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Sister Cities

Sister Cities

J.R. McMillan

Family dynamics can be complicated — yet sibling relationships are amongst the most trying, and enduring. That’s why after the initial angst of adolescence, similarities are often revealed that bind them together despite the years and miles between.

That’s also true of “sister cities”, the equally enduring relationship between two points on the map whose goals and struggles close the distance with common cause that creates mutual opportunities. Columbus has always been a global family, with settlers from near and far dating back to our earliest days as a frontier town. We’re still a city of immigrants, with more than one in ten Columbus residents born outside the US.

That’s why Greater Columbus Sister Cities International is the perfect metaphor for what makes a Midwest metropolis like ours the model for the rest of the country, and why our family keeps getting even bigger. Founded in 1955, Columbus now has ten sister cities spanning the globe. In fact, the giant statue in front of City Hall was a gift from our first sister city, Genoa, Italy — the hometown of Christopher Columbus.

The program has steadily expanded to include cities in Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa, a global international community that fittingly reflects our local international community.

“The relationship starts when two sitting mayors sign a memorandum of understanding that states we will be sister cities. It’s unique because it doesn’t have an expiration date. It links the cities, probably forever,” explained Tim Sword, President of Greater Columbus Sister Cities International. “Like any relationship that we may have personally, it’s only going to be as strong as what we put into it on both sides. So there will be times when our sister city relationships get quiet, it doesn’t mean that we’ve disowned each other, only that there may not be anyone in either community focused on the relationship.”

Most sister cities organizations in the US became independent nonprofits in the 1990s,     which insulated them somewhat from becoming mistaken as political endeavors and opened the possibility of partnerships that might not happen as a government-run program. Even though that’s the case here, the auspices elsewhere can contribute to some of those “quiet” times.

“All of our counterparts in our sister cities are actual city officials who typically work directly for the mayor,” Sword noted. “So every four years, or whatever their election cycle happens to be, their mayors may change, and their emphasis on sister cities may change.”

Citizen exchanges have become a hallmark of the organization, highlighting the personal focus on fostering understanding through one-to-one interaction. Columbus artists and athletes alike — from photographers to marathon runners — have traveled as individual ambassadors connecting through collaboration, all without a hint of sibling rivalry.

“What’s unique about Sister Cities is that most organizations form to connect like-minded people. We promote learning about people and cultures that may be very different than our own. That’s the connection we have in common,” Sword said, “It’s one thing to encourage global fluency and awareness. But it’s another thing to actually connect. We have the opportunity everyday to make cultural connections.”

Greater Columbus Sister Cities isn’t limited by stuffy ideas about what defines a cultural connection. As a town that notably breaks down barriers by breaking bread, connecting through the local culinary scene is a natural fit.

“Every other year, there is pesto-making world championship in Genoa, Italy. It’s not a recipe competition; it celebrates the traditional mortar and pestle method,” he said. “When we brought the idea of hosting a regional competition to the Italian Festival, they jumped on it. So, on October 8th, the winner of our competition will be selected to travel to Genoa next year to compete with 99 fellow pesto-makers at the world championship.”

Even the pesto competition was a bit of a happy accident inspired by casual conversations with a colleague following a prior trip to Genoa, one that promises to bring another artist to Columbus, also thanks to a convenient coincidence.

“The Columbus Pesto Championship is the direct result of a trip we took to Genoa to mark the 60th anniversary of the relationship. While we were there, as we always do, we look to customize the trip for each individual,” revealed Sword. “So we asked the group, ‘How would you like to connect?’”

One of the travelers from Columbus had a list of 50 things she wanted to do, and one of them was connecting with a photographer. They passed requests off to the folks in Genoa to help build individual itineraries.

“Within a few steps of one of our meetings was an exhibit called, ‘1000 Faces of Genoa.’ The photographer, Timothy Costa, welcomed us — and ended up taking our portraits,” Sword recalled. “He’s developed a system that floods his subjects with light. He was also looking to highlight the diversity, the interesting characters within that community.”

“We immediately fell in love with him, the entire exhibit, and the group all thought in our heads, ‘This has to come to Columbus’,” noted Sword. “In 2018, we’re going to have the photo exhibit at the Cultural Arts Center, at the airport, at the Columbus Museum. We’re looking at other locations. He’s also going to be here to capture ‘1000 Faces of Columbus’.”

Among those faces are many “New Americans” — first-generation immigrants whose first home in a new world was not New York or Los Angeles, but Columbus. Recognizing the opportunity to connect all of us with the heritage and traditions of our new neighbors, former Mayor Michael Coleman made finding two new sister cities a priority.

“Mayor Coleman asked our board to identify a sister city in Latin America and in Africa,” Sword noted. “He wanted sister cities to be part of his legacy.”

Greater Columbus Sister Cities assembled a task force to include community insights and opinions, to identity existing business, educational, and arts relationships to narrow the list. In the end, Curitiba, Brazil and Accra, Ghana joined their eight older siblings to become our newest sister cities.

Thousands of immigrants from Brazil and Ghana have been part of the fabric of Columbus for decades. These sister cities make their presence more apparent—and for soccer fans, quite timely. Brazilian and Ghanaian cuisine continues to expand on the local food scene. But with four players on the Columbus Crew heralding from Ghana—and one from sister city Accra—it illustrates the convergence of local and international ties that makes Greater Columbus Sisters Cities more relevant than ever.

Asked if there are more prospective sister cities on the near horizon, Sword was firm on ten as the right number for right now.

“Columbus cooperates and collaborates with cities around the world all the time. Working to strengthen the bond with our existing sister cities is our priority. I’m interested in building ‘deep community’, the connections that intertwine,” Sword explained. “By deep community, I mean acknowledging that individual relationships are sometimes as valuable, often more valuable, than larger events and initiatives. It’s tempting to focus on one thing and do it really well. But to be a deep community, you have to have a lot of things going on all at once. Columbus is a deep community, and sister cities are a part of that.”

Columbus Sister Cities

Accra, Ghana

Ahmedabad, India

Curitiba, Brazil

Dresden, Germany

Genoa, Italy

Hefei, China

Herzliya, Israel

Odense, Denmark

Seville, Spain

Tainan City, Taiwan

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