During its annual conference in Minneapolis last weekend, Sister Cities International announced the results of its highly competitive election for open positions on its board of directors. Among the seven members elected was San Antonio's own Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8), a position that Nirenberg said will highlight the Alamo City during international conversations on cultural and economic opportunities.
Sister Cities International (SCI) was founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a "people-to-people" response to the Cold War "to help build the road to an enduring peace," the president said. Rather than forming political and bureaucratic bonds like the United Nations does, SCI connects local people, volunteers, nonprofits, and municipalities in more than 2,100 communities in 145 countries.
"This solidifies San Antonio's place on the stage in regard with global economy," Nirenberg said on Tuesday of his election, which was made official during a vote count on Friday night.
"Sister Cities International shows no preferential treatment to the local programs of its Board Members," stated SCI Vice President Adam Kaplan in an email on Wednesday. "However, the sister cities network is predicated on peer-to-peer learning, and in his role he will have the opportunity to learn from other national leaders in the sister cities movement and bring these lessons back to San Antonio."
While the position doesn't carry with it any formal advantage of San Antonio as it expands relations with participating cities, Nirenberg will, in a sense, carry the city with him to several conferences and meetings throughout his three-year term.
"Being affiliated with (SCI) at this level gives San Antonio's voice international credibility," Nirenberg said.
More than 500 delegates and supporters gathered for the conference that lasted through the weekend and served as a kind of orientation for the new members of the 27-member Board of Directors, Nirenberg said. A member of the board encouraged him to apply for the position earlier this year. His application was endorsed by U.S. representatives Joaquín Castro and Lamar Smith.
"Obviously Councilman Nirenberg’s experience in municipal governance and community leadership made him a very strong candidate," Kaplan stated. "At our Annual Conference we also had a candidate forum where members had the opportunity to engage the candidates, so I can only assume that his comments resonated with the voters. San Antonio is also well-known throughout the sister cities network for having an outstanding program that benefits from a strong relationship between many community stakeholders, including elected officials, which I’m sure helped as well."
San Antonio has nine Sister City agreements with Chennai, India; Guadalajara, Mexico; Kumamoto, Japan; Gwangju, South Korea; Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain; Monterrey, Mexico; Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain; Wuxi, China; and Kaohsiung Municipality, Taiwan.
The day-to-day work of board members is managing the logistics of reaching out to members of the network domestically to identify partner cities throughout the country that can or should explore compatibility, Nirenberg explained.
"Our Directors take an active role in the direction and governance of Sister Cities International, using their expertise to assist with strategy, policy, communications, events and other areas critical to the success of Sister Cities International and the sister cities network," stated Kaplan.
The agreements are monetarily noncommittal, but often include stipulations to dedicate time and resources towards hosting cultural exchanges, which lay the ground work for possible economic exchanges. Each agreement – which can be between cities, counties, or state – are flexible to accommodate for varying degrees of commitment.
As part of his board position, Nirenberg is required to fundraise at least $2,000 per year for SCI.
"This sister city network unites tens of thousands of citizen diplomats and volunteers who work tirelessly to promote peace and understanding through programs and projects focusing on arts and culture, youth and education, economic and sustainable development, and humanitarian assistance," states the SCI website.
The delegation of City officials to Bonn, Germany for the UNESCO World Heritage designation of San Antonio's Spanish colonial Missions earlier this month set its sights on building relations with Darmstadt, Germany’s number one city for cybersecurity, while abroad. It seems the City has taken a new interest in fostering new relationships.
"I truly don't think we can have it any other way," Nirenberg said of the importance of international relations. "If we want to have a strong economy for the people (of San Antonio) we have to start working in that global space."
Despite San Antonio's strong ties to Europe, it has yet to formalize agreements with any European cities outside of Spain. Then Mayor Phil Hardberger led a delegation from San Antonio to Dresden and Berlin in early 2009 that included business an academic leaders. The trip resulted in a three-year “business and cultural alliance” friendship agreement with the City of Dresden, but was not renewed or maintained due to poor timing and apparent lack of effort on each side.
(Read More: Why San Antonio Should Retie the Knot With Germany)
"The pillars of our economy are based on global industries," Nirenberg said, citing the San Antonio Trade and Investment Strategy report of 2015. This comprehensive analysis lists Germany as a focus country but, he noted, France and Brazil are still on San Antonio's Sister City radar.
Nirenberg and his family have an international background. His father's family immigrated to the U.S. from Russia and Poland about 10 years before WWII. While stationed in Malaysia serving in the Peace Corps, his father met his mother. Her family is English/Indian, but her father is from the Philippines.
"For me I've always been interested in the international dialogue. It's key to bright future and it's personal to me," he said, eager to represent San Antonio on an international level.
He is joined by newly elected at-large Board of Directors members Ed Adams of Cincinnati, Ohio; Joe Bice of Washington, D.C.; John Dabeet of Muscatine, Iowa; Mark Jackson of Birmingham, Alabama; and Christine Warnke of Washington, D.C.. Ron Gossett of Sarasota, Florida was re-elected as an at-large member of the Board of Directors. Joshua Walker of Washington, DC was re-elected as the young professional representative to the Board of Directors and Ajaipal (AJ) Chahal of Santa Clara, California was re-elected as the youth representative. Carol Burdette of Anderson, South Carolina was elected as secretary.
NOTE: This story has been updated with statements from SCI Vice President Adam Kaplan.
*Featured/top image: The Sister City International conference opening ceremonies in Minneapolis. Courtesy photo.