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'Driving Change' panel: It took courage, persistence and patience to unite disparate group around a vision

Said Sheik-Abdi made his first factfinding mission to Somalia in June 2010.
Courtesy of the American Refugee Committee
Said Sheik-Abdi made his first factfinding mission to Somalia in June 2010.

MinnPost has assembled a panel of leadership experts and scholars, who are rotating in commenting on each of what will be 24 examples of leadership profiled in our yearlong series, "Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership." Today Marcia Avner of Avner Consulting, who is on the faculty of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership Program at University of Minnesota-Duluth, comments on aspects of leadership presented in "Said Sheik-Abdi, with ARC, engages Minneapolis' Somalis in helping Somalia's internal refugees."

Most of us could agree that it was courageous for Said Sheik-Abdi to work in his native Mogadishu, an embattled city that many other relief workers consider to be too dangerous for their operations.

But Sheik-Abdi also demonstrated rare leadership courage by organizing the Neighbors Initiative in his community in Minnesota, said Marcia Avner, who has worked for years with top leaders in Minnesota's nonprofit and political spheres.

"This is incredibly courageous work," Avner said after reading MinnPost's profile of Sheik-Abdi. "He is tackling a 20-year-old problem that some of the finest leaders in our country can't figure out how to get their hands around."

Marcia Avner
Courtesy of the MN Council of Nonprofits
Marcia Avner

Many of us care deeply about problems around the world and at home, too, about things we know in our hearts are not right. We can be inspired to set things right. And some of us even have a good measure of experience and organizational skills.

Few of us, though, are brave enough to take on something as complex as getting beyond the disapproval of our own communities, Avner said.

Even Somalis who live as neighbors to one another in Minnesota have very different opinions about the best approach to solving the problems in their homeland.

"As you say very clearly (in the profile), there is no one point of view," Avner said.

It took rare leadership courage for Sheik-Abdi to patiently cultivate one leader at a time so that those leaders could bring others in the community with them. Then he set in motion a painstaking process of negotiating agreements around what they would do that would be shared and purposeful.

"He mixed persistence with patience," Avner said. "He pursued the people he wanted to lead the drive. But he gave them months to work out the details, the goals and the strategy."

Sometimes it's easier to be courageous with the piece that is far away, she said.

"Clearly, there was extraordinary courage in saying, 'We are going to base this in Somalia, not Kenya,' " she said. "But in some ways it is more challenging to work with the people you see every day or every week, the people who know that you are working for change when there is not clear agreement about what should be done, with whom it should be accomplished and how it should be accomplished."

It always takes courage to move from idea to action, she said, and to do that in your own complex community "requires great calm and a high level of self-awareness and deep conviction."

Need calls for leaders
Her company, Avner Consulting, advises clients on public policy advocacy. She also is a Senior Fellow at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. And she is on the faculty of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership Program at University of Minnesota-Duluth.

I asked her whether it is common or rare in the sphere of nonprofits to see great need bring forth a leader.

Preparing to walk on behalf of Somalia were, left to right, Deega Hussein, Fadumo Mire, Zahra Farah and Sadia Mohamoud.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Preparing to walk on behalf of Somalia on Aug. 27 were, left to right, Deega Hussein, Fadumo Mire, Zahra Farah and Sadia Mohamoud.

"There are numerous nonprofits that have formed based on deeply committed leadership and the work of a leader who is prepared to move into addressing the need and creating the opportunity for something to be built that will solve the problems at hand," she said.

Still, Sheik-Abdi's story is extraordinary, she said, in part because of his deep connection to the people who need help in Somalia and in part because of the scope of their problems.

"Extraordinary leaders have vision, and he clearly had a vision from the time he was quite young," she said. "You tell the story of how he awakened one day and there was war and everything had changed."

From afar, Sheik-Abdi knew Somalia's plight worsened during the nearly 20 years he was gone.

"He understood that at a cerebral level — and, when he went back — clearly at a visceral level," she said.

So the urgency of the problem was clear. What Sheik-Abdi added was his readiness to seize an opportunity to do something about it, to call the American Refugee Committee and offer partnership with Minnesota's Somali community.

Said Sheik-Abdi
Courtesy of ARC
Said Sheik-Abdi

"It is the magic that happens when there are genuinely significant problems, few solutions being put forward and someone who is able to step into an opportunity with a combination of passion but also experience, knowledge and understanding of how to build power and influence change," Avner said.

Unrelenting but uniting, too
Avner said Sheik-Abdi's story is one of the best examples she has seen of deploying multiple capacities and strengths in order to build a movement.

"The story of his going one by one to the leaders he needed unrelentingly to help them find their shared interest — not what divided them, but what united them — is what makes probably the most significant difference in whether he was able to launch this or not," she said.

Sheik-Abdi's experience of managing high rises in Minneapolis no doubt honed the skills he needed.

"His experience within a bureaucracy, if you will, within an organization that had a clear mission but multiple levels of complexity, is really an important component of what he was able to bring to the moment of opportunity," Avner said.

That management experience combined with Sheik-Abdi's earlier work as a journalist fostered analytical skills and "insights into how power works, who has power, how you build power and how you reach your target audiences in effective ways."

Sheik-Abdi moved to partner with the American Refugee Committee for obvious reasons. But pulling off such a partnership isn't always easy.

"It's very difficult for a number of reasons," Avner said.

Some established organizations see no need for partners. But increasingly, going it alone carries risks. It can be very difficult for fragmented groups — even those working on connected issues — to have an impact.

"There simply is not the power there," Avner said. "You simply cannot attract the resources. But by working in partnership we bring in a stronger base and we bring in intellectual capital."

One set of leaders may have intimate connections with the problem at hand. The other may have the skills and experience needed to cultivate, sustain and engage bases of support — for example, to organize a strong presence in the community with everything from a Facebook page to cooking competitions to mass demonstrations.

I asked Avner where Sheik-Abdi could stumble into pitfalls in the future.

"First, there could be external opponents to what he is doing," she said.

He could well run into opposition from other groups that see themselves competing for the same resources or who disagree with his strategies.

A child at Rajo Camp collects water provided by donors in Minnesota
Courtesy of American Refuge Committee
A child at Rajo Camp collects water provided by donors in Minnesota.

"I am convinced from what you say about him that he is well aware who might oppose this and how he needs to be sensitive to that and prepared to address it," she said.

Then there are the internal challenges that come with juggling components of the project, of working on the ground in Somalia at the same time he tries to sustain, engage and build the support base in the United States. He will need to work with strong leadership teams on both fronts.

"It's a huge challenge," Avner said. "He needs to think multiple years ahead — to ask what is his plan and vision for where the project will be in three years, five years, 10 years — and what talent pool he needs to develop both within the community here and in Somalia."

Finally, given the turbulence in Somalia, he could be defeated by forces outside of his control.

Convictions plus tactics
Meanwhile, Sheik-Abdi's key strength is the sincerity of his determination to help Somalia.

"This is not about his ego," Avner said. "This is about his dedication to important work that needs to be done well … that will allow him to share leadership, that will allow him to develop a leadership team, that will allow him to put things in place that will be lasting."

"It's an extraordinary project," Avner said. "At the core of it are the courage of his convictions ... but also the ability to bring together all of these other pieces to fulfill a vision that is played out — not in a romanticized way, but in a very tactical way."

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