Holland neighborhood resident Saciido Shaie has made her career ensuring diverse voices are heard. In recent weeks, she has helped shape proposed legislation that would broaden the use of mediation services in housing disputes.
The bill, sponsored by State Representative Alice Hausman, would be an attempt to increase housing stability and decrease the number evictions. It would incorporate sensitivity to different cultures, and that’s where Shaie’s efforts come in, explained Shaie’s colleague Beth Bailey.
Bailey is the executive director of Community Mediation and Restorative Services (CMRS), a nonprofit that has worked closely with Shaie on a number of projects. “Saciido makes sure that there’s a Somali voice in the room wherever decisions are being made,” said Bailey.
Shaie’s participation in legislation making is just one of the many ways she makes sure that the Somali perspective is part of important discussions. In 2013, along with former Minnesota Health Commissioner Anne Barry and legislators, she helped put together a bill to form the state’s Cultural and Ethnic Communities Leadership Council. The council, of which she is a member, reviews Department of Human Services programs and makes recommendations for reducing disparities in those programs.
“We have all these disparities, and we’re waiting for other people to do it for us. But at the end of the day, it’s affecting us. We are the minorities. It’s affecting our families, our kids, our neighborhoods,” said Shaie, during an interview at Caribou Coffee by the Quarry, one of her favorite places to work near home.
She’s served on many other committees, councils and boards, including the Minnesota Department of Human Services Children’s Trust Fund and the Minnesota Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee. In 2017 she was appointed by the governor to serve on the council of the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota. On a more local level, she has served on the Minneapolis Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission, serving as a vice-chair of the group. She has been involved in the Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association.
Engaging Somali youth
The projects closest to her heart are the ones she has developed to foster leadership among Somali youth. Shaie was a founder of Somali Youth Action of Minnesota, a collaboration with the Minneapolis Health Department that was funded by a federal grant.
The program was a one-year intensive leadership program in which Somali high school students met biweekly with leaders and professionals in the community, with legislators and city council members. The students planned monthly programs that involved their families and helped deepen relationships with their parents.
The students were required to develop personal projects, too. One young woman traveled to Somalia to take photographs and created a gallery that she brings to schools; another project involved creating a fitness program for East African girls.
That program morphed into the Ummah Project, a nonprofit founded by Shaie. Ummah means “community” and also “mother,” in both Somali and Arabic, Shaie explained. Ummah Project programs have included the Somali American Leaders and Mediators program (SALAM), co-created with CMRS, providing mediation and restorative justice leadership training to Somali high school students in the Twin Cities, and in Faribault.
Shaie explained that the impetus for these youth programs had roots in her dream of creating a Somali youth center in Minneapolis. Around 2007, young Somali men in Minnesota were in the news a lot: some were leaving to join the East African-based militant group Al-Shabaab, which received national and international attention; others were involved in local gang activity and violent crimes.
She talked with East African community members and leaders about this. “What is going on? Why is all of this happening? What can we do?” she said she asked them. “Everyone was blaming the youth, saying things like ‘Those kids, they’re bad. They don’t listen to their parents, they’re putting our name in a bad light,’” Shaie said.
That kind of attitude was not in keeping with Shaie’s philosophy that there is no such thing as a bad kid, she said. “They’re still young, they’re exploring, they will make mistakes. If you don’t give them the platform, they will make their own platform.
“These kids want someone who understands them, someone who knows what they’re going through, someone who will appreciate them, someone who will say ‘Listen, what you’re going through, it’s normal. And this is the right way. If you go this way, you’re gone. If you go this way, you’ll succeed.’ They need role models.”
Shaie was a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) at the time and with the help of her professor Matthew Palombo, put together a plan for a youth center that was sensitive to Muslim culture. Mortenson Construction and Perkins+Will architects provided pro bono services, and a design concept was unveiled, one which included separate pool and exercise facilities for men and women.
Then the recession hit and they had to put the project on the backburner, Shaie said. “We couldn’t go ahead with the plan, so we tabled it, and started figuring out what we can do to pave the way to get to this point,” she said. That was the first seed of her Somali youth programs.
“A force to be reckoned with”
Shaie laughs often and will talk with anyone, she claims. Bailey confirms this: “She is the most optimistic, bubbly, bridge-building person. She makes friends everywhere, and just believes in the best in everyone. She doesn’t have time to get bogged down in negative drama. She’s a force to be reckoned with in a really good way.”
I had a chance to witness Shaie’s ability to connect with people when I met Shaie for the first time while having lunch last summer with one of my former students. We were at Capitol Coffee in the Seward neighborhood, a popular Somali gathering place. Shaie walked in, greeting just about everyone in the place.
When she reached our table, my student introduced Shaie as her role model and as someone who knows how to get things done. The three of us spent a half-hour talking about different forms of activism, with Shaie inviting a filmmaker in his twenties sitting at the next table into the conversation.
When we parted, Shaie pressed into my hand “Somalis in Minnesota,” an oral history interview with her published by the Minnesota Historical Society.
In the interview, Shaie described her “beautiful and decent life” in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, when she was very young. She was the youngest of seven siblings and said that everyone was like a parent to her. Her family owned four houses, a couple of department stores as well as a farm; her mother was a teacher, and her father had a government job.
Then the civil war came, and they moved around Somalia fleeing the fighting, with seven-year- old Shaie witnessing gunfire and sights such as a child sucking at his dead mother’s breast. Eventually the family wound up being one of the first groups at Utange refugee camp in Kenya, under very primitive conditions at first – no bathrooms, no shelters; nine months later they moved to Nairobi where one of her brothers lived. In 1992 when she was 10, her family was allowed to go to the United States; they settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where another brother had landed.
Her life in Atlanta was one of not knowing the language, not having anyone in her classes who looked like her, of not being able to participate in activities because of the language barrier.
She reflected on this during our interview at the Northeast Caribou Coffee, explaining that she drew on those experiences in envisioning a Somali Youth Center. “I felt out of place. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. So I was like, what would have helped me?”
Her family later moved to the Twin Cities, for the job opportunities and the Somali community; she married, had three children (now teenagers), and went to school, attending MCTC and obtaining her bachelor’s degree from Metropolitan State University, all the while embarking on her activist projects.
As we finished our conversation, she reflected on her journey.
“I was young. America gave me a home. We didn’t have any other country that would take us … I was given that opportunity of a home and a platform. I took that opportunity and now I’m giving back.”
In 2016 the Minnesota DFL Women Hall of Fame gave Shaie their Rising Star award. She has served on the central and local DFL committees, as a delegate to the state convention, and as a fundraiser. She’s campaigned for many candidates, including Keith Ellison, Kari Dziedzic, Rena Moran, and Peggy Flanagan. Shaie has participated in leadership trainings including those offered by Wellstone Action and The White House Project, which prepare people to become more politically active and to become candidates.
So does she plan to run for office?
“Absolutely. I don’t want to run just to run, though. I have a goal. The ultimate goal is to make change, to make a difference in people’s lives. To take on issues that we care about. I’m already doing a lot of that. I don’t want to found an organization and then leave it halfway. I want the Ummah Project to stand on its [own] legs. That’s my goal. Then I can run.”