The International Sister City program, a timely model adapted to the divided United States • St Pete Catalyst


In the aftermath of World War II and amid the growing tensions of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched an agenda to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding and cooperation and which would be fueled by relationships person to person with communities around the world.

Decades later, as the world strives to live up to the Olympic ideal and conflicts and a pandemic persist, the city of St. Petersburg celebrates a special anniversary of international friendship. Sixty years ago, the city and Takamatsu, Japan, established a sister city relationship that continues to thrive today.

It should be noted that St. Petersburg also has younger sister city relationships with St. Petersburg, Russia, and Isla Mujeres, Mexico, as well as a friendship city connection with Figueres, Spain, the location of birth of Dali.

The St. Petersburg programs are part of the Sister Cities International network that dates back to the Eisenhower administration. Its mission reflects a belief in the power of personal relationships – citizen diplomats, so to speak – to create a world of harmony, friendship and partnership, “one individual, one community at a time.”

It sounds idealistic, I know, but isn’t it a laudable goal – good news for erasing the constant stream of political vilification and infighting, shameless prevarication, racial and ethnic discord and the general malaise we are in? become accustomed in recent years?

Zach Blair-Andrews, an undergraduate student at Judy Genshaft Honors College at the University of South Florida, was one of the high school students selected to travel to Japan as part of the St. Petersburg-Takamatsu Sister City program. That’s what he said about how his participation in the program influenced his interactions with people of different cultures right here in the United States.

“The program,” he said, “really reinforced the idea that there is so much we can learn from each other and that diversity is a strength, not a weakness. The program inspired me to actively seek more cross-cultural interactions, including staying in touch with my host brother in Japan, Motoki Hase.

The city rightly chose the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society, Inc., better known as SPIFFS, to manage the Sister Cities program. The 46-year-old organization has nearly 30 groups whose members celebrate and share their ethnic roots with school children and adults at an annual folk fair and other multicultural events throughout the year.

Bill Parsons, Emeritus Professor of Russian History and Studies at Eckerd College and President of SPIFFS, is well known as the founder and longtime leader of the Russian Heritage cultural group.. Parsons believes in the benefits of personal contact to help build friendships across cultures and political differences.

“My interest in Russia and the Soviet Union came as an undergraduate student at Grinnell College, where I had the opportunity to participate in a ‘people-to-people’ youth exchange program with the Soviet Union, ”he said. “Since then, I have been a strong supporter of ‘citizen diplomacy’.

The student ambassador program with Takamatsu started in 1984. The high school students selected to represent St. Petersburg stay with Japanese families. Likewise, Takamatsu students are hosted by families in St. Petersburg.

They become valuable experiences. “Sister City relationships provide and promote intercultural understanding and international peace through one-on-one contact between citizens of different cultures,” said Steven Barefield, treasurer of SPIFFS and director of the St. Petersburg-Takamatsu Sister City program.

“In St. Pete alone, the impact of our Sister City affiliations has been felt by local colleges and universities, high schools, colleges, little league teams, local museums and galleries, in art. public and many other ways. “

The pandemic, of course, has had an effect on the program. “Sister City relationships consist of reciprocal cultural, educational and economic exchanges,” said Sheena Aubut, Executive Director of SPIFFS and Head of the Sister Cities Program.

At present, due to the pandemic, all face-to-face exchanges have been suspended. The goal now is to cultivate creative ways to connect with our sister cities through virtual exchanges. Whether you are traveling or discovering one of St. Pete’s sister cities, or participating in a community program that embraces diversity and unity, you will gain a greater appreciation of the different cultures that can help foster a more peaceful world. and more prosperous. . “

Earlier this month, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Takamatsu Mayor Hideto Onishi “met” for an online conference, said Kathy Michaels, president of the 60e anniversary working group for SPIFFS. She provided a list of festive events that will take place in the coming weeks.

Among them, Creative Clay in St. Petersburg and Heart Art Link from Takamatsu have started an art exchange program in which artists from both organizations will work on the same projects. Thurgood Marshall Middle School and James B. Sanderlin PK-8 IB World School will have virtual exchanges with Fuzoku Junior High School and Higashiueta Elementary School.

Starting in October, Sunken Gardens will present the 60e anniversary logo on their koi food packages. There will be a St. Petersburg exhibition at the St. Petersburg History Museum and a celebration of the 60e anniversary will take place during the municipal council meeting on October 14. Probably the most important part of the anniversary celebration will be the unveiling this fall of a historic marker at the pier to honor Sister City’s relationship.

Thinking about the Sister City program, I wondered if, in these times of growing distrust among Americans because of race and ethnicity, whether initiatives such as the Sister Cities program were helping to foster understanding.

“I would say unequivocally, yes,” replied John Rodriguez, director of government affairs for the city of St. Petersburg.

“St. Petersburg’s sister city relationship with Takamatsu, Japan, has given citizens of both countries the opportunity to get to know each other personally. The knowledge acquired by private citizens inevitably has a positive effect on the disposition and policy of nations towards one another. While cost-effectiveness is not the primary consideration of the sister cities agenda, I can think of few better values ​​when it comes to promoting peace and understanding within and outside our borders.

The story of the sister cities program is obviously worth telling, especially now. But I can’t help but think that the aspirations of the program, an outward-looking endeavor, would serve us well if they were formally replicated within American borders.

Imagine hosting or living with a family that is different from your own in terms of race, culture, religion or political affiliation. Sounds like a wild reality TV show, doesn’t it? But forging person-to-person relationships outside of our comfortable circles may just be the solution to our growing divisions.

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