By Ezra Kaplan
On a recent Friday, in the main ballroom of the Standard Club in downtown Chicago, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs hosted a half-day International Women’s Day Global Health Symposium. Speakers from the public and private sectors addressed a crowd of 365 of which nearly half were young people and over three-quarters were women.
The February event was part of the Council’s ongoing Women and Global Development Forum, which was established in 2009 to “engage Chicagoans in discussions about the role of women in solving global health, international development, and socioeconomic challenges facing the world today.”
The day started early, with a keynote speaker panel and a beautifully presented breakfast of fresh fruit and berry yogurt. The ballroom was decked out in four chandeliers; he sound of real silverware knocking against fine china mixed with heels knocking on the hardwood floor to nearly drown out the keynote speaker on “Women’s Health: Rewriting the Goals.”
Throughout the day, big hitters in their respective fields occupied the stage and shared their views of problems affecting women and children throughout the world. Breakout panel topics ranged from “Global Mental Health” to “Smart Economics: Women’s Reproductive Health.”
The day came to a close with an insightful panel of speakers discussing “Health and Safety for Women in the Workplace.” On that panel was Susan Davis, president and CEO of BRAC USA. According to the economist, BRAC is the largest non-governmental development organization in the world and was started in Bangladesh.
Davis began by describing the disaster of Rana Plaza, the eight-story building that collapsed in 2013 in Bangladesh. “Rana Plaza was Bangladesh’s 9/11,” Davis said. “Need I say more?”
She went on to talk about how women and children are specifically affected by deficiencies in work place safety. She tied it in with globalization and the Western demand for cheap labor, stating, “We need to shine sunlight on the chain between our well-being and the health of garment workers abroad.”
Toward the back of the room, the 10-person round tables were filled with college and high school students from across Illinois.
Emily Aba, 16, is a student at Josephinum Academy, a private, all-girls high school in Chicago. Aba was born in Guatemala but raised in the United States. She said the Chicago Council event helped her to learn about where she came from.
“It’s about what is happening around the world. I don’t get exposed to things like that much at school or on TV,” she said. “Its awesome to get to learn about the things that matter to me.”
This was one of about 250 programs put on each year by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Aba was one of nearly 500 high school students who attended those programs. The Council’s mission is to bring the global issues of the day back to Chicago, and in doing so advance the standing of Chicago as a global city.
The idea of a global city is relatively new, having emerged at the end of the Cold War. The term was coined by sociologist Saskia Sassen in her 1991 book, “The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.”
She described the global city as the response to the downfall of industrialization and the rise of business and financial services in the face of globalization.
“Everyone is talking about globalization. Everyone is talking about cities. But no one is talking about global cities,” said Richard Longworth, the Chicago Council’s distinguished fellow on global cities. “The Midwest still struggles to see itself as global. To see its global ties.”
This is where he sees The Chicago Council finding its niche in the public discourse of Chicago.
“We are expanding our role here in Chicago, trying to give a view of how globalization is affecting Chicago and how Chicago is affecting the rest of the world,” Longworth said.
Longworth asserts that the three features that make Chicago a global city are its economy, higher education institutions and tourism.
Longworth said the historical agriculture and manufacturing industries of the Midwest are not dying, as many critics would have you believe.
He points out the window of the 11th story conference room at the Chicago Council high above Michigan Avenue toward Whiting, Indiana. “They make more steel down there than they ever did,” Longworth asserts “But they are doing it with one-tenth of the workers,” adding that the same goes for agriculture.
“So industry and agriculture are still great big industries, but they’re not sources of mass employment anymore, the way they used to be. So we have to think of something else,” Longworth said.
When it comes to education, “Chicago has very, very strong universities. If you look at the United States, there would be very few cities that would have the [same] strength of world-class research and teaching institutions,” said Henry S. Bienen, who sits on the board of directors for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and is president emeritus of Northwestern University.
Tourism is an area where Longworth sees potential for growth. “We don’t get anywhere near the international tourism that we ought to compared to other cities,” he said.
“If you talk to people around the world and say, ‘Have you ever been to the United States?’ the say: ‘Been to San Francisco. Been to New York. Been to Disney World three times.’”
“We have done a very bad job of advertising up until now,” he said.
Today, these are the areas that The Chicago Council on Global Affairs focuses on.
Midwestern focus on international affairs is nearly a century old. In the shadow of World War I amid a political culture of extreme isolationism in the United States, The Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs was established on Feb. 22, 1922. Later the name was changed to The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
According to the Chicago Council, the founders were made up of 23 concerned Chicagoans who were united by a common interest in international affairs and a concern over ‘ignorance and half-considered proposals’ on the subject.
