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Awood Center emerges as a powerful voice for East African workers

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Awood Center Executive Director Abdirahman Muse: "People need to know where to go and how to fight back when they’re mistreated or face discrimination in the workplace."

Awood Center may be tiny, but the nonprofit organization has recently emerged as a powerful voice for East African immigrants and refugees facing mistreatment or discrimination in the workplace.

It’s a first-of-its-kind effort in Minnesota tailored for East African workers — especially those in low-wage industries — who don’t understand their workplace rights or have language barriers that prevent from expressing their concerns.

The center, which is housed inside the Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, was founded last year in response to growing workplace-mistreatment-related concerns that surfaced in the community. Among those issues, noted Awood Center Executive Director Abdirahman Muse, are wage theft, wrongful terminations and harsh work conditions. Last month, the organization took on Amazon after receiving a number of complaints from East African workers at the company’s Eagan warehouse.   

Muse recently sat down with MinnPost to talk about what led to the creation of the center, the services it provides, and the future of the organization.

MinnPost: Before we start talking about Awood Center, tell me a little bit more about you. I know you worked for former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.  

Abdirahman Muse: Yes, I worked for the mayor for four years as a senior policy aide. One of the things I focused on was labor relations. I dealt with a lot of work-related issues; I maintained relationships with union organizations and addressed their issues at the Mayor’s Office.

Before that, I was an organizer with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. I worked on many important projects with other organizers at SEIU. I was one of five organizers that helped pass a bill that unionized home care workers in Minnesota. Because of that campaign, we managed to help more than 25,000 home care workers to form a union and to have workplace rights and to collectively bargain with the state so they can improve their working conditions.

MP: Now you’re leading Awood Center. What is it in a nutshell?  

AM: Awood Center is a place for the East African workers to learn about their rights at work. It empowers them and advocates on their behalf.

CTUL [Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha/Center of Workers United in Struggle] is the only other another organization in the Twin Cities that is close to the work Awood Center does. But CTUL mostly focuses on the Latino community. So, we’re the CTUL version of East Africans.

MP: There are so many nonprofit organizations serving immigrants and refugees in Minnesota. How is Awood Center any different?  

AM: When people think about East Africans, they think of them just as immigrants and refugees. But they are also workers. In fact, the majority of the community are participating in the workforce. Many of them work in low-wage industries as assembly line workers, cleaners, cashiers and drivers.  

Many of them come to us and tell us that they face many work-related issues. They complain about lack of respect at the workplace, hidden discrimination and lack of promotion. Some people come to us and say, “Hey, we’re East-Africa-majority workers at this company; we’ve been there for a long time, but none of us has been promoted to a managerial position.”

But they never had a place that specifically addresses work-related issues. So we realized that there is a huge need for this center. People need to know where to go and how to fight back when they’re mistreated or face discrimination in the workplace.

MP: What exactly does the organization do for these workers?

AM: We’re not a union; we educate workers about their rights as employees. For example, when they reach to us, we assess their situation. Then we decide the best approach to help them fight back. That can be through a legal process. It can be workers organizing. It can be an advocacy work.  

We deal with different industries. Now, we’re dealing with Amazon, where we see many folks who are working in warehouses. In many cases, they make up the largest number of the employees.

They have been complaining about difficult working conditions at Amazon. They’ve been pressured to produce a lot beyond their human capacity. So we’ve been working with them to make sure that they have a voice.

We did that by organizing them and raising awareness about the poor working environment they’re in. In May, we helped them organize a protest in Eagan to fight back to ensure they are respected and are treated fairly.   

Also, just last week, Uber drivers reached out to us about work-related issues. They feel like they’ve been discriminated against. So we’re working with them right now to see what we can do to help.

MP: So most of the clients at Awood Center are immigrants and refugees with language barriers?

AM: Most of them are new immigrants. In this hostile debate about immigration, many of them are hesitant to speak up and to talk about the discrimination they face — even when they realize they’ve been discriminated against.

But when they come to us, we educate them about the fact that they have — as human beings, as citizens, as workers — rights in this country.

MP: How many staffers does your organization have?

AM: We now have four staff members, but we’re hoping to expand in the coming years. The need for our service is so huge. There are about 100,000 East African people in the Twin Cities, and most of them are workers. Right now, we’re the only voice they have and we try to fill that gap.

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