Glen Gunderson

April 15, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 32nd 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 returned 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 Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck and hearing the insights of those on the scene next to Cup Foods in Minneapolis. Our community and country anxiously await to discover what extent justice will be served as Chauvin faces manslaughter, and second- and third-degree murder charges. Then on April 11 Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot by police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, 10 miles north of the trial location in Minneapolis. She has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.

In addition, 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 150 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 2 of my talk with Siyad Abdullahi. (You can read part 1 here)

Glen: I'm really curious, what do your relatives and friends in Kenya think of our political system?


Siyad: It's very interesting. One of the Kenyan newspapers had a cartoon drawn up on November 2, the day before the Election in the United States. It had the depiction of the Kenyan president sitting between Joe Biden and Donald Trump and the caption says something about Kenya knowing about contested elections. In 2007, there was a contested election in Kenya, and both candidates claimed victory and participated in a shared coalition government. So one ended up President and the other one Prime Minister.

But on a serious note, the whole world has been very concerned because we — the international students in grad schools — used to say when the United States sneezes, the world catches a cold. There's real significance to that statement because we've been a global leader in almost every facet in the last century, when it comes to global security, global food safety and security, vaccine research, access to immunizations, protection of women, protection of ethnic minorities in various countries, and protection and promotion of democracy.

So what happened? I think we've lost sight of how much the world is worried for us and for themselves, because there's a big vacuum that may be occupied by people who have nefarious interests or countries that are not necessarily interested in democracy. So these nationalistic tendencies that have come from some parts of Europe, that's been adopted — somewhat by one of the political parties in the U.S. — it's very concerning to people who are interested in a global perspective. But we can't put the genie back in the bottle because we've taught people for over 50 years that if you do your homework, if you stay out of trouble, if you get educated, and if you treat your neighbor well, you'll be successful. There was a socio-economic mobility, as a result of education and democratic governance globally. If countries relate to each other peacefully, you can trade, you can do global trade, you can sell your produce for a profit margin, without a barrier of the wounds of slavery and colonialism, and we'll try to move forward together. And everybody gets a process to have social mobility in their country. 

This is what we told people.

All of a sudden, if we tell people we can just take children without their parents' consent, and we drag them on the southern border. So we were the benchmark for people. So if you lose the benchmark of civility, then you almost depress the whole world. And that's what I hear when I'm in places like Nairobi, London, Kigali, Dubai and Addis Ababa. What I hear people say is, "We look up to you guys, and you guys are now telling us what you were doing was not a good thing."

Then your former heads of state and the former President has vitriol, and vulgar language about women, you lose the argument about human rights. So that has been, for me, the biggest concern. I think we need some healing.

One other thing I just want to say is that the internet has become weaponized, and I think people should start having a conversation about monitoring the internet. Just like the television stations and other media outlets have licenses and are regulated by professional bodies, a radio station has to be monitored and can get in trouble for inciting violence.

Social media is a tool to connect and inform people by the millions, and you have these things shared all over the place that could potentially be dangerous. And we have to think about how to do this thing better because of the massive misinformation.

And if countries want to do harm, they buy ads and place them on these platforms, and some of the people commenting online are claiming to be African American but may be bots or individuals who are from Estonia, Bosnia or Nigeria, saying things that are inflammatory. Somebody pretending to be KKK and somebody pretending to be an African American. By the same token, individuals and groups are claiming to be KKK and other white supremacist groups, and engaging in in racially violent discourse in order to promote violence in the United States.

So some of the venom online may not even be Americans. And so people are using our own tools and our own assets against us. 


Glen: That global context is so, so valuable. Let's bring it back now to our community here in the Twin Cities, and the Y, and then me as a leader. What advice would you have for me around leading at this time, especially as it relates to equity and race?


Siyad: You're doing a great job at the Y, and the Y has been in this community for a long time and has been assisting a lot of young people. But I think what we have in Minnesota is an opportunity. We have an opportunity to do a reset. I think George Floyd opened our eyes, and I think it brought some people to the table who generally were a little bit naive or even dismissive of the obvious disparity that people have been talking about for the last 20 years. I don't think people really appreciate the significant risk factor for young black men in this country, until George Floyd was lying face down, and the life was squeezed out of him. 

So my advice for anybody in the Twin Cities — for myself, for you, for anybody who is a leader — we have to talk about and address institutional racism, whether it is in policing, banking and lending practices, housing, public schools, government and governance, or higher education. We have to move the conversation and the needle beyond Minnesota Nice. And every institution should do a real, in-depth analysis into their practices.

You're not saying things like, "I can't find an Asian American or African American intern." I think those excuses are often bogus. We have to move past that because a lot of people have excuses. For instance, you have some law firms with 90 lawyers, and if they take 15 interns, and 13 or 14 of them are mainstream white, and one or two are Asian American or African American. Then that person, who is generally a good person, will tell you that they can't find diverse talent. So I think we have to move the needle to look at, "How can we really open doors for people?"

Because my experience in life has been, if you give people resources, and they get a great education, and they get a good home, and they have two or three meals a day, and they have a decent mode of transportation, they will value their life, and value your life, and be a good neighbor and citizen. The issue is often socio-economic, not racial. We just happen to have a lot of poor people of color. If you go to neighborhoods that are predominantly mixed or African-American in places like Atlanta, you will get the same characteristics of people just because they're doctors and lawyers and teachers, and they have decent income. 

We have to provide resources and opportunities for people to buy homes, to access fair lending practices. We have to really have a serious conversation in Minnesota.

You go into a conference room, and this happens to me all the time. People are really good. It's not bad people. But you go to places when you stand out. I go to a conference, and there's me, and maybe two African American people, and two Asian people, and there are 250 participants! And you're thinking, "This is not right."

I don't say these things out loud, but I just do a quick, informal survey, and you're constantly one of the only five people in a group of 250, thinking, "How are we supposed to do this better? How is this going to change? How is this going to change if the socio-economics are not changing?"

When the schools closed because of COVID, I was reading an article about the fact that educators were so concerned about school closures, not because of learning but because kids were going to go without food at home.

Think about that for a second. Think about that. Why should a state like Minnesota, with so much abundance, have children who go to school to have food? That is something we can all agree on. We are a very creative state. We have to find a way to provide food, whether that kid is at home or school, so that kids don't go hungry because there's no way a kid is going to learn it if they don't have food.


Glen: You're such a dynamic, multicultural leader. What do you think about how others view you?


Siyad: That's a great thing to bring up, and I have to say, even within the immigrant population, there is a certain discomfort about race. There is a significant amount of education that needs to be done, even with immigrants when it comes to race relations in this country. 

I've never had tragic experiences with race, but I've had a lot of judgment, and I sort of just brush them aside and move on. Like sometimes, I'll pull into a hotel, and someone will think I'm their Uber. I'm like, "Ok, whatever." Or in a restaurant, I'm an employee. Or in a store, I'm an employee. Stuff like that. I just tell the person, "Sorry, I don't work here," and I just move on with my day.

But I've also had a few incidents with the police, where an officer looks at my license and says, "Is this your address? Is this your car?" Because they think the car doesn't fit, like I shouldn't be driving a nice car. So some judgments like that, but nothing horrific.

In regards to slavery, I don't think many people know the historical context. Slavery does something to you, and I know some people like to brush this aside by saying, "Oh, let's just move on, this was hundreds of years ago." And even some immigrants say that.

But people have gone through hundreds of years of historical discrimination, subjugation, ownership as property, tilling someone else's land, no access and rights to have their own family. They were stripped of their religion, stripped of their culture, stripped of their names, stripped of their dignity. People who don't have the historical knowledge of who they are, where they came from. People who are born out of incessant rape, people who helped build this country's bridges and roads without compensation and without a choice. 

So even immigrants have to check their privileges because you will access Civil Rights, without your family line having been victims of slavery. So I tell my friends who are immigrants, "Yes, you are uncomfortable. Welcome to the club. It's called America, and the mainstream sets that agenda about beauty, about intelligence."

With my children, I try to give them experiences that are different, at least we are privileged to travel to Kenya. Two of my daughters are going to study abroad for a year. And I'm happy about that because they get to a country where they are the majority, and they have privileges. 

I think we must understand that African Americans have always been made to feel different and indifferent for a very long time. And that invokes a lot of justified anger.

I tell my children, try not to lead with race, because even though race is important, it's something nobody chooses to be. You don't choose your race. You're born who you are. And I tell them, make lots of friends. It's better to have more friends than enemies, be ready to function in a global society. So travel globally, and have global relationships. It's only going to get more and more and more that way. Don't just have Minneapolis on your mind. Have Vietnam, South Korea, Egypt and Dubai on your mind. Travel overseas. You're just one person out of seven and a half billion. Don't get preoccupied with race. 

That is what I tell my children. If somebody gives you a hard time, it could be because they have a bad day. It could be because they're just a mean person, or they're an equal opportunity bigot. Be upset only for a few minutes, then re-check yourself and move on with your day. And that's what I tell my kids.


Glen: This has been terrific! Last question: What are some of your plans to inspire change?


Siyad: Because of my children, I tend to look to be a lot more conscious. I'm a lot more cautious. I'm a lot more intentional. I'm a lot more intentional about what I am interested in. I have to say for the first time in my career, I'm interested in inner-city issues, poverty in the city, youth of color and police relations. I'm really very keen on that. 

Post COVID, any opportunity I get, and I'm asked to participate in changing how policing and law enforcement relate to the youth in our cities. I like to get involved in things you can measure and things you can change and things you can solve. And I think this is one that with science, with technology, with money, that we might be able to provide some interventions, whether it is police training, whether it is diversity among the police force. We have to find ways to get young people exposed to law enforcement. If students in high school can go to a police department, see how policing is done, see how investigations are done. If we can have more relationships between the youth, especially young men, to start seeing the police as a community resource and not a risk factor and somebody who just wants to shoot at them.


To learn more about Siyad Abdullahi, click here. Look for “A Conversation on Race” with a new guest next week.