As steadfast proponents of giving our children a more global outlook, we at CultureBaby have long admired the work of World Savvy, a non-profit organization championing the importance of internationalizing K-12 education in the United States. Much of the organization's drive and success have been thanks to Co-Founder and Executive Director, Dana Mortenson.
A heavy hitter in the world of international education, we were thrilled when Dana agreed to answer some questions for us from Minneapolis, Minnesota, one of her organization's three US-based offices, especially in view of all the big events coming up on her calendar. If you are Minneapolis, San Francisco, or New York City...be sure to join the World Savvy team and other believers at one of their gala events this Spring and Summer.
We were eager to hear more about why World Savvy views global competency in America's students as an integral part of a 21st century education. We also wanted to know all about how she plans to "walk the walk" with the newest addition to her own family, baby Aggie.
You founded World Savvy to encourage global citizenship and competency in K-12 education. How did this mission become important to you?
Though I did not grow up in a culturally diverse town, I always had a passion for international issues. My dad had lived and worked in Africa as a sociologist, so I picked up on a lot of conversations about global politics, events and issues growing up. I decided to study international relations in college, and at the time assumed I’d end up working in foreign policy. I think I wanted to be the next Secretary of State or President! But it wasn’t until I went to graduate school in New York City that my interests turned toward global competency in K-12 education.
As soon as I began classes, I befriended Madiha, a Bangladeshi Muslim who had lived all over the Middle East, attended high school in Singapore and came to the US for college. We became very close friends, and one of the things that impressed me most about Madiha was her effortlessly global worldview. She was able to make connections between past and present, history, culture and politics in a way I’d never seen before—a product of her lived experience and education.
We began talking a lot about how our respective backgrounds encouraged (or challenged) the idea of growing up with a global mindset. When 9/11 happened at the start of our second year in school, it was a turning point for us both. In the wake of that terrible tragedy, we saw (and Madiha experienced) the xenophobic backlash bred from fear, and terrible treatment of foreigners as Americans – New Yorkers- struggled to cope and make sense of the horrific event.
It was the first time I really experienced that alongside someone I loved. Madiha and I started talking a lot about what would need to happen to ensure that the next generation was prepared for what the global society the 21st century would bring –increased diversity in our own communities, a more interconnected global economy and society, challenges that required global cooperation.
Education for us both was the great leveler—an opportunity to ensure young people could cultivate an open, informed, well rounded worldview. Our schools were a long way off. So we set to work researching what did exist within the K-12 system, and came to World Savvy as the solution to a problem—the real absence of mainstreamed, quality global education. By the end of our second year in grad school, we were an incorporated 501c3, heading for California to begin our work.
You recently became a mother! Tell us about your daughter and how you balance your work with parenting?
I thought (and read) so much about this, and I can’t say that I have figured it out. We get hung up on a notion of ‘having it all’ and this clouds our ability to think clearly about what our own definition of ‘it all’ is; I also think women are the hardest on women, particularly around motherhood, and working vs. stay at home.
For me, working full-time in an all-consuming role has been difficult to balance with parenting, and it’s a work in progress. My goal – and this is a hard thing I think for anyone to do — is to be present. When life is moving fast, the temptation to focus on what happened in the past, or plan for the future can consume you. For me, I am trying to be in the moment, so that I can really absorb and enjoy this time with my daughter and still be fulfilled in my work.
I love my job, and for me, I know the choice to work and be engaged in that way makes me a better person and ultimately parent; but this may not be true for others. As a co-founder, my work is literally an expression of who I am, and I feel very fortunate to be in that situation. At the same time, it can take over everything, and so I’ve worked to be sure my daughter is the priority. When I come home at night, I leave my phone at the door now until my daughter is asleep, so I resist the temptation to answer email and calls. I get up early in the morning with her so I have an hour and a half before I have to go to work, to play and be with her when she is happiest (she’s a morning girl!).
And since I travel very often, I am starting (this week!) to take her along to the cities where I have a network of friends and family who can help out while I have meetings. Work-love-play balance (I prefer this to work-life) is something I work at every day, and something that is aspirational. I have enormous empathy for everyone is trying to figure that out, as it is a really difficult thing to achieve!
How do you put (or plan to put) your firm belief in the importance of a global education into operation with your children?
With Aggie, we’ve tried to travel with her a lot (she’s been to 9 states and she’s 9 months old) and expose her to new things as often as possible. We don’t live in a very ethnically and culturally diverse neighborhood, but Minneapolis- St Paul is a very diverse metropolitan area. So the kinds of neighborhoods, places and people we’re engaging with are shaping her own experience and worldview even now, and we’re mindful of that.
There are also so many wonderful schools here –immersion programs in a variety of languages, schools with a global mission, Montessori schools – that engage the whole child and offer ways to introduce them to a diversity of cultures and experiences. And then in small ways, we are trying not to ‘over parent’; global competency is also the ability to be comfortable with change, think independently, problem solve. There are ways to cultivate that even for very small children—letting her work through things, letting her be frustrated and learn to cope, letting her play by herself without constant stimulation and attention.
Any tips for other new moms who are trying to keep their baby's future as a global citizen in mind?
I think so much of the environment you create for your children is a reflection and result of your own mindset as parents, so that is a good place to start. As parents, if you can be open to new experiences, new places and people, this is something your children will pick up on and learn. Even beginning with something as basic as food and your child’s appetite has an impact; if you are trying new foods, encourage a broad range of options.
On a very basic level, how you as parents interact with people from different backgrounds, and how open you are to new ideas and people –all of these things shape your child’s worldview from an early age. So it’s the best place to start—to emulate the kind of behaviors and dispositions you’d like your children to learn. You don’t have to take them to Africa by age 3 — it is simply ensuring that even in your day to day, you are open to new people, experiences and places that make your kids comfortable with doing the same.
You live in Minneapolis...do you have many options to expose your family to global diversity there? Any favorites you can point out to our Minneapolis readers?
The Twin Cities are rich with opportunities to engage young children in global learning. It is full of amazing artistic experiences –museums, festivals—that you can bring your children to from a young age. There are places like the Midtown Global Market on Lake Street that are full of shops, sights, sounds and smells from a variety of cultures, and it’s an easy place to bring kids. There are amazing opportunities for music and theater education, which are mind expanding for children and teach them to embrace creativity and self-expression. You don’t have to go far in Minneapolis and Saint Paul to find something global to experience!