Somali Contributions in the Workplace

Thursday, December 1, 2005
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The Itasca Project, a group of about 40 Twin Cities business leaders, academics and public officials in late October released a report called, "Mind the Gap," that it had commissioned. The report showed the seriousness top business leaders in the area attach to the influx of new immigrants that have come to the area. The report noted that Minnesota has the largest Hmong, Somali, and Liberian communities in the , a fact well known by recent census numbers. Immigrants from 160 countries came to
in 2002, the report noted.



Many of these immigrants have naturally found their way into the workplace, enriching the workplace but also presenting challenges and a much more nuanced way of doing things that many managers at Minnesota companies long used to dealing with people of similar backgrounds have not completely adjusted to.



On Wednesday, November 16, the
in conjunction with the City of
Bloomington Human Rights Commission
, organized a workshop titled Somali Contributions in the Workplace and Beyond. The workshop, using case studies and best practices submitted by leading Twin Cities employers aimed to provide an in-depth look into the contributions of this growing community in the workplace.



Over eighty middle and upper management employees from companies such as Andersen Corporation,  Cub Foods,  Emerson Processing Management, Health Partners and Medtronic among others listened and engaged a panel of three accomplished and distinguished Somali speakers – Farah Nur, Co-Director of Ubah Medical Academy, Amal Abdalla, Founder and Manager of Somali Success School and Hussein Samatar, Executive Director of the African Development Center (ADC) – in a lively discussion about the Somali way of life and culture, and the role religion plays in their lives. A majority of Somalis are Muslims.



The workshop was facilitated by Omar Yousuf, a procurement analyst at Piper Jaffray.



Corrine Shepherd, chair of the Bloomington Human Rights Commission in opening remarks said her commission deemed the workshop important and stated its purpose as seeking to increase the cultural competence of everyone.



Case studies for the workshop dwelt mostly on best practices that other companies have implemented in terms of making reasonable accommodations to achieve productivity goals from Somalis in the workplace. One case study for example was from a manufacturing company that has rotating and spinning fixtures in the assembly line and the challenge flowing hijabs and veils worn by Somali women pose in terms of safety. Ms. Abdalla told workshop participants that while the Koran requires both sexes to dress modestly and cover themselves appropriately, modifications are allowed as long as such modifying does not compromise the modesty requirement to which Mr. Nur concurred and added “religion does not require that you kill yourself”, referring to the danger of hijabs getting caught in the spinning assembly lines. Ms. Abdalla said employers can seek the services of trusted Islamic scholars who can talk to Somali employees on the need to make such modifications to enhance workplace safety. She said an Imam from a mosque Somalis frequent is a good example of a trusted scholar.



There was also a discussion on some of the interpersonal relationships that take place in the workplace. Participants were told that Somali men are not opposed to having female supervisors and any perceived unwillingness on the part of Somali men to take direction from female supervisors could be due to differences in communication styles. Mr. Nur encouraged managers who could be experiencing such challenges to try and learn from other managers who have had success in similar situations.



Participants also learnt that Somali society is an oral based one and is age oriented.  Elders are given considerable respect and managers need to keep this in mind when dealing with elderly Somali employees. Mr. Nur gave an example of his former mathematics teacher in who now works under him as a member of the charter school Mr. Nur co directs. He said according his former teacher the respect he deserves does not in anyway compromise his ability to give direction and supervision, that the two are not mutually exclusive. Ms. Abdalla said one of the saddest things for her is to see the difficulty elderly Somalis have in adjusting to American life. Some of the elderly had prestigious positions in but have been reduced to doing menial work to survive. It is a bit easier for the young, giving herself as an example. When she came to the in 1998, she had a Masters of Arts in Business Administration and was fluent in five languages except English. She bagged groceries while she worked on her English proficiency. It was a humbling experience and said that elderly Somalis might not have the luxury of looking to a brighter future given their age.



Muslims are required to pray five times a day and many workplaces have made progress in allocating praying space for Muslims and giving them the flexibility to take time off to do so. However there is still some ground to cover. Mr. Nur for example said he had given up previous jobs because his employers would not give him time off on Friday afternoon for the congregational prayer that is required off all Muslims at least once a week. The congregational prayer happens on Friday normally during the lunch hour.



Mr. Yousuf said employers and managers need to be aware that Somalis are not a monolithic group and communication is key in obtaining productivity gains from Somali employees. He said his employer, Piper Jaffray, has also made accommodations for the Muslim employees in the downtown
office he works at by giving them space to pray.



Mr. Hussein Samatar who heads the
in Minneapolis which serves African businesses from all parts of
said the spirit of entrepreneurship among the African immigrant community is very high and that this community has transformed the commercial corridors of the Twin Cities. He said Africans are not just employees but are now also employers. Mr. Hussein, a former banker with Wells Fargo before leaving to start ADC four years ago, enumerated some of the challenges facing African entrepreneurs which he named as, a Lack of planning, Market isolation, wasted wealth and financial literacy and management. His center works with African entrepreneurs to overcome these challenges and also acts as a micro lender.



The workshop concluded with testimonials from Bonnie Stanberry from Emerson Processing Management and Patience Ferguson, Minneapolis YWCA Human Resources director. Bonnie said the demographic changes that have occurred where her company is located means there are not enough workers to fill all the positions they have. She recalled a while back when there were openings for forty people and management was aware it was going to be a challenge to fill them when eight Somalis showed up and applied much to the delight of everyone but then came the challenge of how to accommodate them in terms of religion and culture. She said all accommodations and changes to the workplace that her company has implemented have been worth it.



Ms. Ferguson said companies should not implement changes such as what Emerson did for the sake of it but must have a business case for it. For her, the business case is that with a changing demographic and globalization, it is smart business to make these reasonable accommodations to new immigrants such as Somalis as the success story at Emerson shows.



The Bloomington, Minnesota based
was founded in 1991 by Ghafar Lakanwal, a native of . The center’s stated goal is to promote multicultural understanding and inclusiveness in the workplace as well as in the community.


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About Tom Gitaa

Tom is the President and Publisher of Mshale and chair of the Minnesota Multicultural Media Consortium (MMMC). As Mshale founder, he did a lot of the reporting during the humble beginnings of the newspaper. While he still does the occasional reporting, he now concentrates on the publishing side of the news operation.Tom was also the original host of Talking Drum, the signature current affairs show on the African Broadcasting Network (ABN-America), which was available nationwide in the United States via the DishNetwork satellite service. On the show, he interviewed Nobel laureates such as 2004 Nobel Peace prize winner, Professor Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to win the peace prize and heads of states such as the president ofВ  The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh at State House, Banjul. Tom has previously served in the board of directors of Global Minnesota, the sixth largest World Affairs Council in the United States. He has also previously served as President of the Board of Directors of Books for Africa, the largest shipper of donated books to Africa and. He sits on the board of the United Nations Association.

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