Global Citizenship is not a Spectator Sport


Global Citizenship is not a Spectator Sport

Theme: Global Citizenship

John M. Sirek
Citizenship Program Director
McCormick Tribune Foundation, IL
Constituent Group:

Twenty-eight years ago a young man from a small dairy farm in Minnesota boarded a plane for Sweden. He had never been outside the boarders of the United States and had only been out of his home state a number of times. His only language was English and the community in which he grew up was overwhelmingly White and Catholic. He rarely let anything other than meat and potatoes cross his lips. He would spend the next twelve months living in Sweden as an exchange student. It would be an experience that would change the direction of his life. That young man was me.

It is said that the world is getting smaller. For me, study abroad made the world a whole lot bigger. Before going to Sweden the world looked like a very limited place. In many ways that little dairy farm was. But my time in Sweden introduced me to a world I knew little about. I learned a new language, tried new foods, made new friends. I began to see and understand events at home and around the world in new ways.

But I was not the only one beginning to see and experience the world in a new light. Advances in technology and the ever expanding world economy were rapidly changing they way we lived our lives. Market forces were beginning to bring about the end of the family farm in America. The Twin Cities was seeing the first wave of new Hmong immigrants. In Iran the U.S. supported Shaw was losing his grip on power while the Ayatollah Khomeini was gaining converts. The Soviet Union was preparing to invade Afghanistan, an act that would cause the U.S. to withdraw from the 1980 Olympics.

We didn’t refer to it as such then but we were in fact witnessing the affects of globalization. Different individuals and organizations place emphasis on different aspects of globalization but to me it is simply the increasing interaction of individuals and organizations across national, cultural, economic, and political boundaries. It is a process that began the first time two tribes encountered one another for the first time. Modern technology has accelerated the process by giving us the ability to travel anywhere in the world in a matter of hours and communicate with anyone instantaneously. Increasingly open markets and expanding population migration has further accelerated the process. The number and types of encounters we now have with people different from ourselves is at an all-time high.

As a nation of immigrants, the United States has one of the most diverse populations on earth. We are 64.4% White, 14.1% Latino, 12.8% Black, 4.2% Asian, and the remainder Native American, Pacific Islander, or people of multiple races. Eleven point one percent of us are foreign born and 17.9% of us speak a language other than English at home. While we are still overwhelmingly Christian, the numerical increase in non-Christians is growing significant. Here in Chicago, there are 26 different ethnic groups with populations of at least 25,000 members and over 100 languages are spoken. This city has the second largest Polish population in the world and the second larges Mexican population in the United States.

What does it mean to be a nation of immigrants? It was once thought that people would leave the old world and their old ways behind when they came here to begin life anew. America was a melting pot. A place where people of diverse backgrounds came, cast off their native costumes, and became “Americans”. This of course was never entirely true. My father, a second generation American, continued to speak Czech with his parents and extended family throughout his life. My wife, a 4th generation American, continues to celebrate her Irish heritage with music, dance, and family traditions.

More recently some have described the United States as a salad bowl; a place where people of diverse backgrounds live together while maintaining their own traditional culture and ways of life. Ideally this produced a harmonious blending of flavors; a single society of diverse individuals and cultures living and working side-by-side. While I like this analogy better than the melting pot, it too is not entirely true. When immigrants come to this country they do change. They do become more “American.” At the same time, however, they change us and what it means to be an American. Reality is a mix of the melting pot and the salad bowl. I like to think of us as a soup & salad country. Immigrants add new dimensions to the flavor of the soup while at the same time adding another element to the salad.

We are a global nation. Economically, culturally, and yes, militarily we span the world. We touch and are touched by virtually every part of the globe. Because of our tremendous diversity and reach, one might think that managing an increasingly global environment would come naturally to Americans. And yet huge numbers of us don’t know Vietnam from Venezuela or French from Farsi. The National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study’s final report stated that young people in the United States “… are unprepared for an increasingly global future. Far too many lack even the most basic skills for navigating the international economy or understanding the relationships among people and places that provide critical context for world events.” How can this be? And what is to be done?

It must be remembered that while this nation was born of diversity we, like many people, have and continue to struggle with it. Encounters between European settlers and Native Americans were often confrontational. While the Civil rights movement has made tremendous inroads to racial divisions, we still have a very long way to go. Gays and lesbians have earned a place at some table but remain excluded from many others. Today’s immigration debate is charged with contentious racial, economic, legal, and cultural issues. Learning how to understand and manage diversity and change is the key to success on the global and local level in the modern era.

How do we improve our abilities to live and work affectively in an increasingly diverse and global environment? I believe that any examination of global citizenship must begin with a long look in the mirror. Who am I? How did I get here? What influences have shaped my life? Being a global citizen is not a rejection of our own nationality, race, religion, or anything else that makes you, you. Each of us has a unique background and unique perspectives on the world and it is from that position that we engage the rest of the world.

It is from my unique perspective that I view the world and my role in it. I am a 3rd generation descendent of Czech and German immigrants. As I stated earlier, I grew up on a farm in Minnesota and was an exchange student in Sweden. I have also lived in Warsaw, Poland, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. I used to say that the experience of living and studying in Sweden did more to make me the person I am to day any other experience in my life. That is not true. Like all of us I am the sum of many factors and experiences.

