Way past the Peabody and into Prospect Hill, beautiful houses line Whitney Avenue. Open the door to any of these homes and you’ll find a living room, kitchen and the rest of the trappings of New England life. Open the door to 608 Whitney Ave. and you’ll find yourself somewhere radically different: León, Nicaragua.
The New Haven-León Sister City Project, housed in the upper floors of the Unitarian Universalist building — a house turned nonsectarian place of worship and office — is a small nonprofit organization that, since 1984, has been the doorway between the two sister cities. New Haven has eight sister cities in total, also including Afula-Gilboa, Israel; Amalfi, Italy; Avignon, France; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Huế, Vietnam; San Francisco Tetlanohcan, Mexico; and Changsha, China.
New Haven’s relationship with León, however, has atypical origins. Though “sister cities” entered the global consciousness as a product of an Eisenhower-era plan to help mend the wounds of the Second World War through, in the president’s words, the “great promise of people-to-people … affiliations,” the New Haven-León program grew out of a quasi-protest movement in the 1980s. In direct opposition to the Reagan administration’s illegal involvement in funding and supporting right wing rebel “Contras,” nearly 50 cities across the U.S. formed partnerships with cities in Nicaragua.
The project in New Haven began out of a delegation of New Haveners that went to León in 1984 with the grassroots organization Witness for Peace and came back inspired to keep the work going. Though the New Haven Board of Alders approved of the relationship, the city initially did not recognize it. Then Sister City Program President Rosaline Crowley spoke to the Yale Daily News in 1984, claiming that the program was too clearly an “Anti-Reagan gesture” for a program designed to be “as apolitical as [it could] be.”
By 1987, cities and private groups across the U.S. had raised over $20 million in aid to support their Nicaraguan counterparts. The mission was to directly counteract United States intervention, bypassing federal policies and providing aid and exchange city to city, community to community and person to person — even if it meant undermining U.S. official policies. Program Director Chris Schweitzer believes that, three decades later, the project remains vital.
“What we’re doing is really just Band-Aids,” Schweitzer explained. “The system, it just doesn’t work.” While the U.S. is no longer funding an illegal war in Nicaragua, as it did during the 1980s with the Iran-Contra affair, it is still an ardent supporter of policies — economic and environmental — that, according to Schweitzer, severely harm the people of León. Schweitzer, an activist and organizer who focuses on Latin America, joined New Haven-León a decade ago and has since expanded the nonprofit’s goal of an “alternate foreign policy,” one that uplifts rather than impairs.
A staff of 14 people across two cities are inevitably dwarfed by global institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and U.S. government — in Schweitzer’s eyes, the major perpetrators of these irresponsible global policies. However, the project manifests Eisenhower’s original “people-to-people” vision by directly addressing local problems in León and New Haven, while acknowledging and spreading awareness of their global causes.
The program’s resident organization in León, which mirrors its New Haven counterpart, is completely staffed by León residents. In tandem with delegations of New Haveners — about 3 groups per year since 1984 — the two organizations have worked on a miasma of projects over the last 34 years. The project has played a major part in training local teachers and nurses; establishing counseling and mentorship programs; organizing theater and leadership workshops; building houses; and running schools.
One of the most successful projects in León today is the Domestic Violence Prevention Program, a major project organized by New Haven-León. Organized by and for the women of León and its surrounding communities, Goyena and Troilo, the program is centered around combating domestic violence. For the last six years, the project has worked with local women, providing informal education and support. Just this year — despite governmental suppression of activism throughout Nicaragua — the group organized a march in protest of domestic violence. Erendira Venegas, a León resident, graduate of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua–León and the director of the Domestic Violence Prevention Program explained in an email, “[the Domestic Violence Prevention Program] has been a great success in discussing important issues that were considered private and giving women the opportunity to demand their rights and, firstly, to know their rights.”
Climate work is especially important to Schweitzer, because climate change “undermines every antipoverty effort,” he said. Both New Haven and León look upward to the same sky, and though they are located in vastly different environments, both are susceptible to the ever-present threat of climate destruction — a phenomenon, according to Schweitzer, worsened by the policies of the U.S. government.
In recent years, New Haven-León has shifted towards climate justice as a major cause, largely representative of their dual goal of education and direct action. The organization stresses the connection between policies in the U.S. and León by encouraging responsibility in New Haven and developing climate resilience in Leon. In tandem with community-based projects, it has worked with the New Haven and Connecticut governments to adopt greener policies. In León, the organization has supported similar projects to encourage local sustainability. For instance, it funded the Nicaragua Carbon Offset Fund, replacing older, inefficient home stoves to reduce household smoke and carbon impact, and the Environmental Youth Brigade, which gives teens in Goyena the opportunity to learn about and work towards a sustainable future for their own communities.
While philanthropy and direct service are essential to aiding the León community, they are not enough. “I don’t think we take political sides, but we critique negative economic policies and human rights abuses,” Schweitzer said. “Without institutional change, people in Nicaragua are really facing an uphill battle.”
While the organization does not consider itself partisan — lamenting the foreign policies of Bill Clinton LAW ’73 as much as Donald Trump — it is motivated by the global institutions that have politicized the right to a decent existence. New Haven-León can only truly effect change by opposing those global institutions and reaching across the aisle — or continent, Schweitzer expressed. Though Dwight Eisenhower sought to heal the world through interpersonal exchange, the grand vision of New Haven-León is much larger. As Schweitzer put it, “It wasn’t the people in Germany that started World War II.”
At face value, New Haven and León — 2,100 miles, a language and a culture apart — could not appear more disparate. However, ask Schweitzer, Venegas or any of the over 1,300 people that have travelled to León with the Sister City Project about what connects the two cities, and the answer is much clearer. The project does not see two corners of the universe destined to have a wall between them. Instead, they see two medium-sized college towns with colonial pasts and much to learn from one another.
Understanding that local actions have global effects — that, as one New Haven-Leon newsletter laments, policies in the U.S. continue to harm vulnerable communities like León — is a necessary step in creating a more just world, one sister city at a time. As Venegas explained, “We are a relatively small organization, but I think that our vision, in a global way, is the recognition of what we see, and contributing and working with concrete action.” The New Haven-León Sister City Project hopes to raise awareness of the local consequences of global institutions — those that, to Schweitzer, are flat-out “rigged” — and, in the meantime, does what it can, door to door, school to school and stove to stove.