Guled Ibrahim has a law degree and is a few months away from earning an MBA, but it’s his participation in a unique internship program that he thinks could be the key to landing a job at City Hall in Minneapolis.
This summer, he’s one of 60 college and graduate students getting a close look at the workings of city government through Minneapolis’ fast-growing Urban Scholars program. Now in its fifth year, the internship and professional development program aimed at students of color gives promising young people the chance to explore a career in public service — and it is quickly helping change the makeup of City Hall.
Since the program began in 2012, more than 30 percent of the Urban Scholars who interned with the city have been hired on for full- or part-time work. Others, interning with the Metropolitan Council, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and other agencies, have also used the program to launch their careers.
Ibrahim, a Somali-American who came to the Twin Cities as a teenager about a decade ago, said the program is opening up the path to civic-service careers to young people who might otherwise have had a hard time finding their way in.
“A lot of students, people of color like me, may have the qualifications and may know what they know, but as the saying goes, there’s a balance between what you know and who you know … they’re more likely to hire you if you’re sitting across the table,” he said.
The idea for the Urban Scholars program began to take shape about six years ago, as city officials were grappling with three big issues.
First, there was a study released that revealed glaring racial disparities in graduation rates and employment in Minneapolis — gaps researchers tied in part to hiring biases among employers and a lack of professional networks among some people of color. Meanwhile, the city’s demographics were quickly changing, with nonwhite residents making up 40 percent of the population.
Finally, the city’s staff — 77 percent white, at the time of the program’s debut in 2012 — was aging. With a wave of baby boomers headed toward retirement, city officials knew they needed to attract young staff members — and hoped they could begin to bring City Hall and other local institutions closer to reflecting the community around them.
So alongside a long-running internship program, the city launched Urban Scholars, pairing a summer job with in-depth classroom training on public speaking, leading meetings and working with community groups.
The first class had just eight participants, but by 2014, there were 22 Urban Scholars with city government internships and another 14 with outside organizations. This year, 60 are working with the city, plus another 17 at the Metropolitan Council, which is overseeing its own program for the first time. By next year, officials are hoping to more than double those numbers.
Participants in the program must be currently enrolled in or recent graduates of four-year colleges and universities or graduate schools. Cassidy Gardenier, the city’s assistant director of civil rights, said scholars are selected in part based on “core competencies,” or having the skills necessary to grow and thrive in public-service work. The program is not limited to people of color, though they make up a vast majority of the participants.
The city staff members who work with the scholars are instructed to come up with meaningful duties that allow participants to tackle real projects and issues.
“It’s not just doing data entry or grabbing coffee or filing, but that they can really see an arc to their work and have ownership of it,” Gardenier said.
Working in the city’s Intergovernmental Relations Department, Ibrahim is spending some of his summer analyzing city policies and helping shape the city’s legislative agenda. His duties take him into meetings with the leaders of all of the city’s departments and into meetings of the City Council.
Jazmine Logan, who will be a junior at the University of Minnesota this fall, is spending her second summer as an Urban Scholar in the Neighborhood and Community Relations Department, where she has helped analyze and compile data for reports on neighborhoods and the programs that serve them.
She said working with government officials, community groups and neighbors has provided important lessons about what it takes to get work done when it involves people with varying ideas and perspectives.
“Being a student, being a woman of color, given my own background, it’s realizing that everyone’s concerns are not going to match yours,” she said. “You have to bring yourself to the job but understand that everyone else is doing the same.”
Brenda Compean-Morales, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, is also in her second year with Urban Scholars, working with the Park Board. She said she was at first intimidated by coming to work in a professional role, uncertain of how much she’d be expected to change or camouflage to fit in among co-workers who were predominantly white and older than herself.
But Compean-Morales said she’s realized that her background — a first-generation immigrant, the first in her family to graduate from college — is a major asset for organizations trying to broaden their reach to residents who may not know about them.
“It’s important for us, people of color, to be in the room when changes are being made. … At the end of the day, we are part of the city, and we should be heard,” she said.
In the years since the program began, the demographics of Minneapolis’ city staff have been changing slowly. The percentage of employees of color has ticked up each year, from just under 23 percent in 2012 to 25 percent in 2015.
Now, with the Urban Scholars expanding to other agencies, organizations like the Metropolitan Council are expecting to see even broader changes. Wanda Kirkpatrick, director of the council’s Office of Equal Opportunity, said her organization hopes the program will give talented young people a chance to see what the council does. Each scholar is paired with a council member as a mentor and regularly gets the chance to quiz top local and state officials about their work and how they ended up in their positions.
Kirkpatrick said the scholars are getting the kind of training that should set them apart from other job applicants and prime them for important roles in the future.
“I am encouraged that we’re going to have some great leaders when it’s their time to come about,” she said.