Global Ties Kalamazoo: The power of exchange in a big little city

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Few of us may have experienced it — disembarking from an airplane after traveling many hours and stepping onto the ground of a foreign country. 

Perhaps we know only a few words of the language, perhaps we don’t speak the language at all. The food is not the food to which we are accustomed. The smells, the sounds, the crowds — all are strange and unfamiliar.

Global Ties Kalamazoo, or GTK, has been greeting foreign visitors to Kalamazoo for over 50 years, helping ease new guests through what may feel foreign and introducing them to local people, places, and customs to make the unknown known.

Gracious hospitality is what Global Ties practices. Now in its 52nd year, GTK, a non-profit organization, connects emerging leaders from across West Michigan to their international peers — building relationships one at a time by introducing Kalamazoo to the world and the world to Kalamazoo.

Jodi Hope Michaels has been with GTK since 2016 and is now its executive director. “We break down stereotypes,” she says. “It’s a lesson I’ve learned at GTK over and over again — the more you interact with people who are different than you, the more you engage, the more you find those points of commonality. There’s a shared humanity, and the more you learn about them, the more you learn about yourself. GTK makes the world smaller and bigger at the same time.”

A native of Canada, Michaels experienced the discomforts of the unknown followed by the growing comfort of the known as an exchange student in her teen years. She has since visited more than 20 countries and developed an expertise in — and a passion for — cultural immersion and exchange.

“I came to the United States at 18 as an international student,” she said. “I had been a pre-med student, earned a degree in human biology. Studying abroad helped me to see the world — and my role in it — differently.”

Not only do the people of different countries find commonalities, but they also find that many of the obstacles and issues that they face in their own homes can be similar worldwide. Comparing experiences can often lead to new ways to solve problems.

Finding common ground

In 2022, 278 visitors arrived in Kalamazoo from 72 countries and took part in 35 programs, primarily funded by the U.S. Department of State. They were greeted by 866 volunteers and professional hosts.

“We find people here with common interests with our visitors, who have reasons to collaborate, and we bring them together for conversations,” Michaels said. “For instance, we recently had a group of Iraqi teens come to Kalamazoo. They were part of IYLEP the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Department of State and in partnership with World Learning.

Iraqi youth from the International Youth Leaders Exchange program stopped by Read and Write Kalamazoo on a recent visit."They were here to explore the disability landscape in Kalamazoo and to compare accessibility at home and in Kalamazoo.”

The Iraqi teens spent a day at Western Michigan University’s College of Health and Human Services, where they learned about disability rights and ableism, inclusion, and equity. They toured the city to see what works and what doesn’t in terms of accessibility.

“Just last week, we had three delegations come through our city,” said Michaels. “One was a group of leaders from Brazil, artists, and antiracism activists, and they were freestyling hip-hop music downtown with Kalamazoo emcees. Our hope is that we can send Kalamazoo folks to attend the opening of a hip-hop culture museum in Latin America in December.”

The group also visited an underground railroad museum in Schoolcraft and learned about the differences and similarities of institutional racism in both countries.

What sets Kalamazoo apart

Program manager Emma Baratta schedules most of these meetings and conversations. A recent Western Michigan University graduate, she caught the eye of GTK board president, Tom Kostrzewa, who encouraged her to apply for the position.

“It’s my dream job, to help people feel connected,” Baratta says. “There’s this myth out there that Americans know best, but what holds anyone back from finding solutions is often the same. I’ve only been in this position for about a month, but it has been eye-opening for me how much Kalamazoo has to offer. There’s competition out there for these programs, and most places are the big metros — New York, City, Los Angeles, Chicago — but we have a strong sense of community here. People smile at you on the street. Our visitors feel welcome.”

Along with the IYLEP program that brought Iraqi youth to Kalamazoo, other GTK programs include the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) for professionals; Congressional Office for International Leadership (COIL); and CIPUSA program for one- to three-month social service exchanges;

Outbound Exchange connects youth development advocates across the world; and the youth-driven Teen Talks series brings together Kalamazoo youth and youth from South Africa, Iraq, Ireland, Singapore, Kenya, and Germany.
A gathering of the Education in the Digital Age IVLP delegation of Global Ties Kalamazoo.
“During my first week here, we had women from political organizations in India come to Kalamazoo to talk about the challenges for women in politics,” Baratta says. “There was a lot of learning on both sides. In our discussions, we saw the same challenges here as well as in India. Once you start talking, you soon realize the world is smaller than you think. You leave these meetings with a sense of solidarity.”

The participant perspective

Ludmila Nofit from Moldova was selected to be one of the participants in the 2022 Open World Program  (now named  Congressional Office for International Leadership/COIL). The program has a person-to-person international engagement approach by providing the participants with direct interactions with professional counterparts, covering a wide spectrum of policy themes and connections with communities across the United States.

“Global Ties prepared a variety of activities to expand our knowledge about the Kalamazoo communities by connecting us with various unique stakeholders,” Nofit says. “I was delighted to have the chance to interact with officials such as Mayor David Anderson and Michigan State Representative Julie Rogers by sharing their experience in the field of local and regional government, highlighting the importance of being in public service and aiming to build a strengthened engaged community.

