Kiatamba, executive director of African Immigrant Services (AIS),
said making that happen is a goal of his organization. AIS is
focused on community engagement, systems change, grassroots
organizing and shifting policy. "Those feeling the impact of an
issue should be part of the solution," he said. He believes that
makes for a more sustainable solution.
Currently, the main work of AIS is its
From Observers to Leaders (FOTL) Project. Funded by a 2013 Bush
Foundation Community Innovation grant, the FOTL Project facilitates
and transforms community learning and reflection into action and
change. Kiatamba explained that a lot of immigrants say they didn't
come to the U.S. to change the system. They think they should stay
in their little community and not try to sit at the table with "the
sophisticated folks," he said.
"Our goal is to say you can be part of the
solution to things like racial disparities, racism and
anti-immigrant policies," Kiatamba said. "Those affected must be
involved and be part of the solution. Immigrants are complaining,
but they aren't at the table."
No problem ever solved itself. "A
problem has to be solved by somebody," Kiatamba said. "How
collectively can we come up with solutions? If solutions get bigger,
the problems get smaller. If the solutions get smaller, the problems
get bigger. Otherwise we have to wait for the next generation. But
that's not how things change or lives get improved."
"America works better, and you only
succeed there, if the system works for you," Kiatamba said. "The
system has to be shaped. We have to tell the system it's not working
for me and it has to work for me."
We need to make the schools a better place
for everybody. Kiatamba said AIS sponsored a meeting that drew
350 people to discuss issues they are passionate about. One major
one was that the school systems should be more welcoming of new
people and new cultures. He said people at the meeting felt their
relationship with the Osseo School District "is not going anywhere.
You're not told what their agenda is. People said the district
should ask what parents need and what their kids need. We need to
make the schools a better place for everybody."
AIS help organize 200 parents in the Osseo
School District. Kiatamba said the parents made a list of the issues
they wanted the district to respond to. "It was the first time the
parents set the agenda," he said. Organizing in that way gives
people the confidence that we can get long-term solutions from the
immigrant communities, he stated.
Kiatamba said the parents worked at
creating consciousness so the school system would recognize that
race impacts student outcomes. "How can we disrupt the prediction
that because I'm black, I won't do well in school?" he asked. "The
school system and the community must work together."
The parent group pushed the Osseo district
to come up with a race policy. And the group and AIS worked to
increase participation in the 2016 election, resulting in a huge
turnout in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, both part of the Osseo
district and home to many African immigrants.
AIS does community organizing around
system change and policy change. "We must find the solution
together," Kiatamba emphasized, "with me, rather than
for me. He chaired the Minnesota African Task Force Against
Ebola and said the task force led to the best community response to
the Ebola crisis in the entire country. The response received
national news coverage.
Kiatamba said the goal of AIS's work is to
show people that "there is wisdom in our community and that
we are not their problem."
I don't see anybody who looks like us.
Kiatamba noted that children of color make up 52 percent of the
students in the Osseo School District, but 95 percent of the
district's staff is white. "We need to create a more diverse staff,"
he said. "When I go to the district's office, I don't see anybody
who looks like us. AIS and the parent group have pushed to hire more
faculty of color."
He said sometimes the immigrants are loud,
but they are not aggressive. "But teachers will panic," he
contended. "There is a lack of cultural competence and
responsiveness. The nature of the district is to respond in the
traditional way. The school district will not hold itself
Kiatamba said there are three main issues
in the immigrants' relationship with the Osseo School District:
1. How do we make sure the
community is involved in designing the solution for problems?
2. How do we get cultural
responsiveness? How does racial equity impact the education of
our students? "The principal is our advocate," Kiatamba stated. "But
training in race and culture is resisted by the staff."
3. How do we get authentic
engagement? "Before any policy changes, we should hear all the
voices in creating a solution," he said. "Accountability around
teaching is strategically more culturally responsive. How do we
fast-track teachers of color, because there are now more white folks
in the pipeline?"
Some of the African immigrants AIS works
with haven't integrated into society. In response to an
interviewer's question about whether the immigrants have found
employment, Kiatamba said, "Minnesota is very welcoming. The largest
concentration of Liberians in the U.S. is in Minnesota. If it
weren't cold, probably 10 times as many would be here."
He stated that there are a lot of social
services here to help the immigrants find work. Some of them go
through professional training to get jobs that pay well. "But there
is a transition process," Kiatamba said. "Some with Ph.Ds. are
working as waitresses."
The immigrants must learn English to
become more attractive to employers, he said. "Long term, we must
create economic stability in the community. That's an important
aspect of becoming change-makers."
Many groups are doing different things to
ultimately produce a more just community. An interviewer asked
for examples of organizations that stand out in bringing ethnic and
immigrant groups into being part of the solution to problems.
Kiatamba noted several organizations: the Citizens League, the Civic
Caucus, the African American Leadership Forum, TakeAction Minnesota
and Black Lives Matter. He called Black Lives Matter more of a
mobilizing force in the community, while AIS does more long-term
"Minnesota is a progressive community," he
said. "There are lots of progressive groups doing amazing things."
AIS collaborates with a number of African
immigrant organizations. An interviewer noted that African
immigrants in Minnesota come from a number of countries, including
Liberia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Ghana and Sudan. He asked how the
Liberians interact with other communities that have different
"We connect our tragedies together,"
Kiatamba responded. "People handle things from their own
experiences." He noted, for example, that Somalis have clans. He
said AIS has done a lot to build a good relationship with the Somali
immigrant community. "We try to have all groups in the room."
An interviewer commented that there are
things America could learn about community engagement from the way
African communities interact and solve problems. If we don't include
people from immigrant cultures, we miss all the wisdom they bring
with them. "We must draw from that wisdom," the interviewer said.
"Some have survived war, hunger and other terrible things. We must
draw from the wisdom from those cultures to solve problems."
All of the work of AIS has three elements.
Kiatamba described the elements as (1) create consciousness
around problems and wisdom in the community; (2) determine what will
lead to change in the system; and (3) organize the community to
bring leadership to the problem. "Throwing money at a problem is not
a solution," he said. "That's creating a problem."
A number of communities are collaborating
closely. Kiatamba noted a lot of collaboration among immigrant
communities, including those in Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, New
Hope and Champlin. "We have to determine how to develop an immigrant
agenda to deal with problems," he said. "We have to find a niche and
have impact as a model for other situations. Otherwise we get
stretched all over."
Kiatamba mentioned AIS's work on the voter
ID issue as an example of how the immigrant community can affect a
general statewide problem.
Being at the table is crucial. An
interviewer asked Kiatamba to what extent having members of the
immigrant community at the table where decisions are being made can
make a difference. The interviewer noted that even if one
representative of the community is at a meeting, it can change the
whole tenor of the meeting.
Kiatamba responded that being at the table
is crucial and has been an issue. "White people can be good," he
said, "but they're missing the perspective of other people in the
community, who can help their allies to think in a broader way.
Getting different perspectives is important. We need to get
engagement from everybody, so we know what our right and left hands
"Immigrants think they're not smart enough
to be at the table," he continued. "Leadership development is the
issue. We're trying to create a pipeline of leadership in
theimmigrant community. We help people develop confidence."
Kiatamba said we need to create a more
integrative community: one that is more inclusive and more just,
where people are respected and their cultures are valued. "We are
one common people with a shared humanity," he said.