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Inside Track: World Affairs Council opens global window in West Michigan
Dixie Anderson has hosted dignitaries, bestselling authors and presidents from around the world.
Dixie Anderson strolled past the security detail assigned to protect then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and his wife for a meet-and-greet and afternoon tea at the Amway Grand Plaza
What do you talk about with a retired four-star general and Pakistani politician who seized power through a military coup d’etat in 1999?
This being Grand Rapids, the weather initially took center stage. After that, Anderson decided to wing it. “Do you golf?” she asked.
“He just lit right up and mentioned he was on his way to Pebble Beach,” said Anderson. “Who would think he, from the Middle East, and me, from the Midwest, would talk about a game where you bat a little white ball around?”
Anderson, as executive director of the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan since 1995, has hosted dignitaries, bestselling authors and presidents from around the world to bring a first-person understanding of critical international affairs and hot-button global issues to the community.
Her organization has more than 1,500 members, including both individuals and corporations such as Amway Corp., Steelcase Inc. and Autocam.
The local World Affairs Council is associated with the non-partisan, non-advocacy World Affairs Councils of America, a 90-council system dedicated to engaging Americans in international concerns through civil discourse Anderson believes is critical to maintaining a healthy democracy.
To achieve that objective, a committee selects and then invites speakers from various worldview persuasions to give their insights for council programs that include the Debriefing Series and Great Decisions Series. WACWM hosts a yearly average of 40 events. Topics have included global environmental issues, understanding Muslim societies, the Arab Spring and women’s global health.
With an annual budget of $350,000, Anderson credits the quality of the security training the Grand Rapids Police Department receives as one of the reasons the WACWM has been able to draw high-profile speakers. She said the GRPD’s high level of training is because of the notables who are invited to speak at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.
“We couldn’t get the level of speakers if we didn’t have them,” Anderson said of the GRPD. “I’d put them against all security forces. Because we have a presidential museum, we bring the world’s leaders here.”
That doesn’t mean a speaker won’t encounter an occasional heckler or protestor brandishing a placard, but the majority of WACWM’s audience come to expand their intellectual horizons.
“We provide every speaker a respectful audience,” said Anderson. “We do an extensive Q and A that’s between 20 to 30 minutes. We’re uniquely democratic. We accept civilized discourse about the issues. We expect all sides of the issue to come out.
“In the process, we learn to compromise because there are lots of sides to the issue. In order to make things work, you have to compromise. It’s one of the tenets in a democracy.”
Hired for her marketing and management experience, Anderson said she was one of the first women to graduate from the Seidman College of Business MBA program at Grand Valley State University, in 1978.
After earning her MBA, she worked in various manufacturing and marketing positions, first in Cleveland from 1978-1981 for Munson Packaging, a division of Rospatch Corp. in Grand Rapids. She returned to Grand Rapids to work at H&H Plastics as customer service manager and then product manager from 1981-85. When she was laid off from that job, she went to work as a freelance copywriter for the now defunct Johnson and Dean.
From 1993-2004, she was a silent partner of Pyper Products in Battle Creek along with her former husband. She continued to work as a marketing consultant until she hired on at WACWM in 1995.
While at the WACWM helm, Anderson hosted President George W. Bush, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former president of Mexico Vicente Fox, Gen. David Petraeus, Musharraf (his first talk in the U.S. after leaving office), former president of Poland Lech Walesa, and New York Times columnist and author Tom Friedman.
As expected, Anderson has a lot of recollections about the various speakers and events:
• Tutu: March 2003 marked the largest event nationwide for the World Affairs Council system by drawing more than 5,000 people to hear Tutu. “They always say Mother Teresa had an aura around her,” said Anderson. “You can almost feel the goodness and radiance around (Tutu).”
• Richard Leakey, Kenyan politician, paleoanthropologist and conservationist: “One of the great minds of the 20th century.”
• Friedman: A U.S. veteran said he was a big fan of Friedman’s books but could not afford to attend the $200 per person annual dinner at DeVos Place. The cost of his dinner was covered and he arrived via a Go! Bus in a wheelchair. Anderson made it possible for him to meet Friedman, who knelt down and talked with the vet face-to-face for about 10 minutes.
“It’s intellectually stimulating,” said Anderson. “I meet interesting people and hear wonderful stories because of the people brought in. I feel we’re making an impact in the community. When I leave the office at night, I feel we did something to help residents and make this a better place for conflict resolution.”
Recent history, many would agree, bears out Anderson’s conclusion.
“War is the last solution to look at,” she said. “How much better to talk things over — to understand the other side.”
Anderson was born in Grand Rapids, but she carries a connection to her Southern heritage.
“My mother wanted to name me Nancy, and my dad said no,” said Anderson. “My dad did not like Nancy. Dixie is just a connection with the South. My dad’s side is from Lexington, Ky.”
Anderson has traveled the world, sometimes in an official capacity and other times for her own enjoyment. She’s scheduled to go China in the fall on what the council calls a leadership mission.
“They’re high-level visits with senior-ranking government officials and usually some senior-level business people,” said Anderson. “We’re considered a diplomatic mission. It’s a very spoiled way of going overseas.”
Anderson’s excursions include Japan, Great Britain, Bulgaria and France for pleasure and professional motives. She’s presided over a discussion on water and sustainability in Saudi Arabia with the Saudi minister of water, and was one of only 100 Americans to observe a presidential election in Taiwan in 2004.
At one point, while on a cruise, she and a traveling companion decided to take in the sights in Croatia, which included purchasing a bottle of red wine that Anderson put on her credit card. In Croatian currency, it came to around $400. When she returned home, she was relieved to discover the exchange rate brought it to about $30 or $40.
She has no plans of slowing down any time soon.
“Jackie Kennedy said, ‘I’ve had an interesting life,’” said Anderson. “I, too, through the World Affairs Council, have had an interesting life. There’s always something to read, always a willingness to learn.
“Boredom is an insult to one’s self.”