Global citizen diplomats

“I have learned that all the women in the world face or faced almost similar problems like marginalization by men, but it’s just that we experience these issues in different environments and contexts,” says Riya William Yuyada, civic education officer with the Relief and Development Association in South Sudan. “My thinking about the U.S. has been changed … most especially when it comes to equality of men and women. I was surprised that women here are still being treated as second-class citizens.”

Tabasum W. Niroo, director of admissions at American University of Afghanistan, observes, “From interacting with women from 22 different countries … I understood that as women we all face more or less similar issues worldwide and that our struggles are the same. I also reconfirmed that we as activists, be it political or social, are not alone in our striving for a better and just future. I understood that American women will not submit themselves to the ‘rules’ that may harm them. I am proud of them and it makes me believe that women are not passive observers but active agents of change.”

Both women were participants in the International Visitor Leadership Program through the U.S. Department of State, and locally, with Global Minnesota, a nonprofit connecting individuals, organizations and communities to the world. The women visited the Minnesota Women’s Press office in February as part of a delegation from around the world looking at ways to develop leadership in women and girls through skills, attitudes, careers and civic engagement.

In addition to international visitor hosting, Global Minnesota brings programs to K-12 classrooms, offers exchange programs, discussion groups and other opportunities for the public to expand their understanding of international issues, foreign policy and cultural topics.

“Every citizen has the right and the responsibility to help shape foreign relations and be empowered to act with meaning and purpose,” says Carol Engebretson Byrne, president of Global Minnesota. “A wise U.S. foreign policy is based on a well-informed and engaged public and that is what we are trying to do every day.”

The organization is fueled by about 1,000 members, some of whom are also volunteers. They fill roles such as drivers and tour guides for visiting groups, board members and Classroom Connection international speakers.

Another volunteer role is hosting a few international visitors for a casual dinner in an American home. It could be home-cooked, a backyard barbecue or friends’ potluck. In all interactions the intent is to connect Minnesotans with others from around the globe to discover commonalities and understand differences on a personal and global scale.

As Engebretson Byrne describes it, “When you learn about your own culture through the eyes of another, it strengthens one’s own self awareness. You see things differently. It grows our own knowledge and understanding.”

The international visitors, hosted here through the State Department and Global Minnesota, agree.

“My energy levels have been increased to go back home and struggle for more change like peace and women’s rights and inclusion,” says Yuyada.

Tabasum reflects, “I will go back home with loads of new ideas and thoughts to initiate, implement and discuss with my peers. I will also take the message that women share common challenges and struggles and that we must give, hand in hand, to make this world a better place for the next generations. We must act as citizens of this world, not a specific country, religion or race.”

FFI: To learn more about membership and volunteering with Global Minnesota: