Jay Fisette: CYCLING AND RECYCLING: AN ADVOCATE FOR GLOBAL LEARNING
WHEN: 9 July 2014
WHERE: Lac-de-Madine, France
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
Q: It is still raining here in Lac-de-Madine, some 50 Km northeast of Nancy, capital of theFrench département of Meurthe-et-Moselle and formerly the seat of the Duke of Lorraine. Together with most of the 38 participants of SISTERBIKE XIV, today—thanks to detours—we actually covered some 60+ Km from Place Stanislas in Nancy through persistent rain, a steady headwind, and temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit. It is day five of an adventure that started in Aachen, Germany, and followed the Vennbahn cycling path through Belgium and Luxembourg before entering France. We plan to cover around 500 Km by the time we reach the French Champagne capital of Reims on July 13th.
Spirits of the group are higher than one might expect after four days of rain and with today’s ride feeling more like an Outward Bound challenge-program, perhaps because the riders from Arlington and Aachen enjoy and look forward to the camaraderie borne of friendships developed over many years or newly formed on this trip.
Jay Fisette came through today’s ordeal in great form, at the head of the pack. And my first question to you has to be: what made you sign up for this excursion?
JF: Ya know, I have done a lot of cycling in my life—bike tours, bicycle vacations—and I find it a great way to see the countryside and explore. This week’s sister city tour is the fourth one I’ve taken. It’s a wonderful way to combine several of my interests.
Q: How did you become interested in cycling?
JF: In 1981, I left the States and went to Europe with my new bike, new panniers, new tent and new sleeping bag and one friend. We bicycled from London to Greece over three months. If you ask me how I came up with the idea of doing it on a bicycle, I cannot tell you where that came from. There is no bicycling in my family. I didn’t have a good friend who had done it. I can’t tell you how that mode of travel entered my mind. But it did. I had never before bicycled with the full gear on the bike until I landed in London and loaded up. Everything I needed or used for a full year was with me on my bicycle. I do remember bicycling out of the airport at Heathrow, and the closest call I had in the whole three months—to being killed—was because I was riding on the right-hand side of the street into the first round-about. I started to go to my right, straight on into a car, forgetting of course that cars and bikes drove on the left-hand side of the street in that particular country. I didn’t have another close call the rest of the three months.
Q: That sounds like it may have been a decisive break in your life.
JF: You look back on your life—I’m 58 now—and there is no doubt that it was the most interesting, most memorable, the most formative year of my life. The first three months on a bicycle, then living in Paris, then travelling throughout France, throughout Europe, Scandinavia, Communist East Germany and Czechoslovakia. I lived overseas for a year on $7,000. I kept diaries, as I see you do. In that period I wrote a lot, thought a lot, read a lot. I went to the Pompidou Center in Paris and spent a lot of time reading, something I don’t have time to do now. I gave a lot of thought to what was important in life. And it exposed me in a fundamental way to different cultures and the breadth of the world. I was able to experience a broad range of people, politics, and religions…something that, when you are born in the United States and if you don’t leave the United States, it’s very hard to understand.
Q: I have heard you interact with the local population in French. Where did you learn the language?
JF: I am not fluent. I can’t really engage with someone speaking normal French. That said, I certainly can survive in France and get by. My vocabulary is OK. I never had language education—a little Spanish, but never using it practicably. I never really studied French before coming over here. So I studied it at the audio-visual lab on my own at the Pompidou Center. I was self-taught. I picked up what I picked up through people I met here. But you do learn to survive. I have a gorgeous Parisian accent, but the vocabulary, while good for surviving, is not good for having a real conversation.
Q: Sounds great to me! Let’s talk about your origins—where you were born, where your parents came from, how they got to be where they are.
JF: Sure. I was born in Manhattan. Until age 8, I was in New York—Manhattan or Long Island. Then my dad was transferred to Pittsburgh, so I grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs. It had been farmland not long before, then turned into cul-de-sac neighborhoods with no trees. I planted many of the trees myself.
After growing up in the Pittsburgh suburbs, I attended Bucknell University as an undergraduate and then attended the University of Pittsburgh as a graduate student in public policy and international affairs. So actually, the year overseas was pretty fundamental in opening my eyes and interesting me in broader cultural and political issues.
Q: Was that a break year from Bucknell?
