Global Conversations: Mark Ritchie, President, Global Minnesota

Mark Ritchie is the President of Global Minnesota, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization that connects individuals, organizations, and communities in Minnesota to the world.

Mark has over 30 years of experience serving communities and working with government in Minnesota. From 1986 to 2006, he headed the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a nonprofit organization advocating for the state’s rural communities and promoting sustainable food, farming and trade systems. He then entered state politics, serving as Minnesota’s Secretary of State from 2007 to 2015. In January 2019, he took on a new role as President of Global Minnesota.

Can you tell us more about your role at Global Minnesota, and what drew you to working with this organization?

As President of Global Minnesota, I oversee our programs, fundraising, and governance. Global Minnesota is active in several major areas – it functions as a global affairs council for the state, works with the State Department on a visitors’ program for international leaders, and increases global education opportunities.

Since the early 1980s, I’ve been in various positions in Minnesota where I hosted meetings with official visitors from around the world, and these meetings were organized by Global Minnesota. I was always so appreciative of and inspired by the visitors I met, and the opportunities I had to share the work I was doing, and Minnesota in general, with people from all over the world. I was able to learn from those who came to visit, and many of them have become lifelong friends. In some cases, I’ve been able to connect with allies for what we’re doing globally – such as Expo 2027, a public-private partnership to bring a World’s Fair event on health and wellness to Minnesota.  

When the past president of Global Minnesota retired, I myself had just retired as Minnesota’s Secretary of State. I saw a chance to give back to the community and give back to an organization that had helped me to make international connections, and do so at a time where citizens are increasingly vocal about the need to be globally minded. In the context of this heightened public awareness, I saw an opportunity to connect Minnesotans to the world, and the world to Minnesota.

Global Minnesota and Global Philadelphia Association (GPA) are working towards shared goals for our regions. How can we support each other and work together?

I think about this daily, because I see a steady stream of exciting things going on at GPA, and that stimulates my ideas about what Global Minnesota should do. It also gets me thinking about connections I can make. For instance, I had a colleague working at the Council on Foundations near Washington DC, who was very interested in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and as I had seen the work GPA is doing in that area, I encouraged her to get in touch. Straight away, she went up to Philadelphia to meet with GPA’s leadership and discuss this project. So I think the biggest thing we can do is be aware of each other’s activities, and use that to inspire our own work and as something to build upon.

The second thing is that occasionally we’ll have something that happens in Minnesota with a specific link to Philadelphia. For example, we had a leader in the national retirement investment fund for South Africa visit us on an Eisenhower Fellowship, to learn more about impact investment and CSR issues around investing pension funds. It turned out that she would end up in Philadelphia, as that’s where Eisenhower Fellowships are based. I suggested that, to find out about organizations in Philadelphia working on the global issues she was interested in, she should contact GPA. This was the first time that I looked more deeply at Eisenhower Fellowships. I learned not only that they are based in Philadelphia, but that they run an excellent national program bringing in leaders from other countries, and that Minnesota was part of their consciousness. It showed me how GPA and Global Minnesota could work together in future, increasing contact with international leaders coming to Philadelphia and encouraging them to also visit Minnesota.

Global Minnesota started off as the International Center for Students and Visitors back in 1953, then grew into the Minnesota International Center (MIC), before becoming Global Minnesota in 2016. What was the thought process behind this rebranding?

Global Minnesota was started by University of Minnesota academics who in the 1950s – right after World War Two, and in the midst of the Cold War – wanted to be better hosts as a community for foreign students and faculty. They created a campus-based organization with the idea that whilst you may come as a stranger, you will go home as a friend. It was really organized around the greeting of people from other places.

That early impetus then transformed into the notion that this is a community-wide question – our state has many international companies, many local people have served in the Peace Corps, and we have a longstanding commitment to hosting immigrants and refugees. This meant a natural evolution from a campus-based group to an independent, nonprofit organization that operated statewide, addressing the whole notion of advancing international understanding and engagement.

