Although it might take you a couple of days of travel to George, South Africa, the city is closer than you think. George is Tacoma's Sister City, and both cities are eager to kick off their 20th anniversary of building international relationships.
When Tacoma was looking for a Sister City 20 years ago, South Africa's Eastern Cape Province Port Elizabeth seemed like the ideal fit. As a major port like Tacoma, a perfect Sister City was found – until the city declined. About 200 miles down the road, a city called George was having the same struggle of finding a new “sister” after being rejected by Santa Barbara.
It wasn't until a national Sister City meeting in 1997 that the two cities connected. “We're the City of Destiny, and so maybe that's why we are together,” says Melannie Denise Cunningham, Chairperson of the Tacoma Twin Sister City Committee. Tacoma and George, two rejected cities looking for connections, are now eager to celebrate 20 years of building relationships, seeking opportunities and breaking down barriers.
“That's my sister. And I wouldn't have been able to say that before, but thanks to City Sisters I have a sister,” says Cunningham about Debbie Bruce, one of the original organizers of the Tacoma/George sister city committee in George and active in revitalizing the relationship between the two cities.
While Sister Cities are an ideal platform for building personal relationships, they also are an opportunity to connect two distant towns and help build cultural and commercial ties to give both cities the opportunities to learn from each other. “We take the conversation to the international level. We take it to business, trade and tourism. People come to the table equally,” says Cunningham.
As one of Tacoma's 14 Sister Cities, George isn't too different from Tacoma. With a population of about 150,000 and the local counterpart to Mt. Rainier, George Peak, the mountains, rivers and forests look like an extension of Washington State. The town, situated near the Indian Ocean, is also one of the fastest developing cities in South Africa, with 2.5 percent annual growth, according to Statistics South Africa (2011).
“I see sister relationships as partnerships. I don't see them as a dependency. I believe we have something to give, just like Tacoma. We have something to teach Tacoma, and Tacoma has something to teach George,” says Bruce. Establishing opportunities for economic development through relationships is one of the key factors in mutual success.
Both cities hope to intensify their business connections and are working on the import of aloe products, raw honey, and rooibos tea – all products produced in George. After visiting the farms and meeting the producers, both Bruce and Cunningham are hoping that the goods could be the next Girl Scout Cookies.
Considering that a Google search wasn't as easy 20 years ago, Bruce wondered why Tacoma was regarded as a good fit for George. Upon her first visit, she was most impressed by Tacoma's education system as education in South Africa was segregated by race, and inferior for black South Africans. Over the last 20 years, she could see the progress and the new opportunities like long-distance education become available in her community as well.
South Africa's history of Apartheid, which was the enforcement of racial segregation by an all-white government in 1948, and the tensions between African-Americans and white Americans in the United States offer another unfortunate similarity.
“We are aware of this caste system and acknowledge that it still exists, but we refuse to acknowledge that we will operate in it,” says Cunningham. “Because we are black, we have both experienced struggle at the hands of our government. Our minds are conscious of the struggle because we've lived in it, we operate as a unit.”
As South Africa ended Apartheid in 1994, the United States might still have ways to go to work. “We are the visible indicators of progress as we work together,” says Cunningham.
As delegates from both cities have traveled to meet their counterpart, the most recent visit to George from Tacoma's delegation was all about opportunities for education, health as well as bringing people together around similar business interests. The George Business Chamber hosted a reception and many ideas for furthering business connections between the two cities were made. “The purpose of these sister city relationships are people. We want to see more people-driven initiatives with government-driven support,” says Cunningham.
Reflecting on accomplishments from the past, even the first project by Tacoma and George called Phambili – a refuge for battered women and children that has served the George community since 1999 – is still going today. Phambili was also an opportunity for Cunningham's granddaughter, Jalean, to start a campaign to raise $2,200 for bicycles, toys, games and office supplies, and travel to George to see the impact she's made.
“Get your mind out of Tacoma and into the world,” says Cunningham.
By promoting cultural awareness, and educating others about Africa and its 54 countries, Bruce and Cunningham hope that people will consider a trip, and take advantage of the connection between George and Tacoma. “Coming to South Africa, coming to George doesn't mean cheap. The quality standard is high,” says Bruce.
Having welcomed many delegations over the last 20 years, the George Sister City Committee is looking forward to more international visitors.
As the celebration planning is underway, Cunningham and Bruce invite everyone to join as expectations for a party are on the rise.
“Melannie is here to energize Tacoma, I am there to energize George, and we are going to have an explosion for the anniversary,” says Bruce.
The next Sister City meeting is on Sept. 26 at 4 p.m. at the Tacoma Municipal Building, Room 138. For more information contact Debbie Bingham, International Program Development Specialist for the City of Tacoma, at (253) 591-5117.