Bringing the World to Pittsburgh for over 80 Years
As early as 1929, a small group of Pittsburgh residents with a deep interest in international issues met informally to discuss foreign affairs. Two years later, four women – Mabel L. Gillespie, Letitia Hunter, Eleanor P. Kelly, and Ruth Crawford Mitchell – decided to form a branch of the New York-based Foreign Policy Association (FPA) to stimulate interest in foreign affairs in the Pittsburgh community.
On April 3, 1931, the first meeting of the Pittsburgh group was held at the International Institute of the YWCA. The focus of discussion was on “Present Day Relations with Japan.” Interest grew, and the four founders were able to meet the FPA’s requirement of 200 members. They officially formed a branch of the FPA on October 9, 1931. Dr. Thomas S. Baker, President of the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) served as the organization’s first president. Membership grew as more and more Pittsburghers recognized the value of having such an organization in Pittsburgh.
Until 1945, the organization mainly hosted formal dinners with at least two speakers on a variety of international subjects. Membership reached 350. Thanks to a grant from Edgar J. Kaufman, the FPA branch in Pittsburgh was able to open an office with a secretary and a part-time executive director and expand its program offerings. The dinners were abandoned in favor of public meetings. From 1948 to 1955, programs were expanded to include a World Affairs Forum, Foreign Student Program, and Speaker’s Bureau. The first World Affairs Forum was held in the spring of 1951 and focused on “The Strategy of Freedom.”
On April 10, 1951, a court order approved the charter of the Foreign Policy Association of Pittsburgh as a non-profit organization under the laws of Pennsylvania. In February 1964, the organization changed its name to the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. With significant support from the private sector, the World Affairs Council was able to expand its staff and launch a radio program. High school World Affairs Clubs were started in 1965 and a student education program was initiated in 1966.
During the 1970s, the Council continued to grow. In 1971, the first annual World Affairs Institute for high school students was held in cooperation with Rotary International. This partnership endures today. Programming tripled with the introduction of new programs for adults (such as breakfast briefings, town meetings, and cooperative events with community organizations) and the expansion of student education programs (including international career counseling, special seminars, and the Summer Seminar on World Affairs). In 1980, the Council partnered with the U.S. Army War College to launch its annual National Security Briefing for high school teachers. This was the first program of its kind in the nation.
Over the course of the last three decades, the world has changed dramatically, and the Council has evolved accordingly. With the end of the Cold War in 1989 and later the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the Council continued to offer an array of programs and activities designed to help students, educators, and the community at large about international developments and their relevance to Southwestern Pennsylvania.
In 2009, Pittsburgh served as the host of the G-20 Summit. This event helped underscore Pittsburgh’s place in the world and was a demonstration of how Pittsburgh has evolved from a city of iron and steel to a 21st century post-industrial city. Since then, the Council has been a leader in using video conferencing technology to connect students with their peers throughout the region, across the country, and around the world. The Council continues to develop innovative programs to engage students, educators, and the community at large in an on-going conversation about global issues—and why they matter.
The World Affairs Council has been recognized as a leader in designing and developing educational programs on international affairs. It has received several awards including: The President’s Award for Outstanding Achievement as the Most Dynamic Mid-Size World Affairs Council in the United States; the World Affairs Councils of America’s Carol Marquis Award Recognizing National Excellence in International Education at the High School Level; the International Bridge Award from the Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development; the Public Education Award from the Pennsylvania Council for International Education; and, the Merit Award for Outstanding Contributions to World Languages and Cultures from the Pennsylvania State Modern Language Association.