Residents of St. Petersburg will soon have a chance to expand their view of the world, as the Conference on World Affairs is gathering a consortium of experts to discuss critical international issues and how they align with local challenges.
The St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs (SPCWA) was founded in 2013 by former U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina Douglas McElhaney and University of South Florida Professor and human rights expert Thomas Smith. SPCWA brings together diplomats, scientists, military leaders and members of the media to collaboratively create a better understanding of the world.
The 2022 SPCWA kicks off Tuesday, Feb. 15, and runs through Friday, Feb. 18. The conference is held at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Student Life Center and will also stream virtually. SPCWA Board Chair Diane Seligsohn is a journalist and university lecturer who called Paris home for over three decades. Seligsohn, who now splits her time between France and St. Petersburg, said the conference was originally intended to bring the world to St. Pete.
“In more recent discussions, we have been talking about bringing St. Pete to the world,” said Seligsohn.
Iqbal Paroo, vice-chairman and acting treasurer of SPCWA, said the conference allows residents of St. Pete to engage with people from around the world on topics of both global and regional importance. Paroo said for many people around the world, last year’s virtual conference was the first time they had ever heard of the city.
“They participated, and they realized this is an amazing city – rich in arts and culture,” said Paroo. “We’ve had people who have now visited St. Petersburg just because they learned about it through the conference.”
Paroo said he is excited to bring people back together this year. He added that the conference’s organizers are keeping a close eye on Covid developments and are limiting seating and encouraging the use of masks.
“With that in mind, what we are excited about is the connection,” said Paroo. “The richness of people meeting people, discussing these global topics, exchanging ideas and sharing and learning from each other.”
Paroo explained that meeting in person would also allow for more meaningful interactions with the speakers, which is becoming more of an emphasis for the conference. Around 40 speakers are scheduled to speak at the conference, including former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, newly-elected Mayor Ken Welch and former U.S. Ambassador to Mali and Madagascar Vicki J. Huddleston.
Renowned author, journalist and military advisor Sarah Chayes is this year’s keynote speaker. Chayes covered the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan from Kandahar for National Public Radio before serving as a special advisor to two commanders of the international forces in Kabul. She then served as an advisor to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen.
“Our keynote is extremely well known all over the world,” said Paroo. “She just published one of the best-sellers around the issues of corruption in the United States.
“Everyone who participates and listens to her keynote is going to get insight at a macro level around the topic of corruption.”
Paroo said attendees would hear from an abundance of prolific journalists, economists, scientists and diplomats sharing rare insights and expertise. The SPCWA developed four broad themes over the last nine years to propel the conference’s programming. These include climate, corruption, equality and migration.
Seligsohn said the programming committee chose the themes after many long discussions on how to best link issues facing the Tampa Bay region with the rest of the world.
“Those were the four that struck us as being the most essential,” said Seligsohn.
Seligsohn explained that the themes often intertwine, and it is common for speakers to touch on multiple themes simultaneously. Paroo expounded on the interconnectivity of the conference’s themes, noting that equality directly affects climate change and migration. He said the world’s poor – often people of color – do not have the same ability to move from places suffering from climate change as their wealthier counterparts.
Paroo used the Tropicana Field site as a local example.
“That entire area was bulldozed for the highways to be built and for the stadium to be built,” he said. “It completely displaced poor people, especially African Americans, and they had to migrate out of their communities.
“So, migration is not always thousands of miles – sometimes migration just means an entire community has to be moved.”
Over 3,000 people from 21 countries tuned into last year’s conference, held virtually due to the pandemic. From Romania to Rwanda, 538 questions were submitted during the live question and answer sessions. Paroo said with this year’s hybrid format, the conference’s organizers have to prepare for crowds from around the world alongside a large, global streaming audience.
“Fortunately, Joe Hamilton from the St. Pete Group and St. Pete Catalyst is somebody who really has helped us and guided us in terms of our technology, infrastructure and capacity,” said Paroo. “And so last year, we were able to cope with 3,000 people coming online.”
Seligsohn said the conference embodies its mantra of “expand your worldview.” She believes SPCWA offers valuable insight for anyone, whether this is their first foray into world affairs or well-versed in the subject matter.
“There is always something to learn,” said Seligsohn. “So, we believe that this is a novel, unique learning experience that doesn’t have an equal in St. Petersburg or the Tampa Bay area.”
The St. Petersburg Group, which has an ownership stake in the Catalyst, operates the SPCWA. Catalyst Publisher Joe Hamilton is also a featured speaker at the conference.
For more information and to register for the hybrid event, visit its website here.