Mental health and sexual harassment can feel like taboo topics in the Somali culture, but Anisa Ahmed says girls and young women in that community wrestle with those issues every day.

That's why Ahmed is starting a nonprofit to tackle those issues with the help of $2,500 from the Women's Foundation of Minnesota. She is one of 20 individuals awarded a microgrant through the Young Women's Initiative of Minnesota, a first-of-its-kind public-private partnership between the Women's Foundation and the governor's office.

"I am really passionate about this," said Ahmed, a social work major at Metropolitan State. "A young woman should not feel like she can't speak up."

Until now, the Women's Foundation — like most philanthropies — has focused funding on established nonprofits and organizations. Its leaders say they now realize the best way to persuade others to invest in young women is to lead by example.

"We are showing the system, whether it be philanthropy or government or private business, that young women are worth investing in," said Lulete Mola, who oversees grantmaking as the foundation's director of community impact. "Systems are not set up to serve us. So often we are told no. Yet these women are resilient and leading change in the community."

The microgrants will help women, who may not have access to resources, move ideas into action and build momentum, said Mola. Grantees include a woman researching deficits in Minnesota transportation planning for people with disabilities and another creating career mentorship opportunities in the West African community.

The microgrants are one part of the Young Women's Initiative launched by foundation leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton in 2016.

The initiative focuses on improving safety and economic and leadership opportunities for girls and women ages 12 to 24 — with particular emphasis on closing the opportunity gap for women of color and others on the margins. It's designed along the lines of My Brother's Keeper, a national effort to close opportunity gaps for boys and young men of color.

The Women's Foundation is devoting $9 million to the partnership over time, and Dayton's office has thrown its support and clout behind the effort.

Early investments

The initiative has sprung to action with $450,000 in investments this year. In addition to the $50,000 in microgrants for individuals, 14 organizations, including the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys and the Women Organizing Women Network, have each received $25,000 to focus on creating conditions for women and girls to thrive.

A cabinet of 25 young women meets regularly to develop leadership skills and guide the initiative's work. The YWCA of St. Paul, which received a $100,000 grant from the Women's Foundation, advises the cabinet, provides leadership development and pays cabinet members $15 an hour.

Maya Tackaberry, an aspiring civil engineer studying at St. Paul College, will use her microgrant to join a delegation of engineering and technology students on a tour through China this spring. The group will visit and study some of China's engineering marvels, including the Great Wall and the Three Gorges Dam.

"It's a way to see your field in a different culture," she said.

Tackaberry, who is Hispanic, said she is one of just a handful of women — and the only woman of color — in her St. Paul College science program, a precursor to engineering.

"I've had many personal experiences where I've basically been told I just can't do it because I am female," she said. "I don't agree with that."

Tackaberry is part of a peer mentoring program and hopes to inspire other young women considering math and science careers.

That fits within the Women's Foundation's larger goals. A big thrust of the initiative is to develop young women leaders early, Mola said.

"We want to change the narrative that CEOs are only white men," Mola said. "We want young women and young women of color to be considered leaders early on." 612-673-4804