Asia Society’s President on Global Citizens Like Barack Obama

New York, N.Y.  “As Americans, we have the unfortunate idea that we should and need to learn more about the world, but it’s not a priority.   “We get to it when we can, which is seldom,” said Dr. Vishakha Desai, president of the Asia Society.  So began an interview with a brilliant woman who heads one of the world’s largest cultural institutions,The Asia Society

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton make her first major foreign policy speech at the
Asia Society in February 2009.   At right is Asia Society President Dr. Vishakha Desai.
(Photo: Bill Swersey/Asia Society)

Many think of the Asia Society as a Rockefeller-endowed Upper East Side institution that hosts incredible art exhibits and extraordinary performances.

It is that, and so much more.   Now expanded across the world, with ten facilities from San Francisco to Melbourne, the Society is established in eight countries.   In Asia, the Society runs programs in the cities of Manila, Mumbai, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.

Dr. Desai first came to the U.S. as an AFS high school exchange student.   See my recent piece on AFS, World Peace begins in High School

When she arrived to California, it was at the height of the Vietnam War.   Dr. Desai was astonished to discover that Americans thought of that Asian country as only a “war.”

In Karachi, Dr. Desai announces the exhibition Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art
from Pakistan, currently on view through January 3, 2010.  (Photo: Asia Society)

There was no thought, discussion, idea that Vietnam was a nation, a culture, a people, with its own vivid history stretching back in time.   Americans knew, she learned, sadly little about the world.

However, much has changed since then.   There is still work to be done.   Dr. Desai is excited about our new president and expects many great things from Barack Obama, “Our first globally-minded president.”

Not only does he represent the first non-white American face to the world, but with his background, he has an international credibility.

Dr. Desai believes as Americans, we are intricately part of the world, not merely sitting beside it.

She was mortified that one-third of U.S. high school students recently could not identify the ocean between the Americas and Asia.   I am confident readers of this column know!

“More than just that, he is the son of an immigrant — from Kenya — but his mother was also a global citizen.   An American woman, married to a African Muslim, and studying anthropology in Indonesia.

“Barack was raised understanding all religions.”   In Indonesia, where my own adopted son was born, Barack was surrounded by Muslims – but also Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists.   His mother was committed to teaching him about different religions.

“We want to partner with you.   The U.S. will be a player, but not the only player.   That is our president’s message.   How refreshing!

States Dr. Desai, “The world believes in Barack.   Americans in general are very bad listeners.   Obama is an exception – he is a very good listener.   Based on his life experiences, he is Americ’s first truly global president.”

Dr. Desai heads the Asia Society’s program, “Partnership for Global Learning.”   “We must train our kids — and adults — to be a part of the world,” she explains.

One quarter of jobs in the U.S. are connected to world trade.   Paraphrasing the former CEO of UPS, “we need an American workforce who knows the world.’

“We think we are global with the Internet — Facebook, YouTube — but this is only a virtual connection.   Internet friends are not a substitute for real experiences.   How one feels like to be a minority in another country or culture.”

Saint Sambandar. Chola period, 12th century. Copper alloy. Asia Society,
New York: Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, 1979.24.
On view in the exhibition Devotion in South India: Chola Bronzes,
Oct. 6, 2009 through Feb. 7, 2010.  (Photo: Asia Society)

The Asia Society can be many different things to different people.   “Ours is a complex institution, and those experiencing it can describe it in the same way the blind men touch and describe an elephant.

“One man describes a leg, another the trunk, or an ear – or the belly.   Each is so unique, yet collectively makes the animal.   So it is with the Asia Society,” states Dr. Desai.

Founded by John D. Rockefeller 3rd in 1956, the Asia Society is the premier organization with a multi-dimensional commitment — combining culture, commerce, and current affairs — with more than 35 countries in Asia.

Recent changes include a strengthening of partnerships between Americans and Asians, to look at shared problems – and shared solutions.

The Society also pays special attention to the unique role of Asian-Americans as bridge builders between different cultures.

