Sister cities: Towns that reach across oceans to form special bonds and foster cultural awareness

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Within the halls of local government throughout the region, thoughts often turn to the world beyond: a business community in China, cultural happenings in Germany, economic struggles in Uganda, municipal maneuvering in Australia.

It's not just headlines that prompt the ponderings but personal connections that have been established across the globe by local people who are nurturing an interest in places beyond their own backyards.

A "sister-city" relationship that Cranberry established in 2010 with Haiyang in the Shandong Province of China has helped the township "better understand the Chinese culture and the global environment in which our businesses are working," Cranberry manager Jerry Andree said.

Such an understanding is "appreciated," he said, by the business community of the Far Eastern city that shares with Cranberry a vital interest in Westinghouse Corp. The nuclear energy company, now based in Cranberry, is involved in building power plants in Haiyang.

"We have heard from a number of local companies that work with Chinese firms that they are hearing back from their customers how much their citizens enjoy [their interactions] with our community," Mr. Andree said. He said time has shown that the business relationships between Cranberry and China "are much more reliant upon personal and professional relationships [in] building trust between the customer and the vendor."

A more tangible impact on Cranberry has been a spinoff effect of attracting to the township other business ventures that deal with China, Mr. Andree said.

Sister to sister

Global connectedness is a concept that has been promoted for six decades by Sister Cities International, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that was founded by President Dwight D. Eisenhower following World War II in recognition of the importance of mitigating American negativity toward the Japanese and the Germans. The ultimate impact was nurturing not only peace but a solid business relationship, said Mary Kane, president and chief executive officer of Sister Cities International.

"Look at how many cars we buy [from Japanese and German automakers]. Trust was built over time and that's how business is done. It's not always or only about contracts. It's just as much about relationships," Ms. Kane said.

The current Chinese president, Xi Jinping, first visited the U.S. in 1985 on a sister-city mission as part of an agricultural group, she said. Recently, he returned to a city in Iowa to visit with the family that had hosted him in 1985, bringing good tidings -- as well as a soybean deal to Iowa.

"Sister-city relationships promote the dual goals of peace and prosperity," Ms. Kane said. About 550 municipalities in the U.S. are members of the organization with some 2,000 partnerships in 136 countries. Pennsylvania has 16 members, with one local membership: Saxonburg. For the tiny Butler County borough, its relationship with German sibling Muehlhausen is less about economic potential than it is about enjoying a shared history.

Saxonburg was founded by famed bridge builder John Roebling, who was born and raised in Muehlhausen, where the town square still boasts a life-size statue of the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge.

"[Our sister-city relationship] is dear to my heart, and I think it's been great for our borough,'' said Linda Kovacik, chief administrative officer of Saxonburg, who visited Muehlhausen as part of a contingent from Saxonburg in August 2010.

The town council voted in March 2008 to establish an official sister-city relationship and, since then, there have been multiple exchanges of visits and memorabilia. Saxonburg representatives visited Muehlhausen in 2008 and 2010, and officials of Muehlhausen returned the favor in 2009 and 2011. The proclamation of the relationship hangs in municipal offices in both towns, as do their respective flags.

"This has been an exchange of culture and shared history. I have friends for life in Germany now. For our people, I think it reminds us of the connections we have with the rest of the world," Ms. Kovacik said.

There's a similar sensibility in Heidelberg, founded in 1903 by German immigrants and named for its counterpart in Heidelberg, Germany.

While no formal relationship exists between the two cities, local borough manager Joe Kauer said acknowledgement of the towns' shared roots is encouraged in a variety of ways: a photo of the U.S. Heidelberg's first residents hangs in the borough community room, with some four dozen people pictured bidding a farewell to Germany; a stained glass coat of arms from Heidelberg, Germany, hangs in the conference room and is emblazoned on the borough's police cars and letterhead. Likewise, tokens of Heidelberg, Pa. -- wooden replicas of the borough building and a train platform building -- have been sent to Germany.

"I think this recognition of our roots and our connection to other places builds civic pride," Mr. Kauer said. He said he hears frequently that a town resident at some point in the year will visit Heidelberg, Germany, and bring home a trinket or two. "More reminders,'' he said.

