Glen Gunderson

April 8, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 31st in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.

The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, inspired an awareness and awakening on injustice in our nation. Enough is enough! Yet so many events have happened in the 11 months since, from the attack at the Capitol and the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, 2021, and Kamala Harris as our nation's first female, Black and Indian American vice president in Washington D.C., to multiple mass shootings and the alarming spike in domestic hate crimes against Asian Pacific Islanders.

But the national and international spotlight return to Minneapolis, with the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was charged with George Floyd's murder. The testimony has been powerful and emotional, and many Black people in our community are being re-traumatized watching the viral video of Derek Chauvin's knee on George Floyd's neck, hearing the insights of those on the scene next to Cup Foods in Minneapolis, and anxiously awaiting to what extent justice will be served, as Derek Chauvin faces manslaughter, and second- and third-degree murder charges.

COVID-19 still heavily influences how we live, and there are many daunting challenges that our community and nation are facing. But the YMCA of the North remains focused and committed on our goals.

We will continue our efforts to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural organization. To that end, I will continue to have these conversations with influencers and leaders of diverse backgrounds who will be a part of the solution.

My 17th guest is Siyad Abdullahi, a health care leader and entrepreneur. He has started or led several businesses and nonprofits, including the Language Banc, an interpreting and training agency that primarily serves the healthcare and legal industries with more than 1,000 on-call and staff interpreters who speak over 100 languages. He also is the founder of Pro-Health Care, Inc., a professional health care provider with a large and diverse workforce. Siyad is an ethnic Somali who is originally from Kenya, and came to the United States to attend graduate school. He is fluent in Somali, Swahili and English. He's very active in the community, including as a board member of the YMCA of the North. I hope you'll enjoy Part 1 of my talk with Siyad Abdullahi.

Glen: I'm really excited to learn where you come from and how you became such an integral part of the Twin Cities?


Siyad: First of all, it's a pleasure to be with you, and it's a pleasure for me to serve on the board of the Y. I appreciate what you said about me, Glen, because Minnesota is home in a lot of contexts. I'm very proud to be a Minnesotan, and I'm very proud to be part of the Minnesota business community and the business ecosystem.

I was born and raised in Kenya. Ethnic Somali, but raised in Kenya. I don't want to get too much into colonial African history. But there's a great line from George Lopez, the comedian, who said, "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." He was talking about communities between California and Mexico, people who never left their ancestral homes. The boundary of the country changed. 

So in a similar context, the northern tip of Kenya used to be part of Somalia, historically. It was just a big, large swath of land that nomads would move back and forth with their livestock, depending on the rainy season. But during colonial history that land got demarcated into Kenya. So my ancestors are where they always used to be, except I was born to be a Kenyan citizen. So I speak Swahili, I speak Somali, I have a working knowledge of Arabic. But I came to Minnesota essentially by what I would call a positive accident. I was on the East Coast, in grad school (at Boston University), and folks would always say to me how much the Somali and East African population was growing in Minnesota.

The amount of public health and medical needs were exploding, and there were a lot of health systems here struggling to meet the needs of a new immigrant community. Because navigating the healthcare system in the U.S. is a very complex issue, even for mainstream Americans. So when you juxtapose that with an immigrant community that comes from a third-world country, it was a very confusing environment, both for the providers and for the patients. So my first job was working at a Hennepin County community clinic in south Minneapolis, to help patients navigate the healthcare system. So I was working on the best practices and what's the state department of health and the county should do about things like immunizations and preventive health. What should primary care providers focus on? How do we provide effective language needs? How do we do effective case management? How do we do effective primary care screenings?

So that's really what brought me to Minnesota. Now fast forward 15 years or so, I've been in the U.S. now for 20 years. Three of four children born in Minnesota. My oldest daughter was born in Kenya.

So now Minnesota is really home, but I do a lot of work in Kenya because of my foundation. Before COVID, I spent almost one third of my time in Kenya. And people ask me, "Oh, are you heading home?" And well, that's an interesting question. I'm coming from home, going home. So I'm always going home, in either direction. I consider Kenya my home, and I consider Minnesota my home. And then when you add the issue of being an ethnic Somali, I also consider people from Somalia my community.

