Within 24 hours of advertising a trip to Toluca, Mexico, to see the migration of millions of monarch butterflies in February 2022, all 35 seats sold out. It is the first trip organized by Fort Worth Sister Cities International since the World Health Organization declared there was a pandemic in March of 2020. Fort Worth Report sat down with Mae Ferguson, the nonprofit’s president, CEO and protocol officer, to learn about the new normal of tentatively booking exchanges and abiding by mask and vaccination requirements of other countries’ to keep Fort Worth worldly.
- What are Fort Worth’s sister cities?
Fort Worth has nine sister cities. Reggio Emilia, Italy, became its first sister city in 1985. That city holds a youth-based Olympic games every few years for which Fort Worth is the only U.S. participating city. Fort Worth’s newest sister city is Nîmes, France. In the 18th century, Nîmes’ thriving textile industry produced the denim used in American cowboys’ blue jeans. Former Mayor Betsy Price and Nîmes Mayor Jean-Paul Fournier signed an agreement to become sister cities on Feb. 13, 2019.
Ferguson thinks that a city Fort Worth’s size should have 13 sister cities. She hopes it will add a 10th by 2023. Fort Worth looks for sister cities that have comparable population and resources to sustain the relationship. They must also have educational institutions and business opportunities. It’s a plus if they’re easily accessible.
“There’s nothing worse than having a sister city that you have to get on a plane then get on a cab or a bus or a boat and a camel to get to,” Ferguson said.
Fort Worth is trying to limit itself to one sister city per country, “so we can spread our educational ability around.”
“Laredo, Texas, has I think 10 or 15 in Mexico, and that’s simply because they want to do business, which is fine. They’re a border city, and that makes sense for them. It doesn’t make sense for us,” Ferguson said.
Click through this interactive graphic to learn more about Fort Worth’s other sister cities:
- How is the sister cities program run and funded?
Fort Worth became a member of Sister Cities International the same year Reggio Emilia became its first sister city. Sister Cities International began in 1956 under then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is a nonprofit citizen diplomacy network that strives to promote cultural understanding and economic development. It does this by organizing youth and adult exchanges and training businesses how to interact with potential partners from another country.
Some Sister Cities International chapters are departments within their city’s government, but Fort Worth’s operates independently, except for office space and the $50,000 the city provides it each year to operate.
“We have a contract with the city of Fort Worth to manage their international relations and we get about 4% of our budget — our budget is about one and a half million dollars — from that. The rest of our funding, we get through the community,” Ferguson said.
As with most nonprofits, the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected Fort Worth Sister Cities International’s bottomline.
“We got two PPP loans (each about $77,000, according to a Propublica database) and we had a healthy reserve that we did have to dip into to get through the year and also had some reductions, which was the smart thing to do,” said Ferguson, who is one of four full-time staff members.
But being a nonprofit with community support rather than a city department has helped it bounce back, raising about $25,000 more than its fundraising goal for this year of $250,000, she said.
- Why have sister cities?
First, traveling to one of Fort Worth’s sister cities changes children’s lives and not just because they can write about the experience in a college admissions application essay, Ferguson said. Expanding one’s worldview fosters ambition and empathy.
Second, it showcases Fort Worth to the rest of the world, hopefully elevating its reputation and improving its future.
“Do we want to just be known as Dallas’ bedroom community? Because we have a lot to offer here,” she said.
Fort Worth Sister Cities International typically does 50 exchanges per year, and you don’t need to be a sustaining donor to go on one or to host.
“You can pick up the phone and call a travel agency and go, but our trips are really people-to-people based. We’ll arrange it so you get to have a meal with someone in their home. That’s the difference,” she said.
- What are the measurements of success?
Prior to the pandemic, Fort Worth Sister Cities International received a grant from the Morris Foundation to survey youth before and after their international exchanges. It will resume those surveys once exchanges resume, Ferguson said.
In 2016, Jay Mather, founder and CEO of valueideas, studied the economic impact of three U.S. cities with sister city programs, Atlanta, Nashville and Fort Worth. Fort Worth, he found then, had an economic impact of $14 million.
Besides that, Ferguson said there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence the program is a success.
After a trip to Fort Worth’s sister city Toluca, Mexico, Bell Helicopter sold a helicopter there, she said. Firestone & Robertson Distilling Company, now Texas Whiskey, and Best Maid Pickles showcased its products in Japan.
Non-business related successes include a husband and wife meeting on one exchange and Fort Worth donating a refurbished ambulance to one sister city in need during the pandemic, Ferguson said.
Also, with the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Fort Worth Sister Cities International built a community center in an African city struggling with a high rate of HIV and AIDS.
The relationships haven’t always been rosy. When Reggio Emilia, Italy, wanted to end its relationship with Fort Worth because of its opposition to the death penalty, its representatives were invited to Fort Worth to learn about the topic and understand that Fort Worth couldn’t end the death penalty alone, Ferguson said. Similarly, Fort Worthians have expressed concern with Mbabane, Eswatini, an African country ruled by a king with more than one wife.
“And we’re like, ‘Well, you know, No. 1, why would we partner with someone who’s just like us? This is to show there are differences. It doesn’t mean we are accepting the differences, but that we respect and understand that that’s their culture,” she said.
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.