JF: No, when I was at Bucknell I never travelled overseas. I was pinned down, involved in competitive swimming and water polo programs and they were year-round. Certainly, I could have taken a year off, but at that time of my life sports and those teams were sort of my identity and my passion, so I never really gave serious thought to doing a semester abroad. In retrospect, I would recommend it to anybody. What I ended up doing after college was going to graduate school for a year at Pitt, getting a free education, because I was offered the varsity water polo coaching job. I had put in my papers to go into the Peace Corps in West Africa, was waiting to be assigned, when I got a call out of the blue from the aquatics director at Pitt offering me that position at the age of 22. It meant a free graduate degree and so I took it. I never ended up going into the Peace Corps; I ended up at Pitt instead. What then happened is that after the first year at Pitt, Title IX took effect, mandating women’s equality in sports. In order to comply with the new legislation, most of the big universities like Pitt added some women’s sports and also eliminated a number of the minor men’s sports. When water polo was eliminated as a varsity sport, I was on my own.
That is when I took three years off before finishing my graduate degree. The first year and a half, beginning in early 1980, I spent in California on my pilgrimage. I came out as a gay man. I used that time off to go to San Francisco to discover who I was in that regard. I came out, have been openly gay ever since and very comfortable…
Q: Were you in San Francisco when Harvey Milk was killed?
JF: Harvey Milk had been killed the year before I went out – both Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. So it was a very acute political time in terms of civil rights and human rights for the gay and lesbian community. There was a lot of angst. I didn’t feel that personally. I experienced the period as personal liberation and discovery and acceptance of who I was. But my image and my world was certainly colored by the events in San Francisco before I got there. It was then that I took the year in Europe cycling and living in Paris. When I ran out of money and decided to come back from Paris – the big question was whether I would return to the west coast, or to the east coast. I decided to go to the east coast and finished my graduate degree.
Q: That must have been around 1984…
JF: I finished in 1983. I returned from Europe in the summer of ’82 and finished my graduate degree some 10 months later. I then decided to move to the Washington DC metropolitan area. I intended to live in the city.
Q: Your degree was in international affairs and public policy.
JF: That’s right—a mix, really, with economics and arms control. My Bucknell degree was in public policy, but I had a real interest in international affairs.
Q: You applied to the Peace Corps for Africa. Why Africa?
JF: I had a particular course or two at Bucknell, very intense with a very good professor, who became my advisor and with him we studied the emerging world powers, countries like Brazil and Nigeria. Nigeria was large in population and resource rich and therefore seen as a continental power. That was the country I chose to study more in depth. I had a pretty good knowledge of the tribal issues, the colonial issues, so that was the place I identified in Africa that I would like to go and do my Peace Corps work. I went through all the interviews and filled out all the forms and was just at home after graduating from college, killing time, doing some work to earn some money and waiting to be told where I would be assigned in Africa, when I got the phone call from the aquatics director at Pitt.
Q: When you arrived in Washington, where did you live at first?
JF: I looked at the city—I had every expectation I was moving to Washington, D.C. I knew no one in the DC area, except for a casual graduate school friend who offered a little advice and put me up for a while. I focused my search on Adams Morgan: it was a little bohemian, an interesting mix of people. But after looking at a bunch of apartments, I couldn’t find anything I either liked or could afford. And then a woman who was a class mate of mine at Pitt, who happened to be moving to Washington at the same time, told me that she had found an apartment in the River House complex in Arlington County, Virginia. I knew nothing about Arlington. But I went over and looked at the complex and they had an apartment that was spacious, two bedrooms, it was comfortable, the new Metro was opening across the field, so I took it and moved in with a room-mate who had been on the water polo team with me at Bucknell. I was in that apartment for more than four years.
Q: From your background it seems likely that you were looking for perhaps something in international relations, but it is clear that you went in another direction.
JF: Having just finished graduate school and arriving in DC, I got a job in the U.S. General Accounting Office, now called the Government Accountability Office (GAO). I was offered an entry-level job as an investigator/auditor, not in international affairs, but in human services. I did that for a year after which I transferred into the national security and international affairs division. I started doing work on international trade. The three agencies I was most connected to were the State Department, the Commerce Department, and the Defense Department. But the life of an auditor was not for me. It is important work, but working in that bureaucracy was not something for which I could muster any passion. It was stultifying for me. You know, you go into files and spend all day in filing cabinets, then interviewing people, taking notes, and needing three sources for anything I put in a report. In those circumstances there is very little room for creativity and innovation. It was not conducive to my personality. I was not a happy puppy.
Finally, after three or four years, I figured out a way to get a detail over to Capitol Hill. GAO ultimately worked for Congress, so there were times you could arrange to be asked to come over and work in Congress on issues. So that’s what I did for my last year and a half as a GAO employee, detailed to Congress where I was assigned to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee chaired by Senator Ted Kennedy.
Q: Was there anyone at GAO who was particularly instrumental in facilitating the move?
JF: Alan Mendelowitz, the Director of GAO’s national security and international affairs division, played an important role. I believe he realized that it would be good for me to go to a new place and have that experience, and so he let me leave his supervision. And it did change my life, because I found Capitol Hill much more vibrant, much more engaging, a much more exciting place to work. It starting giving me some sense of possibilities and hope that I could find something that really made me happy. I always believed that you should follow your passion. It’s not always easy to get in touch with it and it’s not always easy to figure out practically how to make that work, but the more often people can identify what they enjoy doing, what gives them energy, your bliss, as has been said, the more likely you are to enjoy your work day.
Q: So, you were working on AIDS on the Hill. That was a critical period in defining public policy on AIDS, was it not?
JF: It was huge. There were many public policy issues related to HIV and AIDS, as well as social, moral, ethical and financial/budget issues. It remains a fascinating area of public policy. For me it was a time in history when so much was going on. This was right in the midst of all the ACT-UP agitation. They were protesting and picketing at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the pharmaceutical companies, arguing against the protocols used in drug testing. Some people got the medication and some got a sugar pill. They really pushed and changed the system in many significant ways to be much more efficient and faster and also challenged the rules and regulations of existing protocols in the whole research area for pharmaceutical Senator Kennedy was a leader and working for him ensured amazing access. Anytime you needed to interview anyone, doors opened.
Q: A question about your developing sense of how the U.S. Government works, how policy worked at that time. The social movement, ACT-UP is a presence. This is a field in which you have an interest. In the end government work sounds like a positive experience for you.
JF: Being on Capitol Hill, doing my small part, I was able to contrast working in an agency, versus working on the Hill. I found the Hill more appealing. On the other hand, the agencies—every one of them – did important work and someone has to do that work. It was an interesting exposure to all different forms and aspects of policy-making and the role of government. After all, that is what I spent a lot of time studying.
Q: How did you get from there to your engagement with local government?
JF: While I was working at the GAO, around 1987, I started doing volunteer work at Whitman-Walker Clinic – one of the largest community-based HIV/AIDS organizations in the country. It started as a gay men’s VD clinic in Georgetown and later expanded to deal with AIDS. I did peer counseling for gay men, a lot around the issue of coming out. It was a local effort. I derived great satisfaction from that work. I got onto the board of the organization. After the Hill assignment came to an end and I declined to go back to the GAO, I was offered the job of running the northern Virginia office of the Whitman-Walker Clinic. The lesson for me was to follow my passion. My volunteer interests evolved into my next job. I often recommend volunteering for something you care about as a serious option for folks trying to find a job. It worked for me. So I ended up running the Whitman-Walker office, growing it from about 6 people to 25 employees. I managed the office and the budget, hired and fired, did the public relations, and the regional coordination. I had never been a manager before, but developed all these skills and enjoyed it tremendously. I enjoyed running an organization.
Now, through the work at Whitman-Walker, I had to advocate for funds from Arlington County, Fairfax County, and the City of Alexandria. I got to know some of the elected officials in Arlington and that got me thinking in other ways as well.
Q: What years were those? When did you make the jump to becoming an elected official?
JF: I was on staff at Whitman-Walker from 1990-1998. I first heard about a possible opening on the County Board in late 1992 when Bill Newman was appointed to a judgeship on the Circuit Court. I had gotten to know several board members—Al Eisenberg, Ellen Bozman, Mary Margaret Whipple and John Milliken. Meanwhile, Bob and I had bought a home in 1987. When you own a home, you get to know your community a little more deeply and often get more invested. While I had long been interested in public policy, I had never given serious thought to running for office – because I was gay. That was the main reason. Having read about HarveyMilk, I had gained a great respect for having a seat at the table, and the value of being open as a gay person in all walks of life. But I never thought elected office was feasible. You just sort of write it off. It isn’t going to happen, so you don’t waste time thinking about it. Yet, after living in a home in Arlington and working at Whitman-Walker, and getting to know the leadership of the community—the idea of running for office did surface. I now knew a large circle of people, growing dramatically from the point at which I moved to the area and knew no one, zero. The County Board was stable; there were not very many openings; so it remained a thought in the back of my mind, though I did reveal my thinking to Bob. I had done some research about how many people voted, so that when Bill Newman announced he was leaving and I knew there would be a vacancy, I talked more openly about it. Bob and I decided we would invite six or eight people over who were active in the Arlington community to test the waters and see if this were viable, whether it was something people could get behind. We were prepared to hear that it was a crazy idea.
Q: What year was this?
JF: It was 1993. People did not think we were crazy. We had a little anxiety about being public, with our phone number listed and all that. As it turned out, having decided to run in that Democratic primary, there were only one or two nasty, hateful phone calls to our home, but it was an incredibly positive experience and a very positive reflection of the Arlington community. Many people saw this in their way as breaking through a barrier, as a step forward. Having some connection to your community when you run for office is highly valued in Arlington. My connections were through Whitman-Walker, people in the human service field, neighbors and the LGBT community. I had no political connection, however, except for knowing a few County Board members as I had asked them for money and had tried to introduce them to the work of Whitman-Walker. I had no endorsements from elected officials when I ran and I was running against the chair of the school board, Darlene Mickey, Charles Monroe, whose mother was the first African-American on the school board and whose father was an African-American judge, and Chris Zimmerman, who had worked for a Virginia Delegate and had all sorts of elected officials endorse him. I had never been to a Democratic Committee meeting until the month before I became the party’s nominee. I won that primary pretty handily, which I really think is a tribute to Arlington, honestly, because I was not known in the political world at all. I had not done any volunteer work for the Arlington Democratic Party – yet the party treated me as an equal; they gave me equal access; they treated everyone fairly and they continue to warmly embrace anyone stepping forward to take the risk of running for office. I don’t think that is common and I don’t think it is to be presumed. Twenty plus years later, if you are serious and thoughtful and you have good intentions, it does not matter where you come from, you will be treated equally by the Democratic party. That’s my experience. Now, you may or may not win, but no one will dismiss you. They will give you an opportunity to prove yourself. So I did win that primary and then I ended up losing in the special election to the Republican/Independent who was running against me. It was about 49.4% to 50.3% of the vote, very close, but I did lose. I chose to run four years later, when Ellen Bozman retired, and did win that race.
Q: Have there been many Republican victors since then?
JF: There have been two: Mike Lane beat Charles Monroe in a special election back around 1999 or 2000, and then just this past April, John Vihstadt won. It has always been in a special election, not a normal November election when the turnout is higher. The three times a Republican/Independent has won has been in a special, off-season election when turnout has been low.
Q: Summarize for us what your agenda and outlook were for your new role in public service as a member of the Arlington County Board.
JF: I was elected in 1997 and started in January 1998. Well, anyone starting on a city council or in our case a county board brings their principles and values, work experience, education and life experience. Your principles and values frame your approach and work ethic. What I have found since starting, and one of the reasons I was attracted to running for office, is that the values of Arlington very much align with my personal values. I don’t know that if I had lived somewhere else that I would have wanted to run for office. But having moved into our home and having become familiar with the community through non-profit work – every time I learned something new about the community it was very consistent with my personal values. Arlington has a reputation for thoughtful/efficient government and an engaged community. There is a high level of customer-service, even if we make mistakes, and we do, even if individuals in the system make mistakes and don’t treat citizens with the care they deserve, corrective action is taken, there is acknowledgement of that. I find the long-term thinking of Arlington very unusual—and I have done a lot of regional work since being elected in the last 16 years. Arlington is regarded very highly by other localities because of the stability and consistency of the vision and because of the creativity and long-term thinking, not just short-term. We don’t have a history of making decisions based on expediency regarding the next election or the budget that month or that year. It’s really with an eye towards sustainability—what’s the best long-term solution or decision that is consistent with the vision of the community. And the vision was articulated and refined back in 2000 or 2001. I am just so proud of Arlington. It certainly works for me—Arlington embodies the values that I hold dear. When I see how much change the community has experienced—the design, the function, the quality of our schools, the infrastructure investment. If people that lived here 30 years ago came back, they wouldn’t recognize Arlington. If they work for the State Department or AID and go overseas for three or four years and then come back, the reaction is “wow!”—just in three or four years. Change is difficult. Part of my job is implementing and overseeing the planning and design for the future. But it’s actually overseeing and managing the implementation of change. Transportation policy has dramatically changed, as we redesigned the community with the onset of Metro. These are transformative things that occurred in Arlington. We have managed our way through enormous amounts of change and have succeeded 90% of the time. People have liked where we have come. We have become better than we were. There is nothing stagnant about Arlington. It’s a very dynamic place. At the same time we have added people, added multi-family homes, office buildings, smart growth and the Metro system, the street-car system down the road, and had never had a local bus system—that’s all new since I have been on the board. We never had a bike-share system. We didn’t have good sidewalks. And all of it works as a package. Nevertheless, despite all this change, we have managed to retain that wonderful connectedness and neighborhood feel that existed when we were a much smaller place—that urban village—the village but also the urban side. I think we still have it to a great degree. So I think Arlington is a fascinating place in which to work. I know that in some places, people in local government are looking for one new building every five years, one project to wrap their arms around, but here we are doing 20, 30 even 50 things at once.
Q: I can validate that from the point of view of a pedestrian walking through Arlington starting on the DC side of the river along the Orange Line corridor. One of the more interesting things I saw was a graffito spray-painted on the side of a bank, since torn down and replaced by a new building. It was in French: les vraisparadissont lesparadis qu’on aperdus, a citation from Marcel Proust. I admit to having been surprised. My first experience in Arlington was in 1969 when I was a student at Georgetown University and visits to Arlington had been to find restaurants to eat cheaply and drink beer. That still happens, though up-market nowadays. I can identify with the “wow” experience you mentioned.
Maybe that provides a segue to the second phase of this conversation—your sister city engagement. How did you discover that Arlington even had sister cities?
JF: So I started on the County Board in 1998. The chairman is determined by the board members themselves. I became chair for the first time in 2001. You still only have one vote as chair. Your unique responsibilities are in setting the agendas for the meetings, facilitating and running the meetings, becoming a spokesperson to the media, and there are certain things that regularly come to the chairman. One of those was sister city affairs. ASCA had existed for some time already and at that time was more directly connected to the county staff. A staff person was assigned to sister city affairs, at least as part of that person’s responsibilities. Trips were organized to visit Aachen with an official delegation. Aachen was the largest and most vibrant of the sister city relationships we had. There was a relationship with Coyoacan, but it was dormant at that time. The folks that support the Aachen-Arlington relationship in Aachen have been strong from the beginning. It is a terrific group of people, many still active from the beginning 20 years ago. I heard about Aachen’s interest that we pursue a relationship with Reims, France. We were beginning to look into it. There had been an initial conversation, but the effort had gone off track. Reims was not particularly interested. That had been attributed to the mayor of Reims. But then there came to be a new mayor. One person who got my attention on this was Hubert Gronen [founding member of Aachen-Arlington and later of the Aachen-Reims sister city relationships—see our interview in the ASCA Online Oral History Archive-CL]. I believe that in hearing about this dynamic—and of course, I am a bit of a Francophile, I really like France—it was appealing to me to think about a sister-city in France. And as we discussed, I like to bicycle. So I threw out the idea of cycling from Aachen to Reims as a demonstration of our interest. I did not put any energy into organizing the ride, but others heard the idea. and it was primarily Hubert who organized the trip. Somehow we pulled together 13 participants from Arlington, and I was one of them, sort of leading this delegation on a kind of pilgrimage from Aachen to Reims in order to express our interest in a relationship, with Aachen represented by Hubert. My clearest memory is Hubert’s persistently articulated advice: we have to create this sister-city triangle. So the thirteen Arlingtonians, joined by Hubert from Aachen, journeyed by bicycle from Aachen to Reims, where we were received in the Hôtel de Ville – the mayor’s office – a grand, beautiful, historic building – showing up in our Spandex, biking right up to the building, walking right in.
Q: That was Mayor Schneiter?
JF: Right! I had to deliver a speech in French, of course. I relied on Hubert’s wonderful assistance. We were welcomed and embraced. We stayed a couple of days in Reims. Fortunately, the Spandex didn’t turn them off. The new mayor, Jean-Louis Schneiter, was very receptive. Within a year or so, they had come to visit us and we signed an agreement with them—on the portico of Arlington House overlooking Arlington National Cemetery. One of the gentlemen on the bike ride, Bernie Chapnick, developed the biking tour idea and took it on as a project and has organized a tour in a different part of Europe every year since. The nice part is that now the participants are a balance of Aachen residents and Arlington residents. It became an opportunity to replenish that intercultural, international connection every year.
Q: The triangle was established in principle. There were certain asymmetries, though. The Reims folks seemed less interested in biking than the Aacheners and Arlingtonians.
JF: Reims has been the destination of a SISTERBIKE at least twice. Most begin and end in other parts of Europe. I was on the first one ending in Reims and I was on the one that started in Reims and ended in Strasbourg. A number of the local (French) cycling folk joined us in Reims, simply to escort us out of town. So it is true that SISTERBIKE has been almost entirely an Aachen-Arlington thing. I think there is a language component to the pattern. The Aacheners generally speak English. Americans and Arlingtonians rarely speak other languages, so our default is English.
Q: We are sitting in Lorraine on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and we are preparing to cycle to Verdun tomorrow morning, scene of the grimmest carnage in a ten-month battle in 1916 that claimed upwards of 600,000 lives. There is a redemptive connection to the Reims-Aachen-Arlington triangle you just described. The American “doughboy” troops came in 1918 and turned the tide…
JF: ‘Came again in ’44…
Q: Just so. The story of Europe in the second half of the 20th century is completely different than its tragic unfolding in the first half. The transformation is traceable to the relationship between France, Germany, and the United States—France and Germany in reorganizing Europe peacefully beginning in 1950 and the United States in establishing the conditions of existence for Franco-German entente. From the point of view of this student of international relations and European history, I would have expected an even greater sense of organic connectedness in this relationship.
JF: You mean the French in particular.
Q: Right, from the point of view of Arlington, it puzzles me why we have not yet been able to make more of the connection.
JF: You are referring to something broader than the SISTERBIKE experience, I take it.
Q: Yes, I wonder why it has not yet occurred to us to draw more explicitly on this common collective, so to speak trilateral historical experience in animating and shaping ASCA programs.
JF: We could philosophize about it, conjecture about it. There is the historic animosity and competition between Germany and France. We are right here in Lorraine, a region that has gone back and forth between France and Germany for hundreds of years. Britain aside, they are the two leading continental powers. I do think that, for some reason, the French culture…Americans are probably more like the Germans and the language barrier is probably not as significant as it is with the French. You know, I lived there for a while; I consider myself a Francophile; Paris is my favorite city in the world. At the same time, there is a unique character to the French. They are very protective and proud of their culture, of their uniqueness, of their place in the world. This plays out in all sorts of ways. But I think your point about the three being fundamentally important to the stability of the world and the U.S. playing a role as the dominant world power, militarily, economically and otherwise, for a good portion of the last century, is true.
We have had, by and large, terrifically good relationships with France throughout and with Germany after World War II. It is a wonderful connection and it is why our student exchanges are so important. They are very active with Reims—not only Aachen—there is a very strong student exchange. What an incredible opportunity! I wish more of our students took advantage of it. There is more opportunity with Aachen and Reims than is fully realized at the moment. Their students seem to be overflowing in their interest in coming to Arlington. And on our end, it is not quite as robust. There is a healthy contingent, but there are slots for additional students. I think this may be a reflection of America more than Arlington in particular. I have always felt that traveling outside one’s country makes one a better person…and makes the world a better place.
Q: In ASCA board meetings over the past year, discussion has frequently focused on this because it has not been easy to get strong support for the student exchanges from the school board and school administration.
JF: I would offer myself, really. I work with the School Board all the time. They have their role, we have ours, but there is an enormous amount of collaboration and cooperation that has to occur. Half of Arlington’s operating budget goes to the schools. There is such a priority in Arlington on public education. I would be happy to sit down with you to figure out how to better engage the senior people in the administration, the superintendent included, a very good guy, to make sure they understand the opportunity. We have a liaison from the County Board to ASCA, Walter Tejada, and I actually served on the ASCA board myself ten or so years ago for a few years. So I am happy to help out if I can. I would love to have more students take advantage of these programs.
Q: As you mentioned in passing, our European counterparts are always looking for more uptake from us.
JF: It is a great opportunity. I wish I had had such an opportunity in high school and grade school.
Q: Returning to the bigger picture, let me invite you to reflect on your sister-city engagement more broadly.
JF: I would say that the organization is stronger now than I have seen it. It’s always interesting to see how sister-city relationships are managed in other places. As you would expect and as I presume in Europe, there is more of a government role. This is especially true of Reims and to a lesser degree of Aachen. Mayors come to visit bringing big gifts, elaborately packaged, but in Arlington our efforts are non-profit driven, or involve a public-private partnership, relying more on the citizens. Now, I know that in Aachen and Reims they rely on citizens as well. The role of government in Arlington is very lean. We do provide some funding to help you hire someone for coordination tasks, but most of it is going to come from active citizens in the community.
We have five sister cities now. I have not been to Ivano-Frankivsk. I assume that a few people of Ukrainian descent living in Arlington helped make this most recent sister-city success happen. I have heard very nice things about the relationship, the cross-cultural trips. I am not as aware of the student exchanges outside of Reims and Aachen. We have a relationship with San Miguel, El Salvador. The Coyoacan relationship waxes and wanes, turning mostly on the leadership in Mexico. I had met some of the political leaders from Coyoacan as recently as three years ago and liked them enormously. They are a terrific bunch. But then you have the mayor, who left, and sometimes this has to do a lot with the mayor and how much the mayor’s administration supports a sister-city relationship. In Arlington it is less reliant on that, because we don’t have a mayor. Ours is a more confusing system to most everyone else, but we have a system of rotation among five elected county board members, so there is less likelihood that support for sister-city programs will strengthen or weaken depending on the elected political leadership. The corollary is that if anything happens, it must come from the active citizens.
Q: Arlington county probably has a greater percentage of people with graduate degrees and books read per capita than anywhere else on the face of the earth.
JF: And those with international experience—State Department, AID officials are present in great numbers as well as foreign diplomats that have landed or live in our community. The preconditions for successful sister-city relationships are abundantly present.
Q: In that sense, the citizens don’t need to be educated; they already know about the benefits at least in a general sense. It is more a question of time and inclination. In contrast, oddly enough, to Washington DC, which has a dozen sister-city relationships that have almost without exception not been activated and are dormant.
JF: On paper only…
Q: That’s right.
JF: which has not much value. I can understand where they may have ups and downs, based on the strength of citizen involvement, citizens with the time and energy to invest, but simply to have a piece of paper or have a senior elected official show up at a ceremony occasionally is not the value of a sister-city relationship. The real value revolves more than anything around the cultural exchanges, the student exchanges. And it is not only limited to students. Honestly, this is one of the most important aspects. We have had other types of exchanges between us, Aachen and Reims. In particular, we have collaborated in the arts. We have exchanged individuals from our transportation departments. Staff exchanges—I know there is interest on the economic development side. Indeed, you and I met with some of the folks in Aachen last week from their economic development agencies. In the work I do on transportation and energy, I have had the opportunity outside the sister-city framework to visit installations in Germany and Denmark that are models of what we aspire to create in Arlington. The European energy systems are well advanced over our practices here. There is a lot to learn, but it can’t just be honorific and ceremonial appearances.
Q: Enlightened leadership is important at the county level in the county board, so that meritorious ideas are well received and reverberate through the administration. Arlington has been blessed in that way.
JF: We need that openness. And ideas will inspire us from outside the sister-city framework, which will always necessarily have limits in terms of organizational capabilities, energy, and financing. For example, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC), which supports regional initiatives in Northern Virginia, has a very active effort, in fact has a German sister region, the region of Stuttgart, featuring exchanges of elected officials and senior staff, where the focus is on energy and sustainability systems. The sister-city program can do some of that, but it is not where the primary responsibility lies. It could be that Reims is the leader in certain things and other parts of Europe lead in others. So we need to be deployed more extensively. Dale Medearis of the NVRC brought a tangible benefit to us through a meeting at the German Embassy discussing community energy plans. That’s where I got the idea to do a community energy plan for Arlington. We actually ended up hiring the consultant who gave the presentation at the German embassy, who worked with us for a year and a half and led to the adoption of our community energy plan. Instead of doing a sustainability plan more broadly, we focused it on energy, which was much more tangible, and it was all through this international connection. This experience clearly demonstrates the value of international connection and learning.
