By Emma Castleberry
Asheville Sister Cities International (ASCI) is a nonprofit organization that maintains relationships between Asheville and its seven sister cities: Vladikavkaz, Russia; San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico; Saumur, France; Karpenisi, Greece; Valladolid, Mexico; Osogbo, Nigeria; and Dunkeld and Birnam, Scotland. “Even though ASCI is a nonprofit, we partner with the City of Asheville to officially recognize the importance of our global relationships,” says president Jessica Coffield, who is also an elected member of Sister Cities International Board of Directors. “Our members are trained to be citizen diplomats when taking trips abroad and representing Asheville or while hosting groups from our sister cities. A citizen diplomat is someone who respects the differences of other cultures while also actively learning and engaging with people from global communities outside their own.”
ASCI has a packed calendar of programming, including trips, events, entertainment, language classes, food and wine tastings and school exchange programs, all of which celebrate and promote international awareness. The group has even completed a “pastor exchange” in which Reverend Dr. Steve Runholt from Warren Wilson Presbyterian “swapped” congregations with Reverend Fraser Penny from the Parish of Dunkeld and Birnam in Scotland. Membership in the Sister Cities program is open to all individuals and groups in Asheville. “By being a member of ASCI you are connected to a global community with opportunities to travel in a way that reaches far beyond typical tourism and connects with the culture and daily lives of the people in the communities of our sister cities,” says Coffield.
The diplomacy of members involved in the Vladikavkaz Committee for ASCI has become especially important in light of the recent geopolitical tension resulting from Russia’s ongoing genocide in Ukraine. Vladikavkaz, a town in the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia, became Asheville’s first sister city in 1990. “Like many of my individual friends in Russia, our friends and contacts in our sister city were shocked and in disbelief when Putin sent troops into Ukraine,” says Constance Richards Bora, chair of the Vladikavkaz Committee. “The relationship is tenuous, and that is understandable. We have friends there. These are individuals we have met through our programs and delegation visits over the years—it’s not just an amorphous place. It is a terrible situation all around.” The formal position of Sister Cities International was outlined as follows by CEO Leroy Alala: “While suspending or ending a sister city relationship to register disapproval of a foreign government’s actions may seem, on the surface, like a positive policy protest action, it has the complete opposite effect—closing a vital and, ofttimes, last channel of communication with vulnerable or isolated populations.”
ASCI is a highly respected program that has been repeatedly recognized by Sister Cities International for its success. “I am honored to be part of an organization bringing cultural awareness to our city and one that puts Asheville on a global map,” says Coffield. “We hope that each person who joins Sister Cities will find joy and fulfillment from the work we do.”
Learn more, see the calendar of events or sign up for membership at AshevilleSisterCities.org.