Christopher Columbus weighs in at three tons and stands 20 feet tall. His bronze exterior is illuminated by spotlights. His shadow rises tall on the front of City Hall in downtown Columbus, Ohio.
Behind that shadow, through the plaster, cement, and inside the walls of City Hall, sits an eclectic group of young professionals at a 20-person boardroom table: a philanthropist, a city council member, a travel agent, a youth pastor and a police officer.
At first glance, this group seems to have nothing in common. But they share a bond: a love for Columbus, and a desire to make it better.
The group is meeting in preparation for their trip to Genoa, Italy, where they hope to gain knowledge and ideas they can bring back to Columbus. The youth pastor hopes to learn how Genoa take’s care of its poor and widowed. Two sisters on the trip want to talk to Columbus youth about globalization after the trip. A philanthropist, and former Columbus Museum of Art board member, hopes to find inspiration for bringing an art showcase to Columbus schools.
Each individual has their own mission, but they have one single thread that ties them all together: Greater Columbus Sister Cities International.
There is a lot of political talk that surrounds the description of GCSCI and its purpose. Phrases like “global partners” and “educational, economic, environmental and cultural catalyst,” are what “suit and tie Tim Sword” and his political partners use when describing the program.
GCSCI, however, is simply all about building a relationship. Once relationships are built, partnerships are formed — whether it be a partnership in education, business, policies, etc., the strength of the relationship determines its growth.
The mission of GCSCI reflects this exactly, “the creation of economic, educational, cultural, and environmental opportunities through relationship building between the Columbus region and its sister cities and their regions.”
The idea of sister cities is simple: a community of no particular size connects with a community from another country in order to learn more about each other and, hopefully, provide some economic connection.
In 1955 Columbus began its relationship with its first sister city, Genoa, Italy. Since then, GCSCI has established nine additional sister city relationships.
Sixty years later, GCSCI found a president in Ohio native Tim Sword. After originally hestitant to accept the job offer from members of the programs board, Tim was later intrigued by the idea of growing the program into something great and creating his own vision for it; “Whatever I do, I try to make it my own,” said Sword.
“Columbus is a collaborative community and there are international aspects to this city,” said Tim Sword, president of the Columbus Sister Cities Program.
Tim doesn’t just live and work in Columbus — he immerses himself in it. He teaches business classes and sponsors a club at The Ohio State University, called Global Leadership Initiative. Living downtown near Columbus College of Art and Design, he starts every morning with a run, listening to the same song, “Creator,” by Santigold. It is a song he says, that reminds him of his work with GCSCI. While the song blares through his headphones, pushing him along, he runs around the State House, along the Scioto River and back up to the feet of the Christopher Columbus statue in front of City Hall.
Tim touches the giant bronze feet of the statue to mark the end of his run.
Tim is a product of Columbus, born in Ohio State’s Medical Center to two Ohio State students. After his parents’ graduation, they moved to a dairy farm in New London, Ohio. Despite his family operating a farming business until Tim was 18 years-old, he has never thought of himself as a “farm kid”, because he always had a fascination with what else the world had to offer. After graduating high school in New London, Tim returned to Columbus to attend Ohio State University. He’s called Columbus home ever since.
Much like the city that bore him, Tim is pretty, sassy, progressive and underestimated.
Standing at the front of the boardroom in City Hall, he is dressed in a gray pressed and fitted gray suit. His mahogany-colored hair is tousled and gelled- a “get up and go” kind of look that obviously took much effort to accomplish. He walks into a room with his leather portfolio that seems to never leave his side. He is only 5 feet, 11 inches, but he stands tall with perfect posture and speaks with conviction, making everyone else in the room feel as though he towers over them. His slim figure, Oakley eyeglasses and tan skin hint at a life outside of an office.
But, he acts like a politician in the sense that he is always campaigning for his programs’ support. Similar to politicians, he speaks of GCSI as if it is flawless. He hides the ugly side of his “politicking” and presents everything in a pretty package, just like himself.
The reason Tim was hesitant to first take the position as president of Columbus Sister Cities was because, to him it felt “soft.”
