Q&A with CPD: Ron Nirenberg

In this series, CPD interviews international thought-leaders as well as key practitioners of public diplomacy and related professional fields to provide our readers with insight into the inner workings of some of the world’s most thoughtful PD practitioners. Ron Nirenberg is Chairman of Sister Cities International Chairman and Mayor of San Antonio.

How did you first become aware of Sister Cities International?

I was a freshman council member on the San Antonio City Council in 2013 when our city hosted the annual conference of Sister Cities International (SCI). It was an outstanding series of events, and I engaged with many visitors from our sister cities attending the conference. I realized that I wanted to become more involved with San Antonio’s program because it aligned with my interest in international affairs. The mission of the organization resonated with me from the first time I read it: "To promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation—one individual, one community at a time."

My parents met when my father was in the Peace Corps, stationed in Malaysia, and I am proud of the multicultural roots that shaped my life.

While most sister city programs throughout the U.S. are managed by nonprofit organizations, the San Antonio program is unusual in that it is administered by the City’s International Relations Office with staff dedicated to creating and fostering dynamic and active projects as well as other international initiatives. This government-affiliated structure is more in alignment with how other countries manage their diplomatic programs. Our program falls under the City’s strategic global outreach and allows for targeted programming across different disciplines, thus enriching our city diplomatic efforts. We successfully involve local community partners and stakeholders through project-based cultural, economic and educational activities. I experienced firsthand several interactions with our sister city visitors through these engagements. That is when I realized the power of people-to-people connections through Sister Cities International. 

As the Sister Cities program represents a foundational pillar of public diplomacy through people-to-people exchange, how do you envision this program evolving for the post-pandemic world? What are some current programs to keep an eye on, for those working the field as well as for everyday citizens?

Sister Cities International is a hub for institutional knowledge and best practices in the field of citizen diplomacy. As a membership association, it strengthens the network of relationships by providing essential services, programs and resources to match prospective partners as well as to expand and improve activities. Our members boast exchanges in arts and culture, business and trade, youth and education, community development and humanitarian assistance that bring friendships and help tackle the world’s most pressing issues at the local level. 

The global pandemic has brought us to the realization that aid and comfort is a two-way street, providing the opportunity to learn from each other. Cities across the U.S., large and small, have been approached by their sister cities with generous offers of donations of medical supplies. It has been an enriching experience to be on the receiving end of these generous contributions that have been needed and appreciated in our respective communities. Some of these interactions resulted in procurement opportunities beneficial to both sides, thus adding positive economic development. San Antonio was touched to learn that our sister cities in China (Wuxi) and South Korea (Gwangju) wanted to help us and selflessly reached out to provide much needed supplies. Early on, when the outbreak was still localized in China, the San Antonio local community came together to raise funds for assistance to our sister city in China, and a number of our cultural and educational groups embarked on a letter-writing campaign with messages of goodwill for our partner cities. At the time, we could not have envisioned that a couple of months later, we would be at the receiving end of their generosity.

As with many organizations, Sister Cities International and its members have had to adapt how we interact with our sister city partners. Many of our communities have quickly become experts at utilizing virtual platforms to connect with their sister cities. Cities have continued to strengthen their global partnerships by creating virtual platforms to share best practices and develop innovative youth exchanges and other informative programs. This will no doubt continue to be an efficient and inexpensive tool available to communities around the globe who wish to connect.

In November, SCI and the National League of Cities signed an agreement to collaborate to facilitate opportunities for elected officials and staff of small, medium and large cities in the U.S. to engage in international relations for their communities. We are working to provide content on international programming for the annual conference of NLC and to bring opportunities for partnerships around the world directly to the event for communities that are seeking those types of relationships.

Your work spans “smart city” initiatives as well as international work. Could you discuss how these intersect, and what trends might be on the horizon as global focus on cities continues to grow?

A Smart City leverages new and emerging technologies and data to improve the quality of life for residents. San Antonio and San Jose are both leading in climate action through their participation in the American Cities Climate Challenge. They also have in common a sister city in Guadalajara, Mexico. In the fall of 2019, City staff from the three cities convened at the C40 Conference in Copenhagen. After trading information informally, they concluded that a peer-learning exchange would be beneficial to share best practices and lessons learned in pursuit of climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, often using smart city tools and tech. The peer exchange will focus on three interrelated greenhouse gas mitigation strategies: reducing building energy consumption; managing solid waste and landfill emissions; and cultivating the benefits of urban heat island mitigation. This is a perfect Smart City example of a binational, trilateral collaborative sister city effort addressing urgent needs and providing real data leading to cost effective solutions.

We see great benefit in the opportunity to learn from other cities and find out about innovative initiatives that are being implemented. Specifically, in San Antonio, we are proud of the innovation from our startup community, our higher education and research institutions, the business community and the creative industries. It is something we like to showcase and highlight about San Antonio when we engage with delegations visiting from other countries or when we travel on city business. Cities have so much to offer as part of their unique and rich tapestry and identity, and yet there is always an opportunity to improve or learn from others.

Why is it important for a city leader to have a global presence? What kind of values, experiences and goals are important to keep in mind when the local and the global come together?

It is widely acknowledged, thanks in part to the work of the Brookings Institution and similar think tanks, that metro areas are increasingly a vital and driving force in creating economic prosperity and improved quality of life. At the beginning of this year, we released a Metro Priority Plan in San Antonio with a focus on key global cities combining diplomatic, business, cultural and educational connections with a view to increase San Antonio’s access to the outside world and to elevate San Antonio’s global stance and reputation. We understand that city diplomacy is an integral tactic in this toolbox. As the mayor of the seventh largest city in the United States, I have learned much with every opportunity I have had to engage our global partners and to represent my city in far corners of the world. 

During the pandemic, we have witnessed the power of international networks, which are increasingly important for cities to be a part of and to have a voice. The UNESCO Creative Cities Network for example, in which San Antonio participates, convened its member cities to share best practices on various themes and facilitate the empowerment of communities to take actions that have worked elsewhere. 

I attended the C40 Summit in Copenhagen in October and was struck by the sheer energy and power of creative minds all assembled together, discussing the impact of climate change on their cities and proposing innovative solutions and ideas to address these urgent challenges. The discussion has shifted to the resilient ways in which cities are adapting to the abrupt changes brought about by the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cities around the world find themselves needing to address issues and priorities they have in common: climate change; the fight to end poverty and hunger; resolving homelessness; elevating educational attainment; and providing mass transit to connect their residents to opportunities. As leaders at the subnational level, we speak a common language when it comes to ensuring our residents have equitable access to the basic services they need.

What advice do you have for students of public diplomacy who wish to engage in today’s growing work across city diplomacy and international cooperation?

Students studying international relations or related studies and seeking careers in the State Department or foreign service should also be open to opportunities in local government. City diplomacy is a burgeoning field of work which offers the chance to be involved at the local level, to witness the direct impact of their efforts on their communities and to play a part in the creative re-imagining of the places where we live, work and play.

Employers have consistently advocated for a more globally educated and aware workforce, and studies have shown that a broader mindset with international experience leads to more successful career paths. Foreign language ability and cross-cultural communication skills are important attributes.

About Q&A with CPD

In this series, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) interviews international thought-leaders as well as key practitioners of public diplomacy and related professional fields to provide our readers with insight into the inner workings of some of the world’s most thoughtful PD practitioners. For more information about the Q&A with CPD series, click here.

To read the other interviews in this series, please click here.


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