Minnesota may be known for the Twin Cities, but municipalities in the state also have more than 40 “sister cities” around the world. Brooklyn Park has gone the extra 5,500 miles to connect with its sister, Kakata, Liberia, sending officials there in March 2012 as part of its effort to bolster good relations with its own Liberian population.
“Sister Cities is meaningful because we believe we have 5,000 to 6,000 Liberians in Brooklyn Park,“ Mayor Jeffrey Lunde said. Going to Liberia was a step toward elevating engagement with that community, he said. It “proved we were serious.”
Brooklyn Park has one of the largest concentrations of Liberians outside the Republic of Liberia. The community accounts for about 10 percent of Brooklyn Park’s population, according to the city. Some of those residents fled from Kakata as refugees of the Liberian civil war and still have family in the African country, Lunde said. “The connection is very powerful.”
The Sister Cities program, founded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, promotes such connections by pairing U.S. and other cities around the world; the goal is to foster cross-cultural understanding and peaceful relationships. Brooklyn Park and Kakata became official “sisters” in July 2012 after delegations from each city had visited the other.
A good start
The March 2012 trip to Kakata was “a goodwill kind of experience to learn about the country,” said Robin Martinson, community liaison officer with the Brooklyn Park Police Department. “Ever since we’ve been in Liberia, I think the community feels appreciated. [They] feel that we understand them better.”
We’ve “seen that a gap has been bridged,” said Liberian Pastor Alexander Collins, CEO and president of New Horizons Resource Group. The nonprofit helped with the sister cities’ relationship, envisioning it as a way to bring the Liberian community and Brooklyn Park closer together. Collins said that since the trip he has seen his community become actively supportive of the sister city relationship and increasingly involved in Brooklyn Park. There’s a “sense of belonging here,” he said.
Martinson said that “one great thing about the  trip … you get to see things.” She explained that people were getting in trouble in Brooklyn Park for things that wouldn’t be considered a problem in Liberia, for example, like cramming people into cars for efficiency, a habit she observed while in Kakata.
The right foundation
Even before the sister city relationship, Brooklyn Park was trying to set the bar for outreach to its foreign-born community through its police department’s liaison program. The program launched in 2005 and has since received recognition from police departments internationally, Martinson said. “We know as a police force we can’t do anything without the community,” she said.
Brooklyn Park also provides services for its foreign-born population through its New Americans Academy, which offers a once-per-month “new arrivals” class to help immigrants transition to the community, and through its Community Engagement Initiative Diversity Team.
Also crucial to the city’s relationship with the Liberians in its community and with those in Kakata is the Liberian Ministers Association. “They help with the community here and back home,” Lunde said. “What we’ve given to them, they returned to us tenfold over,” he said.
An equal exchange
Collins, of the New Horizon Resource Group, said the sister city relationship is not just one that exists on paper. The trip was part of a greater desire to see something visible happen in Liberia as part of a mutually beneficial effort, he said.
Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Kenneth Prillaman has made several trips to Kakata to help the Liberian National Fire Service create an effective firefighting system. Brooklyn Park is also working with the Booker T. Washington Institute in Kakata, which has branches all over Liberia, to rebuild and to develop its curriculum. The cities are also looking at setting up an exchange program with the institute and some of Brooklyn Park’s community colleges, Lunde said.
The cities plan to continue exchanging delegations in the future to promote learning and collaboration, according to the Brooklyn Park’s November 2013 sister city resolution.
Liberians “know so much about America,” Martinson said, but unfortunately we don’t know as much about them. “[That’s] changing as people get to know more about each other.”
“I’ve learned … to take time to care and listen,” she said.
Sarah Barchus is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.