President of a program called “sister cities” was not what he had in mind for himself. He thought of the organization as fluffy. But the more he learned about GCSCI, the more it sparked his interest. In making the decision on whether or not he would accept the position, he began to think of his own sister.
Despite being ten years younger, she was never the little sister he had to protect. She is a captain in the US Marines Corps, served a term in Afghanistan, and has completed Ironman competitions. She was not even close to “soft” or “fluffy.”
Sword wanted to make GCSCI that type of sister. The type of sister who changed the world. The type of sister that handled every challenge thrown her way. The type of sister that was a badass.
Sept. 22, 2015, Tim called a debriefing for the men and women who traveled with him to Curitiba, Brazil. The meeting was held in the Franklin County Government Center. Sitting at a round table centered in the Commissioner Marilyn Brown’s office, the group of seven discussed things they believed Curitiba has in common with Columbus, as well as things they can learn and possibly adopt from Curitiba.
“Curitiba is a lot like Columbus in a lot of ways — especially size wise,” said Commissioner Brown.
Commissioner Brown began the conversation — she started off by saying how much she personally gained from the trip and how much she cherishes the connections she was able to make with everyone around the table.
Then, she quickly put back on her “political hat.”
“From this travel, we gained a better understanding of how (Curitiba) deals with poverty, healthcare, public art, incarcerations and public transportation,” said Brown.
Of these points, incarceration and public transportation had the biggest impact on the group:
Franklin County jail has an estimated population of 1,000–2,000 inmates daily. Overpopulation and the economic impact of those incarcerated when they are in and out of jail. (Taxpayers actually provide a stipend for the families of someone in jail and the city spends about $60 million a year on prisoners).
“Once you are behind bars, the city has already failed you,” said the prison director of San Paulo, Brazil.
Tim was scribbling down notes throughout the conversation without speaking.
Columbus officials got ideas for restructuring operations of the Franklin County prison system from their visit.
Columbus’ goal: reduce the number of people in prison by 350 percent.
The result: It will keep people in the community working and spending money locally.
The visit to Curitiba also revealed a strong transportation system, which Columbus officials would love to emulate so public transportation become the primary mode of transportation for city residents.
Members from the trip have already sat down with officials from the Central Ohio Transit Authority to create more bus stops and more convenient routes. In Curitiba, you can’t go more than 50 meters without a bus stop.
It’s the chance to see change in action that inspires most members of the sister cities initiative to seek a similar evolution in Columbus. Not only has this program had an impact on the city, it has almost impacted the individual travelers.
Michael Daniels, the policy director to Commissioner Brown, had a personal experience in Brazil that he says he will remember for the rest of his life. On June 26, 2015, same-sex marriage became legal in the United States. Michael, a gay man, remembers seeing rainbow flags waving while he cried on the streets of Brazil.
“My marriage was finally legitimate. They were all so happy for us, they carried out their own parades to celebrate equality across the world,” said Daniels.
When it comes to travelers, Tim wholeheartedly believes that those who benefit the most from traveling are young people. He feels that traveling when you are young can change the course of your life, while for older professionals traveling is just that, traveling.
In Tim’s words, the biggest difference is how much young professionals lean into the program and genuinely try to connect with people.
“The younger people were looking to make more of a connection, they were breaking out of our little group.”
Established professionals are more inward, something Tim noticed during the Curitiba trip. The members of that trip were able to connect with one another rather than getting out of their comfort zone to make those international connection.
His theory was proven in his most recent trip to Genoa where he focused on taking young professionals.
Jeremy Leifel, a senior in sales management at the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, was a member of the GCSCI Genoa trip. During his travels, he fell so in love with Italy, the culture and the people, that despite not knowing anyone or having any plans he is now considering moving to Genoa.
This push towards young professionals is something GCSCI chair of the board, James Sisto, commends him for.
“I think he’s doing a great job in getting a greater diversity of people involved in sister cities, like the young professionals trip to Genoa. That was great, a great idea and it’s just adding a whole other element to the organization,” said Sisto.
