In 1956, US President Eisenhower hosted the first People-to-People conference, aiming to foster peace by building bonds between communities across the world. Sister Cities International (SCI), a non-profit organization created to help communities achieve this aspiration, was born out of that conference. Today, SCI has over 500 member cities, counties, and states in the US, who have partnered with over 2,100 municipalities in 145 other countries across the world.

SCI serves as the overarching membership organization for individual Sister City collaborations in the US, providing a hub of international knowledge and best practice in the field of municipal cooperation. Its mission is to develop peace and prosperity worldwide, through person-to-person interaction that transcends national boundaries and governmental action. It provides a variety of services to its members, helping them to strengthen their relationships through strategic institutional partnerships and targeted exchange programs.

Chances are, you may have seen signs declaring your city’s relationship with another city on the other side of the globe. What does this mean in practice?

As SCI defines, a Sister City relationship is “a broad-based, long-term partnership” between the communities of two cities, counties or states. Crucially, SCI does not dictate what the nature of these relationships should be – each Sister City partnership is completely independent, and as a result they differ in many ways. Some partnerships involve a handful of volunteers; some hundreds. Some are led by a community-appointed board of directors; others by committees, local organizations such as museums, or mayors’ offices. Most importantly, each partnership focuses on specific projects that the cities involved decide are important to them and their specific communities.

Although this independence is a key tenet of the Sister Cities movement, there is a lot of common ground between SCI members. In general, Sister Cities focus on four main areas of exchange:

  • Arts & Culture: Sharing cultural traditions, from music and art, to food and fashion, is a powerful way for two communities to learn from each other. The types of cultural exchanges arranged by different Sister Cities are impressively diverse. In 2017, Council Bluffs, Iowa and Herat, Afghanistan celebrated their new Sister City status with simultaneous joint exhibitions of women’s photography from each city, while Houston, Texas and Karachi, Pakistan collaborated to organize an annual Houston Iftar Dinner for the 16th year running.
  • Business & TradeSister City programs organize trade delegations, boost tourism and create connections between a wide variety of institutions and businesses. In 2017, for example, Atlanta, Georgia and Toulouse, France launched the second iteration of their International Startup Exchange, providing innovative small companies a platform for global expansion.
  • Community DevelopmentOfficials, businesses and other community members in Sister Cities have unique opportunities to learn from each other in policy areas such as sanitation, water, health, transportation, tourism, sustainability, economic development and education. Sister City communities are also well-placed to provide assistance to each other in times of crisis. During recent regional conflicts in Ukraine, for example, residents of Birmingham, Alabama sent more than three tons of medical supplies to refugees and volunteers in Sister City Vinnytsia.
  • Youth & EducationYouth opportunities are a critical part of many Sister City programs. Common activities include school exchanges, institutional visits and sports tournaments. Last year’s Global Youth Ambassadors Leadership Summit in Chicago, Illinois is one such source of inspiration, for the young women who will become leading members of communities in Chicago and its Sister Cities.

In 2017, SCI produced a Memorandum of Understanding with the Global CEO Alliance (GCEOA), in support of promoting a broader spectrum of participation in citizen diplomacy. GCEOA is committed to bringing companies together to fulfill the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, an objective they share with the Smart and Sustainable Action Association (SaSAA). SaSAA, an ADEC Innovation, is a non-profit which funds a range of local renewable energy and environmental sustainability initiatives for businesses, providing innovative Open Environmental Data tools to promote transparency and communication.

A recent study by SCI revealed challenges around measuring the impacts Sister City partnerships have on their communities. The Data Management services offered by organizations like GCEOA and SaSAA play a crucial role in measuring these factors that are otherwise difficult to quantify, especially those related to tourism, educational exchanges and the development of traditional businesses. With this assistance, SCI can promote the values of sustainability, as well as those of peace and cooperation, throughout its worldwide network. At this year’s SCI conference, the GCEOA will introduce SaSAA through Open Environmental Data (OED).  GCEOA Chairman, James M. Donovan, will speak at two sessions, ‘International Youth Forum’ and ‘Smarter, More Resilient Cities,’ discussing ways to build resiliency through environmental data.

In an increasingly connected world, the ideals and aims of SCI are as important now as they have ever been. We still face the challenge Eisenhower identified over 60 years ago: working, together, to develop “not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other”. SCI is taking strides towards this goal every year. Its 2018 ‘Cities Leading the Way’ conference will be another important chapter in this story. Even more important are the individual actions that Sister Cities are taking to make these connections every day – city by city, community by community, person by person.

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