They believed correctly that the war had ushered in an era when foreign affairs would take a greater than ever role in Americans’ lives. Through the early decades of the 1900s, the organization went through many shifts but always stayed grounded in and focused on serving its Chicago base.
Longworth says the modern incarnation of the organization began with a change in leadership.
“Marshall Bouton took the reins of the organization in 2001. He came in with orders to shake things up,” Longworth said, referring to discussions during the search process.
Following 9/11, the CCGA shifted from being very Europe-centered to a broader global emphasis. It also shifted from a focus on high-stakes issues such as nuclear proliferation to more economic issues such as trade and transportation. The shift toward globalism was a part of the organization’s a renewed emphasis on public education.
“These are issues of big importance to the Midwest,” Longworth said. “Additionally [the Council] did a lot on immigration and Chicago’s immigrant community.”
Longworth explained that Bouton latched onto the idea of embracing Chicago as global city, an idea that was new to the Council.
It led to many focus groups and realizations that Chicago needed a united voice on a foreign policy front.
“There are big issues of American policy that affect us,” Bouton said. “And when those policies are made, Chicago’s voice ought to be heard. And we are Chicago’s voice in this area.” Some of these policies have included international food security and immigration in the Midwest.
That voice has become more prominent as the organization began to expand both in size and influence. Much of that influence came from a renewed emphasis on publishing reports and advisory papers.
The Chicago Council conducts and publishes surveys on American public opinion every two years. “Our survey is the most comprehensive, in-depth, regular assessment of how Americans are thinking about the world and the U.S. role in the world,” Bouton said.
According to the 2014 survey, “Six in ten Americans are in favor of an active [U.S.] role in world affairs. At the same time, four in ten Americans now say the US should stay out of world affairs—a proportion that has grown to its highest point since the first Chicago Council Survey in 1974.”
Under Bouton the organization worked to create numerous fellowships, helping to establish itself as an authority and go-to resource for foreign affairs in the Midwest.
Bouton left the organization in 2013 and was succeeded as president by Ivo Daalder, then U.S. ambassador to NATO.
Daalder continued to promote the idea of Chicago as global city. Longworth said Daalder even went as far as to question of whether Chicago should have its own foreign policy.
“Being a global city is really crucial economically,” Bienen said. “The Chicago Council is helping project the city on an international stage.”
This is where organizations like World Business Chicago come in. It is a public-private partnership, chaired by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, that works to drive economic growth in the city.
“We lead the city’s and the mayor’s economic plan, a plan for economic growth and jobs,” said Jeff Malehorn, president and CEO of World Business Chicago. “We work to attract businesses to the region, to help them expand and grow. We promote Chicago as a great global business city.”
Most recently World Business Chicago has worked with the City of Chicago to bring Livingston International, a Canadian trade company, and Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties Co., Ltd., a Chinese property management company, to Chicago.
The two organizations often collaborate to promote Chicago on the global playing field. From hosting foreign delegations to partnering for the upcoming global cities conference, Malehorn said, “the Council is a terrific partner.”
The Chicago Forum on Global Cities will be held May 27-29 and will bring together global leaders from cities like London, Tokyo, Dubai and Shanghai for a multidisciplinary discussion on collaboration and strengthening the future of global cities.
“The Chicago Forum will initiate a new conversation around the potential of global cities to shape the international agenda on commerce, education, civics and arts and culture,” Daalder said in a statement released by the Council.
A unique audience
The people who engage with The Chicago Council on Global affairs make up a niche demographic.
“Our participants are engaged with foreign policy. This expressly separates them from the majority of Chicagoans,” Bienen said. “The average citizen in Chicago is not that foreign policy conversant.”
Like the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. and the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, the Chicago Council’s prime membership audience “is not the man in the street,” Bienen said.
“The New York Council on Foreign relations is an organization which is frankly very hard to get into,” Bienen said. Meanwhile the Brookings Institute does not offer membership services the way the other two do. Instead it is more of a pure think tank.
Membership with the Chicago Council is not only open to the public, but the organization actively seeks out young people to participate in its programing. With 8,000 members, of which over 2,000 are young professional, the Chicago Council is by far the post democratic and populist of the three think tanks.
The young women who enjoyed Niçoise salad in the ballroom of the Standard Club at the recent event on women’s global health reflected the Council’s successful marrying of policy issues with public access to its programming and gatekeeping of Chicago as a global city.
Alexandra Rea, 27, who attended with fellow students from Chicago’s Adler School of Professional Psychology, reflected on the value of her day at the symposium.
“Being able to talk about problems in a global context – it’s empowering,” she said.