Sister-city programs as an approach to citizen diplomacy with the Soviet Union have had their share of problems (see IN CONTEXT #9). Fortunately they have also had some wonderful successes, as the following article illustrates.
THIS IS THE STORY of how a small group of citizens in Bellingham, Washington, reach out to establish a human relationship with the town of Nakhodka, across the Pacific Rim in the Maritime Territories of the Soviet Union:
Every step of the way was a revelation, a lesson. In the beginning, the simple packet of instructions and general information that came from the Pairing Project, a national effort designed to link American cities with counterparts in the Soviet Union, lay dormant for six months. Organized groups with foreign policy interests were hesitant to take it on. Then two elements, one international and one local, broke the ice. The downing of KAL 007, which electrified and shocked the world, prepared the climate for the Project. This event galvanized into action those who carried in their hearts the simple desire to declare openly a spirit of common humanity, a spirit that existed apart from the confusion, anger and controversy following that tragedy. The local channel for action was provided by Dick Beardsley, a columnist for the BELLINGHAM HERALD. When told of the existing Pairing Project packet, he wrote an essay titled, "The Price of Peace – $10.52?" (the cost of the instruction packet). Readers called for more information and the Bellingham Pairing Project was on its way.
Even among the newly-formed committee members, an element of uncertainty prevailed. Hearing that the nearby town of LaConner, Washington, had just completed a Pairing Project with Olga, USSR they asked its organizer, Joan Cross, to come and tell how they did it. (Subsequently, calls for advice came to Bellingham from other towns hesitating to put a toe in the water.)
To send a box of messages and children’s drawings seemed simple. The Pairing Project had only one rule: communication must be carried out between the mayors of the paired cities. The committee made a rule for itself: no overt references to religion or politics. They also asked for messages with an emphasis on elements common to all human beings: greetings of good will and close-up snapshots of our faces, our children, our flowers and our pets.
The immediate and unanimous support of Bellingham’s mayor and city council was a heartening turn of events. Mayor Tim Douglas and his wife Joanne had traveled in the Soviet Union and both were familiar with the Russian language. The grassroots aspect of the Pairing Project was welcomed by the city government as an enhancing adjunct to the current revival of interest in Sister City programs, and the project’s focus on the local fishing industry meshed with local and federal joint ventures. Steps to direct the project toward the city government and away from individuals were taken. An initial public information meeting was held in the mayor’s boardroom at his invitation. All messages for the paired city, Nakhodka, were directed to the mayor’s office. And finally, a public display of the accumulated messages and gifts were held in the lobby of city hall.
Following is the citizens’ cover letter, composed by committee members and signed by city council members and hundreds of city and county persons:
Dear Citizens of Nakhodka,
We, the undersigned, are citizens of Bellingham, Washington, USA, a community across the Pacific Rim from your city, Nakhodka. Along with the message from our Mayor to your Mayor, we send greetings to you.
We wish to share with you, the citizens of Nakhodka, USSR, our love and concern for all our children and for the beautiful planet on which we all live. We believe that a safe, livable future for all of us and for our descendants can be achieved only by strengthening the bonds of communication and understanding between people everywhere.
Through our messages to you we hope to share something of who we are and what is important to us, with an emphasis on our common humanity. During the coming months, additional greetings from individuals, families and groups will be sent to you.
It would bring us great joy to receive from you a reciprocal response in the near future. May we build together bridges of understanding over which we both may share a continuing dialogue and a vision of our mutual hope for the future.
In a spirit of hope and good will,
Citizens of Bellingham, Washington, USA
Several distinctive elements in Bellingham’s Pairing Project gave the effort shape and individuality. A unique gift enclosed with the messages and photographs was the Peace Quilt, sewn especially for the Soviet Union by 25 local quilters, all amateurs except one. The quilters enclosed this message:
The making of friendship quilts to give to others is an old American tradition. Therefore, a group of citizens from Bellingham and Whatcom County, Washington, decided to make a quilt to present to our sister city, NAKHODKA, as a gesture of peace and friendship.
The blocks represent aspects of life in our area – the mountains and forests of the Cascade Range, dairy and berry farms, a fishing boat on Bellingham Bay, flowers and fruit trees, and a leaping fish in the style of American Indian art.
Two blocks have a Russian theme to represent our interest in your country – a ballet scene and a matrishka doll. Another depicts an abandoned cannon, overgrown with flowers, to express our desire for peace, and a patchwork square was made by an eleven-year-old boy.
With this quilt we have expressed our joy in the beauty of the Earth. In the words of your cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin:
"How beautiful a planet this is!
Let us not destroy this loveliness,
but preserve and enhance it."
Bellingham’s fishing community, recognizing a possible mirror image across the Pacific Rim, contributed photographs of local fishermen at work. The Lummi Indian Tribe’s Salmon Hatchery Program sent pictures of its activity. A local scientist sent snapshots of activities she experienced as a member of a joint USA/USSR fishing experiment conducted by the U.S. National Fishing Service. These commercial and federal joint ventures reinforced the feeling that it was reasonable to strengthen communication with Nakhodka; but these ties remained in the background, underlying the consensual agreement that the Pairing Project remain a simple, grassroots effort.
Another factor in the project’s success was the endorsement of an official student organization at Western Washington University, the Campus Alliance for Peace. With the boundless energy of youth, they assisted with newsletter mailings and established an invaluable connection with a Russian language class which, with the active assistance of its professor, translated the citizens letter.
An unexpected event placed a fitting cap on Bellingham’s Pairing Project. Two Soviet fishing ships from Nakhodka, part of a commercial joint venture activity, put into the Port of Bellingham for a three-day rest and recreation visit, the first of its kind in 17 years. Soviet sailors freely explored the town, and an informal relationship with local citizens resulted. The city government entertained the crew with a barbecue and live music in one of the city’s parks. By the last day of the visit, local visitors to the ships were streaming up and down the gangplanks and bringing home stories of hearty hospitality. At the close of the day, two hours before the ships were scheduled to leave, a formal farewell ceremony was held on the pier, involving the two Soviet ship captains, Bellingham’s mayor and city council president, and members of the Pairing Project committee. The box of gifts was presented to the captains who promised to deliver it to the mayor of their home port at Nakhodka.
As individuals differ, so do communities. The special elements which helped to propel Bellingham’s project to a successful culmination exist in some form in every town. Of one thing we are certain: grassroots projects seem to work best in a relaxed climate with initiators serving primarily as channels for citizen action. The news of Bellingham’s project, carried at first only by word-of-mouth, eventually caught the attention of the media without the conventional public relations effort. But, best of all, the participants became absorbed in the process and, in so doing, strengthened their relationships with each other and learned something about themselves. The initial anxious concern, "Will we ever get an answer from our paired city?" was eventually replaced with this joyous discovery, "Whether we get an answer or not, this has already been a wonderful experience!"
And then, as if in response to our loss of anxiousness, word come from the mayor of Nakhodka that "reciprocal responses" were being prepared.