50-year-old Kalamazoo group has new name, same mission: People from different lands sharing ideas

Tom Kostrzewa had to show me where it all happens -- in his kitchen.
 
It feels a bit dangerous and taboo to go into people's homes now, but I'm fully vaccinated, Kostrzewa and family are vaccinated, "this whole block is vaccinated!" he says.
 
A lot of "kitchen table diplomacy" has happened around the small kitchen table of Tom and Jean Kostrzewa's West Douglas neighborhood home. Once, at the table that looks like it would fit six at the most, 12 minority representatives from Europe -- a Sri Lankan from Denmark, a Roma from Slovenia, etc. -- had an intense discussion from noon to midnight. 
 
"We can produce a lot of chairs if we have to," Kostrzewa says. 
 
Tom Kostrzewa, president of the board of what was Colleagues International, has hosted many discssions around his kitchen table.In that kitchen, in the early '90s, large Russian bankers discussed the future of the new Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was where recently teens from Iraq showed that teens have the same issues no matter where they're from. Where in the '80s a Romanian engineer wanted to prove he could make all devices better.
 
"He was taking apart everything in our house. 'I will make it better!'" 
 
Did he make things better?
 
"No!" Kostrzewa silently mouths, shaking his head. "It became fun for us in terms of, 'Okay, we're going to work. What's going to be apart on the floor when we get back? Will it be the toaster? Will it be the TV set? Will it be my car?"
 
Kostrzewa is president of the board of what was Colleagues International, and as of mid-April is now Global Ties Kalamazoo. The independent non-profit has been organizing international visits for 50 years.
 
Reciprocity bouncing around the globe
 
It came out of the School of Social Work at Western Michigan University in 1971 as a seasonal exchange program, grew to be the independent Kalamazoo Area Council of International Programs, then became Colleagues International. Working primarily with U.S. Department of State programs, they made Kalamazoo a hotbed of citizen diplomacy.
 
Or, "kitchen table diplomacy," as Kostrzewa puts it. Throughout its many name changes since 1971, Simply getting to know someone as a person instead of an Iraqi or Russian or American, is Global Ties Kalamazoo's main mission.
 
"We engage deeply with people who have grown up in totally different places, in totally different circumstances and contexts," Jodi Michaels, executive director, says. "We find our common humanity, and we find that many struggles around the world have a lot in common with one another. And we have so much to learn from one another. That's the root of it." 
 
In the jargon of diplomacy, they're forming "trans-national discourse communities," Kostrzewa says. "You get cops visiting cops. You get engineers visiting engineers. Judges visiting judges."
 
Sometimes in a boardroom-like setting, often in people's homes, visits focus on having people from related fields meet and share ideas -- German social workers meeting southwest Michigan social workers, for example. Or disability rights advocates from north Africa and the Middle East meeting with the Disability Advocates of Kent County here -- one of Jerry Potratz's favorite memories as a host.
 
They visited in 2016. "I remember this gentleman from Chad. He had no legs, so he got around on a wheelchair, or he just got around by using his arms," Potratz, former Colleagues International board president and executive director, says. "And that's the way this young man went through his entire life. This guy had to crawl to school, and then when he was in university, he had to hop up the steps." 
 
It surprised Potratz when, on a visit to the Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, the man bounded out of his chair to climb among the sculptures to pose for a photo. "Of course the guard who was there, he just went crazy, so I never got the photo," Potratz says. "He deftly worked his way around the statues -- he never touched a thing." 
 
Some of the group were using "very bad wheelchairs, Russian-made wheelchairs."  So the Kent County group donated newer used chairs to the visitors. 
 
In return, the visitors brought new ideas. An Egyptian representative spoke on their work with community awareness programs. The Michiganders were "just totally enamored" with the advocates; "We're gonna use that!" was their response to new ideas.
 
The disability advocates and other visitors have become movers and shakers in their countries and internationally, he says. 
 
Potratz has another favorite guest, Angel Benedicto. She's from Tanzania, where poor rural families often send their daughters off to be domestic workers in cities, where they're often abused. This could've been Benedicto's fate, but "she escaped that, and began a non-profit organization to advocate for child laborers, particularly girls." 
 
Her work with non-profit WoteSawa has gotten Benedicto international accolades. (Here she is receiving an award from Queen Elizabeth.)
 
Benedicto was one of the last of CI/GT's international visitors, in February 2020, before the pandemic forced all visits to be on Zoom. She first came to Kalamazoo in 2013 and met with non-profit leaders of our area. Potratz says that she might've learned some things here, because after her visit "her non-profit took off." 
 
The reciprocity of these visits bounces back and forth over the globe. Potratz mentions that in 2020, Benedicto met with Sonya Bernard-Hollins, of Merze Tate Explorers, the Kalamazoo group that helps local young women explore the world. The meeting led to a Zoom relationship between girls in Tanzania and in Kalamazoo. 
 
Colleagues International/Global Ties passed its Taste of the World event to Marze Tate, to become an online fundraiser with WoteSawa. The two organizations hope to raise $10,000 in scholarships for girls in Michigan and Tanzania May 1-7. 
 
Why Kalamazoo?
 
Betty Lee Ongley, among her many activities as a local community leader in her 95 years, has long been involved with Global Ties Kalamazoo.
 
"It was CIP in those days.... My kids grew up with me having people from all over," she says. "You can make friends all over the world if you're just open-minded and open-hearted." 
 
