The search is on for nonprofits to take part in a Twin Cities-based Department of Justice pilot project to counter radical recruitment that has drawn both praise and sharp criticism in the Twin Cities Somali community.
Several dozen representatives of nonprofits that serve local Somali-Americans gathered Wednesday in Minneapolis to learn how to apply for funding through the youth engagement project. Wokie Weah, president of the nonprofit Youthprise, called it “a historic day.”
U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger’s office entrusted Youthprise with divvying up about $400,000 in federal and private funds for the pilot project. It is one of a trio of federal efforts — including programs in Boston and Los Angeles — that set out to stem radicalization by way of community engagement and other initiatives.
The effort has triggered heated debate in Minneapolis, where critics have charged it singles out the Somali community and runs into deep-seated mistrust of federal law enforcement.
Youthprise will open the application process in early January and announce groups that will receive funding in late February. The nonprofit, which was chosen because of a track record of helping to fund Somali-led nonprofits, said it will continue to seek additional dollars.
“Somali youth today are facing some very deep challenges,” said Weah. “Unemployment is high. There is a risk of radical recruitment.”
Ten young Minneapolis men of East African descent have been charged in connection with an alleged plot to leave to join ISIL in Syria. Three have pleaded guilty.
The total funding for the Building Community Resilience project is $900,000, but the state will allot about $250,000 separately, and some private funds were designated for specific projects, such as a mentoring partnership with Big Brothers, Big Sisters.
Groups that attended the meeting ranged from the Confederation of Somali Community, Minnesota’s oldest Somali nonprofit, to a slew of smaller outfits, including an after-school soccer program and a nonprofit that promotes computer literacy.
Weah said Youthprise will look closely at organizations that promote arts, sports and entrepreneurship, as well as nonprofits led by women. Somali-led groups will get priority; so will groups that can show past results and choose to team up in applying for the funding.
She explained that Youthprise will invite community members, staffers at philanthropic organizations and others to sit on a panel that will review the applications and make recommendations. The Youthprise board will have the final say, without any meddling by Luger’s office, both the nonprofit and the office stressed. “We’re intentionally left out of this part of the process,” said Ben Petok, a spokesman for Luger’s office.
The project has drawn fire from some members of the Somali community who have argued that it takes a top-down approach and that it could be a front for federal surveillance of young people in a climate of mistrust.
Sadik Warfa, one of the project’s most vocal critics, said he skipped the meeting to avoid the perception of endorsing the process. He said he is not convinced by the reassurances that Youthprise will lead the process from here on.
“We still have a lot of questions about this program,” he said, adding, “The project is very rushed.”
Mohamed Ahmed, who creates cartoons that critique radical ideology, said the project offers a rare funding opportunity for groups that focus on radical recruitment. He said “anybody who is active in the community” was present at the meeting — a gathering he said inspired him but also highlighted the limited dollars available so far through the project.
“The money is too little, and the demand is too much,” he said. “But that’s better than nothing.”