Minnesota Somali Groups Join to Speak with One Voice at Capitol

Mila Koumpilova, Star Tribune, October 25, 2016

Minnesota’s largest Somali nonprofits are teaming up to present a unified lobbying front to the state this winter.

In recent months, the leaders of eight Somali community groups joined forces on several projects, hired a lobbyist and scored face time with the state’s lieutenant governor. Now, the new coalition is gearing up to ask state legislators for about $11 million for Somali community initiatives, building on $2 million Gov. Mark Dayton earmarked for such projects in this year’s budget.

“Why not combine our separate efforts and do a better collaborative effort?” said Mohamud Noor, head of the Confederation of Somali Community, a coalition member.

Spearheaded by the Minneapolis Foundation, the initiative is also a bid to nudge Somali-American nonprofits to better track and report results.

A University of Southern California study last year found Somali-Americans celebrate the work of some leaders of 35 registered nonprofits and a host of more informal groups. But they distrust others. Study participants perceived some self-styled community leaders–dubbed “the Pretenders”–as adept at applying for grants but with little to show for it.

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This year’s state budget includes $2 million for investments in the Somali community–part of Dayton’s package of $35 million for addressing racial disparities in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, and the nonprofit Youthprise each received roughly half of the money, which they will distribute in grants. The department is now weighing 30 proposals worth a total of $6.7 million for its half.

“The $2 million wasn’t even close to being sufficient,” Warfa said. “We are asking for more money.”

Weli says the group also wants to push the state to entrust Somali-led nonprofits with funds directly, rather than steering resources to state agencies.

“The system is not structured so that people of color serve themselves,” she said. “They are always the recipients of services.”

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The group is calling for investments to encourage entrepreneurship and homeownership, expand mental health services, provide culturally sensitive prenatal care and spur youth leadership.

A more specific proposal is still a work in progress, leaders acknowledge.

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Mohamed Ahmed, a creator of cartoons lampooning extremists, who is not part of the coalition, says many in the community feel acute mistrust of local nonprofits and community leaders.

“You can literally throw a stone and hit a nonprofit in the community; there are so many of them, God help us,” said Ahmed, whose Average Mohamed initiative recently became a nonprofit as well. “Accountability and monitoring effectiveness are big issues.”

Ahmed says Warfa is well-respected, and a group of nonprofits that will hold each other accountable is a promising step.

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