As much as we enjoy our beloved town, Iowa City’s not exactly at the top of the list of “must see” locations for visiting foreign dignitaries and officials. After all, Iowa City is just one of the many thousands of small metropolitan communities that–from coast to coast–dot our nation’s landscape. What exactly makes our town so remarkable?
As executive director of the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities (Civic), one of 97 organizations nationwide that coordinate foreign visitors on behalf of the United States government, it was Sharon Benzoni’s job to answer that question. As part of this educational and cultural exchange program, Benzoni, a 2007 graduate of The University of Iowa Environmental Sciences Program, played host to diplomats, community leaders, public officials and any number of foreign figures visiting Iowa City. She met with women’s rights advocates from across Africa, men who’ve lived amongst Algerian Bedouin tribes and countless other figures from all corners of the world. Through Civic and its many volunteers, Benzoni showed these figures why we choose to call this Iowa City our home.
“Very rarely would someone ask to come to Iowa,” Benzoni says. “Many have never even heard of Iowa.”
In a sense, CIVIC introduces our rural Midwestern state to these visitors, putting a human face on what was once, to them, little more than a speck on the global map.
Visitors’ itineraries are highly personalized to facilitate connections with local scholars, city officials or organizations working in guests’ areas of interest. It wouldn’t be accurate to present IC as all work and no play, however, so Benzoni encourages guests to explore Iowa City’s entertainment offerings as well.
“We always recommend the Friday Night Concert Series,” Benzoni says. “We keep [guests] in the Sheraton so they can walk around downtown, and I love just letting them loose to explore. They tend to love it in Iowa. It’s a slower pace than they get in the cities, and we’re much more hands on with the visitors.”
Benzoni added that, elsewhere, it’s not unheard of for State Department guests to be given a program, a taxi, and little context.
One of Benzoni’s favorite places to take guests is the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, and West Liberty, Iowa, which boasts one of the oldest dual-language educational programs in the country.
It’s not uncommon for Civic to host visitors from countries that suffer from repressive regimes or limited resources, including recent guests from Kenya, Botswana and Mauritania. What has consistently impressed Benzoni, however, is the lack of bitterness such guests harbor toward Americans. Benzoni anticipated such bitterness not because of the resources and freedoms we enjoy, but because of the extent to which we take them for granted.
To Civic, there is a clear need for such grassroots public diplomacy.
“We need people within [foreign] countries who feel invested in having a positive relationship with the American people,” Benzoni says.
According to her, international networking through citizen diplomacy is part of what allows successful high level state-to-state diplomacy to occur.
“One of the things that got me interested and involved in these organizations was the importance that these one on one dialogues have,” Benzoni says. “What we try to do as public diplomats is get people to drop their ideology, or at least set it aside long enough to engage with the human being in front of them. Then they can start to talk about where their ideology comes from and why it’s important as opposed to, ‘This is my ideology and if you disagree with me, we cannot talk.’”
This personable one-on-one contact paints an image of the United States that’s more complete and nuanced than what’s portrayed through exported Hollywood culture. By taking Muslim visitors to the Cedar Rapids Muslim community, for example, Benzoni gives these guests an opportunity to experience firsthand what it means to be Muslim in the Midwest.
“I think it’s a real interesting contrast to the narrative that’s portrayed in the media about the Muslim experience in America,” Benzoni says.
Though it may seem a paradox, by interacting with such a diverse pool of visitors throughout her time as Civic executive director, Benzoni feels less confident in her understanding of the outside world.
“The thing I’ve learned most is how little I know,” she laughs.
For Benzoni, a necessary first step toward understanding global issues is recognizing how complex they truly are. She’s stepping down from her post this fall in order to do some traveling of her own, hoping, albeit facetiously, that she doesn’t end up a permanent nomad.
“Alhough,” she says, “I am open to the possibility.”