From Latrobe, with love

In Latrobe, where officials are exploring the possibility of a sister-city relationship with a counterpart in Australia, it's not so much a shared history that's being pursued as it is cultural sensitivity and global awareness, said city manager Alexander Graziani, whose interest in La Trobe, Australia, was sparked by a succession of Google search hits.

Mr. Graziani had set his Google search engine to generate a list of hits on "Latrobe" in an effort to keep current on what was being written about his municipality. Repeatedly, his inbox was populated with stories from his unofficial sister-city across the globe. It led to a dialogue with his counterpart, David Elder, in the much larger Australian municipality. Latrobe in Westmoreland County has about 8,300 residents, while the La Trobe in Australia boasts about 70,000.

Since last summer, when the initial contact was made, Latrobe and La Trobe have been getting to know each other. The Australian town sent a DVD about itself, and the U.S. Latrobe sent memorabilia such as a banana split lapel pin because the banana split was invented in Latrobe; a trolley from the "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" television show, whose legendary host Fred Rogers hailed from Latrobe; and information about Idlewild Park and golfing icon Arnold Palmer.

"I don't know where this is going to go, but I see this as a reflection of the reality that we are in a global economy. Our companies, like Kennametal and Latrobe Specialty Steel, are shipping products all over the world. I think it's important that we encourage a spirit within our community to embrace the beauty of culture diversity, to broaden our horizons and see beyond Western Pennsylvania," Mr. Graziani said.

In an email dated April 11, Mr. Elder, the manager of cultural livability for the Australian La Trobe, said he welcomes the connection with Western Pennsylvania. He wrote:

"With respect to our fledgling relationship with Latrobe, Pa., we are excited at the prospect of a formal friendship relationship. In fact, only moments ago, I received a box full of memorabilia, news articles and brochures from Latrobe, Pa., which I will share with our International Relations Committee next week and will provide us with an opportunity to discuss the possibility of a formal relationship in some detail. Whilst I can't comment on behalf of our community and our Councillors, I can say that we (my colleagues and I) think it's cool that there is another Latrobe and whilst it's still early days, we are certainly open to exploring a more formal relationship with Latrobe, Pa."

It's a small, small world

Greater acknowledgement of the global community can be encouraged by reaching the leaders of tomorrow, according to Bille Rondinelli, superintendent of the South Fayette Township School District.

"There's simply no doubt that the world has evolved to a smaller place. Technology has flattened the world. Our mission and responsibility as educators is to develop in our students a sense of global relationship. It's a competitive world, a competitive market. We need to understand those markets and cultures through technology," she said.

One particular South Fayette teacher takes the mission seriously. Stephanie Romero, a middle school Spanish teacher whose husband is from Peru, is involved in three school-based international projects. She runs an after-school club known as the UNESCO Club, which is affiliated with the United Nations. It is involved in two global projects. The third effort is associated with the Peace Corps.

One of the projects through the UNESCO Club, which has about 15 members at the middle school, is associated with Carnegie Mellon University. It involves the use of panoramic photography and entails an exchange of photos with a middle school science class in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"We took pictures of wetlands and our farmlands and suburban area. They did it within their rainforest and a squatters camp. It has given the kids an opportunity to talk about where they live and their respective environments, what's alike and what's different," Ms. Romero said.

Another UNESCO Club project involves fundraising for a Ugandan orphanage/school. South Fayette students sell the hand-arts from Ugandan children to raise money to support the school. The project has raised both sensitivity to the plight of others as well as awareness of educational conditions in a faraway place, Ms. Romero noted.

The third project involves the assistance of a Peace Corps correspondent in Costa Rica. The corps volunteer has recruited a group of students to be pen pals with Ms. Romero's eighth-grade Spanish students.

"We write in Spanish. They write in English," she said.

The topics have been wide-ranging, but Ms. Romero said they share a trajectory.

"I have a very large vision for my kids. We live in a time where being a global citizen is really important. If you can speak another language, understand another culture, not only is that a competitive advantage for a job, but there's a social benefit, too. We grow to understand our role in the world."

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Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180. First Published May 9, 2013 4:00 AM


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