Cincinnati skyline at dusk. Public domain photo.
Cincinnati skyline at dusk. Public domain photo.
carla bandw headshot

Working on a political campaign a few years ago, my staff and I lovingly referred to our headquarters as “The Alamo.”

We were few but mighty.

We had few if any supplies. We felt like we were the last outpost in Ohio – in full disclosure, we were based in Cincinnati which is the southernmost point of the state.

Cincinnati skyline at dusk. Public domain photo.
Cincinnati skyline at dusk. Public domain photo.

Imagine how excited I was to walk the grounds of the real Alamo.  But it wasn’t a campaign that brought me to San Antonio. It was the 57th Annual Conference of Sister Cities International (SCI), the national membership organization for individual sister cities, counties, and states across the US, that advances peace and prosperity through cultural, educational, humanitarian, and economic development exchanges.

The conference theme, The Power of Exchange, focused on the central message that cities and municipalities are at the core of driving global connections.  As a member of the SCI Board of Directors and Chair of their Membership Committee for the last three years, the subject of how cities create and leverage their Sister City relationships as part of an overall global strategy cannot be discussed enough.

I spent five years focusing on this very topic.  From 2005-2010, as Chief of Staff for Mayor Mark Mallory of Cincinnati and city liaison to Sister Cities, I led an initiative to improve our City brand in the global space.  Immediately, I looked to assets such as our Sister City organization to assist with that effort.  Our relationships with cities in Germany, China, France, Taiwan, Ukraine, Japan, and Harare were logical jumping off points from which to develop and expand our brand, expand avenues of economic development and broaden cross cultural ties.  One of our major successes was aligning with the Convention & Visitors Bureau to secure the 2012 World Choir Games which brought 200,000 visitors from around the world to our doorstep for two weeks.

Press conference announcing Cincinnati to host 2012 Regional Conference. l-r: Kim Robinson, CEO National Underground Freedom Center, Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, Dan Lincoln, President Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureay, Carla Walker.
Press conference announcing Cincinnati to host 2012 Regional Conference. From left: Kim Robinson, CEO National Underground Freedom Center; Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, Dan Lincoln, President Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureay; Carla Walker.

Proud of what we accomplished? Yes. Satisfied? Well, I think we could have done more with a different approach.  Beyond that one event, which did galvanize the city, I had hoped we could leverage the opportunity to engage in the development of a more comprehensive global strategy.  The city has the assets at its disposal.

Greater Cincinnati is home to nine Fortune 500 Company headquarters.  We have more than 15 higher education institutions at our fingertips and a medical community that is nationally recognized many times over.  We are home to several ethnic Chambers of Commerce and business organizations such as the European-American Chamber, the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Chamber, the Taiwanese Association, the Japan America Association, the Indian American Chamber, The African-American Chamber, and the Hispanic Chamber.

Three months after the World Choir Games, Cincinnati hosted the SCI Regional Conference of Midwestern States. It was a significantly smaller event – two days and about 200 attendees. However, as Chair of the conference, I saw an opportunity for members to learn how to unlock their potential and help with developing a city’s global strategy.

SCI members like San Antonio are setting the bar.

View of Berlin Wall segment gifted to Cincinnati by our German Sister City of Munich. The segment is placed in front of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Photo courtesy Carla Walker.
View of Berlin Wall segment gifted to Cincinnati by our German Sister City of Munich. The segment is placed in front of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Photo courtesy Carla Walker.

Juggling nine Sister City relationships can be a challenge for any city.  However, the San Antonio model takes a comprehensive approach that I admire.  According to the International Relations Office:

“Our model has brought a cultural enrichment to our diverse community while paving the way for significant economic development.  Exchange sponsorships have been a community-wide effort in area schools, ethnic organizations, corporations and citizen groups.”

A week before my San Antonio trip, Brookings published “10 Traits of Globally Fluent Metro Areas,” listing the city among such global metropolitan names like Toronto, Singapore, Barcelona, Chicago, New York, and Moscow.  I thought the timing was nothing short of perfect.

I have visited a number of cities where our network is engaged in the development of global engagement plans – Columbus, Chicago, and Los Angeles, for example.  So, while briefly in San Antonio, I sought to soak up all that I could and understand what our network could learn from their particular example.

Here are three San Antonio observations I will share when I speak with cities and our members:

Engage local leaders as global ambassadors for the City:

The involvement of a diverse group of local leaders including business, education, community and elected officials was evident.  I was impressed by the level of collaboration on international initiatives.  I was also taken by the depth of the knowledge base and passion for the importance of linking into the global economy.  Everyone talked about it not from a sheet of talking points but from the experience and success of being actively involved in exchanges.

Venues and Institutions dedicated to showcasing international connections:

Our attendees were treated to events at Port San Antonio, the International Center and the Institute of Texan Cultures.  One of the conference tour options was visiting the public art pieces that celebrate diversity, including a number of locations that speak to the Sister City relationships such as the Kumamoto En Garden and the Korean Pavilion. A brick-and-mortar investment or public display of those global relationships takes the strategy from paper to real life.  They are concrete evidence and constant reminders that those connections exist.

Japanese Tea Gardern
The Japanese Tea Garden within the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Courtesy photo.

Create an atmosphere that embraces all cultures:

Admittedly, my time in San Antonio was limited. I came for a conference, stayed at a wonderful hotel, and strolled about downtown in the tourist/convention area. None the less, in just three days, I saw cultures embraced and recognized to a degree that presented a city brand of inclusion.  That was my perception from the time I checked out the festival of cuisines along the River Walk to observing the diversity of conference speakers engaged in international initiatives in the city. What I witnessed was not that these groups were operating in their own silos or communities but that they were a part of the message and strategy of San Antonio’s drive to be a global city.

I experienced a city that does globalism well and I appreciated that.

As I continue to explore how cities can leverage their Sister City relationships, I look forward to sharing my San Antonio observations. Three days was not nearly enough time so I look forward to a return visit when I can stay longer and experience even more of the city.

Carla Walker is a strategic communications and PR expert based in Cincinnati with a passion for global connectivity. After more than 15 years working in government relations, communications and stakeholder engagement with elected leaders at the local, state, national and international levels, she launched her consultancy group think BIG strategies. She holds a BS from the University of Cincinnati, an M.S. from the University of Florida and an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In addition to serving on the national SCI Board, she is a Trustee for the Greater Cincinnati World Affairs Council and a member of the Ohio Advisory Board for the US Global Leadership Coalition.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org