Kindred Spirits

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A Closer Look at Chattanooga’s Sister Cities

By Catherine Smith

Sister cities are communities in two different countries who form an official partnership to foster friendships, share ideas, and gain a mutually beneficial understanding of different cultures. Here in Chattanooga, we have established these relationships with a number of communities around the world, and Chattanooga Sister Cities hopes to add more in the coming years.

Read on to learn more about how the Scenic City is connecting with kindred spirits around the world.

Sister City Association (SCA) of Chattanooga is a nonprofit organization that fosters relationships between Chattanooga and cities around the world through cultural, educational, institutional, and commercial exchanges. For Karen Claypool, president of SCA of Chattanooga, the most rewarding result of these relationships is “connecting people from different countries and helping them learn to understand each other, learn to accept each other, and learn to love each other.”

Chattanooga has seven sister cities, two of which are currently inactive, with plans to add more partnerships to this list in the future.

hamm, germanyHamm, Germany

The Center for Creative Arts Jazz Ensemble gathers on Pentecost Sunday to perform at Pankratius Kirche, Hamm’s oldest church, which was built in 1511.

Hamm, Germany

Sister City Since 1977

Hamm, Germany became Chattanooga’s first sister city 46 years ago when the cities were linked by Dupont Chemical, a polymer production company with large factories in both areas. Hamm and Chattanooga have continued a close bond over the years – strengthened by travel, student exchanges, and art exchanges. For example, SCA of Chattanooga has facilitated visits from Hamm music group Cantate 86, and the Choo Choo Kids from Center for Creative Arts (CCA) have performed several times in Hamm. In May of this year, the CCA Jazz Ensemble spent a week in Hamm and performed six concerts during their stay.

wuxi, china

Wuxi, China

Wuxi, China

Sister City Since 1982

Wuxi, China is a scenic city in its own right, bordered by Lake Taihu on the south and the Huai Mountain on the west. Beyond having a similar landscape to Chattanooga, the city has textile and electronic industries and a large tourism industry with numerous recreational parks – all of which made it a natural fit for partnership with Chattanooga. The sister city partnership was officiated in 1982, and the relationship has continued to grow through conferences, official government visits, and student exchanges – all with the goal of sharing knowledge related to economics, culture, education, urban development, and more.

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givatayim, israel

Givatayim, Israel

Givatayim, Israel

Sister City Since 1988

Givatayim is a quiet city located just outside of Tel Aviv. Despite its close proximity to one of the largest cities in Israel, this residential community enjoys a slower pace with family-oriented amenities including top tier schools, sports facilities, and youth clubs. With 10% of its land consisting of green spaces, including dozens of parks and recreational areas, the city places emphasis on maintaining its scenic environment. Residents of Givatayim also find joy in the arts, and the city boasts youth choirs and orchestras that have toured internationally. Givatayim was the first city to participate in Cultural Cross Ties, a project initiated by Ann Law of Barking Legs Theater, which involves matching four Chattanoogans with four people in the same profession from our sister cities. The pairs meet several times via Zoom to get acquainted and work together on a project. These Zoom sessions with artists from Chattanooga and Givatayim have been turned into a documentary which is available for viewing online or by contacting Barking Legs Theater. The next installment of this series is currently underway with participants from Hamm.

Wolfsburg, Germany

Wolfsburg, Germany

Sister City Since 2011

Wolfsburg, Germany is internationally known as the headquarters for Volkswagen, and was first established to house workers who would build the cars. With the Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly Plant opening in 2011, it seemed only natural to extend the hand of friendship between both cities.

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tono, japan

Tōno, Japan

Tōno Brewing and Chattanooga Brewing Co. raise a toast to celebrate a collaborative beer brewed in Chattanooga using hops from Tōno.

Tono, Japan

Sister City Since 2017

Chattanooga’s relationship with Tōno began in 1990 when the Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences (CSAS) was paired with high schools from the city to participate in a student exchange program. This annual exchange took place from 1990 to 2010 with groups of high school students from Tōno visiting Chattanooga every March and students from CSAS spending part of their summers in Tōno. After nearly three decades of this exchange program, Tōno officially became a sister city in 2017, and the relationship has continued to blossom in the years since.

accra, ghana

Accra, Ghana

How It Works

The process of becoming sister cities can be initiated either by locals in the community – typically those with friends and loved ones abroad – or government officials in both cities, but the mayors of each city must sign off on the commitment in order for an official sister city relationship to be established. Claypool explains, “Before we become sister cities, we agree to be friendship cities for a year or more. If there’s commitment on both sides, we can become sister cities.” The goal of this process is to ensure that the relationship will be a meaningful one, she says, “We don’t just want to be sister cities in name only. We want art exchanges and school exchanges. We want citizen visits, not just governmental visits. We want friendships, and that’s why it was established.”

