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How one immigrant organization is training a new generation of community leaders

The From Observers to Leaders project engages particpants around five areas: board leadership, education equity, economic opportunity, civic engagement and information sharing.

The From Observers To Leaders initiative has so far engaged more than 3,000 people and received more than 10 community awards.
Courtesy of African Immigrant Services

As the executive director of the African Immigrant Services (AIS), Abdullah Kiatamba would note how often the voices of low-income residents and minority community members were missing at influential decision-making gatherings in Minnesota.   

In response, he wanted to find a way to help those groups become active participants in the civic life of the state. So in 2013, his organization launched the From Observers to Leaders (FOTL) project, an initiative aimed at designing and implementing action plans around everything from educational equity to elections.

“People should discover their own solutions to make change,” said the Liberian-born Kiatamba. “It’s not mainstream groups that are finding solutions for us. We’re leading the change we want to see. That’s the purpose of From Observers to Leaders.”

The project allows participants to engage around their interests on one of five core teams: board leadership, education equity, economic opportunity, civic engagement and information sharing. One of the efforts spearheaded by FOTL, for example, included a series of meetings around finding ways to increase participation of immigrants and people of color during election season. About 150 people are now involved in FOTL, Kiatamba said, and it has captured the attention of various institutions and organizations across the state. 

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One of those institutions is the Bush Foundation, which recently awarded AIS $200,000 to fund FOTL for two years as part of Bush’s Community Innovation grants. The organization plans to use the money in part to build an administrative team as well as engagement and communication support systems.

Adja Kaba Ann, who’s originally from Liberia, regularly participates in FOTL’s community leadership team. “It’s important to be part of it so that we, as immigrants, can be able to identify individuals to participate on our behalf in the decision-making,” Ann said. “We have a stake in this whole process. I believe strongly that our participation will make some difference. … Staying on the sideline is really not helping our community — and it’s not helping the community at large.”

Carlondrea Hines, senior director of Educational Effectiveness for the Perpich Center for Arts Education, has been attending FOTL’s educational equality meetings for months now. “As an educator and as a citizen in Brooklyn Park, I believe that people of color need to have a voice,” Hines said. “Through the African Immigrant Services, it has allowed and opened the doors for others to be able to come to the table in order to get their perspective and their views on how things are going.”  

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.