As I mentioned in a post a couple weeks ago, this year’s US-NZ Partnership Forum was in full swing at AMI Stadium in Christchurch when the earthquake struck on February 22nd. Among the participants were 11 American students and 11 Kiwi students. Dubbed “Future Partners,” they attended plenary sessions of the main Forum but then broke away for separate panel discussions.

The goal was for the Future Partners to go through the same kind of agenda as the main Forum, formulate recommendations about the future of the US-NZ bilateral relationship, select a couple of spokespersons, and then present their report to the full Forum at the conclusion of the conference. The idea was as innovative and powerful as it was obvious, and I know that the main Forum delegates were energized by the presence of the students.

Our Future Partners delegates, with coordinators Mele (from Fulbright NZ), Adrian (from the Embassy), and Therese (from the Forum).

The students were in the midst of putting together their recommendations when the Stadium suddenly rocked and pitched, parts of the ceiling fell in, furniture overturned, and folks were forced to flee, leaving behind workpapers, drafts, and computers. The evacuation from the Stadium and then from Christchurch prevented the students from completing their deliberations and making their report.

We have scheduled a weekend get-together here in Wellington so that our Future Partners can reconvene, complete their work, and videotape their report to the Forum. We plan to send the video to the Forum delegates as well as post it here on my blog and our other social media platforms. In the meantime, I’ve asked a couple of the Future Partner students to write a few notes about their time in Christchurch and what they came away with.

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By Elli Nagai-Rothe (Fulbright Scholar from the U.S., at University of Auckland):

Elli Nagai-Rothe.

We stood as Ambassador David Huebner acknowledged us — the Future Partners — and looked around the conference room of high-level government, business, and academic delegates with a sense of excitement and nervous anticipation.

As the first “youth” delegation to join the Fourth Annual US-NZ Partnership Forum, there were high expectations placed on us from the very beginning. Former Prime Minister Rt. Hon. James Bolger reminded us at a reception the night before the Forum, “You are our future. Challenge and inspire us.”

Great … no pressure!

Over the next two days, we had a series of lectures and discussions with some distinguished members of the delegations who came to speak with us — New Zealand Prime Minister John Key; Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State; Richard Armitage, former US Deputy Secretary of State; and Ambassador Susan Schwab, former U.S. Trade Representative, just to name a few.

These were enlightening discussions, which concentrated on the themes (among many others) of global climate change, China’s increasing economic influence, trade relations, and education.

Assistant Secretary of State Dr. Kurt Campbell, with Future Partners Shay Wright and Patrick Behrer.

However, the most engaging conversations we had took place outside of these structured discussions in the hallways, over dinner, and in our hotel rooms. One of our most intense yet rewarding conversations took place during a self-facilitated working session held over a brown bag lunch. We had been tasked with presenting our insights and recommendations regarding the future of the US-NZ relationship to the Forum delegates … all in ten minutes or less!

We had a heated yet collaborative conversation about what and how we wished to present our perspectives. In fact, it was during this very working session that the earthquake hit. I can say with certainty that the bonds of our newly formed friendship were sealed as we huddled together under tables, with ceiling lamps and hanging pictures crashing down around us.

Prime Minister Key speaks to the Future Partners.

True to the future of either the US or NZ, our group represented a diverse gathering of twenty-two young leaders. Our diversity ranged along the spectrums of age, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, academic/professional background, political affiliation, and in the expression of our diverse ideas.

One of our key insights in fact rested on this very theme: diversity.

In looking around the room of the full Forum, many of us were disappointed to see that the delegates who represented both the US and NZ did not remotely reflect the diversity of either country, particularly in terms of racial/ethnic and gender diversity.

To be honest, our Future Partners group did not fully reflect the level of ethnic diversity currently present in either of our countries either.

If these are the political, economic, policy, and thought leaders who are making key decisions that will influence the future of the US-NZ relationship, then there are important voices that are not represented at the table.

What does it mean if already marginalized communities are not represented at such important gatherings? Our subsequent conversations about climate change or about trade agreements would only serve to further entrench socio-economic imbalances in policy decisions by seeing diversity as an after-thought.

Several students with Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker.

For such critical topics, whatever solutions we develop need to reflect the process we use to reach these solutions. Both must be inclusive.

One question that Ambassador Huebner posed to us offered much opportunity for reflection: “What is the world that you want to live in 20 years from now?”

I for one want to live in a more equitable world, one in which all voices are equitably represented around the collective, metaphoric table.

In 20 years, my vision is that the US-NZ partnership will continue to grow, reflected and strengthened by each country’s ongoing efforts to address and reconcile inequities that exist along racial and socio-economic lines. I believe both the US and NZ have much to learn from one another in our shared efforts to address these embedded inequities.

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By Ben Kuipers (student advisor to the Ambassador, at Canterbury University):

Ben Kuipers

Ben Kuipers.

Arriving on the first day I am lucky to find a friend in the lobby. Frankly, I was intimidated by the bios I had read the previous day, so a familiar face is more than welcome. We are some of the first to arrive, so we make our introductions and stand round awkwardly trying to make conversation. I try to remember the name of the person I am now talking to despite having been told mere moments earlier. Sorry, Kyle.

Soon afterward, more people start arriving, and we sit down, only to be told that we are running late and that there had been a change of schedule. This sets the tone of the busy conference, and we quickly get down to introductions and responsibilities.

The Day One of the conference: We are all ushered to a long table bordering the room and already cameras with large lens are pointed in our direction. A short movie is played and various important people start talking about the relationship of our respective nations, and the majority of us start taking notes either from habit or to appear studious.

Then the Ambassador, Mr. Huebner, specifically points us out to the rest of the conference and makes us stand to attention to the scrutiny of the rich and famous.

Some of the Future Partners stand to be acknowledged at the plenary opening session of the 2011 US-NZ Partnership Forum.

As the conference breaks for morning tea we are again ushered into another room for a series of distinguished speakers from the Prime Minister John Key to Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. The day is a success, the speakers are great, and a group of friends is steadily emerging from the youth delegation.

Dinner at Portofino’s was amazing and conversations were equally so. Already some of us are taking liberties with some of the more sensitive issues, which only furthers the cohesion of the group as we become more forthcoming with our beliefs and opinions.

Day Two and the reality of our final presentation is dawning on us. By lunch the discussion is becoming heated, fluid, and full of passion, but progress – however slow it appears to us – is being made and we are on track for our presentation.

A roundtable discussion during a Future Partners breakout session.

That was until the now infamous earthquake occurred. Within minutes everyone was on the lawn outside. Talking amongst ourselves, seeing how others were feeling, and inspecting a few scraped knees. From a borrowed phone I rang my girlfriend, who had managed to dodge bricks falling from The Press building. Knowing that everyone from the conference was safe and accounted for, I felt confident in my decision to walk to my home in the CBD to find her.

In the passing days and weeks there has been regular contact amongst the people from the Forum. I know that in bringing us together and going through this experience as a group, the Future Partners Forum has been more successful than could have been thought.

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Elli and Ben, thanks for sharing your thoughts and impressions.

Stay tuned for the video report of conclusions and recommendations from the full Future Partners group. Coming soon.