Adam Kaplan (Vice President Sister Cities International)

I gemellaggi tra città italiane e americane

Mar 16, 2015 7006 ITA ENG

In our discovery of new points of view from which to analyze the relationship between Italy and the US, today we want to talk about Sister Cities programs. There is an American institution, called "Sister Cities International", which takes care of these aspect of how the US partner up with other countries.

So we are happy today to have as our guest Adam Kaplan, Vice President of "Sister Cities International", who will tell us something about how the partnership between Italy and the US from this angle. And let us give you a sneak peek: We the Italians always says that Italy needs more America, and this absolutely is one way to achieve that. A very interesting one.

Adam, you spent 4 years in Florence. Please tell us something about your experience and how it helped you learning things that you have found useful in helping Sister Cities

I moved to Florence after college: my sister had married an Italian and have been living in Italy for some years and their children were growing up in Florence. So I had family there and I wanted to live and work abroad and Italy obviously is a wonderful place. So, I trained to become a teacher of English as a second language and I taught English for four years and eventually became a teacher trainer. This was actually very useful to me because I had the possibility to learn how different cultures can mix and profit when they get together, particularly when the two cultures are the American and the Italian.

Having family in Florence, I was not exactly a tourist, more a guest who had the privilege to get closer and closer to the Italian culture and the Italian life: we did travel around Italy a bit to get to know other cities. Lots of things were incredible to me, and this experience definitively helped me a lot understanding how and why to form relationship with people who live in other countries, in a very open way. My four years in Florence, from 2001 to 2005, were absolutely wonderful.

I think the Sister Cities concept is something very appealing to Italians, who are very proud of their culture, their food, their history and many other things but at the same time also very welcoming and enjoyable people. That's exactly the type of things we look for Sister Cities.

Please tell us something about the Sister Cities International Program: how and when did it start, and what is your mission?

Sister Cities International was founded in 1956 by president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who understood that to have lasting peace between countries we had to have more than just the official relations between federal governments: we really needed individuals and local communities to form relationships one to another, to build understandings, cooperation and basically to promote cultural peace. He once said "If we are going to take advantage of the assumption that all people want peace, then the problem is for people to get together and to leap governments - if necessary to evade governments - to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other". So, he recognized that peace begins with individual citizens, and thus established the Sister Cities Programs to foster relationships between individual cities.

Our mission is to promote peace for mutual respect, cooperation and understanding: one individual, one community at a time. The initial partnerships and activities were very much aimed towards WW2 countries, so we have a lot of partnerships with Germany, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, England. But since then we've expanded, we now have around 545 U.S. communities with over 2100 partnerships in 140 countries. So, it's a very wide ranging network.

What do Sister Cities do? What happens between two cities when they find each other, and how do they find and then link each other?

All Sister Cities relationships are formalized by the mayor, or the highest elected or appointed. So, technically that's the only requirement; how you get to that point, however, can clearly differ. Sometimes there's an already preexisting relationship between a couple of mayors and they decide to form a partnership. Sometimes there is a historical connection between two communities. Sometimes cities who have very similar industries or similar geography are motivated by this to form a partnership: we see desert cities partner with other desert cities, cities with ports partner with other cities with ports; it might be a program between communities whose business is based on tourism. One of the most common reason to partner up is when one person from a community marries someone from another community and after a while they want to deepen the ties between the communities they come from. Sometimes it's simply because cities are looking for new partners in a specific part of the world to learn more from each other.

So they can start in many ways. Besides, we talk about Sister Cities most of the time but, for instance, the Province of Florence also has a Sister City program; you can form Sister City relationships with provinces, or regions or municipalities or any sort of administrated divisions.

In term of what Sister Cities do, in general Sister Cities follow the mission to promote the mutual respect in cooperation and understanding. The idea to promote cooperative activities basically covers everything you can imagine. We often see organizations, groups or volunteers and they receive very little from municipal governments, who don't have money for this: and often times it's a local group who they raises money, pays for their own travel, organizes the activities and decides where the priorities are.

We generally divide the activities into four major areas: 1) youth and education; 2) arts and culture; 3) economic development and trade; 4) cooperation in community development.

In the area of youth and education we see a lot of high school exchanges, college partnerships, cooperative research but high school exchanges really are the foundation in the Sister Cities programs and we think that they are very important to young people. So this area is basically focused on high school level, with a few university partnerships, studying abroad opportunities and something like that.

In terms of art and culture we see other exchanges: music, art, food, cultural activities that may be exchanged between museums, basically anything you can think relative to the cultural sector.

As for trade and economic development we see trade assessment and assistance, business proposal and meetings and missions regarding any commercial sector. Each of them can get a lot of assistance and guidance from local people and the community in order to finalize businesses. We see a lot of promotional tourism, which always is a positive side effect of these exchanges.

