When Barbara Roberts Mason first traveled to Japan in 1987, she knew little about the East Asian island nation. The Detroit native, then president of the Michigan State Board of Education, was leading a goodwill mission to Shiga Prefecture, Michigan’s Sister State in Japan. Delegation members were to live with Japanese hosts.
The person-to-person nature of the stay marked the start of lasting friendships which bridged geopolitical and cultural boundaries for Mason.
“I stayed with a family there — a mother, father, two children and grandparents,” explains Mason, now 75. “I learned what it was like to live in small house in Japan and more about how Japan operates. We communicated after that… and stayed friends. Before (the trip), all I knew about Japan was that we had been at war with them.”
Today, Mason presides over the Lansing Regional Sister Cities Commission, a city-funded program that maintains six Sister City relationships with communities in China, Ghana, South Korea Mexico and Japan. The programs actively pursue cross-cultural exchanges and economic development opportunities — student exchanges with Asan, South Korea, for example, or providing medical assistance to Akauapim South District, Ghana.
Sister Cities International — a federal program created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 that evolved into a non-profit organization — works with cities throughout the United States to offer assistance through arts, culture and business exchanges.
“Over 125 Chelsea families have either been hosts or travelers, or both,” notes Deborah Oakley, founder of Sister Cities Association of Chelsea. “Most students (in exchanges with Shimizu, Japan) learn they can make friends across international borders and that families are the same.”
“Our most active (Sister City) program is with Perugia, Italy,” shares Don Bultman, president of Grand Rapids Sister Cities International. “They have scholarships that they support to allow a person from here to go to the university there, and vice versa for a student to come here to Grand Valley State University.”
Sister Cities are encouraged to market specialties to one another, as well, Bultman adds. Delivered in person, gifts of Michigan dried cherries and Italian wine, sometimes chocolate, are exchanged and savored by both sides.
Presently, 12 Michigan cities are members of SCI and enjoy partnerships with 33 cities around the world. Other Michigan communities have also established Sister City agreements on their own.
Adam Kaplan, vice president for Sister Cities International in Washington D.C., explains that Sister City agreements offer a variety of benefits. Core among them is building trust as far-distant people come to know one another better. Sister Cities also offer one another municipal technical support and humanitarian aid after floods, earthquakes and other catastrophes.
Charles Graham, city manager for Frankenmuth, notes that its Sister City relationship to Gunzenhausen in Bavaria, Germany, serves to maintain homeland cultural ties.
The two cities celebrated their partnership’s 50th anniversary in 2012. Each sent a 110-citizen delegation to live among the other’s residents. Frankenmuth also raised nearly $350,000 to erect an 18-foot, European-style fountain that depicts two newlywed Bavarian dancers, a tribute to the courage of young couples who settled Frankenmuth in the 1800s.
“For us it is a relationship-building program,” Graham explains. “There are a lot of old-timers here who are interested in their heritage. This is also a way for young people in the community to learn more about it.”
Discover other cultural ties at sister-cities.org.
— Howard Meyerson, Michigan BLUE Magazine