Twenty years have passed since Somalis started arriving in Minnesota to establish their largest community in America. Yet a large gap in understanding prevents integration of this burgeoning subcommunity in the North Star state. Popular culture provides Exhibit A.
Barkhad Abdi gained instant stardom after outshining Tom Hanks in the thriller “Captain Phillips,” about Somali pirates taking over a ship in the Indian Ocean. Nominated for an Oscar, Barkhad will learn tonight whether he has won. But during his media tour promoting the movie, interviewers seemed shocked about the existence of a thriving Somali community in Minnesota, from which Barkhad was recruited.
Some weren’t aware such a community existed. Others asked: Why Minnesota? (Simple answer: the availability of jobs and quality education.)
Mainstream-media reports also reveal the understanding gap. When a group of young men went back to Somalia to fight against Ethiopia’s invasion of their homeland, but later ended up fighting for Al-Shabab, a feared terror group in the Horn of Africa, a narrative emerged about “Minneapolis becoming the largest terror hub.” Individuals were indicted for a range of crimes, including perjury and obscure violations of the Patriot Act.
The complete story behind young men going back to Somalia is still in dispute. Federal agencies insist the case is ongoing.
Leaders in the Somali community consider the case closed. They contend that it was all much ado about nothing, since federal authorities failed to prove an organized plot.
Some leaders go further, believing that federal agencies committed a travesty of justice by charging perjury against individuals with limited English skills, including statements made without protection of their Miranda rights and adequate legal representation. They assert that prosecutors can press perjury charges against anyone if they try hard enough, considering the perjury conviction of Scooter Libby, a trained lawyer and chief of staff for former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Over time, the news media has contributed to the understanding gap in two ways: First, with sensational headlines, it has increased fear and raised the temperature in an already tense environment. Second, an ideal opportunity for learning has been squandered because the media, intentionally or unintentionally, has ignored the heroic efforts by the vast majority of Somalis to build a new life in an adopted homeland.
Media pundits attribute such shortcomings to today’s round-the-clock news cycle. Nevertheless, the media coverage of the Somali community in Minnesota has been unjustified.
For example, when false reports implicated Somali-Americans from Minnesota in the Nairobi shopping mall terror attack last September, the press converged on Minneapolis. News crews from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC came. Enormous satellite trucks parked for days in Cedar-Riverside, a Minneapolis Somali neighborhood. Even Al Jazeera America wanted a piece of the action. Regional and local outlets joined in.
The Brian Coyle Community Center in Cedar-Riverside became ground zero for reporters who wanted to break a terror story that never existed. The situation became so intense that it brought operation of the center to a standstill. It was impossible to enter or exit without being quizzed by a reporter.
In the midst of this media frenzy were students from Augsburg College, serving meals Monday through Thursday to neighborhood youths as part of the Campus Kitchens Project. The school uses surplus food from area dining services to provide service learning opportunities for its students and meals to less fortunate neighbors. Augsburg students also mentor youths who come to the Coyle center.
But no reporter — local, regional or national — had the inclination to find out more about this heroic effort.
The media has an important role to play in informing the public. But it also shapes attitudes and perceptions that affect political and economic integration. Integration of the Somali community into mainstream Minnesota is a work in progress. Arguably, Somalis have made more progress participating in the political process than in Minnesota’s economic life.
The iron triangle of state politics consists of organizing, mobilizing for elections and policymaking after elections. The Somali community has established itself in the bottom two vertices of this political structure — organizing and campaigning — but has not been as successful reaching the top vertex, policymaking.
The Somali community in Minnesota has been politically organizing for many years now. Voter turnout has been high, especially when there has been a specific reason to come out and vote. The community made a difference in local races, including the three-way primary election in 2006 that led to Keith Ellison prevailing in the U.S. House race. Somalis helped elect Abdi Warsame to the Minneapolis City Council in 2013, and are excited in 2014 about Mohamud Noor’s prospects in challenging Rep. Phyllis Kahn for endorsement in Minnesota House District 60B.
There is less of a mechanism to influence state policy, which is developed through negotiation between the House, the Senate and the governor. The Minnesota House and Senate, controlled by the DFL, share a governing philosophy with Gov. Mark Dayton, and they have produced policies with great potential for bringing positive development to the Somali community in Minnesota.
However, state policy is executed by agencies headed by political appointees but dominated by bureaucrats. Agency culture and bureaucratic red tape have impeded progress.
For example, specific legislation was enacted in 2013 to address Somali women’s health issues. The Department of Human Services chose to rely on uneven federal funding that dried up during Washington’s budget battles, and the effort faltered. Another example is the funding in the jobs and energy bill allocated to help license foreign-trained medical professionals. The funds were disbursed without adequate communication with the community.
In addition to less-than-stellar management of defined resources, such bureaucratic inefficiencies retard economic progress through regulation. There are skilled doctors and other medical professionals in the Somali community working in minimum-wage jobs because they lack “proper licensing.”
Another obstacle to economic progress is the absence of Somali professionals in senior leadership positions in state government, and in large nonprofits as well as in for-profit corporations. Some point out that the statewide lack of a Somali presence in leadership roles is comparable to that of other minority groups. But the Somali situation is exacerbated by sometimes unfair and damaging coverage in the press.
Negative perceptions also hinder the success of Somali businesses. The Somali community in Minnesota has demonstrated high entrepreneurial spirit. Small Somali shops and restaurants are plentiful in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But almost all of them cater to their own subcommunity, limiting their commercial viability. Negative press contributes by driving away other potential customers and investors.
A welcome positive development is angel investors risking capital resources on Somali restaurants. Somali food is no more foreign than what is on the menus at successful chains like Leeann Chinn and Chipotle. Capital investment in Somali restaurants will help with standardization, research and development, and marketing and branding efforts, and will help integrate Somali cuisine into the mainstream diet.
The Somali community in Minnesota is not asking for preferential treatment or sympathy for its predicament. It is asking to be understood, and for a fair shot at success.
Jamal Abdulahi is a state director-at-large of the DFL Party and chairs the Somali American Caucus. He can be reached at Abdu0037@umn.edu or on Twitter: @fuguni.