Welcoming the World to Miami

Global Ties Miami is a little-known Ambassador for Foreign Nationals


It might be safe to say that the gap between popular past images of Miami and the political and economic realities of the city today is closing. “We’re more than our [traditional] image in the media. Miami now, being the amazing global city that it is, has transformed,” says Dr. Athena Passera, President and CEO of Global Ties Miami.

Global Ties Miami, an affiliate of the Global Ties U.S. network, is a non-profit long dedicated to closing that gap by promoting citizen diplomacy and connecting international visitors with the people of Miami. The organization implements the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), which brings delegations from around the world to engage on different topics the State Department is prioritizing. “The subject areas and the visitors that come through this program very much align with U.S. foreign policy objectives. It’s very specific and deliberate,” says Dr. Passera, who was born in Florida but spent most of her life in Trinidad, Barbados, and Canada as the daughter of a Trinidadian Ambassador. 

Dr. Athena Passera, President and CEO of Global Ties Miami

For some visitors, the State Department wants introductions to federal entities like SouthCom or the Coast Guard, which Global Ties arranges. If the topic is combating climate change, Global Ties will set up meetings with entrepreneurs or university professors who have created innovative solutions for visitors seeking impactful takeaways. “A lot of Miami’s transformation has to do with subject areas [of current interest], and whether Miami has the right resources for it,” says Dr. Passera. “The difference from decades ago till now is that Miami can do anything now. There really aren’t many subject areas that Miami can’t set up quality experiences for.”

The IVLP has been around for 80 years, with over 100 organizations throughout the U.S. and 20 countries to help coordinate the programs. The Miami chapter, serving the entire Miami Customs District, was introduced to the city 64 years ago when a group of volunteers wanted a way of introducing international students studying in Miami to the local community, believing that face-to-face interactions would contribute to building a more interconnected world. Since then, Global Ties has hosted over 12,000 international visitors, with delegations coming two to three times a month – everything from African entrepreneurs to engineers and environmentalists from Latin America to bankers and financiers from Turkmenistan and Guinea-Bissau. The State Department provides Global Ties with 50 percent of their operational funding; the rest comes from fundraising.  

Map of Global Ties’ visitor home countries


When a diplomat from Vanuatu participated, Dr. Passera says the diplomat was pleasantly surprised to learn that Americans cared about rising sea levels. “She had never been to the U.S. before and works specifically on sea levels rising and the fact that they [in the South Pacific] are on the verge of disappearing.” In previous meetings overseas, “she ended up having a very negative view of Americans.” However, after visiting Miami through the IVLP, her perspective changed. “We had her meet with some local nonprofit organizations that were working on climate change and rising sea levels. She was shocked because she was convinced that Americans did not care about this issue,” says Dr. Passera. Since then, the diplomat – with her newfound knowledge and perspective – said negotiating with Americans has gone much smoother.

This is not a unique scenario. Nine out of ten IVLP alumni say they can understand and communicate more accurately about the U.S. after coming to Miami thus promoting international commerce in Miami. The South Florida community benefits from these global exchanges. For example, a group combating wildlife trafficking was touring the Everglades with a visitor from Namibia who explained how they monitor animals in the wild – by using AI and global tracking devices – thus inspiring the South Florida locals to implement similar systems.

“That happens often, when we get that moment of realizing that this is not a one-way communication,” says Dr Passera. “We’re learning a lot from the problems of others and the innovative ways they’re figuring out how to handle similar challenges.” Alex Moreno, Clinical Program Manager at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, agrees. “It’s always good to meet with professionals I’d probably never get to meet without this program,” he says.

Depending on the topic, Global Ties will facilitate exchanges between international visitors and city commissioners, local nonprofits, South Florida universities, and people in the private sector. “We want to make sure that the international visitors see how an issue is managed at all different levels,” explains Dr. Passera. “I’d like folks to see us as a way for them to turn their frustrations with what’s happening around the world into action. Every single person can come and meet with our visitors and tell their Miami story – and allow folks to know that you do have a place for building bridges in South Florida. “

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