Exchange Matters / August 31, 2016

The President’s Corner: Global Minnesota Provides a Safe Space to Tackle Tough Global Issues

Recently I was catching up with a former deputy assistant secretary of state of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs about the power of exchange programs. She shared with me her “aha” moment when she realized just how powerful exchange programs are. She was on a visit to China with the then Secretary of State and met with a Chinese dissident who had been arrested and beaten for his work in promoting human rights. She was one of the few representatives of public diplomacy programs amongst a large contingent of policy leaders and experts in the delegation. When she told the Chinese leader about the exchange programs she was responsible for he thanked her profusely and said: “the work you do is incredibly important. Your programs provide a safe space for our countries to tackle some of our toughest challenges.” This statement came to life earlier this month through the Diplomacy Begins Here summit hosted by Global Minnesota that took on one of the toughest local, national and international challenges of our time; violent extremism.

Back in October 2015 when Global Ties U.S. issued a call for proposals for members to host the 2016 Diplomacy Begins Here summits, Minnesota was in the headlines for the arrests of nine young Minnesota men for allegedly plotting to join the terror group ISIS in Syria. It was also receiving much national attention and some local scrutiny for its pilot program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice called Building Community Resilience that brings religious and community leaders and law enforcement together to counter efforts by ISIS and other terror groups to recruit fighters in the U.S.

Amidst these growing tensions, Global Minnesota President Carol Engebretson Byrne and Professional Exchanges Manager Jessica Heller recognized both the need and opportunity for their community and said: “we have to do this summit and we need to focus it on peacebuilding approaches to countering extremism. We know it is a sensitive topic, but our community needs to come together to discuss these issues and identify a path forward for itself.” Through nine months of careful planning that involved an advisory committee made up of community leaders including many from the Somali community, Global Minnesota absolutely brought the power of exchanges to life by offering a safe space for Minnesota and our nation to tackle an incredibly tough global challenge.

The summit brought together over 250 leaders from the Somali community, local nonprofits, and the Global Ties Network alongside students, activists, educators, and political leaders. Together, participants discussed issues including the role of women in peacebuilding, creating economic opportunity for youth, and using social media to advance freedom of expression.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D)Rep. Keith Ellison (D), and Rep. Tom Emmer (R) all shared their insights to building peace in communities at home and abroad. George Selim, Director of Community Partnerships for the Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger both shared insights on the U.S. Government’s efforts to build domestic resilience against extremism. Grassroots leaders like Mohamed Amin Ahmed, founder of Average Mohamed, Hashi Shafi of the Somali Action Alliance, and State Senate President Sandy Pappas brought the conversation home to Minnesota.

According to Engebretson Byrne “We dealt with an issue head on, brought so many key stakeholders together in the same room. This speaks to the power of being non-partisan. We at Global Minnesota were so proud of the outcome of the summit. We tackled a very delicate topic in our community that of countering extremism. The summit gave us the opportunity to engage many diverse voices in our community and raise the profile of our organization as a convener and facilitator. We also were proud to partner with the State Department and Global Ties U.S to give the summit a national focus.”

As a result of their efforts, the summit was a huge success. It received significant press attention including a front page article of the Star Tribune on the key impact of Minnesota-based institutions and people in countering extremism, two OpEds on how the summit helped local officials highlight the importance of funding Somali youth programs dedicated to community building, and another feature on summit speaker Mohamed Amin Ahmed’s cartoon Average Mohamed as an unusual and creative counternarrative to extremism. In addition, the attendees were extremely satisfied and engaged throughout the summit. With such a successful summit, Global Minnesota raised its profile and prestige even higher as an important and dynamic convener of global issues.

Ultimately, there are a few key takeaways from the summit for me. The first takeaway is that CBMs truly have the ability to serve as an important convener around really tough issues. Being trusted and prestigious global hubs within their communities, provides a unique opportunity to present safe spaces to tackle tough issues that may need careful consideration. Knowing local intricacies can allow CBMs to be thoughtful about convening the discussions, and the results pay, and will continue to pay, dividends. It also dawned on me that these discussion do not need to be as elaborate or formal as a summit – they can take place at another engagement, during an IVLP delegation visit, or even during a social event.

The second takeaway for me from the summit builds off of my first one. These summits are a terrific way to empower communities. Global Minnesota approached the summit as a shared effort that was community led. By putting community first and collectively empowering the group, realistic and helpful recommendations were shared on tackling extremism and radicalization. Those recommendations and efforts can not be top down approaches from Washington – they need to come from the people that know the community best. George Selim of the Department of Homeland Security noted “The nature and scope of the threat is diverse, so our model needs to be equally diverse and tailored to local demographics.” By getting the community involved, and convening local experts, Global Minnesota was able to harness stronger and more impactful recommendations towards tackling extremism – a delicate issue. Congratulations to the team at Global Minnesota. We look forward to taking these lessons learned to our 2017 Diplomacy Begins Here Series!

by Jennifer Clinton, President, Global Ties U.S. Photo courtesy of Global Minnesota.