My experience as an exchange student did set me on a career path where international issues were central. Most of my professional life has been spent with international education and training programs. I’ve worked with hundreds on individuals from all around the world. I helped introduce them to this country and understand the differences they found here. More recently I moved to the world of philanthropy where today my work focuses on enhancing the way individuals engage and participate in our social and political institutions.

I feel lucky to have had these personal and professional experiences. What have they taught me about global citizenship? The most mundane, perhaps, is that no two people or organizations are completely alike and none are truly unique. As simple as this sounds, understanding this is the foundation of success in a diverse global environment. If we are to work affectively we must understand and manage our differences while at the same time appreciate and leverage our commonalities.

I have also learned that when it comes to intercultural understanding you can’t beat first-hand experience. I could have read all I wanted about Sweden but I never would have learned as much as I did about Sweden, Swedes, and myself had I not lived there. The same is true for the students and professionals I have worked with over the years. You just can’t beat being there and doing things. This might be living in a foreign country or working on a service project in a community different from your own.

Most lessons I learned through my work in the nonprofit sector are not limited to global citizenship but are really universal. The ones I will mention here are the importance of leadership, focus, partnerships, and mentoring. I have worked with organizations with strong leaders and weak ones and believe me, leaders make a difference. Leaders provide vision, motivation, and a sense of common purpose. Martin Luther King is a fine example. It was his ability to lead and mobilize thousands of individuals and get hundreds of smaller organizations to join the struggle that made the civil rights movement successful.

Another simple lesson is that no individual or organization can take on all of the world’s problems. It is critical that we focus our efforts. Nonprofit organizations, for example, don’t try to tackle every problem in their communities. They tend to pick one or two. They have specific mission statements, and hopefully strong leaders, to guide and direct them. They have boards of directors to ensure that they do not stray from the mission. They are focused.

Even when individuals and organizations are focused, they won’t maximize their impact if they try to go it a alone. They need to form partnerships. This is seen clearly in the relationship between a foundation and a nonprofit organization. Foundation assets are worthless if they can not be invested in strong programs run by well-run nonprofit organizations. I am not saying that individual people and organizations can’t make a difference. They can. But given the scope and complexities of many of today’s problems we need to work together if we hope to solve them.

Going hand-in-hand with partnerships and leadership is mentoring. Mentors are essential to building better students, employees, and citizens. My exchange program was introduced to me by one of my high school teachers and coaches; an adult who took interest in me and wanted me to make the most of my life. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations is currently studying the future of Chicago’s Mexican population. Mentoring is key to several of their recommendations. They are urging Chicagoans both within and outside of the Mexican community to step forward to help nurture and develop the next generation of leaders.

What can higher education do to produce better global citizens? Yes, we must improve our teaching of second languages, geography, history, and world politics, religion, and cultures. But this is only the first and easiest step. Students can only learn so much about the world through text and photographs. They will only come to truly know and understand our world through direct contact and interaction.

Colleges and universities must expanded international study and professional training opportunities. They must create more joint degree options that allow American students to complete part of their degrees overseas and have overseas students do likewise here in the United States. Our colleges and universities must increase the linkages between classroom and “real-world.” Being a global citizen is not a spectator sport. We must expand our approaches to education to create a constantly evolving learning environment. Without these types of experiences, we will not be able to communicate and work affectively in today’s multilingual, multicultural environment and will not succeed.

Most importantly they need to create more opportunities for their students to gain experiences working with diverse populations. If it is to be successful higher education must expose students to the broadest possible range of ideas and experiences. We must move beyond the limiting walls of our academic institutions to explore the full range of the human condition. There has to be real face-to-face interaction and experience. We must integrate traditional forms of teaching and learning with real-world experiences that provide essential skills of interaction and competition.

Higher education must accept the fact that their role in developing strong citizens includes citizenship on the global level. This must become part of its mission. But higher education does not have to take on this new challenge in isolation. It needs to develop partnerships with organizations that focus on this full time. And they need to identify mentors on campus and off that can help lead their students into the global arena. Foundations and nonprofit organizations can be important partners in this effort. We can help to break-down barriers, create and facilitate partnerships.

Being a affective Global citizen is all about how you view the world and interact with it. Interacting with it is no longer an option, it is a daily reality. Developing individuals to be affective citizens globally is really the same as helping them be affective locally. That’s why empowering individuals for effective civic engagement on the campus, community, state, and national level goes hand-in-hand with empowering them for civic engagement on a global level. And, given the diversity of our communities today, to be civically engaged locally is, in a sense, to be engaged on the global stage. Isolating one from the other is no longer possible.

Visit Minnesota today and you will find one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Hmong in the United Sates. You will also find a large Somali population. The farm on which I grew-up no longer exists. My home town, while still largely White, includes people from many religious and ethnic backgrounds. The world is no longer “out there.” It is right here in our back yards. We are citizens of the world with connections throughout. It is our challenge to understand and manage these connections if we hope to succeed in the years ahead.

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