|Legal status||501(c)(3) nonprofit organization|
|Purpose||To create and strengthen partnerships between communities in other countries|
|Headquarters||1012 14th Street NW |
Suite 1400 
Washington, D.C. 20005
|States, counties, cities|
|Carol Robertson Lopez|
Sister Cities International (SCI) is a nonprofit citizen diplomacy network that creates and strengthens partnerships between communities in the United States and those in other countries, particularly through the establishment of "sister cities"—broad, long-term agreements formally recognized by civic leaders. Its mission is to "build global cooperation at the municipal level, promote cultural understanding and stimulate economic development". A total of 1,800 cities, states, and counties are partnered in 138 countries worldwide.
As the official organization that links jurisdictions in the U.S. with communities worldwide, Sister Cities International recognizes, registers, and coordinates relationships between cities, counties, provinces, and other subnational political divisions at various levels.
The U.S. sister city program began in 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed a people-to-people, citizen diplomacy initiative. Originally a program of the National League of Cities, Sister Cities International became a separate, nonprofit corporation in 1967, due to the growth and popularity of the U.S. program.
The Sister Cities program is designed as means for cultural exchange. A community of any size decides to join with a community in another nation to learn more about one another. Therefore, a sister city, country, oblast, prefecture, province, region, state, territory, town, or village relationship is a broad-based, officially approved, long-term partnership between two communities.
Sister City relationships begin for a variety of reasons. Generally sister city partnerships share similar demographics and town size. Partnerships may arise from business connections, travel, similar industries, diaspora communities, or shared history. For example, Portland, Oregon and Bologna, Italy's partnership arose from shared industries in biotechnology and education, an appreciation for the arts, and a "similar attitude towards food", whereas Chicago's link with Warsaw, Poland began with the city's historic Polish community.
Sister Cities International also recognizes "Friendship City" affiliations. These are a less formal arrangement that may be a step towards a full Sister City affiliation. 'Friendship City' is also the Chinese term for 'Sister City'.
The organization's mission is to "promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation — one individual, one community at a time."
Sister Cities International's stated goals are to:
Sister Cities International advances their goals by approaching from four broad-based areas: cultural exchange, humanitarian assistance, youth and educational programs, and economic and sustainable development.
Cultural exchanges occur on an individual level from city to city. Sister Cities International facilitates these exchanges by providing support and funding.
According to the Sister Cities International website, these exchanges occur in various ways including: "musical performances, art exhibits, construction of peace parks or tea gardens, international cultural festivals, and teacher exchanges". Well known demonstrations of sister city cultural events include the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. honoring the sister city relationship between Tokyo City and Washington, D.C.
In addition to funding programs for partnerships already in place, Sister Cities dedicates resources to encouraging partnerships in non-traditional areas in the Middle East and Africa.
Each summer, Sister Cities International holds a themed annual conference in a Sister City in America. SCI will be celebrating its 63rd anniversary in 2019 and will have a conference themed "Cities Mean Business" on July 17–19 in Houston, Texas.
Despite isolated community partnerships and informal citizen relations, the people-to-people initiative did not gain momentum until U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's historic September 11–12, 1956 White House conference on citizen diplomacy. The post-World War II climate proved an ideal environment to launch this kind of effort. With enthusiastic response to the concept, tens of thousands of Americans pledged their support to create a free and peaceful world.
Growing out of the two-day White House Conference, participants formed forty-two "People-to-People" committees. The autonomous nature of the federally backed movement meant that some committees flourished while others never left the ground. By 1960, thirty-three committees continued the original mission. People-to-People International also grew out of this umbrella group of committees.
The sister city idea developed from the Civic Committee. Envisioned by President Eisenhower as the 'main cog' for citizen diplomacy, the sister city program grew throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The Civic Committee and the National League of Cities provided joint administrative support for the fledgling sister city movement until 1973.
A 1974 study found that many early sister city relationships formed out of the post WWII aid programs to Western Europe. The relationships that endured, however, were based on cultural or educational reasons that developed lasting friendships.
During the mid-1960s, city affiliations recognized that their diverse efforts needed coordination. In 1967, the Town Affiliation Association of the U.S. (already popularly known as Sister Cities International) was created.
In 1979, the very first U.S. and People's Republic of China links were created. San Francisco made waves by forming a "friendship" relationship with Shanghai, China. Despite Cold War tensions, U.S. cities had already initiated sister city relationships with the Soviet Union in 1973.
Programs at that time focused on basic urban problems such as water and sanitation, health, housing, education and transportation. Begun in 1977, the national Technical Assistance Program (TAP) worked to create training programs to increase employment, establish cooperatives and credit unions or to create appropriate small-scale industries. Development agencies realized that industrializing countries experienced the same urban problems as developed nations. The sister city movement provided a mechanism for communities to share their experiences and growing pains. TAP focused on a spiral out benefits system. For example, a city project to improve surface drainage would indirectly aid the urban poor. These citizens would gain better sanitation and possible employment from the project. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided seed grant money for the project.
In the mid-1970s, the Town Affiliation Association began the School Affiliation Program. Through this program, youth gained greater sensitivity toward other cultures and a broader global perspective. In one program, Oakland, California and Fukuoka, Japan spent a school year exchanging artwork and conducting workshops on the Japanese culture.
