Exchange Matters / March 14, 2024

Remembering Three Decades of Citizen Diplomacy  

by Michelle Wilson, Executive Director, Global Ties Akron 

I looked quite professional in my business suit in the fall of 1989 as I ventured to the Student Union at Kent State University to meet with Glenn and Grace Mayes, the co-presidents of Global Ties Akron (then known as Hosting International Travelers). As a soon to be graduate, I searched for my next steps into the world post university. Little did I realize that these two charming and dedicated leaders would set up the framework for the next three decades of my life devoted to citizen diplomacy.  

I had dreamed since childhood of becoming a diplomat or a representative for the United Nations. I was inspired by my heroes growing upMother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Pope John Paul II, and Nelson Mandelato work toward a world that is more empathetic, just, peaceful, and to live a life of service.    

At that time, Global Ties Akron was an all-volunteer run organization and operating out of the home of Glenn and Grace. I found a way to volunteer and participate in all aspects of this small, but impressive, organization: welcoming groups, volunteering to accompany delegations, planning events, and hosting international leaders and students along with my young family for meal a and overnight hospitalitys.   

Michelle (far right) with members of the Global Ties Akron Board of Directors. All photos provided by Michelle. 

By the time my kids were in preschool, I became actively engaged with all aspects of the organization including it’s governance and strategic planning. My son Matt (at under 1 years old) was affectionately named our youngest board member as he attended board meetings with me in 1995. My daughter Colleen joined me at work when she was still in a playpen. 

Our family attended our annual International Thanksgiving dinners every year for decades. We hosted a FLEX (Future Leadership Exchange) student from St. Petersburg, Russia for a year, and hosted 20+ international students over the years for overnight stays and/ or meal hospitality. While on a DC vacation, our family even stopped by to visit Senator Sherrod Brown (then Congressman) to do a bit of advocacy for international exchange.

Michelle (center) and her family speaking up for exchanges with then Senator Sherrod Brown (left).  

All of these experiences enhanced our perspective on democracy, world issues, and the importance of citizen diplomacy. 

There are endless stories of the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) and the impact of exchange that fill my heart, mind and soul. Here are a few of the my most memorable experiences as the Executive Director of Global Ties Akron. 

My top 10 Citizen Diplomacy Memories  

  1. In 2005, I was honored to coordinate and host one of the first community Summits on Citizen Diplomacy and attended the first National Summit on Citizen Diplomacy bringing more than 250 leaders representing 70 local nonprofit organizations, businesses, academic institutions, and government offices to focus on the importance of building community to community international relations. 
  2. In 2012, I served as the inaugural managing director of the Global Village Festival in Akron. We hosted the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Center Stage artists Zeb and Haniya from Pakistan who performed at the event.  
  3. Assisting in the creation and implementation of the 5-year Franco-American Teachers in Training Institute that brought 50+ young educators to our community for an immersive workshop on DEIA in the U.S. education system, provided a student teaching experience, homestay and cultural trips, and other opportunities. This project was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and Franco-American Fulbright Commission. 
  4. Hosting fellows from Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, Jordan, and Zanzibar with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs IREX Community Solutions. In 2017, I became a first time alumni of international exchange with a Community Solutions follow on grant to Ghana. It was incredible to participate in a reciprocal exchange and gain a similar experience to what international leaders visiting the United States receive. This exchange has been ongoing, building upon a formal city-to-city memo of understanding between Akron, Ohio, and Accra, Ghana, there have been additional leadership visits between the two cities. As we celebrated five years of exchange, Global Ties Akron successfully received a grant with the U.S. Embassy in Ghana to partner with The University of Ghana School of Business and Kolena to create the Global Online Collaboratory Hub, sharing entrepreneurial skills and soft skills to help students in Ghana launch businesses to address social issues.  
  5. In 2017, being awarded one of six competitive global collaborative grants for the inaugural Communities Connecting Heritage initiative, implemented with the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and World Learning. Creating our Global Threads online magazine with our partner Creative Group Serbia. This included developing an online course on citizen journalism focused on telling the stories of cultural heritage of our community’s refugee populations. It was an honor to become an alumni of this wonderful initiative and lead a team of five to Serbia. 
  6. Over the past couple of decades: creating and nurturing the Know Your Community-Know Your World global education initiative. With a focus on what is global in our own communities, this project advances empathy and mutual understanding through the lens of DEIA and by bringing individuals from around the world into the classroom. Our primary focus is for elementary through middle school age  
  7. For the past eight years, Sending a small bit of love and prayers for peace with over 1,000 international leaders and scholars in the form of my handcrafted mini origami peace cranes. This is a skill I picked up while hosting Japanese students from TGU over 25 years ago. In 2019, I was honored to be selected as one of five female artists to exhibit my large scale origami kinetic sculptures representing peace, hope, and love at Stan Hywet Gardens as part of the “Winds of Change” installation. It was a great opportunity to represent Global Ties Akron as I shared the impact that exchange has had on me through Global Ties Akron. 
  8. My love of arts and fine crafts inspired our creation of the social enterprise Global Threads Boutique, as a pop up shop and most recently as a retail gift boutique in downtown Akron’s Northside Marketplace. Our boutique features the arts of our local immigrant and former refugee communities and the work of fashion designers and artists who we have connected with through international exchanges.     
  9. Building Bridges between Akron and Morocco. There have been a number of connections over the years with international program exchange alumni that have continued beyond the initial program. I am especially proud of the partnership with Mohammed Amine Zariat (pictured at left), Gold Star IVLP alumnus from Morocco, who is the founder and president of TIBU Africa. Our growing two-way exchange now includes professional resource partners: Adaptive Sports Ohio, Varsity Athletic Club, The University of Akron School of Business, Akron Inner City Soccer, and the LeBron James Family Foundation. Our exchanges focus on sports diplomacy for education, entrepreneurship, community development, youth leadership exchange, and inclusion of underserved populations of all abilities.
  10. Becoming a part of the beautiful tapestry that is our citizen diplomacy family has been the most enriching experience and blessing of my life! My lifelong family includes alumni of international exchange programs and so many Global Ties Network colleagues at our Communiy-Based Member organizations across the United States and with our DC-based representatives at National Program Agencies and at the U.S. Department of State who have become dear friends. And Global Ties Akron, especially our board of directors and dedicated volunteers, have become my extended family.  

I have loved every opportunity over the past three decades to build impactful global friendships, partnerships, and professional connections with leaders working here in the United States and around the world to increase democratic ideals and human rights. It is a blessing to witness and participate in planting seeds of peace.   

With love and gratitude from the bottom of my heart!  


Caricature of Michelle drawn by an IVLP participant.