On September 9, Mayor John Cooper met with Omed Xoshnaw, the Governor of Erbil, Iraq, to cement the relationship between their two cities as official “Sister Cities.” In doing so, Erbil became the 10th Sister City of Nashville, joining a group that includes Edmonton, Canada; Chengdu, China; Caen, France; Magdeburg, Germany; Kamakura, Japan; and others. But what is a Sister City, and how are they chosen? Is it like international online dating? Are there benefits for the residents of each town? To find out these answers and more, we spoke with Sarah Lingo, the executive director of Sister Cities of Nashville.
Read on for the fascinating background on this initiative, or click HERE to skip straight to an introduction to all 10 of our sister cities!
Sister Cities International (SCI) was born out of an initiative put forth by the Eisenhower administration in the wake of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War. Sarah explains, “The goal after the war was to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again by nurturing relationships between people. The hope was that hate cannot spread when people become more empathetic and create relationships that transcend stereotypes and cultural boundaries. It’s not dignitary to dignitary. It’s diplomacy enacted at a local level.”
The Nashville chapter of SCI was formed in 1990 under Mayor Bill Boner, who established a committee to investigate potential Sister City candidates. The exploratory committee soon came to an agreement with Edmonton, Canada — a good fit for Nashville since both cities seemed to have a lot in common, including a special interest in music.
Both local governments approved official proclamations of the “twinship,” and Edmonton became Nashville’s first official Sister City. You have to hand it to them: There has been absolutely no risk of war breaking out between Tennessee and Alberta over the past three decades!
Part of the relationship between Sister Cities is regular visits by delegations of both officials and ordinary citizens. An unusual event marked Edmonton’s most recent trip to Nashville. “We had a delegation in town on the night of the 2020 tornado. They saw us at our worst and finest in a time of tragedy,” says Sarah. After returning to Canada, the Edmonton SCI chapter helped to arrange a benefit concert by local country star Brett Kissel that raised more than $50,000 for the Nashville tornado relief effort.
Nashville’s second sister city was Caen, the capital of Lower Normandy, and it is an excellent example of how the process of twinship operates. Sarah explains, “It’s incredibly organic. It always starts with two people with a relationship or an existing connection. Steve Cobb was a local attorney who was friends with a fellow lawyer in Caen. They organized an annual attorney exchange through the local bar associations … and the relationship grew from there. We recently had nine attorneys from France in town for a CLE revolving around intellectual property law.”
Sister Cities of Nashville operates in partnership with the Metro Nashville government, and the mayor is the honorary chair of the organization’s board. During the administration of Mayor Bill Purcell, the idea of finding a sister city in Kurdistan first bubbled to the surface. “Since Nashville has the largest Kurdish population in the U.S., Mayor Purcell wanted to show support for the local Kurd community,” Sarah recalls. “Even with 25,000 Nashville residents ethnically tied to that region, it takes a long time to find a partner that makes sense and for world events to calm down enough so that we would be able to make regular exchanges between the cities.”
In late 2020, a group came to the SCI Nashville board again with a specific proposal to add Erbil as Nashville’s tenth sister city. As the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil was an excellent choice — it is a very cultural city with a diverse population. The U.S. State Department got involved in the process as a source of grants to further the exchange of information and delegations, and representatives of the two cities shared presentations back and forth.
“It’s a long process — kind of like courting,” jokes Sarah. “There have to be site visits both ways and in May of 2022, a Kurdish delegation came to Nashville to connect with local universities and the Chamber of Commerce. They met with our city government and expressed a strong desire to learn about transparency in government. They were astounded when Vice Mayor Jim Shulman just handed over the city’s entire budget book to them to look at.”
In May of this year, a Nashville delegation paid a reciprocal visit to Erbil and made some very successful connections with government officials. They also returned with concrete, sustainable partnership ideas.
“I was nervous about the trip,” admits Sarah. “I grew up in the 90s and hadn’t heard good things about Iraq. We were welcomed with such warmth; it just felt so nice and so good. I felt safe walking through the Grand Bazaar by myself. We didn’t just meet with government officials. We also met with business leaders and teachers and visited schools to talk with kids. It’s a good window into how a community operates. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life!”
Upon returning, SCI Nashville put the Erbil partnership before the organization’s board for an official vote. After it was approved, the Metro Council passed a resolution confirming the relationship, and Mayor Cooper signed the agreement in July. During their visit in September, the official Kurdish delegation joined Cooper to sign the official declaration in Nashville.
“Now the real work begins,” Sarah says. “As a non-profit, we depend on the community for support, and we receive a large grant from the city to carry out our partnerships. There has to be city support to remain sustainable, but it’s citizens who actually carry out the programs.”
