The embodiment of a global mindset

Carina Van Vliet – CEO, Cleveland Council on World Affairs–Cleveland, OH

Feature | 23 August 2021
Growing up bi-culturally as a French-American sparked Carina’s dream to work in diplomacy. Her studies in political science and international relations led her to work at the United Nations and other organizations focused on economic and social development issues. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“How do you get people in Cleveland interested in the rest of the world? You bring these amazing individuals, selected by the US State Department, and have them interact with professional peers” states Carina with great passion.

The Cleveland Council on World Affairs (CCWA) aims to engage people in international affairs and cultural exchanges via education, citizen diplomacy and dialogue. Carina Van Vliet, a former UN official, is the organization’s CEO and has been leading the organization for four years.

“The Cleveland Council on World Affairs aims to inspire people in Cleveland to care about the rest of the world, and to want to engage with it. It also has a lovely history,” Carina says as she proudly introduces her work at the Council.

“CCWA started in 1923 as an association of women’s peace activist groups who after World War I were concerned that history would repeat itself. So they wanted to make sure that Americans were informed about what was going on in the world and would be able to make informed democratic decisions as citizens.”

Although the organization was started almost 100 years ago, it was formally incorporated in 1943, two years shy of the founding of the United Nations. With its rich history and roots in peace issues, the CCWA has been an active participant in engaging and educating youth in international affairs, providing them with opportunities to develop their skills and expose them to real life scenarios.

“In the late 1940’s we were already doing Model UN, so that means we have been involved in the programs for over 70 years,” Carina highlights. “We involve about 2,000 students every year from about 57 area schools, and it’s a great way for students to learn about a global issue of significance such as human rights, environmental or gender issues. They get to practice their negotiation, communication, and team building skills,” states Carina.

“In order to promote globally educated citizens in our work, there is a huge emphasis on students and service. We have programs that reach out to professionals and teachers, and we do a lot of work with educators. Additionally we promote exchange programs and bring individuals selected by the State Department to Cleveland, to interact with their professional peers and that is always a very rich personal experience.”
Carina credits her dynamic team for being a huge motivator in her work. The team’s passion for global development issues and creating greater awareness has enhanced the effectiveness of their efforts. ILO Photos/ John Isaac

The promotion of a global education and exchange programs is of particular personal interest and relevance to Van Vliet who herself has had the benefit of global exposure in her upbringing, academic study and work experiences.

Born and raised in France to American parents, Carina studied Political Science as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College and went on to receive her master’s degrees in International Relations from both Science Po in Paris and Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C.

“Growing up bicultural, I very quickly had this sense that I can serve as the bridge between French and American culture, and as a teenager, I got this notion that being a diplomat would be really cool,” Carina recalls.

Prior to assuming her role at CCWA, Carina held various roles with an international focus including teaching international economics in China for a year after graduate school. “I had been learning Chinese and I was fascinated by China, so I went and taught there for a year, and then took on a job at the French-American Foundation in New York.” Three years later Carina joined the UN in New York as a Political Affairs Officer where she served for eight years before moving to Cleveland.

Critical skills such as accountability, respect for diversity, a deep knowledge of development issues and professionalism have been key to Carina’s successful work at the Cleveland Council. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Van Vliet acknowledges that her biggest motivator to perform her role effectively is her team. “I work with an incredibly motivated group of individuals who are dedicated to their work. They truly care about getting other people in Cleveland to be as interested in the world as they are,” she stresses, a task that is not as easy in the Midwest where domestic issues and local industries take precedence.

“You come to the Midwest, and you realize that people have completely different priorities. It is not that they don't care about international issues, it's just so far down the list of things that they’re concerned about,” Carina says.

“So we try to get people engaged in conversations on various global issues, and my team is always so determined in their efforts because to them it's important, as they themselves have been transformed by some form of international experience.”

In addition to having a strong team to work with Carina believes that the skills she accrued from all her prior roles have allowed her to work successfully as a leader and a team player.

“I bring skills such as professionalism, respect for diversity, and accountability. I approach my role from the perspective of ‘How did I want to be managed when I was managed by other people, and what’s the best version of that, that I could give to those I am currently managing?’ ” she says.

For Carina, as challenging as it is to promote “global issues and international engagement” and put it on the list of priorities for many of the people in Cleveland, she sees it as a good challenge for her given her commitment to these critical issues.

“It poses a really good challenge, and it motivates me to want to do something about it. This is who I am. I am a bicultural, global multilateralist human being,” Van Vliet says with great pride.