Community Dividend

Twin Cities refugee groups tackle community development

Refugee groups in Minnesota are expanding their mutual assistance efforts to include community development activities.

Bo Thao - Community Affairs Senior Project Manager

Published September 1, 2005  |  September 2005 issue

Minnesota and Wisconsin are favorite destinations for many refugees, as evidenced by their large Hmong and Somali populations. Asked why they have chosen to settle in a climate with such cold winters, many refugees respond that they came because of the area's strong economy and supportive environment—two factors that could help them achieve the American Dream.

The Twin Cities are the area's urban hub for refugees. A drive along the central thoroughfares of Lake Street in Minneapolis or University Avenue in St. Paul reveals growing numbers of Hmong, Vietnamese and Somali businesses. According to Dr. Bruce Corrie, a professor of business at Concordia University in St. Paul, the number of businesses owned by Asians—primarily Hmong and Vietnamese—along a six-block stretch of University Avenue increased from 1 in 1981 to 61 in 2005. Data also indicate that many refugees who have been in Minnesota for more than 10 years are becoming homeowners, due to increased education, skills and income. For example, the Hmong homeownership rate rose from 12 percent in 1990 to 55 percent in 2000.*

By starting businesses and purchasing homes, refugees contribute to the health and stability of neighborhoods. Overall, there is a sense that these newest Minnesotans are taking part in building their communities, and often help revitalization efforts in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the Twin Cities.

From MAAs to CDCs

As refugee communities grew in Minnesota, they established ethnic-based nonprofit organizations, sometimes known as mutual assistance associations (MAA), to welcome and integrate new arrivals. MAAs connect families to basic services like financial assistance, temporary housing, transportation and child care. As these communities flourish, a logical step in furthering their goal of integration is to do work in the community development field.

Instead of the face-to-face, social service emphasis of MAAs, community development organizations—often organized as community development corporations, or CDCs—typically provide services that focus on training, support and resources to address the economic and housing development needs of a community. By layering social services with community development work, MAAs can provide direct help to refugees while addressing some of the underlying factors that contribute to the issues these populations face.

Ethnic-based nonprofits in the Twin Cities have indeed shown a growing interest in the community development field. Barb Jeanetta, program officer for Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), notes that this interest is a natural outgrowth of the work MAAs do.

"With their focus on social services, many of the MAAs see their clients challenged with housing needs," says Jeanetta. "They want to be involved in solving those needs."

Organizations such as Twin Cities LISC, the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) in St. Paul, and the Minneapolis Consortium of Community Developers are building on this interest by supporting the community development capacity of communities of color. These organizations provide resources to ethnic-based groups in the form of technical assistance and small community development grants.

Hmong, African groups deliver services

Hmong American Partnership and the African Development Center, nonprofit groups that serve the Twin Cities' two largest refugee populations, are examples of ethnic-based organizations that incorporate community development programs, such as homeownership and entrepreneurship training, into their work.

Hmong American Partnership (HAP) was founded in 1990 on the principle that it could help Hmong refugees adapt to American life by drawing equally on the strengths of Hmong and American cultures. Initially, HAP focused on providing basic social services, such as helping Hmong refugees navigate the public benefit systems, teaching English to new arrivals and helping Hmong families integrate into American society. Today, HAP's mission is to help the Hmong grow deep roots in America while preserving the strength of their culture. HAP has grown from a provider of refugee-resettlement assistance to an established social services provider that also offers community development services. The organization added community development services to its work by partnering with mainstream CDCs, like NDC, to provide resources, training and support to Hmong Americans who are interested in starting their own businesses. Additionally, with construction of a new building that will house a community center and office space nearing completion, HAP will soon enter new territory.

"Property management will be a whole new experience for us," says William Yang, HAP's executive director. "We very much wanted to build our own building, because the community was asking for a space, but during the process we also decided it would be good for us to make some rental space available." HAP hopes to lease some of the new office space to other nonprofit organizations engaged in community development.