The Town Affiliation Association marked its 25th anniversary in 1981. By that time, 720 U.S. cities representing 85 million citizens were linked to over 1,000 communities in 77 nations around the world. In addition, the association's name evolved to its current form, Sister Cities International.
During the 1980s, a focus on municipal twinning developed. Mayors began to focus on relationships that offered technical assistance in municipal development. Similar to TAP, these exchanges worked on citywide issues such as solid waste management, urban planning, emergency response training and emergency management.
Cities also concentrated on international trade development. Building on their sister city relationships, participants developed economic interests with practical benefits. In one joint venture, a Baltimore, Maryland business sent engines to a business in Xiamen, China. Factories in China used the engines in excavating equipment and forklift manufacturing. Despite ongoing debate on international trade, these cities took initiative and implemented durable business ventures at the grassroots level.
In September 1991, an unprecedented gathering of 220 Soviet officials and citizens arrived for the U.S.-Soviet Union Sister Cities conference. Held in Cincinnati, Ohio, organizers noted this was the largest-ever gathering of Soviet citizens in the U.S. With the Soviet Union's political and economic situation, delegates discussed developing local government, citizen involvement, education and the environment. Trade and creating business ventures also featured importantly at the conference. From there, the mayors visited their individual sister cities for five days. The conference sought to encourage international understanding and communication among ordinary citizens. This event followed the failed August coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev and preceded the eventual independence of the Soviet Republics at the end of 1991.
Capitalizing on the growing world economy, many sister city members developed business agreements with their partners. Vermont's Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream company, for example, started a factory in Karelia, Russia. The company served 3,000 Russians a day and offered the same profit-sharing framework to its Russian employees as found in the American company. While not a primary goal, business relationships were a natural by-product of sister city exchanges.
During the mid-1990s many U.S. mayors conducted exploratory tours to countries in Asia, including India and Vietnam. The mayors addressed common urban issues; experienced the culture; facilitated economic opportunities; and promoted new sister city partnerships. The United States Information Agency (USIA) co-sponsored one trip with the Vietnam-U.S.A. Society as the sponsors in Vietnam.
The Internet offered another medium for communication. Through the introduction of email in 1993, Sonoma, California could communicate instantaneously with its sister city Kaniv, Ukraine.
On June 4, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to the US Conference of Mayors. Zelenskyy requested that cities in America take part in rebuilding Ukraine by developing ties between localities that can leverage resources allocated to the effort to repair damaged societal infrastructure. Sister Cities in America have been delivering Humanitarian Aid to support Ukrainian people. Poltava, Ukraine has been a Sister City of Irondequoit, NY since June 29,1992 due to an agreement signed by Anatonij Kukoba, then President of Poltava City Council, and Fredrick W. Lapple, then Town Supervisor of Irondequoit, NY. The scope of the relationship is broadly defined in this document, agreeing that many sectors of public life are open for engagement. After elected signatories process documents of this kind, agreements between Sister Cities are submitted to the main branch of SCI and kept on file at the Washington, DC office. SCI's CEO has advocated for sustained relations between existing Sister Cities programs even in times of conflict.
The Agreement between Irondequoit and Poltava states that their Sister City relationship never expires. Former Irondequoit Supervisor Lapple formed a committee to locate a city willing to partner in the interest of honoring the Ukrainian community active in his town. The relationship is ongoing, with a virtual conference occurring on July 14, 2022, featuring elected officials, organization leaders, and various citizens all given a venue to speak as the Ukrainians fight to secure their democracy. This expression of citizen-to-citizen diplomacy has fostered participation in the international relations of multiple localities. Sister Cities afford the opportunity for individual citizens to achieve global impact through efforts within their own local US communities. The SCI platform allows people to mobilize a network of international organizations, expanding participation in spheres driving democratic values, humanitarian relief, financial markets, and good governance organizations. Irondequoit hosted Ukrainian delegates from Congress' Open World organization, supporting the development of leaders who embrace democratic values. In an effort to inform the public for generations to come, the citizens from Irondequoit instituted a special collection of documents at the University of Rochester to historically preserve the more than one-hundred-year history of Ukrainian community in the greater Rochester area.
In 1995, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to eliminate the United States Information Agency (USIA) with vocal support from the U.S. Conference of Mayors International Affairs Committee and Sister City members. The broadcasting functions of the USIA were maintained by the now independent Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG); all other continuing functions became part of the organizational structure overseen by the purposefully established Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs within the United States Department of State (DoS). SCI is a leading member of a consortium of non-profit NGOs that partner with the DoS Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), which was created as part of this new organizational structure.
Through the grant funding, logistical support and other resources made available through the ECA, SCI and other organizations develop, administer and promote the United States Cultural Exchange Programs (CEPs). One such CEP is the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Programs (Yes Programs), which sponsor students predominantly from the Middle East to study for a year in the U.S. On a 2004 exchange, Arab students from Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen lived in the U.S. for a year with host families and attended a leadership summit in Boulder, Colorado. To further the Yes Program's goals, Sister Cities International developed the Youth and Education Network in 2004.
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