Columbus and Genoa, Italy, gain recognition for “Thousand People” photo exhibit

“All people want peace.”

That was the theme of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1956 White House conference on citizen diplomacy. He envisioned a road to peace built by strengthening people-to-people relationships beyond country borders.

Born out of that conference, the Sister Cities International (SCI) nonprofit network unites communities, which engage in business, cultural and other exchanges. According to the SCI website, the network currently boasts “tens of thousands of citizen diplomats and volunteers in nearly 500 member communities with over 2,000 partnerships in more than 140 countries.”

Columbus was an early adopter, establishing its first international partnership with Genoa, Italy. In celebration, the foreign city gifted a statue of Genoa native Christopher Columbus, which was unveiled at City Hall before 100,000 people on Oct. 12, 1955.

While attitudes toward the monument have shifted over the years, Columbus' bond with Genoa has remained intact; recently, the two Sister Cities collaborated on a project that has earned an Innovation in Arts and Culture Award. City Councilwoman Priscilla Tyson and Greater Columbus Sister Cities International (GCSCI) will accept the honor during the SCI conference, which runs Aug. 2-4 in Aurora, Colorado.

“I think it's recognition for really putting effort into making a real relationship,” said GCSCI President Tim Sword. “It requires a commitment, time [and] investment.”

“We get to explain what this program is to other cities [that] might be able to use it,” said GCSCI Program Manager Sameen Dadfar. “And the amazing impact we had in our community can be passed on … and we can learn and get ideas from other people.”

GCSCI's award-winning program, “Thousand People of Genoa,” featured portraits of residents from Genoese photographer Emanuele Timothy Costa's hometown. They were displayed in Columbus last spring at the airport, Cultural Arts Center, Columbus Museum of Art, Greater Columbus Convention Center and Franklin Park Conservatory.

“I wanted to show how my town is different,” Costa said via Skype of the port city, which brings in people of all walks of life. “There's really a lot of diversity and beauty.”

While in Columbus, Costa took more than 1,400 portraits of people in the city for a “Thousand People of Columbus” exhibit, which will be displayed in Genoa in 2019. The main branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Reeb Avenue Center and Shadowbox Live were among the places Costa visited.

“What was so exciting for us is that our community really responded,” Dadfar said. “People were on social media asking us where he was gonna be next and they were tagging themselves. … Not only did they love seeing the people of Genoa and being exposed to that, but [also] realizing they could be part of an art exhibit. They could be a work of art, too.”

“The best thing I experienced was the people,” Costa said of his time in Columbus. “They look at you, which they don't do [in Genoa]. They say hello even if they don't know you. Everybody is helpful. They give you support [and] appreciate what you do. It's really something that, over here, we lost it.”

As part of another exchange, GCSCI hosted a Pesto Championship during the 2017 Columbus Italian Festival. The organization sent the winner, Ohio State professor Marcello Canova, overseas to compete in Genoa's World Pesto Championship. And in 2019, Genoa will bring Niccolo Paganini's violin — a national treasure — to Columbus.

Besides Genoa, Columbus has partnerships with nine other Sister Cities: Ahmedabad, India; Curitiba, Brazil; Dresden, Germany; Hefei, China; Herzliya, Israel; Odense, Denmark; Seville, Spain; Tainan City, Taiwan; and Accra, Ghana. A group of Columbus high schoolers recently returned from a trip to Accra, and two students will also accompany GCSCI to accept the award in Colorado.

“Thinking about all the issues, challenges and opportunities that a community like Columbus is working on — smart cities, infant mortality, education, water quality — other cities around the world are doing the same thing,” Sword said. “And by focusing on these cities that we've selected … we can share best practices [and] we can share solutions. It's [also] a business opportunity for some of our local companies.”

While GCSCI receives funding and other support from the city of Columbus, Franklin County and economic development organization Columbus 2020, corporate and individual donors are needed. “International connection is a value of Columbus that many people understand the importance of and value themselves,” Sword said. “We're looking for those people to join us.”

According to the GCSCI team, the nonprofit is fulfilling the goal for human connection set forth by President Eisenhower over 60 years ago.

“Any of the cities that I've gone to, it's like I've been able to connect with the people there on a personal level,” Dadfar said. “They all have families that we can talk about. We talk about their dating life, what kind of food they like. … By having these opportunities where you meet like-minded people, you … realize how similar we really all are.”