Like the potholes that erupt in Columbus streets every winter, GCSCI’s road, however, is not always smooth. It has been housed in a city building located at 150 Front St., but because GCSCI acts as a stand alone non-profit organization. The city of Columbus is making the program relocate in order to create distance between the city and the program. Sword also faces a board he says is too big and the initiative is not a first priority for most. Tim’s staff consists of a part-time assistant, Tiffany Conn and a communications intern.
GCSCI and Tim also struggle gaining community support, which Tim finds ironic for an organization whose sole purpose is to better the community.
Many C-bussers have no idea what is GCSCI, or even what having sister cities means.
Without building relationships in Columbus, the program will not reach its full potential. It takes the citizens of Columbus to make this program a success and not necessarily public officials.
It is easy to forget you are in Columbus as Tim sits in his windowless office, a world map hanging to his left, flags representing all the sister cities scattered on his desk and bookshelf. The quote “saving the world is time consuming” is in black messy handwriting atop his dry erase board. Tim brainstorms how to reach the people of Columbus and share with them the importance of sister cities — from the scattered papers on his desk and long conference calls it seems that he doesn’t know where to start.
This is Tim’s biggest obstacle: spending so much time building relationships with rest of the world that he struggles to reach Columbus.
Tim, however, keeps up the fight. He wants to rename the 60-year-old program to “Global Partners,” which believes is more fitting for its mission of creating economic and cultural relations, and will appeal more to sponsors. He wants to improve board member engagement, even if it means reducing the size of the board, and make each member bring a corporate sponsor to the Annual Meeting held in November each year.
Orange tablecloths proved a stark contrast to the black and white checkered floor. Delicately decorated with table settings, programs and desserts, numbered tables took over the space in The Ohio Statehouse Atrium as raindrops pounded overhead. It was a gloomy day, but Tim was zealous to share his programs achievements and goals.
The Annual Meeting is GCSCI’s biggest fundraising event of the year, where the future and past of the program come full circle.
The Atrium was abuzz as Tim and the board clad in their suits and business skirts, mingled with tables full of corporate sponsors and local politicians. The tables were marked with place cards, each displaying a word descriptive of GCSCI, such as “engagement” and ‘involvement”
Brown spoke to the room about the value she found in her trip with GCSCI.
“We know what it takes to build relationships globally and what the value is of global civic and economic development and to be a partner with Greater Columbus Sister Cities and what that means to be a leader in this organization.”
Sen. Frank LaRose, who represents the 27th District of Ohio, then spoke of how the world is smaller than it has ever been before. He mentioned a word from the GCSCI’s mission — ”relationship” — and said that opportunities are only created from the relationships people make, and that is the value of GCSCI — the relationships it creates all over the world.
City Council member Shannon Hardin praised Sword’s work and vision for GCSCI “We are truly lucky to have his leadership in making a stronger city,”he said.
When Tim took the podium, sharply dressed in a suit and tie and sporting his customary messy gelled hair, he not only echoed the prior speakers with the notion that GCSCI is building a better Columbus, but he expanded on what the people of Columbus can do for GCSCI.
He encouraged the audience to spread the word and the importance of GCSCI. He stressed to business leaders the importance of young professionals “traveling with purpose.” Sword wholeheartedly believes that traveling while you are young will make the most impact on an individual’s life. But, he also believes in the power of money, and announced to a room of nearly 200 people, that GCSCI wants to increase funding by $50,000 next year. He also discussed becoming more interactive with the community on social media, and even used the hashtag #GCSCI_AM during the meeting.
“Greater financial support from the private sector,” is a goal that board member Sisto has set for the future of the program.
Tim also announced the newest sister city joining the ranks, Accra, Ghana.
Tim’s big ideas may come true for GCSCI, or the organization may continue on its current path — clinging to viability and striving to be recognized.
Either way, every morning, as the sun rises, Tim will go out for his run and come to the bronze Christopher Columbus statue in front of City Hall. He will touch its feet and take a deep breath.
He will remember how far his program has come, and why its mission remains vital.