Here at the Iowa International Center we believe in the concept that every individual has the right, even the responsibility, to help shape U.S. foreign relations, “one handshake at a time.” Now in my third month as executive director, I love reflecting on the numerous handshakes I’ve already shared and the promise of so many more.
This month I had the pleasure of attending the Greater Des Moines Partnership Multicultural Roundtable & Reception where participants experienced courageous conversations about immigration and diversity topics. I attended a Sister States reception honoring Governor Terry Branstad on his appointment to the role of Ambassador of China; the Governor has a decades-long relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping which began during an international exchange. I was heartened to see new Iowa immigrants and native Iowans standing together during the Day without Immigrants march. I was inspired to watch our international visitors connect with Iowa professionals who shared common interests in such as topics trade, solar energy, higher education, digital learning and human rights.
Here at the Iowa International Center, my staff and I practice citizen diplomacy daily hosting international visitors from around the globe, but we also conduct citizen diplomacy whenever we reach out to our refugee and immigrant neighbors through language and interpretation services and our online Welcome to Iowa web site.
Citizen diplomacy still rings true
For me, one of the most poignant images in the past month was a photo of the statue of Liberty with a banner reading “Refugees Welcome” hanging on the base. Those who hung the banner were no doubt breaking National Park regulations, but the message? Here at the Iowa International Center it still rings true.
There have been dramatic changes in the ways in which Iowans have responded to refugee and immigrant families. Today we have a new opportunity to respond. Because of injustice in a travel ban or heartbreak caused by recent changes to US immigration policies, there is much work to do. We are more committed than ever to:
• Helping families learn English, so they can get jobs and communicate with their children’s teachers.
• Providing a 24/7 emergency interpretation line to make sure information is clearly communicated in medical or safety crisis.
• Employing interpreters and translators to make Iowa a welcoming place.
• Building an ESL curriculum specifically to assist preliterate students.
Wondering how to help?
Protest, march, pray, and then get busy. It’s the action – the doing – that sparks change and impact. Write and call your elected representatives. Encourage others to speak out. Take a few extra moments to connect with an immigrant in your community. Smile and listen to others who may not look or speak the same. Get out of your comfort zone! And finally, donate your time or write a check to help Iowa International Center make a bigger difference.
By Janet Norton, International Visitor Programs Manager, Iowa International Center
February 2016 – The Iowa International Center is one of 92 organizations nationally that welcome emerging global leaders as part of the IVLP (International Visitor Leadership Program). Last year, we were honored to be able to show 165 professionals representing more than 79 countries all that Iowa had to offer, through programs hosted via our Sehgal Foundation International Visitors Center here in Des Moines.
As part of the GlobalTies U.S. network of community organizations designated to host IVLP participants, we stay connected with one another during the GlobalTies U.S. National Meeting in Washington, D.C. This year’s conference felt just like home – as it took place in the middle of a huge snowstorm, even by Midwestern standards.
This year’s conference theme was “#IAmDiplomacy” – an idea that resonates throughout our network of organizations, staff members and volunteers – and that also speaks directly to how each of us, as individuals, can play an important role in shaping not only the success of U.S. Foreign Policy efforts on a person-to-person basis, but the mindsets and perceptions of thousands of international visitors who interact with Americans as part of the IVLP every year.
As International Visitor Programs Manager, I proudly represented the Iowa International Center among program agency partners, program officers, global diplomats, as well as my peers from around the nation. Our conversations ranged from best practices in welcoming international visitors to Iowa to learn about topics where people know we excel – including agribusiness and biotechnology – as well as areas of expertise that the world might not know we can provide – including refugee and LGBT rights and renewable energy.
I also had the privilege of meeting with Iowa’s Rep. David Young and staff from all of our other Members of Congress to share the exciting work we’ve been doing to bring international visitors to meet with their local professional peers in Iowa, and how they get to know more about Iowa through having dinner in the homes of our wonderful volunteers.
We were also proud that Hannah Grafelman (pictured with me upper left), Iowa International Center intern, was selected to join me in D.C. as part of a special Emerging Leaders program, where she met interns from similar organizations and got a glimpse into potential global engagement and career opportunities for the future.
Each day, I have the unique opportunity to welcome visiting leaders from around the world, as well interact with many outstanding professional volunteers and home hospitality hosts that help us bring that concept of global citizenship to life. In all these interactions, I carry that responsibility and awareness that #IAmDiplomacy with me – and I’m thankful they do, too.
To volunteer to help welcome the world to Iowa as an IVLP volunteer, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.