Education is a key and the Asia Society is actively engaged.   Best practices for teaching about Asia are promoted in inner cities.   This program is funded by the Gates Foundation.

The Society also supports developing the best models for magnet schools and international high schools.   This is done by helping create globally-oriented curriculum.

The goal is to bring international content into Americ’s schools.   And to promote an understanding of Asia as part of the world.

The Society’s beautiful art exhibitions and cultural performances are well known to the public.   However, work not visibly seen include the behind-the-scenes efforts in the arena of public policy.

Dr. Desai is as current with Asian events as humanly possible.   I saw Ustad Amjad Ali Khan in concert last week.   She has known him for decades.

Pakistan is much in the news.   She insists we differentiate between the Pakistani government and its people.

“The video of the Taliban beating the young woman sent out a message to Pakistan’s middle class.   Moderate people were offended.   This was the tipping point,” she said.

I told her about my recent trip to Sri Lanka.   “Whether the level of militancy was justified is hard to determine.   The proof is in the pudding.   What will the government of Sri Lanka do with the hundreds of thousands of refugees?   What with the northern city of Jaffna?

“The civil war there was untenable.   The peace process could not succeed. Now the conflict is over, the question is: How can minorities there not be persecuted?”   As she said, the proof is in the pudding.

Dr. Desai has been a friend of Hillary Clinton.   “I was impressed with her going to China.   We need to engage these countries as our partners.

“Secretary Clinton hit the ground running.   She is so familiar with so many heads of states it has given her a real head start.   I am delighted she and the president have worked out such a strong relationship based on mutual respect.”

Dr. Desai is a frequent speaker at national and international forums on a wide variety of subjects that include US-Asia relationships, cultural roots of Asian economic development, regional connections within the Asia Pacific region, as well as the arts and cultures of Asia and Asian-America.

At the opening of Asia Society’s center in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Asia Society)

She has authored many opinion pieces that have appeared in over 50 publications around the world.

As a scholar of Asian art, Dr. Desai has published and edited several books and numerous articles on traditional and contemporary art.   She has an international reputation for introducing contemporary Asian art in the U.S. through critically acclaimed exhibitions and scholarly catalogues.

The Asia Society has expanded the scope and scale of its activities under her presidency.   The opening of new offices in India and Korea, the inauguration of a new center on U.S.-China relations, and the development of new initiatives focusing on the environment, on Asian women leaders, and on partnerships among the next generation of exceptional leaders in Asia and the U.S. reflect this.

Before joining Asia Society in 1990, Dr. Desai was a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.   She has also taught at the University of Massachusetts, Boston University, Columbia University, and Williams College.

Dr. Desai holds a B.A. in Political Science from Bombay University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Asian Art History from the University of Michigan.

She serves on the boards of the Brookings Institution, Citizens Committee for New York City, Asian University for Women, and the New York City Mayor’s Advisory Commission for Cultural Affairs.

Dr. Desai has served on the boards of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the South Asian Council of the Association of Asian Studies, ArtTable, and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

She is married to Robert B. Oxnam, a China scholar, who was Asia Society’s President from 1981 to 1992.

Her intense passion for the Society makes me confident that Dr. Desai is the right person at the right time to lead the Asia Society into our new millennium.

With her childhood in India, an AFS experience in California, and decades of study and service since, she is a thought leader and an extraordinary global citizen.

Beyond that, she is a major player on the world stage who knows her lines and delights her audiences.   May her role bring Americans closer to the world she represents.

I highly recommend the video with Dr. Desai, “Welcome to the New Asia Society,” which may be viewed here.   To join me as a fan of the Asia Society on Facebook, click here.   To see incredible videos, such as of Hillary Clinton, see the Society’s YouTube site here.

Originally published in The Huffington Post, September 19, 2009.

100 – Barack Obama
100 – Vishakha Desai
99 – John D. Rockefeller
94 – Hillary Clinton
91 – Ustad Amjad Ali Khan

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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce ( writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (, he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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