My passion was to do international health and global health, and I thought when I was training in grad school, that I would have to go to the refugee camp in Sudan or Somalia to do that. But global health has found me here. You don't have to go to Sudan or Somalia to serve ethnic patients. I wanted to work for the UN, or the WHO. But I'm just perfectly happy being in Minnesota, because we have over 100,000 East African immigrants, just in the state of Minnesota.


Glen: Fascinating! How old were you when you came to the United States?


Siyad: I believe I was 24, when I came to the United States, on a cold, rainy Boston night, when I had no winter coat. I had never seen snow before. It was lucky that I was coming through grad school, and I wasn't a refugee because it could have been worse. Still, it was a very challenging experience because I didn't know a single human soul in Massachusetts. I didn't know anybody. It was my first time, traveling out of Kenya.

One of my first memories was this professor, who picked me up from the airport, showing me the thing you use to wipe snow from your windshield. Then I spent my first night in the United States, in a youth hostel, with two other people in a room.

I was scared to death. I was like, "What did I get myself into?"

I paid $25 a night to sleep there, and then I had traveler’s checks for tuition, and a map of Boston and Cambridge. But I never really knew how to read maps. I mean, people in Africa don't really use maps like that. Then the professor talked to me about the subway train and the Red Line, and how I can navigate the whole city by using the train. And I'm thinking, "What is the Red Line?"

All I'm thinking about is figuring out how to get to my classroom and find food!

But anyway, I can never trade those experiences because it gave me a head-start. I had immigrant friends at MIT, Brandeis, Tufts and Harvard because it was the epicenter of global education. People coming from everywhere. Within two months, I knew how to get to Filene's Basement, and find the discounted jackets for winter. I learned about down jackets, and finding the right boots and how to wear layers.


Glen: So good! I'm really curious, not only that shift to real winter, but what growing up in Kenya was like, relative to race, and then to get to Boston?


Siyad: It's interesting you ask that because there's two ways. It was helpful that I was in a global university with students from all over the world. So if I didn't start from there, it's obvious that life would have been a bit more challenging. 

What also was helpful is that the fact that I grew in a big, diverse country. Kenya is a former English colony, so a small percentage of that is Caucasian. They get elected into parliament. Then there's also indigenous Indians who came from India, that the British brought in the mid-1800s.

And there's also 54 different tribes in Kenya. So there was a lot of diversity, even within the African population. And there's also a lot of diversity in religion. And as a Muslim in Kenya, I was in the minority. Kenya is about 80 percent Christian so it was very helpful to come from a country like that.

Now, with that said, I had never seen race as a significant discomfort issue until I got to the United States. Things like being judged because you're wearing a North Face hoodie on a train, being conscious of your space, moving seats on a train or somebody moving seats on a plane or train. Or someone moving because you hopped on a train at 10 p.m., and you're wearing a hat. So the question about race was not something I grew up with. And of course, I have to check my privileges because I wasn't living in a ghetto. Even with that said, you could see discomfort about you, and I had never felt like that growing up.


Glen: What was going through your mind when George Floyd was murdered? Where were you mentally, socially and emotionally?


Siyad: First, it was a very intense incident because the video was watched all over the world, and I would get text messages from people in South Africa, people in Kenya, people in the UK. Everybody was worried about my safety.

Watching the video was such a traumatic incident, and I remember it sent shivers down my spine. I drive in the Twin Cities, and I have children, and you're just thinking every person of color — particularly an African or African American male — was looking at that video and seeing themselves, thinking it doesn't matter what crime someone committed.

That person has the right to be tried in a court of law. He has the right to be arrested, but he was lying on the ground, face down and saying, "I can't breathe." 

George Floyd should be living right now, and that's why I think it changed the landscape about policing. I'm generally moderate and generally conciliatory and generally a problem solver, and I generally give people the benefit of the doubt. When somebody is angry, I say, "Maybe they're having a bad day." Every time I have an altercation with someone, I don't immediately gravitate to race. I gravitate immediately to character. "This is just a me person." 

But when people were burning down businesses, I thought, "You're not harming corporations." Not that I want corporations to be harmed. But people were burning down ethnic restaurants and businesses. I thought that was completely stupid. But my daughter said that the trauma started with the video and the knee on George Floyd's neck.

"We don't care about Target right now," she told me. "We don't care about your friends who have restaurants. We have to send a message so that nobody else is killed by using a police officer's knee."


To learn more about Siyad Abdullahi, click here. Look for Part 2 of my “A Conversation on Race” with Siyad next week.