Kalamazoo, Michigan might not be the first place that comes to mind when you hear the words “Citizen Diplomacy”, but Global Ties Kalamazoo (formerly Colleagues International), is working to change that. The small but mighty team that runs the organization is led by Executive Director Jodi Michaels, an experienced international development professional who has been at the helm since 2016.
The organization, now in its 50th year, implements international professional exchange programs in a variety of fields, with a focus on community-to-community in engagement. The organization has connected thousands of international visitors with the Kalamazoo community and in 2018 alone brought 185 international visitors from 46 different countries to Southwestern Michigan.
“Our work is soft power, the last three feet of diplomacy”, Michaels says—underlining the fact that this work done in Southwest Michigan has a global scope and impact. Michaels is passionate about the work the organization does and understands that building relationships with influential future leaders from other countries matters in places like Kalamazoo.
Most of this work is facilitated through a partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which is the foreign policy community’s “premier professional exchange program.” The goal of the program is to bring current and emerging foreign leaders in a variety of fields to the United States to form meaningful and long-lasting relationships with their American peers. Since the program’s inception more than 200,000 international visitors have participated in this global engagement work, including 500 current or former Chiefs of State or Heads of Government.
As the world has moved online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this hasn’t stopped Global Ties Kalamazoo from facilitating exchange programs between leaders in Michigan and those from around the world. In partnership with IVLP and the Department of State, Michaels and her team were able to virtually host 22 visitors from 19 countries in November 2020 for conversations around transparency and accountability in government. People from locales as far flung as Bahrain, Nepal, Ukraine, and Zambia exchanged ideas and best practices with local leaders in Kalamazoo through the project.
Before the world moved online, one of the most exciting and rewarding portions of the program and partnership with the Department of State was an initiative called ‘Dinner Diplomacy’ in which international visitors on exchange would have dinner with local families in Kalamazoo. The universal notion of breaking bread together helped break down linguistic and cultural barriers and shows the very best of what citizen diplomacy can be. When people from different countries and cultures get to know each other through these programs, relationships are formed that last a lifetime. This is evidenced by the program’s extensive alumni network, which sees many former IVLP exchange participants return to Kalamazoo later in life. Michaels says that as folks return to their home countries after visiting Michigan a ripple effect is created and through such an effect “the organization’s work has influenced over 100,000 people across the world”.
Global Ties Kalamazoo’s work continues to foster global engagement in Southwest Michigan and affirms the idea that leading globally matters locally. Through the successful relationships, partnerships, and friendships formed between Michiganders and the future leaders that come through the exchange program, it’s clear that the organization and its work have another 50 bright years ahead.
Jodi Michaels is a member of the USGLC Michigan Advisory Committee.