"I also enjoyed meeting professional experts and representatives of diverse local organizations such as the Ladies Library Association, the Kalamazoo Youth Development Network, Girls on the Run, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, Fresh Food Fairy, the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and others. And the surprise was to meet a Moldovan woman based in Kalamazoo, Sorina Dodu, an inspired and full of energy person.”

Upon her return to Moldova, Nofit began working as a program development officer within a USAID/OTI-funded program, called Moldova Resilience Initiative, supporting a democratic and European Moldova and engaging different stakeholders such as youth, media outlets, elders, social and cultural organizations through different activities in targeted communities. It has proven to be one the most efficient tools to
encourage people to connect and make a change in their communities, Nofit says.

“The cross-cultural interactions I had in Kalamazoo represented valuable opportunities to share one's own experience, knowledge, expertise, and lessons learned while building a network of professionals in a range of fields,” she says. “I found it inspiring how Kalamazoo residents can easily engage in local initiatives driven by ordinary people who care about their communities and even about those who are far away.”

GTK hosted this interfaith dialogue in 2019 that brought Iraqi Christian (yes, Christian!) and Muslim leaders to Kalamazoo to find some common ground for discussion.

Milka Jankowska, an educator from Poland who twice participated in the IVLP "Education in the Digital Age" program (once virtually and once in-person), visited with Loy Norrix High School students and teachers when she came to Kalamazoo in 2023. Her group had the chance to exchange views on teaching/learning during a pandemic and about the American school system in general. When the business part of the day was over, the group visited the home of a GTK volunteer host — Leeanne Seaver in Vicksburg.

“The home hospitality was the best day of the non-educational part of the whole IVLP program,” Jankowska says. “Though it may sound funny for Americans, it was great to be able to visit an American home and talk to real Americans — and even peek into Leeanne’s fridge! We had an opportunity to try American food, see what our host reads, and talk about everyday life. This is something I have always wanted to see, to experience, and it will be my best memory from the whole trip.”

Open homes and open arms

An important part of what GTK does is to expose exchange visitors to the American lifestyle, and that includes visiting American homes. The organization welcomes host families who will open their homes to international visitors for meals and often also overnight stays. Leeanne Seaver, who is also a board member of GTK, has opened her home to visitors from many different countries.

“I became involved when I attended a fundraiser and heard about what GTK does,” Seaver says. “They offer workable, functional solutions to crises around the world with diplomacy. To experience and understand individuals from other parts of the world, to have them sitting at your dinner table, to share a cup of morning coffee with them, it’s amazing.”

Seaver has hosted visitors from Moldova, Kosovo, the Philippines, Slovakia, Germany, and other countries for a meal or overnight stays. She has hosted Muslims and Christians at the same table, she says, and before the evening was over, all were singing songs together in her living room.

“I had six mayors from six different countries sitting around my table one night,” Seaver said. “We were wringing our hands and discussing the state of the world. We talked about the pandemic — what worked for you? Some of it is just venting, but I learned how others sometimes see us today, too. We are getting meaner, spiraling downward — none of us are all that happy. Others had the view that the United States is great. Still, others worried about our safety here in terms of gun violence. We worried about each other. Whatever is informing your perspective, it needs to be expanded.”

With more than half a century behind GTK and the future wide open, Seaver sees the work of GTK as only growing in importance.

“We must continue this extraordinary dynamic,” she says. “It’s what makes Kalamazoo so exceptional. We are a small city on a list of big cities for these programs; we are engaged with the big players. That’s rare. As a smaller community, there are ways in which we can offer more. Rather than staying in hotels and meeting in conference rooms, our visitors stay in homes and talk with families. We give people an open-arms experience. That makes us unique.”

Nourishment of the mind and spirit

Tom Kostrzewa, six years a GTK board president, agrees. A faculty fellow at WMU’s Lee Honors College in global and international studies, Kostrzewa is himself an experienced traveler. He understands the
rigors of the road.

“I hitchhiked 86 countries when I was younger, walked around the world with a rucksack on my back, and ended up in China,” he says. “I thought foreign travel was mostly for the upper class, the rich. We fight that at GTK. We want this kind of exchange for everyone.”

Exchange groups may come to Kalamazoo for 3 days or 3 months. Times vary. All are vetted, many are only able to travel thanks to scholarships.

“We see diverse groups,” Kostrzewa says. “We’ve had judges, police administrators, journalists, students, religious figures. We are given a list from the sponsoring agency, and then we go to the airport to pick them up. GTK has had approximately 300 groups visit Kalamazoo over the years.”
All that planning, all that guiding, all that hosting—it isn’t done with a feather duster, Kostrzewa says.

“It takes effort,” he says. “And we are working on expanding who will come here. When people meet each other and share their culture, that’s a level of intimacy. The world becomes real to you, not just an abstraction. Cultural exchange is a nourishment of the mind.”

To learn more about how to become a Global Ties Kalamazoo volunteer, visit www.globaltieskzoo.org/volunteer.

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Read more articles by Zinta Aistars.

Zinta Aistars is the creative director of Z Word, LLC. She is the producer and host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK.