Looking Back on a Presidency
In January 2023 I finished eight years as president of Neighbors Abroad. The memories form a many sided box. A side for accomplishment, a side for friendships made, a side for the discovery of culture, a side for furthering an institution. While it is hard to place any lid on this box, I am delighted to ponder the fullness and weight of a life changing experience.
Two articles by the Palo Alto Weekly, the first article from 2013, and the second article from 2022 provide convenient brackets to my 8 year tenure as President of Neighbors Abroad. Each offers a separate lens of where we were as an organization when beginning and winding down my term as President. Skipping to the chase, we made great progress establishing our relevance to serve Palo Alto’s international and now domestic engagement. Yet our incoming President Sarah Burgess, and our leadership team including myself as a president emeritus, still have many of the challenges identified in 2013. This post shares our progress as an organization, and closes with a few personal anecdotes that are the icing on the cake to a rich and productive term.
This year Neighbors Abroad is a sixty year old organization. Anyone serving as President has a sense of stewardship knowing dedicated community members have held the helm. As I began the helm, picking up from nearly seven years that Barbara and Joe Evans had served as co-presidents, there were challenges. As summarized by the Weekly in 2013:
“As Neighbors Abroad celebrates its 50 year milestone, the organization is also taking stock of how to maintain its relevance in the 21st century. Palo Alto has expanded from a small college town to an economic center with global reach. Times have changed. So too must Neighbors Abroad.”
The Weekly’s article in 2013 reflected on a Neighbors Abroad seeking to find its relevance in the Palo Alto social ecosystem. While holding a focus on student exchange, students were increasingly busy. There was a concern that engagement with a younger generation was not being accomplished. The will was strong, but the way was ambiguous. While laying out future challenges, the article also reflected an incredible sense of accomplishment across the organization’s history. The organization had a history filled with friendship and beneficial accomplishments especially in Palo, Leyte Philippines and Oaxaca, Mexico. As I came forward as president, reestablishing Neighbors Abroad’s community relevance was a central goal.
Any president brings their passion to the office they serve, and in my case, my passion for environmental sustainability. I sought to augment Neighbors Abroad’s mission to include connecting across our Sister Cities through sustainability collaborations. A focus on sustainability would align with the core value of Palo Altans, and would help bring back the community relevance we sought to restore.
We did create progress on sustainability as a new focus of Neighbors Abroad. Neighbors Abroad catalyzed the first agreement of forest-based carbon offsets between California (as executed by City of Palo) and Mexico (as executed by ICICO in Oaxaca, Mexico). The agreement moves Palo Alto forward in her climate action goals, while within Oaxaca the management of the forests brings cash, jobs and environmental enhancement to areas of rural Mexico. Our work in Yaxe, Oaxaca Mexico to provide rainwater harvesting for drinking water supports the sustainable development through enhancing drinking water supply, and in parallel shows Palo Alto techniques for local self-reliance for water in our town that is prone to drought. We joined art and sustainability, believing that art and culture can be a gateway to progress in sustainability. We initiated Zoom calls with our European Sister Cities, joined by City of Palo Alto staff, to share progress on transportation practices and efforts to meet climate goals. Sustainability came forward to join sharing culture and education as the mantras of Neighbors Abroad.
However our responses to global challenges requiring emergency support, and shifting how we gathered and interacted amongst ourselves, propelled Neighbors Abroad to even stronger relevance and community engagement.
What were the global challenges we met? As an organization, we responded to the 2017 devastating earthquake in Oaxaca, Mexico sending tens of thousands of dollars in aid to programs that supported children. We helped rebuild children’s centers across Oaxaca state. In 2021, after the invasion by Russia of Ukraine, we supported orphan children in Ukraine. Championed by Dr. Jeannet Kiesling, we channeled over one hundred thousand dollars to orphans traumatized by the war helping them leave for Europe. We became the heart of Palo Alto, and City Hall was lit in blue and yellow. In 2022 a Neighbors Abroad delegation visited Palo, Leyte Philippines, and we validated the educational impact through children’s literacy and scholarship across 60 years. The social impact, or impact through charity from Palo Alto helped our community not feel detached to those that are adversely impacted.
How we gathered and met catalyzed our organization. At the beginning of my term we would meet for monthly meetings in a neon lit cold room at Cubberley. Coffee, some boxed cookies, and about five of us. One of the first changes was opening my living room, and creating a circle of discussion that felt like the community that had been part of our tradition. The effect was immediate, and attendance grew. Then, we created a weekly coffee that allowed more casual and frequent conversations. These conversations, transitioning to Zoom during the pandemic, served as a lifeline for the organization. Via Zoom, we grew our team person by person, until now we have amazing guiding interactions with each of our affiliated cities.
The Weekly’s article from 2022 reflects on progress across my term as President. The article introduced the first International Festival. At the festival we celebrated a new Sister and Sibling City sign, a sign that presented the six existing Sister Cities, but also introduced the addition of two new Sister Cities, Heidelberg, Germany and Yangpu District of Shanghai, China. The sign also introduced Bloomington, Indiana as a Sibling City whereby domestic engagement like international engagement brought new understandings. The festival displayed art associated with a Neighbors Abroad initiative for Art and Sustainability. The spirit of the festival was captured in hundreds of waving flags from Oaxaca as well as music from our town. Watching teenagers make Tik Tok videos beneath the waving flags was a symbolic acknowledgement that we had arrived, and found fresh engagement with those elusive young people that vex any organization that holds a multi-generational providence. The International Festival showcased all that we had become.
There were plenty of funny moments along the way. I recall at Heidelberg Castle an attempt by the then Council Member Liz Kniss and I to approach the queen of Sweden (the Queen is from Heidelberg). We waited for her entry, sighted her, and then engaged in a formalized and modest approach to her majesty. Oops, to her surprise and ours, she was not the queen. She pointed across the courtyard to the real queen. I would honor when traveling on behalf of Neighbors Abroad any mayor of a Sister City with a glass redwood tree made by our Palo Alto High School glass program. Carrying the 18-inch glass statue was always a delicate act. In Linköping Sweden, at a celebratory dinner, readying for the presentation of the tree to their Mayor, I found the glass tree had broken in half. The discovery prompted an impromptu adjustment in the toast. Sharing the fractured tree symbolizes our initiative to rebuild our city's relationship. Later I enjoyed corresponding with Linköping learning the tree (like our friendship) was restored and strong as ever. There were sentimental moments, such as working with the Kiwanis and Chief Manuel Maza of Oaxaca, watching him read to enrapture young children in East Palo Alto. And not the last, nor the least, was the visit representing Palo Alto and Neighbors Abroad to San Juan Lachao Oaxaca to present a symbolic check from Palo Alto for the first carbon offset program. The community reciprocated by presenting me with whiskey, cigarettes, a rooster and a wife. All, but the last, were graciously accepted. These moments of introducing and sharing our City and community were the highlights, and will never be forgotten.
Taking the pulse on Neighbors Abroad at her 60 year anniversary, we are alive, kicking and relevant. It was an honor to be President, represent our City around the world, and to be an agent of the social good that Palo Alto can offer given her economic blessings. Thanks!
Bob Wenzlau was President of Neighbors Abroad from 2015 through 2023.
Leave a Reply.
Individual stories by our members.