Alumni Profile • Sharon Sikkema Hekman '68
Catalyst for Kazakh democracy

Khalida Kyrykbayeva and Sharon Hekman
Sharon Hekman with Khalida Kyrykbayeva, director of the Arizona-Kazakhstan Partnership office in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Colleagues told Sharon Sikkema Hekman ’68 it was no way to build a career: jumping from positions with the Pima County (Ariz.) juvenile court to the county attorney’s office to the Tucson city council to the county manager’s office.

“I didn’t see it at the time, but when I look back I see God was getting me ready, giving me all these pieces of information that I would need,” she said.

All those pieces of information — about local and regional government and their interaction with social service and business organizations — have helped Hekman catalyze democracy in Kazakhstan.

It began simply enough, with a sister city relationship between Tucson and Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan when it was still a republic of the former Soviet Union. Hekman, the city council member responsible for the relationship from its inception in 1989, described it as a typical sister city arrangement: brief exchanges of city officials and cultural groups.

Then in 1991 Kazakhstan gained independence. The U.S. State Department wanted to help local government officials there learn the ropes of democracy. The only Americans who had established a relationship with a local Kazakh government were citizens of Tucson, and particularly Sharon Hekman.

Beginning in 1993 Hekman volunteered in a State Department-funded program that brought Almaty leaders to Tucson for two to three weeks to see firsthand the workings of a local democracy: everything from city council meetings to city trash services. Tucson leaders also traveled to Kazakhstan.

But this model had a problem.

“The Kazakhs would come here and get all fired up, then go back and run into bureaucracy,” Hekman said. “We had no way for them to contact the people they’d met in Tucson and ask follow-up questions.”

Hekman set out to make that possible. With the help of a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), she established the Arizona-Kazakhstan Partnership Foundation.

She began by listening to Kazakhs tell her about training they needed in areas other than government operations. She heard women ask how they could expand their political power and how to confront the problem of domestic violence. She heard aspiring business owners ask how to cultivate a climate favorable to economic development, and social workers ask how American nonprofits deliver social services. Then she partnered the Kazakhs with groups in Arizona working in those areas.

Ten Arizona-Kazakhstan partnerships have been organized. Hundreds of people formed relationships around interests that motivate them and travel halfway around the world to see how they play out in different cultures.

“We breathe the idea that one person can make a difference in society,” Hekman said. “They had no concept of that when we started.”

But now women have been elected to Kazakhstan’s equivalent of the U.S. House and Senate; the country has a network of services for survivors of domestic abuse; it has its first real estate school; a new Association of Entrepreneurs vigorously lobbies Parliament on behalf of business interests … and the list goes on.

And there’s more to be done. But with budget constraints, USAID has ended its grant. Hekman is exploring new avenues of support to extend the benefits of partnerships to more Kazakhs — and Americans. “This work has been an enormous blessing,” she said. “I’ve gotten to watch and participate in the birth of a country.”

To learn more about the Arizona-Kazakhstan Partnership, contact Sharon Hekman directly at