Palo Alto has plenty in common with its next sister city — a college town known for red jerseys, blue politics and a strong tech sector.
And unlike the existing eight sister cities — a network that spans the globe and includes Albi, France; Enschede, Netherlands; Linköping, Sweden; Oaxaca, Mexico; Palo, Philippines; Tsuchiura, Japan; Heidelberg, Germany; and Yangpu District, China — it can be accessed via a domestic flight.
Palo Alto is preparing to form a first-of-its-kind sister city relationship with Bloomington, Indiana, the mayors of the two cities announced Tuesday. Assuming the proposal gets the approval of the two respective city councils, it will be the first domestic sister-city partnership in the nation, according to a joint announcement from the two cities.
Palo Alto Mayor Tom DuBois, an Ohio native who proposed the domestic sister-city initiative earlier this year in his "State of the City" speech, said he was inspired by repeated trips to various Midwestern cities. This included one trip to Cleveland on behalf of his then-employer, Google, to provide resources to small businesses in Ohio. He said was struck by both the economic challenges in the area and the residents' willingness to connect.
He explored the idea further this spring, when he visited Indiana and Ohio to discuss it with other city leaders. He found a willing partner in Bloomington, a city of 85,000 people in southern Indiana that is home to Indiana University Bloomington.
"Our country is divided on economical, regional, racial and philosophical lines," DuBois said Tuesday during a press conference announcing the new partnership. "It's our job as leaders to heal these divides. We need unity and optimism."
Also, it seems, pragmatism. Even though Bloomington is located in a red state, it leans heavily Democratic. As DuBois noted in a resolution proclaiming the new sister-city relationship, Palo Alto and Bloomington are roughly the same size and are each inextricably linked to a major university. Given the experimental nature of the new program, having a sister city that's different but not too different seems to be part of the strategy.
"This was a relationship that I think is going to be very interesting," DuBois said during the Tuesday press conference. "We also want to be successful so we thought it was a good place to start."
The two cities also have key differences. They are located about 2,300 miles apart and, as Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton noted during the Tuesday event, one is located in one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas while the other is in a largely rural region. And notwithstanding the political leanings of each city, each contains a population that embodies a diversity of views, he said.
"Even the most Republican city or the most Democratic city is purple -- it's full of all kinds of people and their voices are important and they're full of all kinds of citizens," Hamilton said. "Recognizing the relationship and stereotypes that were mentioned is important for all of us — and no doubt there will be future sibling cities that will have different kinds of variations and similarities — but I do think Bloomington and Palo Alto are different in many ways. … Yes, there are commonalities but there is much more diversity in all of us than we sometimes like to recognize and that will be really important going forward."
For Vicki Veenker, the partnership hits particularly close to home. A Palo Alto attorney who grew up in Indiana and graduated from Indiana University, Veenker just launched an organization called Sibling Cities USA, which seeks to promote unity and understanding between cities in different parts of the nation. To that end, her organization has created a blueprint of sorts for domestic sister cities to follow based on three pillars: community, commerce and civil discourse.
The "community" pillar can manifest itself in residents meeting online during regional cooking classes, history lectures or book clubs that showcase local culture, The "commerce" pillar can include research partnerships or business collaborations. "Civil discourse" involves creating venues for respectful conversations between residents from the two cities.
"Having dialogue on significant policy issues can uncover shared values and provide insight into the sources of differing perspectives and reasons for disagreement," a briefing paper on Sibling USA states. "This increased understanding will foster greater national empathy and thus catalyze ideas for better ways forward — together as a more united country."
Veenker said she was inspired to launch the new group after taking a road trip to Indiana with her daughter in 2017. They made a point to talk to people along the way and were struck by the responses they received when they mentioned that they now live in Silicon Valley.
"We noticed that they reacted differently depending on whether we introduced ourselves as being 'from Silicon Valley' or 'on our way back to Indiana,'" Veenker said. "What they assumed about us and what they shared with us varied accordingly, even though we are the same people and both things were true."
The bottom line, she said, is that many Americans don't "really don't know each other and that is contributing to our problems today." She called this inaugural Sibling Cities partnership between Palo Alto and Bloomington the "first step toward a network of relationships that promote unity across this great country."
Whether or not the program bears fruit will depend in large part on the residents of the two cities. The program is intended to be community driven, with civic organizations and volunteers in the two respective cities taking the lead in forging connections. In Palo Alto, the effort will be spearheaded by Neighbors Abroad, the nonprofit that facilitates Palo Alto's other sister-city relationships. In late October, the organization submitted a letter to the City Council, which is scheduled to discuss and likely sign off on the new partnership this Monday, Nov. 15.
"It is our goal to host and support the activities and discovery between Bloomington and Palo Alto to allow the development of neighborly relations and the exchange of ideas and culture as our founders anticipated, and compelled by the current need for domestic understanding across the United States," the Neighbors Abroad letter states.