St. Louis, Missouri hosted the 47th annual Sister Cities International (SCI) Conference July 23-26. At the conference, SCI announced new partnerships with organizations such as the Union of Local Authorities in Israel, the Union of Russian Cities, and the Standing Conference of Towns & Municipalities of Yugoslavia.
SCI is the international membership association headquartered in Washington, DC, which links jurisdictions from the United States with communities worldwide. SCI recognizes, registers, and coordinates city, county, prefecture, province, region and state linkages. This effort has led to U.S. and Sister City relationships with over 2,100 communities in 122 countries around the world.
The U.S. sister city program orginated in 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed a people-to-people, citizen diplomacy initiative. Originally a part of the National League of Cities, SCI became a separate, nonprofit corporation in 1967, due to the tremendous growth and popularity of the U.S. program.
Almost 700 delegates from all over the world attended the St. Louis conference which included meetings, forums, briefings, speakers and a variety of special events. The keynote speaker, Senator George Mitchell, highlighted the importance of people to people efforts in the pursuit of peace.
"From my experiences in Northern Ireland, and in the Middle East, and before that in the Balkans, I learned first hand the importance of people to people efforts in the pursuit of peace," senator Mitchell said. "And so I am truly honored to be here. For a half a century sister cities international has been a leader in the people to people effort for peace, for tolerance, for understanding. From the White House conference under President Eisenhower in 1956, to recent programs all though out this country, you have demonstrated in over 2000 communities worldwide, how individual citizens can make a difference. "
Seeds of Peace, a non-profit organization dedicated to preparing teenagers from areas of conflict with the leadership skills required to promote coexistence and peace, held a workshop at the conference with youth from both Israel and Palestine. The young people remarked that once they had a chance to sit down, person to person, and spend time together like normal teenagers, they were able to overcome the mutual deep emotions of hatred and fear they had grown up with in their respective communities. They formed friendships and were able to discuss issues outside of politics, such as music, fashion and travel.
Roz Payne, of Burlington, Vermont talked about her city's relationship to Ramallah, Palestine and said that her city is very enthusiastic about this relationship.
"We have exchanged delegations, we have sent medical supplies, money, aid to both countries for disabled children and for lots of cultural exchanges, for artists and for various events," she said. "What we are really interested in, obviously, is having peace with the Israelis and Palestinians."
Mrs. Wu Hueh-Mee, a representative from the Taipei, Taiwanese government, talked about her experience with sister cities. In addition to exchange programs, including cultural, education, and economic development, she explained that Taipei even had exchanged very rare animals with a sister city in California.
"It was a great way to learn about a new country, and for many people to learn about the sister cities program," she said.
Large delegations from countries such as China, Kenya, Cameroon and the United Kingdom also joined the conference to share their experiences and try to further develop their sister city relationships. Around 25 U.S. youth delegates, ages 15-21, had their own program and were able to meet other youth from around the world that are involved in sister cities. Many youth had been on exchanges around the world and were motivated to continue their activities in the sister city youth program.
In the evenings, special receptions were held at various St. Louis venues including Grant's Farm and the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Delegates even had a chance to see the St. Louis Cardinals play a major league baseball game at Busch Stadium. New friendships were formed, and new sister city relationships were established. Next year's Sister City Conference will be held in Forth Worth, Texas from July 14-17.