the program, he treated us like his extended family,” recalled Amani Ogbi, 28, a Libyan. “It was a person who wanted the best for his country, but also to extend bridges of communication between all cultures.”
The delegates represented 18 Middle Eastern countries, several of which do not have diplomatic engagement with each other, much less with the United States.
“Although we are from neighboring countries, we don’t know a lot about each other,” Ogbi said of the unlikely assembly of Iranians, Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Saudi Arabians and others. “But at the end of the day, it’s just a group of people coming together.”
In recognition of his youth engagement efforts in a region that is strategically significant to U.S. interests, Rabens has been selected as a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal. Winners of the awards, sponsored by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, will be announced next month.
Rabens, who was raised in Berkeley, Calif., credited his parents with demonstrating the importance of building relationships at the community level. His mother is a social worker and regularly convenes town meetings at coffee shops to discuss local issues. His father is a pediatrician.
As a child, Rabens struggled with a lisp, since corrected with speech therapy. The challenge to find his own voice has been a driving force in his determination to help others claim theirs.
Rabens got his first taste of the District with internships for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calf.) and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Rabens financed his stint as an unpaid intern by selling ballet subscriptions at the Kennedy Center, while saving money by sleeping on friends’ couches.
In 2008, armed with a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and professional experience working for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and at the United Nations, Rabens became a Presidential Management Fellow in the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
“On my first day, I entered this two-block mammoth building and was overwhelmed trying to grasp the structural dynamics of the bureaucracy, but also incredibly inspired to be in a place where you are part of something much bigger than oneself,” he said. “Feeling like I could potentially have a small impact in helping to reshape foreign policy priorities was both exciting and humbling.”
These days, Rabens maneuvers through the color-coded corridors of the State Department with ease. As the special adviser for youth engagement in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, he is responsible for forging relationships between the future leaders of the Middle East and the United States.
During the Active Citizen Summit, youth leaders underwent communications training in San Francisco, followed by short stints with local and national political campaign organizations throughout the country. The summit concluded with meetings with policymakers and presentations of capstone projects in Washington.
“Delegates stayed in hotels together, ate breakfast together, worked together . . . there was as much relationship-building as possible,” said Rabens.
He said that this level of cross-cultural engagement is rare among the Middle East’s political elite. “Although there was some initial tension, by the end the youth leaders had built a level of trust and mutual understanding,” he said. “On the last day, we had a debriefing and delegates spoke about their misperceptions being broken down and seeing each other as people rather than the politics of their country.”
Rabens said that in a post-sequester world, shifting perceptions are not enough to maintain funding. Tangible results are necessary for program survival.
“I really do believe that there is a good argument to make that youth engagement is directly tied to U.S. national security interests,” he said. “It’s a small investment to build these bridges with future leaders who will move into positions of influence and have a real understanding of what America is all about.”
In the aftermath of the September 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, State Department employees scrambled to quell the instability in the region.
Anticipating mass protests the following Friday because of an anti-Islam video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” Rabens and his colleagues convened a teleconference with leaders in the region. As moderator, Rabens invited participants to voice their frustrations and present moderate approaches for moving forward.
“For whatever reason, Friday was relatively calm, and whether some of these young people had a role . . . it’s tough to completely link, but I think they certainly had an effect,” said Rabens.
Although his career is internationally focused, Rabens emphasizes the importance of youth engagement at home. He lives in Logan Circle and participates in a State Department-sponsored mentoring program at Miner Elementary School in Northeast, where he works with fourth- and fifth-graders. “It’s a great way to be part of the community you live in and be invested in what’s happening locally.”
Another point of pride for Rabens is the State Department/USAID tennis team, the three-time defending champion of the interagency league. He prefers doubles.
His team’s biggest rival? The World Bank/IMF team.
After five years in the District, the California transplant said he feels at home, but added: “I still try not to use too many acronyms.”
Rabens is planning the 2013 Active Citizen Summit, which will focus on entrepreneurship. “I think there’s a different political environment now, and many foreign governments are focusing on youth engagement,” he said. “They realize if youth unemployment is too high, if young people’s voices aren’t heard, if economic opportunities aren’t available at a great enough rate, instability is going to ensue in their country. So there’s more willingness to address the concerns of youth leaders.”