It didn’t take long for Abdullah Kiatamba to realize that many African immigrant families living in the north metro were not civically active in their new community.

They didn’t know how to voice a concern at city hall or connect with their children’s teachers.

“Decisions are impacting our people, but they are not coming to the table,” Kiatamba said. “We wanted to change that.”

In 2005, Kiatamba and a small group of community leaders started African Immigrant Services (AIS), a group dedicated to training a new group of leaders.

“We don’t want people to find solutions for us, but find solutions with us,” Kiatamba said.

And with a recent grant, Kiatamba hopes to continue the mission. The nonprofit was awarded a $200,000 Bush Foundation grant in June for an initiative called From Observers to Leaders, which “facilitates and transforms community learning and reflection into action and change,” according to a news release. The organization will use the grant to build an administrative support system, engagement and communication tools.

“We want to provide them with the tools to enhance or strengthen their narrative about what’s important to them,” said Radious Guess, assistant coordinator of the project, “Be it health issues, education issues or elections.”

The project fosters participant engagement around five themes: board leadership, education equity, economic opportunity, civic engagement and information sharing.

A call for action

Members began voicing concerns to the Osseo Public School District, where many of their children attend school, about the high number of suspensions and lack of minority staff and teachers. Last year, a few AIS members sought a seat on the Osseo school board — the first time members of the immigrant community ran for a school board seat, said Imam Mohammed Dukuly, a community leader.

Guess and two other AIS members decided to run after a series of meetings on ways to increase participation during election season.

“We also had Mr. Abdullah Kiatamba on the phone,” Guess added. “He called people and he said, ‘Go to the Osseo School District and register for the school board.’ ”

Guess, who joined the organization in 2013, already had a knack for leadership.

“When I first moved here, I just happened to stumble upon an AIS meeting,” Guess said. “Someone recommended that I sit in and listen to a conversation about civic engagement. I have a background in training, so I offered a couple suggestions and next thing I know, I was running an education committee.”

Changing the process

During the 2014 school board campaign, the three AIS members knocked on doors, passed out fliers and spoke with parents.

“It was a tall order, but it was a wonderful platform to engage with the community about issues that were important to us,” Guess said. “Most of us that ran knew we weren’t going to win, but it was something we had to do to let other people know that you, too, can do this.”

Although they weren’t elected, participating in any type of election was an accomplishment for the organization, Dukuly said.

“We don’t have to win in order for us to change the process,” Dukuly added.

The nonprofit hosts several leadership trainings throughout the year. The next event is expected to begin in September.


Twitter: @KarenAnelZamora