Reaching out

Neighborhood grant program focuses on engaging immigrants

When Hashi Abdi fled to the United States from war-torn Somalia in the early 1990s, he knew little about the country he now calls home.

“The people were different, the weather was different, the language was new,” said Abdi, who moved with his family to Arizona in 1993, to Marshall, Minn. in 1994 and to Minneapolis in 1995. “It was very different than what we were used to and the life we came from.”

Abdi, now a member of the West Bank Community Coalition and founder of the Somali Action Alliance, made a strong effort to get engaged in his new community.

Many other immigrants want to do the same, but are unaware of civic engagement opportunities or find themselves unable to cross cultural barriers.

Minneapolis leaders hope to change that.

The city’s Community Planning and Economic Development office unveiled specifics last month for a first-of-its-kind grant program aimed at helping neighborhood organizations reach out to new arrivals and non-English-speaking residents.

The University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs helped create guidelines and put on a workshop on Oct. 27 to kick-start the brainstorming process.

“If we’re going to be successful in creating a community that’s inclusive, we can’t operate without the involvement of a broad cross-section of residents,” said Kris Nelson, director of the city’s partnership with the urban affairs center.

Barbara Ronningen, a demographer with the Minnesota State Demographics Center, explained at the Oct. 24 workshop just how big a destination Minneapolis has become for immigrants.

Immigrant participation in neighborhoods

The number of foreign-born people living in Minneapolis increased by 32,800 between 1990 and 2000, Ronningen said. The rates of immigrants coming to the city has increased significantly since the 2000 Census, she said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests these new arrivals aren’t participating in neighborhood organizations in the numbers they should be, officials said.

Abdi, who lives in the West Bank area with his wife and six children, said neighborhood involvement comes gradually. He spends much of his time trying to get fellow Somalis involved in the community where he intends to spend the rest of his life.

Immigrants first need to learn the cultural basics, most importantly the language. They also need to find a home, a job and education for their children. It can take years of settling in before someone is ready to participate in his or her neighborhood group, Abdi said.

If there are institutional barriers to getting involved, the city wants to identify them and find ways to get around them, officials said.

Bob Cooper, citizen participation specialist with the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, said a full spectrum of neighborhood organizations exists, from those successfully involving immigrants to those resisting and encountering other challenges.

The Lyndale Neighborhood Association has had Somali and Latino outreach programs for years, said executive director Mark Hinds. Getting new immigrants to participate in the neighborhood is always a struggle, Hinds said, but the outreach efforts have helped by offering regular cultural sessions and a couple large Somali and Latino events each year.

Jeff Schneider, special projects manager with the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development office, said there’s been increasing awareness about new arrivals coming to the city and how to best reach out to them.

A few years ago, the city started a program offering services and materials in different languages to people with limited English. Schneider said some thought it was time to make a similar effort with neighborhood organizations.

“We were aware some neighborhoods were trying to reach out with varying degrees of success,” Schneider said.

“The point of the workshop and this mini-grant program is to try some things and see what works, and then have people learn from that,” Schneider said.

The department talked with neighborhood groups that were already doing outreach to immigrants like Whittier and Harrison, Schneider said.

“We were asking them what kinds of things would help you do this better,” Schneider said.

Looking to the schools

The city’s school system provides some examples of how to bridge cultures.

Bill Green, interim superintendent for Minneapolis Public Schools, said he’s taking steps to connect with a broad cross-section of the city, including Somalis, Native Americans, Latinos and Hmong in particular – communities disenfranchised by the system in the past.

There’s been progress, he said, citing a recently established Hmong Academy school and a board resolution to improve access for Native American students.

But there’s still much work to be done in the district where 90 languages are spoken. As it becomes increasingly diverse, it’s especially important to be culturally sensitive.

Minneapolis is unique because, “We probably reflect a global community more than any other district in this area of the country,” Green said.

In the past, juggling a multitude of languages and customs was seen as a hurdle to learning, he said. Now, he wants to turn that around. Diversity should be encouraged, he said. But that requires hard work, meeting people where they congregate and not the other way around.

In some cases, visiting worship centers, conducting conversations in a language other than English and talking in small groups is effective. “We need to recognize all modes of communication are not the same for everyone or most effective way. It’s important not to make assumptions,” he said. “Everyone needs to feel comfortable to comment.”

Diversity in Whittier

Two Whittier organizations, the Whittier Alliance and Whittier Business Association, are highlighted in the upcoming workshop for its ongoing efforts to include diverse cultures living and working in Whittier.

In Whittier, fewer than half of residents are white, according to CPED data. It has growing populations of Latinos, American Indians, Asians, African Americans and Somalis.

To extend invitations to group events and initiatives, Josie Shardlow, the community organizer for the Whittier Alliance, translates materials for Spanish-speakers and Somalis. She posts the fliers in areas where they meet.

Most importantly, however, is establishing a personal relationship with people, she said. For example, Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, strolls Nicollet Avenue and talks to local business owners.

“It’s clearly the policy of the city to find ways to make city processes and services more accessible to all populations,” Schneider said. “These people have arrived in our city and we want to make them feel welcome and a part of the city and their neighborhood.”

“I learned we could be part of the system,” said Abdi. “And we could be part of the community.”


Dan Haugen can be reached at 436-5088 or [email protected], Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected] and Jake Weyer can be reached at 436-4367 or [email protected].