Last October, visitors from a Mexican fire department traveled to Tulsa to dedicate a fountain installed at the Tulsa Fire Museum. The visit was in recognition of the decades-long relationship between the San Luis Potosi, Mexico, fire department and the TFD as part of the sister city program. San Luis Potosi became Tulsa’s first sister city in 1980, followed by seven more.
All across Oklahoma, cities benefit from inclusion in the Sister Cities International program. Oklahoma City has seven sister cities across the globe as well; along with smaller cities and towns including Claremore, Norman, Ponca City, Shawnee, Stillwater and Yukon.
“[Tulsa’s Sister Cities program is] an opportunity for Tulsans and the citizens of the sister cities to get to know the people of a community in depth,” says Bob Lieser, vice president of programs for the Tulsa Global Alliance, who also manages the Tulsa Sister Cities program. “To actually develop a relationship between families in both cities, between institutions in both cities, between the governments. But really to learn about the culture of both cities in depth, in a way that you don’t get if you just read about them in the news, or if you travel but don’t get an opportunity to visit with someone in their home.”
The Sister Cities International program was started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 with the goal of promoting global relationships and “citizen diplomacy” through education, culture, information and trade exchanges.
The program gained traction in Oklahoma in the 1980s when then-Gov. George Nigh signed an agreement with Taiwan to become the first sister state. Other sister city relationships across Oklahoma began to blossom at the same time.
According to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce’s website, “sister relationships are the only international partnership agreements that link local governments. The agreements establish an active relationship, which strives to improve the mutual understanding of diverse cultures.”
In making the decision to move forward with a sister city agreement between governments, there are several factors taken into consideration.
“Often, it will be a city that has a similar size to Tulsa, and sometimes it will be a city that might be similar in size, but also similar in industry or economic development,” says Lieser. For example Celle, Germany, is an oil town, just like its sister city, Tulsa. The cities also often have exchange arrangements and connections established through education, culture or other civic agreements in advance of becoming an established sister city.
And there are opportunities for everyone to get involved. Lieser says that individuals and families are always needed to greet international visitors at the airport, drive them around town to meetings and events, and even to host them for dinner or overnight. They also need volunteers to help with events.
Through all the events, travel, and educational, business and cultural exchanges, the overall mission remains the same, to foster international relations on an individual level.
“We talk about a concept called ‘citizen diplomacy,’ it’s the idea that diplomacy is too important just to be left to professional diplomats,” says Lieser. “Ordinary citizens, not just in the United States, but all over the world, have the responsibility to help promote international relationships the best way they can. We say one handshake or one smile at a time.”
Oklahoma’s Sister Cities