Q: You will be happy to know that Dale has also come to us in the sister-city relationship to talk to the visiting Aachen students about what we do in the United States that is relevant to them.
JF: Dale is all about relevance; he is all about demonstrating the practical value of cooperation.
Q: By way of conclusion, we are now ready to reflect on the continuing relevance of the sister-city concept. As a first step, let us hear what you think our sister-city programs have achieved in Arlington so far.
JF: I think that any community in American that thinks of itself as forward-thinking and sophisticated has to have a sister-city program. I can’t imagine that Arlington, with its educated residents, could be complete without recognizing the importance and finding ways of acknowledging and tapping into internationalism. It’s “think globally, act locally.” I may have chosen, after having studied international affairs, to work at the local level—sort of being a bigger fish in a smaller pond—but any community that is truly going to move itself forward and be complete has to have a global aspect. The world is too small. Many cities have taken the lead in important public policy areas that should, in fact, be framed, guided, and incentivized by forward thinking national policy. Much bigger cities, like New York and Chicago, and many cities around the world – where over half of the world’s population now lives —are in the forefront of policy and program innovation – often learning from one another. Things that happen in one part of the world can have a significant impact in another part of the world. We only help ourselves through international awareness and connections – like those nurtured through a sister-city relationship. That will only become more apparent with the passage of time.
Q: Do you think that ASCA and its official counterpart have together made a perceptible contribution over the past twenty years since the first sister-city experiment, Arlington-Aachen, was launched?
JF: The most tangible impact is going to be through the student exchange, where you have undoubtedly affected many lives by giving kids exposure to another part of the world and another culture, who might not have had that opportunity otherwise. Just like my year abroad was the most formative in my life, I am sure that that the student exchange experiences have made lasting impressions on many young Arlingtonians. That’s a huge contribution. And there are others. Individuals like us now have friends in other parts of the world.
Q: You were at the table yesterday when Hubert Gronen was talking about the relationship between the United States and Germany in light of the Snowden NSA affair. Do you think Hubert would have been able to have that kind of conversation with Americans, absent the intimacy that our sister-city relationship fostered over the years?
JF: I know Hubert and yes he would (laughter). Like me and you, he enjoys provocation and debate. Hubert is an incredibly international person. He speaks six or seven languages and has lived in multiple countries. That’s the beauty of living in Europe. By definition, you are more international. It just happens. Now the Euro is a common currency, but you still have different languages, different cultures. For us, the situation is different. I have heard that only 15% of Americans have a passport. The percentage in Europe must be closer to 95%. We are surrounded by oceans and haven’t had any wars on our soil for a long time. We have had a terrorist attack and a civil war, but we haven’t been attacked in a sustained war in a long time. It’s a different reality. And the danger for us is that too many Americans can be too easily unaware of the rest of the world. You hear some in the political arena refer to “American exceptionalism.” I am not very partial to that term. I am very proud to be American and I left my year here in France feeling even more appreciative and proud of where I happen to have been born and the many good qualities of America. At the same time, I have an enormous respect for the differences in the world, in the cultures and peoples. There are many things that others do better than we do, for instance in the whole area of sustainability, not wasting resources. Europe has had a much longer history and has wasted in its day. Now they have become much more efficient in the way they live, in terms of their space, energy, and resources. There is much to learn about other places and much to appreciate. When you grow up in America, especially without resources and wealth in your family, there is a good likelihood that you will never leave the United States. That will color your view, not only of your own country, but of the world. I think it is much healthier to immerse in some of those differences. It helps form you and makes you a more balanced person.
Q: To close, what do you think about the continuing relevance of the sister-city concept. It was launched in its modern form in the 1950s when travel and communication were limited. Nowadays we have instant connections through the Internet and our cell phones to the rest of the world. Do sister-cities have a future?
JF: I think sister-cities are very relevant, though that doesn’t mean they don’t need to redefine themselves from time to time. The most obvious anchor program is the youth exchange, though it need not stop there. There is the kind of policy learning I mentioned when referencing the German source of our Arlington community energy plan. How the sister-city program re-shapes itself is a very interesting challenge. The starting point is the premise that it does have relevance, and working from there.