As an American who was raised overseas and has dedicated my life's work to international bridge-building, there is nothing that gets me more excited than being surrounded by globally connected and locally thriving citizens. I have lived the interconnectedness of our world since birth and know that America's strength comes from within and from our global diversity. Having spent my entire life explaining America to the world and analyzing my homeland from overseas, being in the heartland of our great nation to celebrate citizen diplomacy with Sister Cities International's annual conference was a particular treat this past weekend.
Delegates from all across the United States and the world connected with their local and global Sister Cities communities in San Antonio, Texas, to hear from leading businesses, cities, diplomats, futurists, mayors, teachers, youth, and everything in between about the importance of the connections being made everyday through citizen diplomacy. My own story of how I ended up here is indicative of how an organization that was founded 57 years ago by President Dwight Eisenhower to champion peace and prosperity by fostering bonds between people from different communities around the world remains a trailblazer for the next generation of citizen diplomats.
Standing 6'4" with blue eyes and brown hair, I was always the "all-American boy" in my hometown of Sapporo, Japan, where my parents moved when I was 3 years old. Each year since I can remember during Sapporo's Snow Festival I would have the chance to meet with visitors from all around the world, including our own Sister City in Portland, Oregon. Though I had no idea about the organization at the time, the concept of being linked to another city in my homeland with similar characteristics and helping introduce my new American friends to my adopted hometown made staying connected that much easier in a world that was pre-Facebook and e-mail. My subsequent experiences and career path have only reinforced my core belief in the need for human connections and encouraged me to explore my own "Americaness" as a way of understanding my homeland and world as a bridge-builder, practitioner, and scholar. Turns out, like many of my fellow conference participants, I've been living, learning, and translating the mission of Sister Cities International as an American since birth without ever knowing it until this weekend.
As I visited the Alamo and saw firsthand the price paid for freedom that ultimately inspired a young republic, I couldn't help but think of the young Egyptians, Palestinians, Tunisians, and Turks I've had the pleasure of meeting throughout this last year who in their own ways are "remembering the Alamo" in their own unique contexts. My imagination did not have to wander for long however as the benefits of similar visits for our foreign delegates were rewarded as I experienced many of my new international friends learn about this iconic American narrative for the very first time. Meeting with and watching the youth delegates debate various global issues from climate change to transnational water rights at their own leadership summit, it was hard not to feel optimistic about the future if we can simply keep our next generation as engaged in international affairs as the greatest generation have always been. Standing in the hall of the Institute of Texas Cultures surrounded by historic exhibits on contributions by all the cultures that have enriched this country while enjoying culinary and entertainment delights from each of San Antonio's sister cities from around the world as Mayor Julian Castro talked about visions for the future, there is no more powerful reminder of the importance of Sister Cities both as a concept and organization.
Exchanges, homestays, memorandums, and travel will continue to be the tools of citizen diplomats, but empowering and inspiring the next generation through gatherings like this weekend remain critical. Helping articulate the very best America has to offer is no longer simply for professional diplomats but citizen diplomats like each of us that are needed more today than ever before. Getting connected to one of the more than 500 communities with partnerships in over 1,900 cities and 140 countries around the globe is only a click away as a result of innovations in technology, but the heart of citizen diplomacy continues to rest with each of us in human connections. Like each of my fellow participants, both American and international, I met this weekend, I hope we will rededicate ourselves to citizen diplomacy.
Dr. Joshua W. Walker was recently elected to the Sister Cities International's Board of Directors and looks forward to working to connect globally to thrive locally.