Exchange Matters / February 15, 2024

100 Years of Exchange in Cleveland

By Carina Van Vliet, Executive Director, Cleveland Council on World Affairs 

Editor’s Note: February 16 is Citizen Diplomacy Day, a day first recognized by Congress in 2011 to commemorate our organization’s 50th anniversary and our Network’s important role in building people-to-people connections through international exchange. In celebration of this day, we asked leaders from across the Global Ties Network to reflect on how citizen diplomacy humanizes the world, both locally and globally, and why this work matters. 

Members of the Women’s Council for the Promotion of Peace, some of whom help found the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, raise their voices at a 1924 peace march. All photos provided by the Cleveland Council on World Affairs.

The Cleveland Council on World Affairs (CCWA) was founded in 1923 by women peace activists who, shocked by World War I, wanted the United States to play a central role in shaping a world of peaceful, cooperative democracies that would never again engage in the folly that was the Great War. The group was initially called the Women’s Council for the Promotion of Peace. In 1943, it became the Cleveland Council on World Affairs and increasingly focused on educating Cleveland citizens about foreign policy. Regardless of the approach, the Council’s goal was always to offer avenues for the Cleveland community to learn and care about the rest of the world.   

In 1947, the Council formed an International Students’ Group to welcome foreign students who started arriving in Cleveland in significant numbers after World War II. Two years later, in 1949, the U.S. Department of State invited CCWA to participate in the “Foreign Leaders Program,” which eventually became the “International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).” Cleveland has been involved ever since. Today, CCWA welcomes some 400 visitors a year, and local citizen diplomats volunteer to open their homes to these visitors, hosting dinners – just like they did for students in 1947.    

 Students participate in the first Model United Nations conference at Case Western Reserve University, a longstanding community partner of CCWA.

A century later, CCWA’s mission to promote global engagement in Northeast Ohio through its people-to-people exchange work  matters more than ever. Just about every facet of life, from our economy to our culture, is connected to people and events all around the world. Engaging globally is vital for the economic competitiveness and vibrancy of Northeast Ohio. It is also crucial that Cleveland citizens continue to be well informed about current international trends, because the only way we have any chance of productively addressing global challenges – such as climate change and pandemics – is through better cooperation as a global community.  

Exchange programs directly contribute to building a sense of global community. For instance, in January 2023, CCWA organized a home hospitality networking activity for the “Current U.S. Social, Political, and Economic Issues for Young European Leaders” IVLP program and held a social mixer with Cleveland young professionals who were awe-struck from meeting their European counterparts and learning about civic engagement in Europe.

This past August, CCWA Citizen Diplomats traveled to Chennai, India, through the U.S. Department of State’s Professional Fellows Program for Governance and Society, which helped build connections between the NGO sector in Chennai and several organizations here in Cleveland. “The concept of creating a more just and kind world by connecting people from different backgrounds on a personal and professional level is genius. It is a simple concept that carries so much weight,” remarked Dionne Huffman, a representative of the Saint Luke’s Foundation in Cleveland, who was part of the delegation. 

                     An IVLP group from Japan visits Cleveland in the early 1950s.

By creating international connections for Cleveland professionals, exchanges help nurture a different appreciation for Northeast Ohio’s place in the world and what it has to offer. As one concrete example, a Romani participant from Hungary who engaged in a 2022 “Minority Communities Advocacy” IVLP program agreed to speak as part of a CCWA global leadership development program for young professionals. She impressed upon them that discrimination is a universal problem, which gave them a different perspective on current conversations about diversity and inclusion in our city – a perspective they could not have gained from anything other than international exchange. 

International exchanges and citizen diplomacy are vital for our security, prosperity, and wellbeing. They are an opportunity for us to learn from each other, to respect, and value each another’s differences, and to find ways to cooperate for our common future.