The State Department programs also bring international visitors to big cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles -- and also on the list is Kalamazoo. Why? What can people from overseas learn from little Kalamazoo?
 
"I think what they find is an openness," she says. "I think when they come here, they can't help but realize the openness of people, and the warmness. I think they're surprised we are a university city, that we have a lot of higher education here.... But most of them have never heard of Kalamazoo before." 
 
Kalamazoo is a "big-little city," Kostrzewa says. "Curious little quirky place, Kalamazoo, and Southwest Michigan -- but this town in particular. It offers big city experiences for people, but a level of intimacy and familiarity."
 
He remembers hosting a group of Palestinians. a few years ago. "We're walking downtown, there's Bobby Hopewell, mayor at the time. 'Bobby! How ya doin'! You got time?' 'Yeah, come on in!'"
 
Jerry Potratz, Angel Benedicto and Jodi Michaels, executive director of the former Colleagues International, now Global Ties Kalamazoo. Benedicto’s non-profit WoteSawa advocates for child laborers, particularly girls.So the visitors got a surprise meeting with the mayor at City Hall. "That doesn't happen in San Francisco," he says.
 
The groups usually follow a national tour itinerary along the lines of, "San Francisco, Miami, Kalamazoo -- you've seen 'Sesame Street.' Which of these things is not like the other?" Kostrzewa asks.
 
Both Kostrzewa and Ongley say one of the favorite spots to take visitors is to the shore of Lake Michigan. People are always spellbound that the "lake" is an endless expanse of water. "They look at Lake Michigan like it's an ocean!" Ongley says.
 
Or there are the more-humble local bodies of water, like Gourdneck Creek that flows by Leeanne Seaver's house near Vicksburg. 
 
In 2019, the local writer hosted a picnic for an interfaith group of Muslims and Christians from Iraq. One of her favorite memories is seeing in her paddleboat "the man in charge of all the mosques in Iraq and his Christian counterpart in that country, and there they were. In their own country, they may never have had the opportunity to have a meaningful interaction, because (of religious strife). Here they are in my back yard on a paddleboat together, laughing, and talking."
 
They then spent some time around her piano, singing Iraqi songs they all loved, though of differing religions. "There they all are, singing around the piano in Farsi. It was so, so cool." 
 
 
'Tell me who you are.'
 
Also in 2019, she opened her home to Jamila, an Iraqi teen, part of a visiting group of youth leaders. Seaver, not a fan of the then-president Trump, to say the least, says her outspokenness made the Iraqi teen troubled.
 
"I did not hold back my opinions at all about the president at the time. And Jamila was so worried about this. She was so uncomfortable with my free expression," she says. 
 
Jamila told her, "I just hear terrible things that happen to Americans,' and I thought, that's so interesting because our perception is that you're the people who terrible things are happening to.... Her concern for my safety is very touching to me." 
 
A major benefit of these interactions happens when both hosts and guests have to face their preconceived notions. 
 
As Kostrzewa puts it, "Good guys, bad guys? Uh, no. Tell me who you are."
 
The goal of these programs is to not paint a perfect picture of this country. The reasoning is simple. "If people of the world get to know Americans, they will like America," Kostrzewa says. 
 
"Richard Nixon of all people said exactly the opposite. 'If people get to know each other, they won't like each other. They'll hate us! Better that they never know each other,'" he says.
 
The U.S. has its swings in attitude and has most recently been in isolationist/nationalist mode, it seems, refusing to see what's happening outside our borders.
 
Kostrzewa -- who's also the instructor of Global and International Studies at WMU -- says, "It's a big-country problem. So do the Chinese, so do the Russians. It's a big-country dilemma. And especially if you're this country (the U.S.) in particular, because you're not only big geographically, you got all that military, economic weight, so what do we get? 'We don't have to learn about you. You gotta learn about us.' And that's problematic as we've seen," he says.
 
"For me, personally, I like being in the world." His bio -- he left his Mount Pleasant home in 1973 to study in Moscow, and "didn't come home for 11 years" as he walked and hitchhiked through 86 countries -- proves that. He arrived at Kalamazoo in 1983, with "literally a dime and a baby," and "we started hosting immediately."
 
He has many memories of long, honest talks on "the nature of identity, nationalism, experience, structure of economies, public policy, individual experience. That takes time, you don't cover all those bases in a five-minute interview."
 
He says, again, "Kitchen table time, right?" That table can be a link for people around the world, for him -- he flashes back to a visit in recent years to Tokyo, where he ran into a man he hosted 30 years ago. "'Oh, I remember being with your family!'" The man took them out to eat -- at a restaurant, but still at a table, over food and drink.
 
"It's fun. What could be more fun than opening up a bottle of wine with a bunch of folks from around the world and shootin' the shit about climate change or whatever? It usually involves a bottle of wine, if they're not Middle Eastern," he says.
 
It hasn't always been hands-across-the-globe love and understanding -- there have been disagreements around the Kostrzewa table, he says. "Foreign exchange, it's not necessarily about falling in love with people, it's about coming to understandings. Civility is fine, let's shoot for that. We should disagree on much, different points of view in a free society." 
 
"I think the kitchen table somehow brings the best out of people," he adds. "There's something about the magic -- I remember it from when I was 19 (visiting other countries). The first time you're in somebody's house.... You're sitting with a family eating that nice hard bread and cheese, a little salami, with a German family, and they're like, 'Ahhh! Have a beer!'" 

 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.
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