Citizen Diplomacy Spotlight: Sister Cities International

As part of an ongoing series, Matt Clark, from the Center for Citizen Diplomacy at PYXERA Global, is interviewing leaders of organizations that belong to the Citizen Diplomacy Network. The Center provides a cohesive voice for the citizen diplomacy effort and serves as a hub of best practices, recognition, and visibility, equipping organizations with tools and resources to enhance their impact and broaden their reach. The diverse work of these organizations encompasses international exchange, education, culture, and service, but they are all united in a shared vision of citizen diplomacy: advancing purposeful global engagement at a person-to-person level. 

Sister Cities International serves as a hub for institutional knowledge and best practices in the field of citizen diplomacy. As a membership association, the organization continues to strengthen the sister cities network through strategic institutional partnerships, grants, programs, and support for its members. Sister Cities International motivates and assists private citizens, municipal officials, and business leaders to conduct long-term, mutually beneficial sister city, county, or state relationships. Mary Kane is President and CEO of Sister Cities International, where she leads membership, youth and education, development, and advocacy programs to strengthen the sister city network around the world.

CLARK: Beyond your mission and vision statements, what overarching beliefs drive your organization? If we asked your team members what gets them out of bed in the morning and into the office, what would they tell us?

KANE: Sister Cities International is driven by a network of tens of thousands of citizen diplomats and volunteers who work tirelessly to promote peace and understanding through exchanges focused on arts and culture, youth and education, economic development, municipal and technical expertise, and humanitarian assistance. They would tell you that the experience of making friends across the globe, sharing their cultures, and learning about other communities is life changing. They would say that when you think of another country you shouldn’t just think about its government or policies, but about the average citizens that live there, and what their lives are like. Our employees are motivated by these dedicated volunteers who have committed their personal time and resources to bring their communities to the world, and to bring the world to their communities, often under difficult conditions.

CLARK: What’s one lesson you’ve learned that has helped shape the successes and accomplishments of your organization in living its mission and moving the needle on the challenges you seek to address?

KANE: Sister Cities International seeks to improve the way in which citizen diplomacy is used as a tool for promoting peace and prosperity. One of our biggest challenges is how to properly serve a network that includes over 570 U.S. communities with over 2,300 partnerships in 150 countries doing exchanges in a broad range of fields. One important lesson we’ve learned is that big programs start small, and one person can make a huge difference. Some of our most successful partnerships that are doing exchanges in many areas and are working with dozens if not hundreds of volunteers, start with just one or two people who are dedicated to establishing a sister city, and may begin with just one or two small exchanges. It’s really a testament to how personal relationships and mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation are the foundation to any successful international initiative.

CLARK: How are the dynamics changing in the space where you work, and how do those evolving realities demand innovative approaches? In other words, how do external factors necessarily impact the way you operate today vs. five or 10 years ago?

KANE: As with many organizations, the digital age is affecting the ways in which citizen diplomats are able to engage with one another. With constant innovations in technology, people are able to connect farther away and more easily. Although not a replacement for in-person experiences, sister city participants are able to connect more frequently, and cheaply, with their counterparts using technology and social media. We’ve seen sister city signings officiated via Skype, pen pals change from communicating via snail mail to Snapchat, university-level sister school courses operated in tandem with one another through various online platforms, and more. We’re able to use changes in technology as a tool to enhance sister city exchanges and the ways in which citizen diplomats communicate across the globe.

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CLARK: What is one story of success and why do you count it as such?

KANE: Sister Cities International is fueled by our members’ stories. One of my favorite success stories is about our most famous alumni, Chinese President Xi Jinping. In 1985, Xi Jinping stayed with a host family while on an agricultural exchange to his sister city, Muscatine, Iowa. This experience left such an impression on him that he visited his host family as he was preparing to become the leader of China in 2012. Then-Vice President Xi said that when he thinks of America, he thinks of his host family.

During his visit to the United States in 2015, President Xi made sure his first visit was to Tacoma, Washington, where he personally witnessed the establishment of Tacoma’s sister city relationship with Fuzhou 21 years ago. As a result of these two visits, Chinese interest in Iowa and Washington grew resulting in the opening of a Muscatine Cultural Center in Jinan and over 30 delegations from Fuzhou have visited Tacoma to engage in educational, cultural, and business exchanges.

CLARK: How does citizen diplomacy – people-to-people interactions across cultures – shape the world we live in?

KANE: Citizen diplomacy shapes day-to-day life both in the United States and internationally. Any time individuals cross cultures to connect, people-to-people interactions help shape the way in which individuals view both that particular country as well as the broader world. When someone mentions a country and you think of a friend or acquaintance you know there, and not just the government or what you’ve read, that’s citizen diplomacy at work. It means that when we talk about international events or incidents, we think about how it affects the people we know who live there. People talk about international affairs as a game where governments are the players and citizens are the pieces—we think that citizen diplomacy rightfully turns this on its head.

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CLARK: What is an example of citizen diplomacy in action that your organization has helped to facilitate?

KANE: As part of 2015 Global Diaspora Week, Sister Cities International hosted a Digital Diaspora +SocialGood Google Hangout to highlight the leading cities whose sister city relationships formed or have been strengthened through the citizen diplomacy efforts of local diaspora. One notable reason that many sister city partnerships are developed is because the local diaspora population takes an avid interest in connecting their new home with their old home. The role these local diaspora populations play in bringing a better understanding of their home culture abroad to their new homes creates a much better understanding overall between the two communities.

One panelist named Qais Ahmad represented sister cities San Diego, California, and Jalalabad, Afghanistan. What began as constructing a school and creating a computer lab for Nangarhar University (NU) resulted in a number of new programs, eventually leading to San Diego and Jalalabad’s establishment of a sister city relationship in 2004.

Afghan Youth Connect (AYC) is an innovative program connecting thousands of Afghan students to the outside world. AYC has grown to operate computer labs at 18 public high schools in Jalalabad. Additionally, a central facility at NU hosts two schools involved with AYC. These 19 sites cover all public high schools in Jalalabad (boys and girls). In addition to receiving IT and ELS training, the Afghan students connect with students in San Diego through Skype and Facebook. Since its inception, AYC has directly engaged 11,523 Afghan students (6,255 boys and 5,268 girls) and an additional 9,030 observers – 20,553 individuals total. Currently 6,500 Afghan students participate directly, or indirectly as observers.

During the panel, Ahmad stated “The Taliban regime brought so much darkness to Afghanistan. My father used to tell me that the country and culture did not used to be this way before they were in power… AYC was like opening a window for us to see what the outside world was really like. It allowed us to see outside the darkness and out into the brightness of the world.”

CLARK: What milestones of impact do you see coming in the year ahead? What is your future vision?

KANE: As 2016 marks Sister Cities International’s 60th year, we’re commemorating this milestone by honoring our past and embracing a future where President Eisenhower’s original vision of fostering world peace through global people-to-people relationships is a central tenet of international affairs. Our 60th Anniversary Celebration will include an Annual Conference, Youth Leadership Summit, and several events and receptions in Washington, DC, July 13-16, 2016. Over these 60 years the sister cities network has consistently been a trailblazer in developing long-term international partnerships, whether it was Germany and Japan in the ‘60s, China in the ‘70s, the Soviet Union and Cuba in the ‘80s, or countries like Burma and Somalia today.

We envision a future where cities and towns of all sizes recognize international relations as a necessary part of everyday life, and where citizens recognize that formally or informally they are diplomats representing their respective communities.

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