Palo Alto and Bloomington to forge 'sister city' partnership | November 12, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 12, 2021

Palo Alto and Bloomington to forge 'sister city' partnership

Mayors hope nation's first 'domestic sister cities' partnership will inspire unity

by Gennady Sheyner

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; Link?ping, 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 statement 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 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 each is 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 for 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 on 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, compelled by the current need for domestic understanding across the United States," the Neighbors Abroad letter states.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 10, 2021 at 11:56 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

I would add a few things as being a participant in this process. As some know, I am president of Neighbors Abroad.

First, it was amazing in the 1960s our founders anticipated that the same discovery that happens internationally, could happen domestically. As such our bylaws and charter anticipated domestic sister cities.

Neighbors Abroad saw that our existing programs could align well with the activities anticipated in this new relation to Bloomington. We execute on culture, sustainability, education and commerce across the international cities, and therefore could extend those same programs to this domestic relationship. There was a synergy. However, Bloomington brings in a new "pillar" deemed the "community" pillar that can be promote discovery around topics of equity, race and economic diversity. This pillar can likely be applied into our international relationships as well.

We are blessed with an amazing committee to kick off this upcoming year. Our Rotary, Kiwanis, neighborhoods, chamber of commerce, and Stanford have engaged. We have had youth inspired by this reach out. We are fortunate that Palo Altan Andie Reed has stepped up to lead this. One of the challenges is that these relations are perpetual and multigenerational, and we hope to tune a process that endures.

I will share my own reflection on the selection of Bloomington. It may not be as far a reach in diversity as other potential cities. But, when we are trying our first step into this pond, we balanced with wanting to create and explore with a bit more comfort, and then allow Palo Alto and this program step to bridge to places where the diversity is greater. With Bloomington, we had so many relations to start with - consistent with picking a low hanging fruit. So far so good.

Personally, I have been looking at the bike rides that I might take. It looks fun, and exciting. Nice to have Neighbors Abroad be a contributor to this process. Thank you Weekly for the coverage.

Posted by Lynne Henderson
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 10, 2021 at 12:34 pm

Lynne Henderson is a registered user.

I personally was delighted to read this article and Bob Wenzlau's comment as president of Neighbors Abroad. Both cities face similar issues/have faced similar issues, but they are not the same--the movie "Breaking Away" get the town/gown part, but not the lack of ethnic diversity part(s).

I taught at IU-Bloomington as only the 2d female full professor in her department for 10 years while trying to maintain a relationship (and marriage) in Palo Alto. I learned a lot from my students, the culture, and issues there, and I cannot imagine a better "sister city" in the U.S. for Palo Alto with which to start.

Posted by jr1
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 10, 2021 at 1:30 pm

jr1 is a registered user.

Having a sister city is wonderful for Palo Alto. My mother attended the University in Bloomington. Bloomington is a wonderful mid-western city, in the middle of the country. My only concern regarding city cities is the cost associated with the program. Several large cities have sister cities around the country and world. Palo Alto administrators need to be careful on costs associated with sister this sister city. Cities can certainly work together while keeping travel budgets under control. Some of the other larger cities in the US have had trouble with costs associated with this type of program. Palo Alto needs to remember if your going to have a sister city it should benefit all residents, not just city administrators. Budgets should be set if travelling is involved in the process.

Posted by Vicki Veenker
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 10, 2021 at 2:13 pm

Vicki Veenker is a registered user.

The know-how and experience of Bob Wenzlau and Neighbors Abroad were critical to this proposal and will be key going forward. Palo Alto is lucky to have you.

I look forward to biking through those hills with you, Bob!

Posted by S. Underwood
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 10, 2021 at 4:14 pm

S. Underwood is a registered user.

Well, at least it's unlikely that there will be an expensive, publicly-funded junket to Bloomington like there was to China with Keene, Kniss, and connected friends.

Symbolic partnerships are great, but perhaps our city government should focus on basics. Like why are utility rates continue to go up with the funds clearly misdirected (that's just one among many).

Friendship and such are the key to a thriving personal life. Amen. But why taxpayers are funding efforts on a 9th sister city is completely beyond me.

Posted by A Person
a resident of Southgate
on Nov 11, 2021 at 9:18 am

A Person is a registered user.

Smoke and mirrors to distract from the real issues of the city.

Posted by Al Ward
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 11, 2021 at 10:44 am

Al Ward is a registered user.

Wouldn't it be more productive to establish a relationship with a red rather than blue leaning town? That would be a thoughtful step towards understanding and working to ease the distressing political divisions in America.

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 16, 2021 at 9:03 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

I had few opinions on this topic until I heard the comments last night. One contributor went on a political rag straight out of CNN - now tanking in the ratings. It would have been more positive if the political speech did not happen - it questions what we are doing here. A lot of political assumptions and generalizations about this city which are inappropriate - we are not suppose to be funding political lobbying groups.