One of the key components in the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, locally referred to as Building Community Resilience (BCR), is a proposal to improve the economic prospects of disenfranchised Somali-American youth. Corporations and foundations are to invest in youth through internships and mentorship, reaching across social networks to help narrow the opportunity gap. The idea is that youth with better economic outlooks are less likely to engage in destructive behavior, including terrorism.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations-Minnesota (CAIR-MN), a civil rights group, has expressed concern about the program, given its risky mix of outreach and intelligence gathering — which could lead to civil rights violations. It’s a legitimate concern, given previous experiences with similar federal programs.
US Attorney for the District of Minnesota Andrew Luger, who is spearheading the CVE/BCR program, hoped to alleviate CAIR-MN’s concerns. Lugar co-authored a memorandum with the program’s Somali-American taskforce, which was created to provide support — including identifying root causes of youth traveling overseas to join terror groups. Assurances by Luger in the memorandum of understanding (signed with the taskforce) were a great start, but loopholes in the language and modification clause remain cause for caution.
Instead of working with Luger to clarify the language in the memorandum and putting civil rights concerns to bed once and for all, Jaylani Hussein, Executive Director of CAIR-MN, is moving the goalpost by challenging corporations and foundations on the scope of their participation. This is beyond a civil rights concern and, frankly, an overreach.
Hussein emailed foundations about his new concerns. Minneapolis Foundation, for instance, has been convening CVE/BCR meetings. According to two community sources, the foundation expressed interest in becoming the lead agency but backed out in light of Hussein’s concerns. Minneapolis Foundation convened meetings and continues to listen to all sides according to spokesperson.
Minneapolis Foundation has experience working with Minnesota’s Somali community. The Foundation was one of the early investors in the African Development Center (ADC), a relatively successful micro-financing firm. It would be sad to see more foundations vacate leadership roles due, in part, to CAIR-MN’s advocacy.
Minnesota corporate icons like General Mills, Cargill, Mall of America, Target Corporation and others are expected to contribute as well. These corporations have traditions of investing in the state. Target Corporation, for example, invests $4 million a week in broader Minnesota.
Minnesota’s Somali community has been largely excluded from corporate investments. If the pilot program bridges the gap, so be it.
The Somali-American taskforce working to facilitate corporate and foundation investments is not doing FBI bidding. There is nothing spying or sinister about working with reputable corporations and foundations. Members of the taskforce are decent people with good intentions for their community.
No doubt the taskforce has a stretch assignment of defending CVE/BCR. The arrest of six youth with the help of an informant led to outpouring of angry emotions from the community, making an challenging assignment even more difficult.
Group dynamic added to the taskforce’s dismal performance thus far. The taskforce published an op-ed piece in the Star Tribune, but it lacked details about how the program will work. What’s more, members of the taskforce showed no passion or conviction for the program in the one-and-only press conference held so far.
Furthermore, of the half-dozen community forums held since the arrest of six youth in April, the taskforce organized none. Forums were organized by other community leaders who are equally busy if not more so.
Meanwhile, Luger delivered a robust defense of the program at a community forum in Minneapolis on May 9. Luger was loquacious, passionate and most important of all looked and sounded sincere. Luger painstakingly worked to convince skeptics.
In one exchange, Kamal Hassan, a community activist, listed misgivings about the FBI as one of the reasons for the low trust of CVE/BCR. Hassan attempted to leave before Luger responded. Luger locked eyes and offered Hassan a seat. Hassan sat down, listened intently and left the forum nodding his head, suggesting he had absorbed at least some of Luger’s points. More exchanges like this are invaluable.
The taskforce’s less-than-stellar performance does not mean all hope is lost. The taskforce could employ the following two strategies to give the program more positive momentum:
One strategy is to engage the community in small groups and one-on-ones. Attempts to reach the community through mass media have yielded little result.
Another strategy is to produce a short technical document with specific details on how the program should work before soliciting community input in public forum(s). Community input — with a written plan as a point of reference — can be an effective way to gain community feedback.
Either strategy or combination could ensure at least some investment from corporations and foundations is implemented successfully.
CAIR-MN’s work on civil rights is noble. But advocacy which discourages corporations and foundations from investing in Minnesota’s Somali community — because of a peripheral link to the CVE/BCR program — is an overreach. It’s an advocacy which adds no value and must end.