Among the activities that SCI Nashville carries out with partner cities are exchanges for adults and students, educational opportunities for virtual visits in Nashville classrooms over the internet, and virtual language exchanges where students in Davidson K-12 classrooms are paired up with similar-aged students in China, Argentina, France, and Germany for weekly one-on-one opportunities to learn and practice language skills.
How can individual Nashvillians help out with SCI’s mission? “People can become members,” Sarah explains, “and help to support our programs. Many community organizations step up when we have delegation visits in town, offering free or discounted tickets to local attractions and helping out with housing and transportation for our guests. We’re always looking for family hosts for student exchange participants and all sorts of helping hands in addition to monetary assistance. The response reminds me why I love this city so much!”
Sarah summarizes the importance of Sister Cities by saying, “SCI makes the connections and plants the seeds of curiosity, but it’s individuals that make it bigger!”
Volunteer opportunities are posted on the organization’s website, and SCI Nashville hosts an annual fundraiser in the spring called “World of Friendship.” If you would like to learn more about Sister Cities of Nashville or contact them about supporting the organization, you can connect with them here.
MEET NASHVILLE’S SISTER CITIES
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland and is connected to Nashville through the Scots-Irish settlers who came to Tennessee in the 18th century. The two cities have partnered since 1995 and participate in frequent educational, music, and cultural exchanges in addition to social projects.
Caen is located a few miles inland from the beaches of the D-Day invasion. It was also one of the capitals of William the Conqueror’s empire during the 11th century. It became Nashville’s sister city in 1991. Reciprocal programs have included annual delegation visits, academic exchanges, programs for students and lawyers, and even basketball games between local teams.
Chengdu became Nashville’s ninth Sister City in 2020. Chengdu is the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, with a history that dates as far back as the fourth century B.C. when it served as the capital of the Shu Kingdom. Chengdu is home to many temples, parks, and several UNESCO World Heritage Sites including Mount Qingcheng, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, and the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries.
Edmonton is the capital city of Alberta, Canada. Known as Canada’s “festival city,” the residents are familiar with hosting tourists like Nashville. Edmonton hosts numerous international events throughout the year celebrating culture and the arts. It became an official sister city in 1990.
As the capital of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, Erbil is an important center of Kurdish culture. The fourth largest city in Iraq became Nashville’s latest sister city in 2023. It is home to the Erbil Citadel, thought to be one of the longest continuously inhabited sites in the world, settled more than 6,000 years ago. The lower town that developed into the modern city of Erbil surrounds the Citadel.
Located approximately 30 miles southwest of Tokyo in Kanagawa, Kamakura is a popular tourist destination thanks to its beaches and many historic shrines and temples. Sister Cities of Nashville established its Japan Committee in 2009 with the support of the Consul General of Japan’s office in Nashville, which encouraged Nashville to develop a sister city relationship in Japan. One of the few Consulate General of Japan offices in the U.S. is located in Nashville, signaling the importance of our city to the Japanese. Kamakura became a sister city in September 2014.
Magdeburg, located along the Elbe River in northern Germany about 90 miles west of Berlin, recently celebrated its 1200th birthday. Magdeburg is now the capital of Saxony-Anhalt and has maintained a very active partnership with Nashville for many years, becoming its official sister city in 2003.
Located in the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains, Mendoza was settled in 1561 by Pedro del Castillo. Two of the region’s primary industries are wine-making, and olive oil production, and the region has been designated as one of the eight great wine capitals of the world. With its proximity to the mountains, visitors enjoy opportunities to engage in mountaineering, hiking, rafting, and horseback riding activities. Mendoza became an official sister city of Nashville in March 2009.
Like Nashville, Tamworth is a regional center and a hub for industry, commerce, education, and tourism. Located in New South Wales, Tamworth is 260 miles northwest of Sydney and 360 miles southwest of Brisbane. Although it has a much smaller population than Nashville, the two cities share an important designation as Tamworth is best known as the “Country Music Capital of Australia” and hosts the annual Tamworth Country Music Festival, a gathering of country music devotees lasting 11 days and culminating in the “Golden Guitar” Awards, the Australian equivalent of Nashville’s own Country Music Association Awards. Tamworth became Nashville’s seventh sister city in June 2013.
Taiyuan, China, became an official sister city to Nashville in April 2007. It is the capital city of Shanxi Province, near the Yellow River, where China’s civilization began. Shanxi continues to be a significant coal producer in China and has developed heavy industry (especially iron and steel). Taiyuan has a dozen universities, some of which specialize in engineering. Although considered a small city by Chinese standards, Taiyuan has a population of three to four million. The partnership between Nashville and Taiyuan builds on a longstanding regional partnership established between Tennessee and Shanxi Province in the 1980s.
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