opening-titleMinnesota’s US Attorney, Andy Luger, needed someone to take leadership in the midst of controversy. Last summer, the Department of Justice launched a new pilot project — Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) — in three cities, including Minneapolis. The goal? To prevent recruitment and radicalization by investing money in the Somali community to create new opportunities for Somali young people. The funds emphasize prevention, intervention and community-driven solutions. With $216,000 for the pilot, the DOJ needed an organization on the ground to distribute funds, raise additional money and build the capacity of Somali-led organizations. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota asked Youthprise if it would act as that intermediary. Since 2011, Youthprise worked with Somali-led organizations and funded nonprofits serving East African immigrants. For Andy Luger, that history made Youthprise a prime candidate to take charge of the DOJ money and grant it out to the community.

Minnesota is home to the largest number of Somali immigrants in the country — nearly 30,000 people — and for some, this pilot program seemed flawed. Community members worried it stereotyped and targeted Muslim Americans and Somali youth in Minnesota by overemphasizing the risk of radicalization, further contributing to a culture of Islamophobia. For years, Youthprise had worked with Somali-led organizations, letting input from East African immigrant communities drive how it invested its money. But with the community divided, Youthprise faced a question: Should it take the $216,000 from the Department of Justice and invest it in the Somali community, or leave the money on the table?

To understand why, it’s important to go back to the beginning, when Youthprise first launched in 2010.

“As we looked at our mission to make sure all youth thrive, it meant we have to start with the youth that were experiencing barriers because of poverty, lack of opportunity or misperceptions.” – Wokie Weah, Youthprise President

Youthprise turned its lens on communities facing some of the largest disparities in Minnesota, including Somali youth who face challenges in a state known for widening opportunity gaps between white students and those of color. Of the 101 organizations Youthprise gave money to in its first grant making round, several included emerging Somali-led organizations that had never received institutional funding before. But that was just the start. Since 2012, Youthprise has invested $800,000 into nonprofits like the Somali American Parent Association, Ka Joog and Shanta Link. That same year Youthprise partnered with Open Path Resources and Islamic Civic Society of America to ask the Somali community how they defined successful youth development. “We didn’t just want to draw on traditional research or youth development practices,” says Marcus Pope, Youthprise’s director of partnerships and external relations. “We wanted to find out what was specific to the community and be responsive to how they perceived their needs and solutions.” That community-based study became a guiding tool Youthprise continues to use as its compass to assess how to better invest in the Twin Cities’ Somali population.

That brings us back to the pilot project, renamed Building Community Resilience in Minnesota, and the controversial $216,000.

Two choices hung in the balance: action or inaction. Wokie Weah, the President of Youthprise, saw other organizations get cold at the thought of taking money from the DOJ to move work in the Somali community forward. Deep divides erupted over the funds — some community members wanted to take the money, while others believed the pilot project spread Islamophobia and unfairly targeted Somalis as being more prone to violent extremism. Concerns bubbled up that Building Community Resilience (BCR) money might be an excuse for the government to surveil the Somali community and identify possible threats to security. But instead of fixating on controversy, Wokie focused on a different question:

 

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Youthprise chose action. This wasn’t the first time the organization invested in the Somali community, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. If Wokie and her team didn’t take the money and lead the way, who would?

“This was an opportunity to go deeper with a community we already worked with. It’s always that Catch-22. If you don’t step in and take leadership, someone else could and it may not end up being done in the right way. It was building on our existing work. We felt we were uniquely positioned to make the best of a challenging endeavor that could lead to significant benefits for the community. ” Marcus Pope, Youthprise Director of Partnerships and External Relations

With a mix of money from the Department of Justice and private donors, Youthprise created the Somali Youth Development Fund to help young people redefine their narrative — one based on a track record of big ideas and giving back to the community, not violent extremism.

 

 

 

 

Words like terrorism, radicalization and recruitment often follow mentions of Somalis in the news. But that limited account didn’t match Youthprise’s firsthand experience. Instead, Youthprise saw a different picture through it’s grantees. Take the seventh grade Somali student in New American Academy’s (NAA) tutoring program who struggled with subjects like math, science and English. After just three months of extra help and encouragement, his skills jumped two grade levels — from a third grade to a fifth grade proficiency. Then there’s the group of 17 NAA high school students who took a field trip to Minnesota West Community and Technical College to explore the future of wind technology. They even got to don the helmets and full-body harnesses that wind turbine technicians wear. After that, the high schoolers traveled to a farm where they learned about growing corn and soybeans, and raising cattle. Students got to peer inside a grain silo, bottle feed a calf and learn how to feed and treat a sick animal.

 

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youthprise-somali-farm-illo-science-girl-newIn 2011, Youthprise became the second organization to fund NAA — a nonprofit providing educational, cultural, recreational and economic opportunities to East African immigrants. Youthprise helped bridge the gap between NAA and other government and philanthropic organizations, leading to new grants from groups like General Mills, Twin Cities United Way, Corridors of Opportunity and Otto Bremer Trust. That kind of organizational support also allowed Ka Joog, another Twin Cities nonprofit providing programs and services for Somali youth, to increase its annual budget from $6,150 to $418,000 in five years. As Ka Joog’s first major funder, Youthprise supported the nonprofit through the development of its 4-H Club. The program, in partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension, has expanded to three sites across the Twin Cities and focuses on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

“I thought it was more important to take action, influence people and put some structure in place for telling a different kind of story. I also thought it was important to work with the community in a different way.” – Wokie Weah, Youthprise President

The choice to take the BCR money wasn’t so much about the actual $216,000 — the needs in the community are far greater than that, Wokie says. Instead, it was about using those funds as a launch pad to position the Somali community for bigger and better things, not just in Minnesota, but beyond. Through the Somali Youth Development Fund and money from the DOJ, Youthprise saw an opportunity to change the perception around Somali-led organizations and influence the pot of funding directed toward them. Youthprise’s initial support raised the profile of these organizations, spurring greater investments from private sources and state government.

In May 2016, the Minnesota Legislature decided to put $2 million toward programs that support Somali youth development. Youthprise will grant out half of that money, raising the group’s total investment in the community to nearly $1.45 million. As Youthprise moves ahead with a new round of funds to dole out, the nonprofit is exploring ways to engage Somali youth in the grant making process to keep the community’s voice at the core of its work. “We’re a bridge between government systems and communities that need resources,” says Marcus. With Youthprise creating a new path forward, there’s no telling how large the $1.45 million will grow.  

The Creators

Morgan Mercer • Illustrator and Writer

Lizzy Shramko • Editor & organzier

Adeeb Missaghi • Web developer & designer

Published on November 14, 2016