Bringing the world to Kalamazoo for idea exchange; Global Ties hosts diplomacy summit

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

KALAMAZOO, MI — Diplomacy can be something other than countries talking to end or prevent a conflict. 

Global Ties is a nonprofit that shows citizen diplomats from around the world can meet and, maybe not stop a war, but they can learn about each other and their countries on a personal level.

Twice a year they keep things more local. Global Ties holds Diplomacy Begins Here summits, where people from around the U.S. meet to learn about each other's cities and regions.

The local chapter, Global Ties Kalamazoo, will host their first summit here, July 11-12. And while not a branch of Global Ties U.S., the organization is an independent nonprofit and a member of the Global Ties Network.

Global Ties Kalamazoo has been bringing people from around the world since 1971. 

The meetings often pair professions — lawyers with lawyers, journalists with journalists, etc. — to exchange ideas and cultural differences in how the work is approached.

The Diplomacy Begins Here Summit and Learning Lab will bring in people from the 84 citizen diplomacy organizations around the U.S., like Global Ties Kalamazoo, and many national partners from Washington D.C., including the U.S. Department of State and Global Ties U.S. 

"It'll be really exciting to bring this whole professional exchange community together with local Kalamazooans who engage with our exchange work in Kalamazoo," Jodi Michaels, Global Ties Kalamazoo Executive Director, says.

The summit is open to all, and Kalamazoo residents are encouraged to attend. (Registration deadline is July 8)  It's "a great opportunity for people in Kalamazoo to learn more about the wonderful things happening here. And have opportunities to get involved in meeting with inspiring international leaders," Michaels says.

Learning about the good, the bad, and the solutions in a city

The first Global Ties summit Michaels attended took place in Portland, Oregon a few years ago.

"I loved the opportunity to feel like I was really getting to know a city in depth. And because it's a small gathering, rather than an enormous conference, being able to really talk to people who are excited about this exchange world in more depth, and learn a lot. We have breakout sessions and lots of opportunities to hear from inspiring people, and to workshop ideas around many different things," she says. "After that one, I was hooked."

The summit theme here is "Global Challenges: Building Locally Driven Solutions in Kalamazoo." Sessions will focus on the Kalamazoo Promise, Kalamazoo RESA's efforts in education, and local organizations collaborating to find solutions to gun violence, the housing crisis, and other challenges.

Speakers include Michael Horrigan of the W.E. Upjohn Institute, head of the Northside Association for Community Development Elizabeth Washington, LISC Kalamazoo Executive Director Zac Bauer, and Clarence Lloyd of Southwest Michigan First.

"Right here in Kalamazoo, we're dealing with crises, major challenges around housing, around education, around economic development, and what the workforce of the future looks like, and youth violence," Michaels says. 

"And all of these challenges are very local. They're very, very local right here in Kalamazoo."

But similar challenges exist in other U.S. cities, and nations, such as from New Orleans, Louisiana (2024 summit host), to Kenya, which recently sent women organizational leaders to visit Global Ties Kalamazoo. 

"When we come together and we talk to each other, we generate new ideas to deal with our own challenges," Michaels says.

"We can't just show all the sunshine and happiness in the United States because that's not the reality."

Janine Branch has never been to Kalamazoo.

A senior program officer headquartered in Washington D.C. at international nonprofit FHI360, Branch has helped send visitors from other countries through its International Visitor Leadership Program to Global Ties and other organizations around the country.

She recently sent a group from Kosovo to Kalamazoo. "There are 80-something communities (with international visitor programs) around the U.S., from Miami to South Dakota to Tucson, Arizona to Kalamazoo, all the way up to Maine and everywhere in between, you can imagine. We are working with local organizations to help welcome these visitors into their communities," Branch says.

But she's never been here herself. "I'm really close with Jodi (Michaels), and I would love to come to see her community because she always says amazing things about it, and we've worked together for so long."

Though maybe not the largest city to host a Global Ties summit, Kalamazoo has all the similar qualities, all the good and bad, and a culture that would be educational and interesting to international visitors, Brach thinks.

There are great qualities of Kalamazoo's region the summit will highlight — including a planned trip to see Lake Michigan. Michaels says that an ocean-like freshwater lake never fails to amaze its international visitors. Branch says, as a resident of Maryland, she's excited to see her first Great Lake.

Our city has much to be proud of, like the Kalamazoo Promise. But the summit guests will see the problems we have as well.

"We are very focused on leveraging and explaining our communities, 'Why is it important to tell these stories?'" Branch says. "We can't just show all the sunshine and happiness in the United States because that's not the reality."

Not only will the summit show "how Kalamazoo is succeeding in providing scholarships to young people, but we're going to see the struggles, and understand the system — well, in my case, it would be like the system of oppression and how there are various resources in Kalamazoo to offset that," Branch says.

Maybe Branch and first-time visitors will see some things in Kalamazoo that are not as admirable.

"Yeah, and I think that definitely happens for all, every city you go into, no matter what city, what state.... Many of our (international) visitors, when they come, are astonished by some aspects of American society that they weren't familiar with, one of that being the homeless population," she says.

"So that might not be the prettiest lens that international visitors would want to see, or maybe even the community wants people to see, but it's the dire reality of how many Americans in the world, in the United States." 

Discussions between people in Kalamazoo and people elsewhere who  are tackling homelessness, sharing ideas and experiences, "could help them create a solution to maybe a similar issue in their communities."

The summit — and citizen diplomacy in general — is about "having these open conversations, regardless of how hard these conversations are," Branch says. "Many successes can be attributed to either participants themselves or them interacting with Americans, and Americans taking and empowering themselves and their communities," Branch says.

Global Ties Kalamazoo's summit, "Global Challenges: Building Locally Driven Solutions in Kalamazoo," is July 11-12 Go here to register. Registration deadline is July 8.
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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.