Danville Express

Column - May 11, 2007

Diablo Views: Betty's affair with the world

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

When Danville resident Betty Overhoff tells people she's with the World Affairs Council, either they are captivated or their eyes glaze over. She became fascinated with world affairs while filming the council's high profile speakers.

When her youngest graduated from Carondelet High School and went off to college, Betty decided to finish her degree in business. She took a television course as an elective at Diablo Valley College and was hooked - she changed her major to broadcasting. After her second semester, she landed an internship at the Lucas Ranch in Marin where she worked with the surround sound equipment. A highlight was its Halloween party, where she dressed as a Star Trek officer and her husband Tom was Indiana Jones.

When Betty graduated from San Francisco State in 1997, the World Affairs Council of Northern California in downtown San Francisco offered her the job of producing its television show plus about 10-15 other programs. After three exciting years, she decided to move on, and in 2001, became chairwoman for the East Bay Chapter.

In this position, Betty books its monthly programs on international issues. She has learned what is a draw and what to avoid.

"Subjects I get nervous about are Africa, Canada and Mexico," she said. She recalled that when George Schultz became Secretary of State, his first trips were to our neighbors on the north and the south, which made sense to him. But, he reported, the news media was critical, telling him Americans aren't interested in reading about those countries.

"The Middle East has more intrigue to it," Betty said. And that was true even before Sept. 11. Europe is "sort of a crap shoot," she added.

We were members of the World Affairs Council in San Francisco years ago, and I remember its impressive speakers, which have included Nancy Pelosi; Lech Walesa; Desmond Tutu; former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak; Paul Wolfowitz; and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Betty said for the East Bay, she tries to find experts who are also first-rate speakers. She avoids ambassadors, who just want to tout their country's virtues, and said authors are usually good, even if their main objective is selling books. She is working on programs for the fall on Iran, and on Russia and China. "The professors at Berkeley who do the Russian specialties are outstanding," she said.

Speakers on Asia are popular, she noted, especially anything to do with politics or finance. Immigration and border control are hot topics, both with Mexico and Canada, which recently began to turn away American visitors who had marijuana convictions from the 1970s. Betty has had immigration lawyers speak, on concerns with Mexico as well as with the Philippines when the United States tightened its immigration policy and affected the nursing shortage.

The East Bay presentations are usually held at an auditorium in the PMI building, next to the Pleasant Hill BART station. They cost $5 for members, $10 for non-members, and begin with light snacks and a chance to meet the speaker from 6:30-7 p.m. The lecture is from 7-7:30 followed by a question-and-answer period until 8. Then the board goes out to dinner with the speaker. Betty said the evenings are fascinating, with the Q&A often better than the speech, and the dinner conversation the best of all. She clearly revels in her job.

The April program was unusual because it featured a nonprofit group, the Clarence Foundation, whose speakers had just returned after 10 days in Kenya. There are two reasons Americans only give a small percentage of their charitable donations to foreign countries, said director Marc Ross Manashil: The needs are overwhelming and they aren't sure the money will actually reach those in need. His "giving circle" team goes directly to developing countries to see the situation firsthand, hooks up with people with viable plans to help alleviate a specific problem, and issues grants. Questions from the audience were pointed: With all the needs in Africa, how did they pick Kenya? What exactly happens to the money after they collect it? The presentation was filmed by www.fora.tv for its Web site.

Next on the agenda of the East Bay Chapter will be its Summer Wine program, on Patagonia with travel writer Dr. Wayne Bernhardson, from 4-6 p.m., Sunday, June 24, at the Danville Meeting Hall. Betty predicted "lots and lots of food, people and fun." For reservations, call (415) 293-4600 or e-mail registration@wacsf.org. You'll also enjoy meeting Betty.

It's your world


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