On a spring day just before Ramadan, the staff and volunteers of a South Minneapolis nonprofit helped a cluster of women carry bags of bread, cauliflower, and watermelons from a warehouse they’d recently transformed into the city’s newest food shelf. Run by Isuroon, an organization that promotes the well-being and empowerment of Somali women, the food shelf is just one example of work that Somali-led nonprofits are launching to address needs and strengthen ties, within and beyond the Somali community.
Given the stark poverty of Minnesota’s Somali community, this food is needed. But Isuroon’s vision is much larger. As executive director Fartun Weli explained, the food shelf is part of the concept for a community space where she hopes Somali Minnesotans will someday gather for everything from social events to immunizations – “to connect to existing services, build resilience, and identify community priorities.”
Like The Minneapolis Foundation, Weli believes that no one is better positioned to identify and address challenges facing the Somali community than Somali Minnesotans themselves. But as the leader of a nonprofit operating on a shoestring budget, she also knows that realizing Isuroon’s vision will take teamwork.
That philosophy is at the heart of the Coalition of Minnesota African Leaders, an initiative seeded by the Foundation in response to needs expressed by Somali leaders. Facilitated by Hamse Warfa, a consultant and former program officer at a private foundation, the coalition includes Fartun and seven other Somali nonprofit leaders. Warfa is helping coalition members grow the capacity of their organizations, increase their collaboration, advocate for public policies that better serve Somali Minnesotans, and learn how to navigate systems that sometimes pose barriers.
The coalition is also closing gaps between Somali-led nonprofits and larger “mainstream” organizations, with Warfa acting as a cultural broker on projects such as Isuroon’s food shelf. After Weli told him about the food shelf, which she and members of Isuroon had been trying to open for two and a half years, Warfa reached out to his contacts at Second Harvest Heartland, a large Minnesota-based food bank.
Second Harvest agreed not only to provide food for the new food shelf, but also to have a staff member work with Isuroon on its fundraising strategy. Both partners bring something to the table. Second Harvest has a lot to learn from Isuroon, said Michelle Heerey, the food bank’s Director of Field Services. “They’re the experts in terms of serving the Somali community.”