SOUTH PORTLAND — Maine shines its best in summer. We welcome visitors and friends to our communities, including many people from around the world.

This summer we were fortunate to have 12 high school students from one of Portland’s four sister cities, Shinagawa, Japan, who spent 10 days exploring and learning about our region’s economic, cultural and political fabric. They were hosted by Portland-area families, and my family was fortunate to be one of the hosts.

This international exchange experience has underscored the importance of our interconnected world, and how wonderful it is to form bonds of friendship with people from other countries. At a time when our country appears to be turning more toward nationalism and isolationism, we need to remind ourselves of the richness that occurs when we are sharing our lives with people from outside the United States.

The Portland-Shinagawa Sister Cities partnership began in 1984, and it has continued successfully for over 33 years. At the beginning, my two children were both participants in the high school exchange. Over 2,000 Portland-area citizens have now participated in educational, cultural, athletic and economic exchanges. Portland has also been awarded international recognition by Sister Cities International because for the creativity and inspiration in its sister city exchange programs.

The idea for sister cities originated with President Dwight Eisenhower, who convened a White House Summit on People-to-People Partnership in 1956. Eisenhower strongly believed that “citizen diplomacy,” based upon people-to-people exchanges and international friendships, was a critical part of U.S. foreign policy. He argued there needed to be another component in our foreign policy toolbox – his vision was an interconnected world where ordinary citizens would engage in “citizen diplomacy” to promote world peace.

Since 1956, cities throughout the world have built common ties and have encouraged their citizens to engage in international exchange programs. Today there are over 500 U.S. cities engaged in over 2,000 sister city partnerships in 145 countries around the globe.

During their recent visit to Portland, the 12 Japanese high school students enjoyed a trip to Augusta, a morning on a Maine lobster boat and a day of bike riding on Peaks Island. They also went to a Portland Sea Dogs game, which the home team won 13-2.

They visited Portland City Hall, where Mayor Ethan Strimling invited the students to become Portland City Council members for an hour and participate in city government decision making. They debated, discussed and resolved an issue that was important to them in their own city of Shinagawa.

The students, with their American families as their audience, conducted themselves in an intelligent and meaningful debate on the importance of local government providing preschool education. It was an exercise in shared democracy and the importance of resolving political differences with civility and respect. As Americans, the host families were very impressed with the students’ knowledge and passion about this issue.

At the end of the exchange program, the students, the host families and many others learned a great deal about being global citizens.

The Portland region is fortunate to have many global connections that make this region such a desirable place to call home. We are a region that desires to stay connected with the rest of the world, and understands the advantages this brings to all of us. These types of global exchanges result in new friendships and relationships; they bring a richness to our lives in understanding other cultures and they can contribute greatly to the economic, educational and cultural lives of our region.

Portland has three other sister cities, all of which are doing amazing exchanges and projects. They are Arkhangelsk, Russia; Cap-Haitien, Haiti; and Mytilene, Greece.

If you want to be engaged globally, volunteer your time to one of our sister cities, or join one of the many global organizations that exist throughout our region. In this way, we can encourage our children and grandchildren to be global citizens, and to “think globally and act locally.”

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