A chance to exchange ideas, European leaders visit Austin

Published 6:36 pm Friday, February 2, 2024

A delegation of young European leaders were in Austin Friday, visiting and learning about the community as part of a program by the International Visitor Leadership Program through the United States State Department.

The group represented 16 European countries and made stops at Hormel Foods Corporate Headquarters, as well as the Community Action Building to learn more about local government, inclusion efforts and how the community has embraced its changing demographics.

The program itself is based on the idea of identifying leaders from other countries and affording  them the opportunity to visit the United States in an effort of mutual exchange.

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“The goal is to create international understanding and friendly relationships around the world,” said Karen Baumgaertner, professional exchanges manager at Global Minnesota, a non-profit that facilitates the Minnesota portion of the tour. “The State Department has been doing this for 70 years.”

During their trip to Minnesota, the European delegation met with state legislators in St. Paul and outside of the state attended meetings in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and San Diego.

However, Austin was the only city under 50,000 on the list and even though many of those visitors represented much larger communities, there was still an opportunity to achieve that goal of mutual exchange.

“Germany is way smaller by size or by population,” said Nasser Ahmed, Ph.D, who serves on the Nuremberg City Council, a city of over 500,000. He’s also the vice secretary general for the Social Democratic Party in Bavaria. “I think we are somehow comparable because we have the third biggest economy in the world after you and China. We’re doing a lot of things right and I think Americans can learn a lot from us.”

“On the other hand, giving people who immigrated here a chance quickly — I think we can do better in Germany,” he continued, speaking to the two-way street of learning. “If we both learn the best practices we can get even stronger.”

In particular, Ahmed said he was particularly attracted to the close ties between the community and companies such as Hormel and the opportunities those connections can afford.

“Austin is exceptional since you have a Fortune 500 company here,” he said. “What I really find interesting is the deep integration between society and the big company. It’s not an island where they do what they do and you do, as a community, what you do. You have common goals and I think a common understanding  on issues.”

The process of selecting visitors to come to communities like Austin as part of the program is done on nomination basis by U.S. embassies in the regions.

Baumgaertner said that the experience can be invaluable to those making the trip to the U.S. in terms of sparking connection.

“It’s one thing to just read about a place,” she said. “You can go online and experience what it might be like in Zürich or Lithuania, but it’s just another thing to go and eat their food, meet their people and ask the tough questions.”

In particular, it’s also a chance to highlight the state and its communities in a time where Minnesota is beginning to take more of a leadership role on the international stage.

“Minnesota has always been a leader in international engagement. We’re very fortunate in that regard,” Baumgaertner said. “And I think we find that the people that meet with our international visitors feel like they gained a lot too.”