The African Development Center, or ADC, opened its doors in 2004 and received its first major operating grant, from the Bush Foundation, earlier this year. Unlike HAP, which started out providing basic social services and later undertook community development, ADC was created for the very purpose of delivering community development services. The organization was founded as a CDC in response to two years of community listening sessions where African refugees expressed their need for services to help them build assets.

According to ADC Executive Director Hussein Samatar, "Refugees and immigrants wanted small business loans. Financial institutions wanted to make those loans, but so often said no, because the client did not understand how the system works."

In pursuit of its mission to help Minnesota's African communities start and sustain businesses, build assets and promote community reinvestment, ADC currently offers services in business development, homeownership training, business financing and financial literacy.

Advice from the field

Jeanetta, Yang and Samatar offer the following advice for ethnic-based nonprofits interested in pursuing community development.

Seek new partnerships that fill your skill gaps, but don't lose sight of the vision. Jeanetta remarks, "I've seen some partnerships where a person has a vision of what they want, but because they have no capacity, they partner with a stronger CDC and soon the project doesn't look like what they envisioned."

Learn the language. Community development work, like many other professions, has its own language.

"I have to translate my community's needs into community development language for funders and other mainstream CDCs," says Samatar. He continues, "We don't want to take away from mainstream CDCs, but we bring expertise to the table about how to work with our community, so we need the chance from funders. Making that case means learning the new language of this work. It's helped that we have good partners that supported our start-up by mentoring us."

Develop your internal capacity. While most MAAs may have a real interest in expanding their community development services, expansion is impossible if the organization has no internal capacity. As Yang notes, "When our board made the decision to construct the new building, we did not have staff who knew where to start, so we hired a consultant. Now that the building is nearing completion, we have to be strategic about developing internal capacity of staff to manage the property, or we'll have to outsource that."

Positioned to help

The community development field is uniquely positioned to help underserved and low-income communities thrive. In Jeanetta's words, "Many ethnic-based MAAs have the unique expertise to get into community development, because they are helping people into prosperity." However, she adds, "They'll need to find new partners, new resources and develop new skills to further their community development work."

Ethnic-based nonprofits that venture into community development work can turn to organizations like Twin Cities LISC for assistance. In the future, as established refugee organizations like HAP and ADC build their capacity and expand their community development efforts, they may be positioned to offer partnerships and support to new refugee populations that decide to call the Twin Cities home.


*Richard M. Todd and Michael Grover, "Economic and Demographic Factors Behind the General Rise and Regional Disparity of Hmong Homeownership," presented at the Tenth Hmong National Conference in Fresno, Calif., in 2005.

Hmong, Somalis sought refuge from strife

A refugee, as commonly defined, is a person who has left his or her country and is unable to return for fear of persecution. Both Hmong and Somalis, the two largest refugee groups in the Twin Cities, left their home countries to escape violent, politically motivated conflicts.

The Hmong began arriving in the Twin Cities after 1975 as refugees from Laos. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, thousands of Hmong soldiers in Laos helped the U.S. government fight a secret war against the communist Pathet Lao movement, which was backed by the Ho Chi Minh regime of North Vietnam. Shortly after South Vietnam fell in the spring of 1975, communist forces entered Hmong-held territory in Laos, forcing 150,000 Hmong to flee for their lives. After finding temporary refuge in Thailand, thousands of Hmong began emigrating to the U.S. and other countries, with the peak flow to the U.S. occurring in the early 1980s. They were initially dispersed in small numbers to dozens of cities, but many later migrated to California, Minnesota or Wisconsin. The Twin Cities are home to the largest urban concentration of Hmong in the United States, estimated at 60,000 people.

Current estimates of the Twin Cities Somali population vary, with most conservative counts falling in the range of 15,000 to 20,000. Groups of Somali refugees began arriving in the Twin Cities in the early 1990s after fleeing chaos and violence in their home country. In the late 1980s, longstanding political tensions in Somalia had escalated into a bloody civil war. The national government collapsed in January 1991 following the ouster of military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who had ruled the country since 1969. Despite attempts to negotiate a settlement, Somalia lacks a central government to this day, and rival factions and warlords continue their fight for control.

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