Spring Leadership Meeting Sharpens Focus, Intensifies Mission of Sister Cities International

At the new United States Diplomacy Center, Second Lady Karen Pence warmed the hearts of her audience when she shared her own simple self-portrait, and then proceeded to melt their hearts when she sang a traditional Japanese folk song learned from her sister, who had been an exchange student in Japan. Photo courtesy of Sister Cities International.

Day One: Welcome to Washington

The Sister Cities International Spring Leadership Meeting convened in our nation’s capital and home office to SCI, March 15–17, with the SCI staff, Board of Directors, and State Representatives. Travelers came from all over the country, battling difficult weather conditions that had caused numerous flight delays and cancellations. In the end, most could not be stopped by Winter Storm Stella, and the three-day summit kicked off with various committees meetings and a rigorous training session for the new designee State Representatives. On the first afternoon in D.C., the SCI leadership team braved the elements and descended on Capitol Hill to pay a visit to their Congressional representatives in advocacy for international engagement. They received a warm welcome in the cold, and it was a good start to a productive leadership meeting that felt more like a family gathering of a closely-knit group bonded by a common purpose: peace and prosperity through citizen diplomacy.

Day Two: A Mission that Matters

The “Signature Section” of the Berlin Wall

On the second day of meetings, the Sister Cities International delegates convened at the new United States Diplomacy Center for its second day of meetings. Excitement and apprehension filled the air. Upon entering the building, a sense of pride and accomplishment prevailed, physically manifested in the building with bold, bright modern architecture. The collection of artifacts, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s colorful “Read My Pins” collection and the famous “Signature Section” of the Berlin Wall, made an immediate impression.

The tempo of events accelerated as everyone quickly took their place for lunch, an opportunity to mingle among politicians, dignitaries and members of the National Guard. SCI was proud to be the first organization invited to hold a formal luncheon program in the newly finished reception room of the U.S. Diplomacy Center. Kathy A. Johnson, Director of the U.S. Diplomacy Center, welcomed guests and made opening remarks, followed by SCI President and CEO Mary D. Kane, U.S. Representative Kay Granger from Texas, Mark Taplin, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), and David O’Sullivan, Ambassador of the European Union to the United States.

Eloquent, powerful words sounded out a unified message: the soft diplomacy of people-to-people exchange has made a powerful difference in the past and will remain a positive force for change in the future. But the real highlight of the day came with the sudden arrival of a petite, unassuming-looking woman in a bright Kelly green dress, the Second Lady of the United States, Mrs. Karen Pence. A former elementary school teacher specialized in art therapy, she gave a moving testimonial of her own personal experience as part of an art exchange in Ota City, Japan, sister city of Lafayette, Indiana, when students drew their own faces with an eyeglass reflection “seeing my favorite things.” She warmed the hearts of the audience when she shared her on own “seeing my favorite things” self-portrait, and then proceeded to melt their hearts when she sang a traditional Japanese folk song learned from her sister, who had been an exchange student in Japan as a young girl. It was a family memory that had opened up a new world for two young girls — a moment of intimacy that touched all those in attendance with its genuine spontaneity and sincerity.

This remarkable day did not end there. The luncheon and continued meetings were followed by a diplomatic reception at the Slovenian Embassy, in part an affirmation of the strong and mutually beneficial relationship forged at the Sister Cities Inaugural Gala in January. Ambassador H.E. Dr. Božo Cerar graciously served the best of Slovenian wine and formally raised a toast to a new friendship, as he shared images and stories of the magnificent scenery, white Lipizzaner horses, and state-of-the-art vineyards that make Slovenia such a beautiful country — and an attractive tourist destination. The intimate and friendly evening was a fitting close to a meaningful and memorable day.

Day Three: Embracing the Challenge

The third day of meetings closed with a final board meeting and the confirmation of the newly appointed state representatives. Overall, the SCI 2017 Spring Leadership meeting left many with a sense of pride, achievement, and challenge. For over sixty years, Sister Cities International has endured as a non-partisan diplomatic institution, well-respected in our country and throughout the world, and offering a creative array of programs that allow ordinary citizens to step up and make a difference.

Today this world has become more uncertain, both at home and abroad, and therein lies the challenge. Yet when all is said and done, the SCI mission of promoting peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation remains the foundation of our work, and the leadership of Sister Cities International will not hesitate to move forward in our convictions with an unwavering enthusiasm for the future in 2017 and beyond.