ST. CLOUD — Three years after creating what was thought to be the first high school-level curriculum for native Somali speakers in the state and country, Abdi Mahad is at it again — this time creating what is thought to be the first elementary Somali immersion program in the nation.
Mahad, 43, was born in Somalia and came to the United States when he was 14. In 2016, he moved to St. Cloud, where he and his wife, Hudda Ibrahim, founded a business providing diversity and inclusion training to organizations. The duo also launched a publishing company that focuses on helping diverse authors tell stories about underrepresented communities.
Mahad has a master's degree from St. Cloud State, where he studied applied linguistics and curriculum design. He's now working with Somali language experts to create elementary immersion curriculums for the St. Cloud school district — which plans to add a dual English/Somali immersion program next year — as well as four other school districts across the country.
In a written response to the Star Tribune, Mahad talks about how he is working to help preserve and celebrate the Somali language and culture in central Minnesota and beyond. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell me about your efforts to bolster inclusion and understanding in the community, including your new publishing company and the Dine & Dialogue forum?
A: Diverse Voices Press came out of a conversation my wife and I had with our 8-year-old niece. She asked us why she didn't see kids who look like her in books. We simply couldn't find many authentic books that feature Muslim children of any background. Our press, launched in 2021, is amplifying the voices of marginalized communities who have been silenced by traditional publishing companies or faced too many barriers to the traditional publishing process. We want to include other underrepresented identities, whether it be physical, ethnic or some other form of diversity, too.
Hudda and I also started Dine and Dialogue in 2017 after seeing social and political tensions rising in our community. We used it as a way to find commonality among different faiths, cultures and backgrounds and reduce "the fear of the unknown" between the native-born residents and immigrants. What was expected to be intimate dialogue became a fully-fledged forum where more than 150 people attended.
Q: Has the St. Cloud area changed in recent years? How?
A: St. Cloud is a great place to live and raise a family. Look at our school district: Right now they are paving the way for a dual immersion program where kids will be taught Somali alongside English. But we've still got a long way to go. This community is rapidly becoming more diverse, but we are lacking a lot of services for our communities of color.
Q: What does it look like to create a new curriculum?
A: Creating a new curriculum is not easy and can't be done by one person. I formed a committee with some of the most celebrated Somali linguists, academicians and professors from all parts of Somalia. We went through different curricula in Somalia and found many outdated lessons that did not reflect Minnesota's curriculum standards. So we completely reinvented the way that Somali language meets Western educational standards and teaching methods. In Somalia, a lot of the resources contained references to religion, which I think is also a great way to help people find relevance in their spoken language, but schools require a secular curriculum.
We've created lessons for kindergarten that focus on helping young students gain reading and writing fundamentals in Somali. Students will also learn Somali using techniques that are common to English curriculums: the phonics system, sight words, and blending and segmenting syllables. And then they get exposed to some traditional language elements through things like poetry.
Q: What would you say to a community member questioning why the district is offering Somali language classes when it is not one of the top languages spoken in the world?
A: Somali is one of the top languages spoken here in the St. Cloud area. We estimate about 10,000 Somali people live in central Minnesota and it's very important that we show we value their culture and contributions to our state and country.
Many Americans once came from a place that did not speak English. We are no longer a melting pot, but rather a salad bowl of cultural elements and language all mixed together. I think that's what makes America beautiful. We are just trying to formalize and add the Somali language to that salad bowl, for anyone to use — but most importantly so our children don't lose their language or culture.
Q: Why is it important for children to be able to speak, read and write in their native language?
A: Studies have shown when children learn to read and write the language they first speak, their ability to understand a second language increases. For our kids to learn English faster and be academically successful in all other content areas, they need to develop their native language. Imagine that you're 5 years old and speak only Somali at home. Somali isn't really written at home, only spoken, so you don't have a foundation of reading or writing with the language you know how to speak. Then you get to school and are expected to identify with the word "apple" and learn to read and write it because it's a word many students have heard a million times before. That's not where some Somali students are. You can't expect to gain reading and writing skills with words that mean nothing to you. But when students can read and write the words that make sense to them, they develop a foundation on which they can transfer to English.