Denver has ten sister cities, each with its own customs and priorities. Among them is Nairobi, Kenya.
City Councilman Albus Brooks, so much a fan of Kenya that he named his daughter after the nation, recently led a trip of Manual High School students (and one teacher), plus private sector businessmen and not-for-profit pioneers, to Nairobi courtesy of Engage 8 and Denver Sister Cities.
Nairobi has been Denver's sister city for 37 years; this trip was designed to solidify plans for a youth-exchange program primarily (though not exclusively) for low-income and minority communities and to strengthen Denver's business ties with Nairobi, specifically by importing Kenyan coffees and teas, investing in telecommunications and getting direct flights going from the U.S. to Kenya. (There are none currently.)
But Brooks also saw some immediate benefits for the students he took to Kenya.
"We at DPS have a low graduation rate, and so the focus has been a lot on reading and writing, which I think is smart," Brooks says. "However, I think it's imperative that these young kids see the world so that they can be able to dream, they can be able to think about what their purpose is, and they can know why they should even read and write, know why they should be committed to their academics.... We took these sophomores who were 3.0 students at Manual High School and they came back excited to be leaders in their community."
Brooks believes Denverites could learn a lot from Nairobi residents. "They're entrepreneurs," he states simply. "Every day, all day, you will see the city is busy and moving with all these entrepreneurs going to their jobs, selling on the way to their jobs; they are always moving and getting things going. Here in America, we are much more corporate.... What I love about them is just this entrepreneurial spirit: 'There's a gift inside of me and I'm going to make that be my business.'"
Still, Brooks thinks that we have a lot to teach Kenya, too. "They saw a city council person, a CFO from Level 3 [Communications], which, by the way, is investing millions of dollars in East Africa, and high school students sitting in the same room, and it blew their mind. So collaboration through sectors, a multi-sectored approach is what we called it, is something that I think...they don't understand yet, but could be very beneficial, and having efficient government and healthy businesses when everyone is working together."
Page down to read more about Albus Brooks's trip to Nairobi. The highlight of the trip? "There are two snapshots that I talk about all the time," Brooks says. "It's Manual student Sharon Wilson reading the proclamation of our mayor to the prime minister, and he was just thoroughly impressed. And then the other snapshot was just [our] group in the poorest slum in the world.... Juxtaposing both of those was kind of just a highlight because, together -- business leaders, government official, kids, nonprofits -- we experienced both the high of Kenya and the low, and had to really grapple with inequity in both of those situations."
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Kenya has recently been in the news for the threats and violence it has seen from a Somali terrorist group, al-Shabaab. In fact, the Denver's BoldLeaders trip was cancelled last month by the State Department for safety concerns. But Brooks says that Kenya is a safe place. "One of the unfortunate things with going through the federal government is whatever they think or deem as a threat, they're not going to let travel happen," Brooks says. "It was no threats at all. Anywhere at any time in the world can be violent. There are probably a lot of people who are scared to come to Colorado right now because of the Aurora tragedy.... We felt very safe -- matter of fact, safer than in the United States."
"All of us are feeling, for the last three or four years, this recession," Brooks continues, "and I think it's extremely important that there be a trickle-up economy that comes from that municipal government. And a lot of people have asked, 'Why are you going? Why isn't someone from [the federal government] going over there?' And I think it's brilliant that our mayor has a vision of a world-class city, that we're going to connect globally as a city -- not as a nation, as a city. So it's important that we make those connections to stimulate our economy as well."
Both Prime Minister Odinga and Nairobi Mayor Aladwa have committed to improving Denver-Nairobi relations -- Odinga by assigning a liaison to focus specifically on initiatives between the two cities, promising to make flights to the U.S. a priority and sponsoring secondary students from Kenyan slums for the exchange program, and Aladwa by developing a multi-sector committee to work with Denver-based consultants on how to improve the delivery of services in Nairobi and committing to lead a multi-sector delegation to Denver in fall of 2012.
More from our Politics archive: "Urban camping ban: Albus Brooks calls it an emergency."