Two or three years ago, MIC began the process of refreshing its visual imagery, branding, and logo. My understanding is that this then led to a larger discussion on how the world is more than just a collection of nations, and that the language of MIC was not large or integrated enough to reflect bigger questions, like climate change, that are truly global. A name that showed our focus on connecting people globally was more in line with how our work had evolved, and the decision was made to rebrand as Global Minnesota.

Could you tell us about the different programs that Global Minnesota runs?

We run a range of programs, both independently and working with partners.

We host the Foreign Policy Association’s Great Decisions program in Minnesota – one of the largest ones in the country – and we host the annual conference of Great Decisions members in the state. We are also a member of the Minnesota Foreign Policy Association and the World Affairs Council.

We are also involved in education. Our Classroom Connections program, aimed primarily at K-8 students, sees us partner with universities with international students here in the state. If they would like to get involved, we then train those students to be cultural ambassadors and educators. They go out to schools and work with a teacher in a classroom for a series of interactive cross-cultural lessons on their country and their culture, for example through dance or music. We also run a specific high school program around a nationwide competition called Academic WorldQuest. Teams from different schools compete on trivia questions about global affairs, and then the winning team gets free travel and hospitality to the national competition in Washington DC.

Each year, Global Minnesota runs a series of public programs, which are focused on a specific country. As 2018 was the bicentenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, our theme this 2018-19 fiscal year is South Africa. We have a number of events related to South Africa, and will end the year with a fundraising

Our programming in the public arena is largely centered in St Paul and Minneapolis, but we regularly take events, speakers, and international visits around the entire state. As a result, we are often asked to host events for the State Department. In March we will host special events across the state for an awardee of the International Women of Courage Program, which brings women who’ve shown extraordinary bravery and leadership in advocating for human rights, peace, justice, and equality to the United States. This year, we will also host the national gathering of Fulbright Fellows as they meet for a conference on American food and economic security. These things build on the ongoing work we do hosting up to 450 State Department visitors a year, about 10% of visitors nationwide. The success of those visits, and the praise our work has been given by visitors in evaluations, have helped to spur other organizations to choose Global Minnesota as their go-to place for support on public events.

How many organizations are members of Global Minnesota, and what is your offer to them?

We have a little over 1,400 individual members, about 1,000 household members, and over 50 corporate members.

We run dedicated events for our members. For instance, February is Member Appreciation Month, so we’ll be having an event later this month were I’ll publicly meet our members for the first time. We also work with different organizations to secure unique opportunities for our members, such as discounted admission for globally-themed events or special travel offers.

We ensure a regular flow of information to our members about the range of global activities in our state. We are blessed in Minnesota with a large number of organizations working in this area, from foreign policy analysis to welcoming new immigrants, and we try hard to keep our folks up to date with what is going on.

What is your vision for your leadership of Global Minnesota?

Global Minnesota recently adopted a five-year strategic plan, so that will be my north star. Major elements of the plan include growing and diversifying our membership and community participation, so that we can be more present in every corner of the state.  

For me personally, within that broader five-year plan, there are four priorities I’m thinking about, where I have unique experiences I can bring.

First is the mission of advancing international understanding and engagement – I’m looking for more and a greater variety of opportunities to really engage. For instance, corporate members want to find ways for their younger staff to get involved with international engagement. I’m looking very specifically at opportunities for people to help with common issues, such as a recent drop in international student registrations at colleges last year – there are ways people in the community can be engaged in the process of rebuilding that.

Secondly, people are increasingly aware of the global situation – they aren’t happy with how things are going, and they would like to make a difference. People here have always been globally minded – our former governor Harold Stassen helped to found the UN, we have several Nobel Peace Prize Winners, and we have huge numbers of people involved in global organizations. They want to see Minnesota have a stronger global voice. What is really on my mind is how Global Minnesota can be that kind of amplified voice.

My third priority is social and digital media. The sky’s the limit with these platforms, they offer huge opportunities, but if you don’t engage with them you can lose out.

Finally, I am a big fan of learning from friends and colleagues around the country, like GPA. I want to create an internal process for our staff to engage with and study other organizations, and bring back their insights on how we can learn from what others are doing and build on their success.


Interview conducted by Alice Krainock on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association

Photo credit: Global Minnesota