Chattanooga currently has two friendship cities: Accra, Ghana and Fano, Italy. “Fano is a small city in Italy, and they have invited runners from Chattanooga to visit on several occasions for a marathon that they put on with other towns in the region. I’ve been for three of the races and once privately, and I have gained a very dear friendship,” Claypool shares. The relationship with Accra was initiated by Kanika Wellington-Jones, a Chattanooga local, and has blossomed over the past year and a half, with fun events including a “Taste of Africa” cooking class during which Wellington-Jones led a conversation about food, culture, and community. With enthusiasm on both sides, the group eagerly awaits approval from the city to make Accra an official sister city.

“The best sister cities are the ones that start organically where there are friendships between peoples of both cities,” Claypool shares. “I believe it was in 1961 that President Eisenhower said, ‘We do not create peace government to government. People to people relationships are what promote peace.’ This was his initiative to make our world more peaceful, and he encouraged U.S. cities to develop partnerships with cities in other parts of the world. Sister cities was formed to be a citizen initiative through people to people friendships. It was not primarily to be a government to government relationship, although that is a component.”

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fano, italy

Fano, Italy

The Impact

These partnerships foster cultural exchanges and offer travel opportunities that can be life-changing for citizens of Chattanooga and our sister citizens around the world. From hosting exchange students to welcoming government officials, sister city volunteers provide a unique bridge between communities that goes beyond government processes and formalities.

For example, Claypool recalls a time several years ago when a delegation of Chinese politicians and city workers visited Chattanooga. She says, “Typically, these groups go to City Hall, they go to the Chamber of Commerce, and sometimes they go to a business here and get a tour. I told the fellow that was organizing the visit that we need to get them in our homes.” Though their itinerary was already well-booked, they were able to gather in Claypool’s home for afternoon tea and cookies.

This opportunity to socialize on a more personal level, Claypool says, made all the difference. “I had a friend come and play the piano. He played American songs, and they loved it. They took pictures of everything on my first floor – including an antique Chinese cabinet I have in my living room,” she laughs. “When I went to China the following year for a conference with sister cities and friendship cities, I had hardly made it through the lobby when four of the eight people from the delegation came up to me and said, ‘Oh I remember you, Karen. I was at your house!’ They showed me photos they had taken with my piano, a piece of Chinese art, and even my parents’ wedding photo.” One of the men invited the group to his home in return, and Claypool says, “He told me afterwards, ‘If I come back to Chattanooga, I want to bring my wife and stay at your house, and you can come and stay at my house anytime.’ So Mr. Zhi, his family, and I have a special friendship that happened because we have been to each other’s homes.”

Beyond fostering a deeper understanding between government officials and city workers, these sister city relationships open up incredible opportunities for students and others who wish to travel. While anyone can book a trip to a new country and enjoy the typical sights, sister city partnerships make international travel feel more like visiting a friend. The result, according to Claypool, is a much more rewarding travel experience.

“I’ve had incredible experiences that I wouldn’t have had in any other way where I got to meet people and stay in their homes. When most people travel, they stay in hotels, they meet the hotel staff, they meet the wait staff in restaurants, but rarely do they get to know how people live. Rarely do they get to form friendships. And that’s what our relationships do,” Claypool explains. “If people visit six countries in two weeks, they don’t get to know six countries.

I think it’s important that people develop relationships and learn the culture and the way of life. People who live there know things to do and to show you. Sometimes it’s a matter of someone saying ‘have this green tea ice cream!’ that you might not have thought to try on your own.”

fano, italy

Fano, Italy

How to Get Involved

If you enjoy travel, want to learn more about different cultures, or simply enjoy getting to know new people and participating in fun activities, SCA of Chattanooga offers a wealth of opportunities. Anybody is invited to join the Sister City Association and participate in monthly gatherings, including events with visiting delegations from sister cities.

“We’ll often meet for lunch or for dinner and have a speaker. And when we have delegations visit, we look for host families and people to do things with us,” Claypool explains. “My contention is we learn to like people when we do fun things together, not just when we sit in meetings.” In addition to planning trips to sister cities, the group frequently offers potluck dinners and other fun events designed to make it easier to mingle with locals and visitors alike.

The friendships forged through these programs transcend government relations, as they allow individuals from different places and with different perspectives to see each other as real people and get to know each other on a deeper level. “Oh, to see the people from Hamm and our other sister cities who are thrilled when an American delegation comes over or who are thrilled to come here and to watch these friendships grow … it’s the best thing I can do for world peace. That sounds a little hokey, but it’s true,” she shares. “So many people say it’s America first, but when we take that attitude, we don’t work to develop programs that are good for the whole world. We’re all in this together, not just as a country but as fellow citizens of the planet.”

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