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Conference on World Affairs returns to St. Petersburg

Mark Parker



Renowned journalist, author and former military advisor Sarah Chayes delivered the 2022 St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs' keynote address. Screengrab.

Those looking to expand their worldview and learn how global and local issues intersect will soon have a chance to glean insight from government, military, media and academic experts.

The 2023 St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs (SPCWA) begins with a keynote event Feb. 21 at Eckerd College’s Fox Hall and concludes with closing reception Feb. 24 at the school’s Bininger Theater. Over 50 speakers will offer their expertise between the opening and closing ceremonies through panels, presentations and book talks at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Student Center.

This year’s focus is “Power and Empowerment.” Willi Rudowsky, SPCWA board chairperson, explained conference officials chose the theme because it encompasses several pertinent topics and can have a positive or negative connotation.

“There’s power as it empowers people to move ahead,” Rudowsky explained. “There’s power as it holds them back. There’s empowerment that is given and empowerment that is taken away. Either by the community or individuals.”

Douglas McElhaney, former U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Thomas Smith, USF professor and human rights expert, founded the SPCWA in 2013. They sought to bring together experts in several fields to collaboratively foster a better understanding of global issues at the local level.

They believed “a well-informed citizenry is crucial to sustaining a vibrant democracy.” Conference officials carefully selected presenters to help further that mission.

Rudowsky noted the board chose new topics to discuss in 2023, including threats to education, animal rights and human benefits and sports and politics. She said this year’s theme provided an opportunity to discuss subjects that may sound disparate but eventually converge.

“Of course, we’re going to have to deal with Ukraine,” added Rudowsky. “Because we couldn’t do an event like this without talking about something in the news every day.”

The conference will also stream to an international audience. Organizers announced 2,500 people watched the second-to-last presentation of the four-day 2022 event, breaking the previous record by 500 viewers.

The former mayor of Calgary Naheed Nenshi (left screen), former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman (center) and author Peter Kageyama at the 2022 St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. Photo by Mark Parker.

Pandemic-era space restrictions have since ended, and Rudowsky relayed that organizers can accommodate a much larger crowd at USF. While she expects many attendees to participate virtually again, Rudowsky explained that the conference is not just for adults that hope to speak face-to-face with presenters.

“There’s also value in having students of various ages participate in this, either directly or when we put up the archives later on,” Rudowsky said. I would love to see teachers at various levels either take and show it to their students because they can certainly stream a section to a class and then have the class discuss it or write about it.”

Lynne Platt is the SPCWA’s vice president. She also spent 24 years with the U.S. Foreign Service, retiring in 2018 as a minister-counselor.

She expressed excitement for the conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Isiah “Ike” Wilson III. Wilson is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and decorated combat veteran with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Platt said part of SPCWA’s mission is to bridge local and global issues and noted Wilson also served as the president of the Special Operations Institute at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base. He will kick off the event Tuesday, Feb. 21.

“He’s going to be delivering an address on re-thinking American power,” Platt said. “Which is a really good way to lead us off, given that the overall theme of the conference is power and empowerment.”

She noted current mayor Ken Welch’s opening remarks Feb. 22 would start the first full day of discussion. Platt also looks forward to hearing from former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who will discuss the future of American cities with local author Peter Kageyama and sculptor Mark Aeling later that day. Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton will moderate the panel.

Platt said the empowering women discussion “features a bunch of rockstars.” Panelists include civil rights activists from Ukraine and Iran, an Afghan diplomat, a Tunisian professor and a philanthropist who launched a foundation in Nepal that teaches women how to tell their stories through journalism. The panel’s moderator is a retired senior executive with the FBI.

“It’s enlightenment that we hope is going to lead to change,” Platt said of the conference. “But it’s also the fact that Tampa Bay does business overseas, and we’re really pleased that we can spotlight expertise coming from Tampa Bay, as well as experts coming from around the world who are interested in this region.”

The St. Petersburg Group, which has an ownership stake in the Catalyst, operates the SPCWA.

For more information on the event, visit the website here.

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