The final area of cooperation and community development focuses more on partnership between mayors, technical exchanges on a municipal level, which sometimes involve a city department act. They essentially exchange best practices regarding any activity for which the municipality is responsible: water sanitation, help services, city planning, transportation, renewable resources ... basically any area covered by the municipal administration.

Let's talk about Italy and the US: how many programs do exist between cities of our countries?

We have on record 89 partnerships between US and Italian cities. These partnerships involve 81 Italian cities, so some of them have multiple US partners.

How high is Italy in the ranking of the top countries having programs with American cities?

Italy is sixth: the only countries that have more partnerships than Italy are Mexico, Japan, China, Germany and France.

Is there an Italian region that is predominant, or one that at this time has no city involved?

No, I don't think that there's a particular predominant region. We see programs both in the North and in the South Italy. They are spread out. The following important Italian cities don't have US partners yet, and we would be very interested in forming partnerships with them: Napoli, Bari, Messina, Trieste, Taranto, Brescia, Reggio Calabria, Ravenna, Foggia, Cagliari, Sassari, Siracusa, Trento, Piacenza, Ancona, Arezzo, Udine, Bolzano.

Is there a program involving Italy and US which is particularly interesting?

All of them are very interesting and peculiar. For example, take the one between Phoenix (AZ) and Catania: they just did an exchange with some entrepreneurs from Catania who went to Phoenix to learn something about Arizona and foster the trade between these two cities.

Washington D. C. partnered with Rome: Rome sent the statue of the Dying Gaul, which is a very classic piece of art that had never left Italy in the last 200 years: it was at the National Gallery in Washington D. C. for display and we have been very honored to have that.

Another very, very strong partnership is between Charleston, South Carolina, and Spoleto: the "Spoleto Festival USA" is a 17 days festival in Charleston which is the an American counterpart to the annual Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto. These are just three basically examples: a lot of cities are doing similar activities.

What about the 50 American States, who's the one with more programs involved in Italy?

Definitively California with 19 partnerships, but it should be known that California has the most US cities members and also the highest number of partnerships, by far: so, it's not surprising. Other states that have a large number of Italian partnerships are Florida with 9 partnerships; Illinois also has 9 partnerships; New York has 7 partnerships; Massachusetts has 5 partnerships.

Regarding California, I know that San Francisco is a Sister City with the city of Assisi where San Francis was born...

Correct, yes. And let me tell you that you don't always have a big city partnering with another big city ... I mean only in California you get cities like Assisi, Ischia, Livorno, Lucca, but you also got small cities like Monticello di Ongina, San Casciano in Val di Pesa or Riva del Gozzo ... that's another wonderful thing about Sister Cities relationships: it doesn't matter if you are a large capital or a tiny village, you can always have activities your community can benefit from.

If an Italian city wants to register a partnership or pursue a program under your organization, what's the procedure?

Well, we encourage to reach out to us directly. If they contact us interested in finding a US partner we help them: we try to understand what type of community they are looking for, and then we search which potential American city would be a good match. If they already have a particular city in mind, we reach out to the local sister city program and help them in trying to develop the relationship. But sometimes we suggest a partnership, maybe with a city they don't know but that matches their criteria A big part of these programs and also a big joy is to uncover hidden gens, a developing relationship with someone that you didn't know a lot about before. So we encourage people to keep an open mind about which potential cities they can form a partnership with. We help them discovering things about a US community and then, when they choose, to develop a partnership agreement.

Generally, if an Italian city wants to form a partnership, it is important to start from what they have. Of course you need the mayor to be on board: but that's not enough. You also need people within the community, because - we've seen it sometimes - if the Sister City program is realized only because of the will of a mayor or a specific city government, every time the administration of the city changes the Sister City program strongly risks to stop.

So you really need local community organizations, whether a museum or a high school or a library or a cultural organization, taking care of the relations and the activities. So, if a city wants to pursue a program, I think that they should decide and find among its citizens who wants do to be involved in this, which kind of activities they want to organize and how, what are the groups and/or the schools and/or the organizations involved. It's very important to figure out who is going to be the champion for this relationship, the engine of it, because all Sister Cities relationships have since the beginning a few champions who are the ones who really push the relationship that they hope to develop.

It's easier for a mayor to travel to another city and sign a piece of paper that says "we're partners", and the program definitively needs him or her to do that: but you have to really develop the structures that are going to support that partnership. Most of our Sister Cities programs start small with one or two exchanges, maybe focus on a particular area, and over time they spread over the communities and then they get new ideas. We have programs that have been going on for decades and that's the way they have grown up.

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