Why are We Sister Cities?

In my experience with non-profit boards I have found the act of defining the mission of an organization to be one of the most tedious undertakings. It can be an arduous and sometimes contentious exercise in wordsmithing. The resulting mission statement is often highly compromised gaggle of words and thoughts that poorly represents what an organization is all about. The value of the process is really not the end result but the honest introspection that it invites. Through this activity, board members reveal and learn how much or how little they understand about the organization they have been persuaded to join.

I looked at mission statements of sister city organizations around the country. The word salad of mission statements is rich with terms like “understanding”, “mutual respect”, “multi-cultural”, “international partnerships”. Some even admit that economic development is part of their mission. I found a few that managed to cram “fund raising” into their mission statement. I kind of like the one from Tempe, Arizona: “Bringing the World Together, One Friendship at a Time”. In many ways that describes what our connection with Alba has done for more than five decades. Personal friendships and family ties have been at the heart of our “gemellaggio” from the very beginning. The reality of what our two cities mean to each other by now defies a mission statement but it probably wouldn't hurt to occasionally revisit why we share this special affinity. 

The danger of having an established successful program is that activities can creep into the mission and obscure the original purpose of having and being sister cities.  Fund raising activities may be essential but they are in support of the mission and not part of the mission. They can be structured to educate as well as finance but they are still just tools. Student exchanges have added a new dimension to linking our two cities and creating new friendships but they are only accessories to the mission and not in themselves a mission, or at least they shouldn't be. There should be some oxygen left in the room for the real purpose of our connecting as sister cities.

The idea of sister cities implies something even deeper than friendship and to a great extent Medford and Alba share a bond that is almost familial. From the first timid steps in the early sixties, friendships grew from getting to know our counterparts half a world away. We learned who our sister citizens are and we learned to communicate with them, all too infrequently in their own language. From that dialogue came  understanding and trust that nurtured lifelong friendships and multi-generational ties between families. 

If I were crafting a mission statement today I would want to include “communication”, “awareness” and “appreciation” among the guiding principles. There should be regular communication at many levels. Our mayors and civic leaders should be in frequent contact. The City of Medford and the Comune di Alba are the at the center of our official relationship as sister cities. That marriage is the only legal one and it should be at the forefront. A sister city connection should be a working partnership and communication must not be ignored. 

One valuable product of communication is awareness. We have our lives to live and problems to face but ignoring the things that are happening in the lives of our sister citizens widens the distance that separates us. Through our connection with Alba we have an opportunity to see world events in a unique perspective. We can escape from the provincial tunnel vision that motivated Dwight Eisenhower to establish the People to-People program. We can be virtual citizens of Alba and of the wider world. We need to wake up and smell the truffles. 

From awareness comes appreciation. Whether it was dumb luck or divine intervention, we became united with a very special city. Even after fifty-four years I am finding new things that bolster my great pride in having Alba as Medford’s sister city, my sister city. I often fear that Alba may have outgrown its American sibling. The world is beating a path to Alba’s door. To Medford’s, not so much. Alba has only a few thousand more inhabitants than it had when we first got acquainted but it has become an international center and a global destination. The Alba brand is priceless. It is recognized for its food, wine, history, culture and entrepreneurial genius. If Italy had nothing but cities like Alba, it would be a super power. Sadly, too few in Medford realize what a treasure we have and how accessible it is. Many in Medford are anxious to enjoy Alba’s hospitality but they would derive a much richer experience if they first came to know and understand why Alba is so unique and its people are so gracious. 

There would be great value in Medford looking to Alba’s success for inspiration and motivation to become a more dynamic city, to offer citizens and visitors a more enriching experience. That is not part of what should be our mission but a great possible fringe benefit.

Thanks to the countless friendships that have been born and nurtured over more than a half century, the state of our “gemellaggio” is strong. The sister city “program” could disappear tomorrow and those friendships would endure. Through better communication we have an opportunity to broaden and deepen the ties built upon those friendships. Rather than waiting for the next student exchange we should be reaching out to Alba on a very regular basis and showing our friends how much we value being their sister city.  

Doug Snider