In the wake of World War II and amid rising tensions of the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched a program to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding and cooperation and that would be powered by person-to-person relationships 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 is celebrating a special anniversary of international friendship. It was 60 years ago that the city and Takamatsu, Japan, established a Sister City relationship that thrives to this day.
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 birthplace of Dali.
The St. Petersburg programs are part of the Sister Cities International network dating back to the Eisenhower administration. Its mission reflects a belief in the power of personal connections – citizen diplomats, as it were – 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 – a good news story to obliterate the steady stream of political mudslinging and in-fighting, unabashed prevarication, racial and ethnic discord and the general unease to which we’ve become accustomed in recent years?
Zach Blair-Andrews, an undergraduate in the Judy Genshaft Honors College at the University of South Florida, was one of the high school juniors selected to travel to Japan as part of the St. Petersburg-Takamatsu Sister City program. This is 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 notion that there is so much we can learn from one another, and that diversity is a strength, not a weakness. The program has inspired me to actively seek out more cross-cultural interactions, including staying in touch with my host brother in Japan, Motoki Hase.”
Appropriately, the city has chosen the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society, Inc., best known as SPIFFS, to manage the Sister Cities program. The 46-year-old organization boasts nearly 30 groups whose members celebrate and share their ethnic roots with school children and adults at an annual Folk Fair and at other multicultural events throughout the year.
Bill Parsons, professor emeritus of History and Russian Studies at Eckerd College and president of SPIFFS, is well known as a founder and a longtime leader of the Russian Heritage cultural group. Parsons believes in the benefits of personal contacts to help create bonds of friendship across cultures and political differences.
“My interest in Russia and the Soviet Union came as an undergraduate at Grinnell College, where I had the opportunity to participate in a ‘People-to-People’ youth exchange program with the Soviet Union,” he said. “Ever since that time, I have been a strong supporter of ‘citizen diplomacy.’”
The student ambassador program with Takamatsu got its start in 1984. High school juniors selected to represent St. Petersburg stay with Japanese families. Likewise, students from Takamatsu are hosted by families in St. Petersburg.
They become valuable experiences. “Sister City relationships provide and promote intercultural understanding and international peace through individual 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, middle schools, little league teams, local museums and galleries, in public art and in 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, SPIFFS executive director and manager of the Sister Cities program.
“Right now, due to the pandemic, all in-person exchanges have been placed on hold. The focus now is to cultivate creative ways to connect with our Sister Cities by way of virtual exchanges. Whether you are traveling to, or learning about, one of St. Pete’s sister cities, or participating in a community program that embraces diversity and unity, you’ll gain a deeper appreciation of different cultures that can help foster a more peaceful, prosperous world.”
Earlier this month, St. Petersburg’s Mayor Rick Kriseman and Mayor Hideto Onishi of Takamatsu “met” for an online conference, said Kathy Michaels, chair of the 60th anniversary task force for SPIFFS. She provided a list of celebratory events occurring in coming weeks.
Among them, Creative Clay in St. Petersburg and Heart Art Link of Takamatsu have begun an art exchange program in which artists from the two 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 feature the 60th anniversary logo on their koi food packets. There will be a St. Petersburg exhibit at the St. Petersburg Museum of History and a celebration of the 60th anniversary will be held during the Oct. 14 City Council meeting. Probably the most significant part of the anniversary celebration will be the unveiling this fall of a historic marker at the Pier to honor the Sister City relationship.
As I thought about the Sister City program, I wondered whether in these times of rising mistrust among Americans because of race and ethnicity, if initiatives such as the Sister Cities program help to foster understanding.
“I would say unequivocally, yes,” answered John Rodriguez, government affairs director for the city of St Petersburg.
“St. Petersburg’s Sister City relationship with Takamatsu, Japan, has given citizens from both countries the opportunity to get to know each other personally. The insights gained by private citizens inevitably have a positive effect on the disposition and policy of nations toward each other. While cost effectiveness is not the primary consideration of the Sister Cities program, I can think of few better values when it comes to promoting peace and understanding within and outside of our borders.”
The story of the Sister Cities program is obviously one worth telling, especially now. But I can’t help feeling that the program’s aspirations, an outward-looking endeavor, would serve us well if formally replicated within the U.S. borders.
Imagine hosting or living with a family different from yours in race, culture, religion or political affiliation. Sounds like a wild reality show, doesn’t it? But forging person-to-person connections outside our comfortable circles might just be the solution to our widening divisions.