March 7, 2004

Putting a Number on Global Interdependence

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- Jerry Hrabe starts his high school geography class at Lourdes every year by giving three tests -- the T-shirt test, the newspaper test and the company test.

For the T-shirt test, students must examine every T-shirt in their homes and note down the countries where they were made. Then, moving through each room in the house, they're assigned to turn over every serving dish, peek behind every computer, and take notes on every pillow and stuffed toy and other object made in a foreign country and tally the results.

The newspaper test does the same thing with the day's paper -- students make a note of every foreign influence in every local story. A John Marshall basketball star from Sudan? That counts. An article noting that Thailand, like southern Minnesota, is struggling with a methamphetamine epidemic? You bet. Job outsourcing, Asian bird flu, SARS, WMDs, deployments to Iraq? Check, check, check, check, check.

The company test is the most demanding. Students go to local companies (Mayo Clinic and IBM not allowed) and interview the owners, asking them for total foreign sales, component parts they buy from abroad, specialized positions they've hired from abroad, and low-wage jobs they've sent abroad.

Late to Work

The final result of all three tests combined? The creation of a kind of Global Interdependence Index (my phrase) for Rochester -- a rough measure of just how interconnected our town is to the rest of the world, and just how dependent it is economically, culturally, and for physical security.

"If you took away foreign products and personal connections, many Rochester companies would simply fold," Hrabe said. "It's not just the foreign restaurants and grocery stores, either. The big grocery stores, the Hy-Vees, would have to close, too. So would several local technology companies working in computer parts and fiber optics."

Not to mention that without our foreign-made clothing we'd be mighty cold in the winter. And if every "Made in China" item magically disappeared we'd be late to work (no alarm clock), unhygienic (no toothbrush), grumpy (no electric coffee grinder), and out of touch (no telephone).

"I try to teach a philosophy of life," said Hrabe, whose schoolroom is hung with art and crafts and maps of the world. "We need to get past the American arrogance that we are the most important people in the world. We have a lot to learn from other countries and other people."

A native of Rochester, and a graduate of Lourdes, in his early 20s Hrabe had never traveled farther than to his father's home in Pukwana, S.D., a dot on the map where I-90 crosses the Missouri River.

Peace Corps

He signed up for two years in the Peace Corps, which he spent in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malaysia's Sabah province, next to Borneo.

"I lived with them, sat down with them for two years, ate their food," he recalls. "I played ball with them. I became enmeshed in their lives, which is a totally different thing from being a tourist for a week or two. I learned that 'they' aren't any different from 'us.' Internally, there's no difference. It made me much more tolerant at an early age of people of other ethnicities."

The Peace Corps years set his course for life. Back in Minnesota he attended graduate school in history and in 1969 joined the Lourdes staff, where he's taught geography and history ever since.

In recent years, he and a colleague have organized annual trips abroad for students and parents -- jam-packed 10-day teaching tours through China, Spain, Europe, and Greece.

This year, Hrabe's class is raising money to help farmers in developing nations buy livestock such as chickens ($20 each), goats ($50), sheep ($150), and heifers ($500).

The idea is that livestock provide a regular source of food, relieving hunger while affecting the environment minimally.

A High Bar

Hrabe encourages students to get involved in the Channel One Food Bank and Community Food Response, two welfare services in Rochester. He directs them to a Web site where, thanks to a roster of commercial sponsors, one click of the mouse pays for a cup of staple food added to giant aid deliveries sent to more than 25 developing countries.

"I tell my students 'You don't have to spend money. You can spend time. You can volunteer. You can write your congressman.' I'm trying to impart that even as students they have some responsibility, and also some wherewithal, to do something to improve the world."

That's a high bar for us all, and a good final test.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report