Nurturing Seattle's international ties, at the grass roots

Two volunteer-rich, community-based programs are building patient bridges to a broader world.
Crosscut archive image.

Minningarnott festival time in Reykjavik.

Two volunteer-rich, community-based programs are building patient bridges to a broader world.

The economies of Washington state and the Puget Sound region are supported by ties with peoples and institutions throughout the world. These business, government, educational, and nonprofit organizations generate our customers, students, investors, and tourists.

We are blessed with a location where immigrants from Europe meet immigrants from Asia, Africa, and South America as well as today’s Native Americans, who had crossed the land bridge from Asia in ancient times. This has generated the rich diversity of cultures and languages that provide our global perspective. Our more recent citizens bring with them their relationships. Such relationships are an asset that must be continuously maintained.

Our challenge is to continue to be a region in which talented people want to live. Related is the need to educate our children to understand the importance of our international ties.

The Seattle region has many institutions that build our bridges around the world. Universities bring talented students, many of whom stay and contribute to our region. Our companies do business on every continent. Our marine port complex and international airport are an important international gateway. We have investors owning local companies and buildings. We attract international tourists. Our economy is integrated with the global economy. Our nonprofit organizations, many of whom are focused on global health, have extensive ties to the developing world. We are very fortunate and all these factors show up in our innovation and economic success.

A happy result is that a hallmark of the Puget Sound community is fostering peace and cultural understanding by providing assistance with exchanges around the worldy. There are many organizations, such as the over 300 nonprofits identified by Global Washington and the Washington Health Care Alliance that are working with developing countries. In many Puget Sound communities, two organizations with multiple local chapters and committees build bridges at the grassroots level. These are Rotary International and Sister Cities. Because they are comprised of small organizations, their importance is not noticed. But their whole far exceeds the sum of the parts

I was recently asked to speak at the District Rotary Convention where almost 800 members from district 5030 with 53 clubs in King and Southern Snohomish gathered to share ideas and learn best practices. I am not a member and was not aware of Rotary’s extensive international program. I was more aware of the local contribution.  I was amazed at the breadth and depth of the work of our Rotary clubs and how the commitment to assist was a part of even a committee in neighborhood clubs. 

I also have chaired the Seattle Sister City oversight committee since the mid '90s and served on the board of the national organization, Sister Cities International. I have a good understanding of the work of sister city committees in our region and our state.

Each organization can attribute its birth to a single individual, Paul P. Harris for Rotary and Dwight D. Eisenhower for Sister Cities. President Eisenhower hosted a conference at the White House in 1956. This was called after a meeting with Russia and the purpose was “to help build the road to an enduring peace.” Eisenhower advocated people-to-people relationships as a grassroots approach to bypassing governments. Sister cities were born at the conference.

Paul Harris was living in Chicago and missed his small town roots. In 1905 he formed a professional club that rotated its meetings amongst the offices of friends. Today this service organization has grown to 34,000 clubs with 1.2 million members in every country. (Seattle was one of the first five chapters organized in 1909.) It became Rotary International in 1921. The worldwide organization took on the eradication of polio in 1985. Every club has an international committee and participates in international projects.

Sister cities are spread throughout Washington state. There are over 25 cities with close to 100 relationships that cover the world. Our state has relationships with Cambodia, China, Japan, and Korea among many Asian relationships. We have bridges to Morocco, Limbe, and Mombasa on the African continent,. European ties range from  Helsinki in the North to Galway in the West, Pecs in the south to Gdynia in Poland. Around the state, partnerships include Croatia, Australia, Mexico, Ukraine, Turkey, Russia, and Uzbekistan. 

Every Sister City committee and every international committee of a Rotary club requires dedicated volunteers to be successful and to organize events and exchanges. One of the challenges is to attract representatives from our ethnic communities that come from cultures where volunteerism and philanthropy are not part of the tradition. These tend to be countries where government has a central role.

Maelyn Ritter, a Korean-American Boeing employee, has accepted the challenge to engage our ethnic communities in Rotary. The Queen Anne Rotary Club was slowly dying and she has been rebuilding it into a club focused on young professionals from around the world. She has built a relationship with the Seattle Children’s Museum. This facility at Seattle Center has a global village to engage younger children in world cultures. The location is a great place to attract young professionals and provides a local tie to international education. The rebirth of the club is a small part of the next 50 years. 

The breadth and depth of activity within the Puget Sound Rotary clubs spans the developing world. Maple Valley works with Ghana. Seattle 4, led by Robin Pasquerella, has major activities in a number of countries. A friend in the Bellevue Rotary volunteered in Ethiopia on a water project. As Rotary’s main commitment, eracdicating polio, nears completion, new projects will be undertaken.

A group of women who are the heart and soul of the Reykjavik sister city have also made a major contribution. Reykjavik has an annual cultural festival called Menningnott.  Each year it celebrates a different city in Iceland, and half the country comes to the festival. Last year they celebrated Seattle and asked the Sister City committee to bring a delegation including a performing artist and a visual artist. The delegation had receptions at the homes of the President of Iceland and the American Ambassador to Iceland. Starbucks brought a barista operation and Washington wines were provided in major tasting.

It was a great success and earned the committee an award for this volunteer effort. There was exploration of business ties based on the Icelandic air service with the geothermal and medical genetics industries leading to visits by both to Seattle. Another success was placing sculptures in Westlake Park and an exhibit in the Nordic Heritage Museum.

Other Sister City committees have sent aid cars to Africa, earthquake relief to Kobe and Christchurch, donated trees to Daejon Park in Korea. The Chongqing Chinese Garden at South Seattle Community College and the Kobe Bell at the Seattle Center are here thanks to Sister City relationships. Tacoma has a very active program as does Kent and other cities. Spokane hosts this year’s state Sister City Conference.

It is amazing what grassroots volunteers can accomplish and what rotary clubs and sister city committees are doing. These are all small contacts but they add up.  So yes, you should sit in front of your computer and read Crosscut.  But then, turn off the computer and get involved.

Eisenhower’s observation in his People to People address still inspires these grassroots programs. “If we are going to take advantage of the assumption that all people want peace," Ike said, "then the problem is for people to get together and to leap government — if necessary to evade government — to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually know a little bit more about each other."

"The problems are: How do we dispel ignorance? How do we learn from each other? These are the problems.”

International Rotary and Sister Cities are two good answers..   


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors