Advocating Through Sister Cities International

Kirsten Halling, OFLA Public Relations and Advocacy Chair
Professor of French, Wright State University

In the quest to add experiential learning curriculum to the world language classroom, language teachers sometimes overlook a local resource that can provide a wealth of opportunities for real-life target-language practice and first-hand cultural studies. We notice the names of international sister cities listed on many signposts at the entrance to cities we visit, but do we know what this means, why this is important, or how this can enrich our classrooms, advocate for our profession, and deepen our own understanding of the world? In my experience as a long-term board member for a sister city association, I have been able to combine community service with extra-curricular activities to enhance classroom learning and promote the tangible benefits of language-learning, while earning hands-on professional development. 

The Sister Cities International Program was born on September 11, 1956, when then President Dwight D. Eisenhower invited people from all walks of life to the White House for a conference on Citizen Diplomacy to “help build the road to an enduring peace.”1 His experience as Supreme Commander of Allied Troops during the last world war and his bird’s-eye view of the devastation caused by the war had led to his development of the concept of citizen diplomacy as a way to dispel the kind of ignorance that leads to war. In Eisenhower’s mind, the only way to truly understand other cultures is to experience them person-to-person. Eisenhower was conscious that while political heads of state may come and go, our personal relationships and city-to-city ties remain constant. Preferring the constancy of local government to the inherent political variability in national leadership, Eisenhower called for collaboration between city governments and its citizens in order to cooperatively build a “positive, constructive path” to peace: “Two deeply-held convictions unite us in common purpose. First, is our belief in effective and responsive local government as a principal bulwark of freedom. Second, is our faith in the great promise of people-to-people and sister city affiliations in helping build the solid structure of world peace.”2

In the 66 years since the inception of Sister Cities International, Americans have had 13 presidents. No matter how widely the pendulum swings, the fundamental mission of sister cities has not changed.  People practice citizen diplomacy, working together to erase negative stereotypes and to facilitate exchanges. Many of the founders of the twinning relationships are no longer with us, but their legacy lives on in the 5-year twinning anniversary celebrations with citizen delegations, internet exchanges, pen-pal relationships, student exchanges and internships, mayor-to-mayor communications, city markets, musical competitions, and even a level of collaboration in professional, administrative, and business domains.

The city where I live, Oakwood, Ohio, has two French-speaking sister cities and a friendship pact with a city in Germany. In Oakwood’s 50-year history with Sister Cities International, many participants have created and nurtured long-term relationships with our international partners. In addition to all of the local children who have learned and grown during a short-term exchange, my own daughter and son both benefited from multiple summer exchanges with kids from Le Vésinet (a suburb of Paris) and are still in contact with their exchange partners. Last summer, Oakwood took a delegation of 13 adults and 10 children to Le Vésinet for our fiftieth twinning anniversary celebration, which included formal speeches at the town hall, a formal dinner, two picnics, a town festival, and a day trip. One of the children was able to participate in a singing contest and had the incredible experience of singing in public on a professional stage while meeting other young contestants from all over the world (Le Vésinet has 7 sister cities to our 3). Later this fall, Oakwood will be hosting Le Vésinet with the help of the mayor and the entire City Council, and my family will be hosting some French friends whom we have known for 14 years. This is not just a one-time affair; Sister City relationships are based on years of exchanges and interactions. 

World language teachers who collaborate with their local sister cities can benefit in many ways.  One local high school French teacher (Marie Jergens, Oakwood High) created a French-language website project to welcome visiting French and Canadian exchange students in a PBL (project based learning) activity with her students. Later this month, when the delegation from Le Vésinet arrives, a French teen will be spending a day at the high school and will meet the students who worked so hard to make her feel welcome. Another French teacher in a neighboring town (Michele McCarty, Fairmont High) has already identified 3 students who may be interested in an exchange with our sister city outside of Paris. Not at all worried about “taking enrollment from her summer trip,” she says that the few students who do exchanges are different from the students who travel in a group – and often are grateful for the 2-3-week direct exchange that costs nothing more than a plane ticket and the commitment to host in return. Other benefits to teachers include pen-pal exchanges with English teachers located in the sister city, school visitations, and a host of other collaborative projects. Those teachers wishing to visit their sister city will be welcomed and celebrated by the partner sister city officers and city administrators. 

My own students have benefited from my involvement in a sister city organization in many ways throughout the years. One student who couldn’t afford to study abroad was able to work as a full summer au-pair for a family in one of our French-speaking sister cities. Others have visited the sister city during our study-abroad trip to Paris and were able to participate in a French Christmas market and, after having staffed the Oakwood booth for a short time, were treated to lunch at a Moroccan restaurant. On the home front, my students gave a French-language tour of campus to visiting delegates during one of our twinning anniversary weekend celebrations. On another occasion, delegates visited my classroom and chatted with the students about life in France, using the students’ prepared questions as a guide. 

If you want to learn more about educational and personal opportunities through Sister Cities International, I encourage you to do a Google search to find sister cities near you. Just type in “list of sister cities in Ohio” and be aware that most sister city organizations allow membership from neighboring cities and will often give honorary memberships to teachers. Our association also awards student scholarships to defray travel expenses (which can impress school administrators and give students something to celebrate). The many sister cities in Ohio and throughout the world provide cultural exchanges that enrich the lives of our citizens by keeping the ever-so-important dialog between countries alive and thriving. They provide a platform for citizens to create long-lasting friendships and “promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation one individual, one community at a time.”3 As all world language teachers know direct contact with a country and its citizens is truly the only remedy to stereotyping in that it personalizes our subject and opens up more authentic ways of perceiving the world. 

1 President Eisenhower’s address at White House Conference on Citizen Diplomacy, September 11, 1956. North Carolina State University Libraries. 

2 “The Birth of the People-to-People Program,” Sister Cities International. 

3 “Our Mission,” Sister Cities International. 

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