Kadra is one of our 20 Builders and lives in the Twin Cities.

Name: Kadra Abdi

City/Town: Minnetonka, Minnesota

Where can we connect with you? 

Twitter: @jesuiskadra

Facebook: Iskaashi International

Who is your community?

I mostly identify with the Somali-American community in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. The community I interact with the most. However, my immediate community is the Hopkins/Minnetonka. This is where I spend most of my time. This is the area where I live, mostly work, meet friends, and volunteer.

Give us a behind-the-scenes look at your average day.

I received my Master of Public Policy degree with an emphasis on Gender and Global Policy and a minor in Human Rights from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Since graduate school, I have been working as strategy consultant to help institutions clarify and communicate direction so that they can meet opportunities proactively and effectively. I help institutions identify imperatives and specific strategies and develop recommendations by which they will achieve their goals. But at the heart in all of my work is community engagement.

I co-founded a consulting firm with the aim of building bridges between community members and policy makers named Iskaashi International (Iskaashi means working together in Somali). The mission of Iskaashi is to partner with communities to co-create spaces in which all people can express ideas and opinions, identify solutions to concerns, and navigate the policy world to create sustainable change. My passion is community-powered problem solving, telling and owning our collective story.

As a community engagement consulting specialist, I am constantly thinking of ways to bridge the gap between immigrant and mainstream communities. My day-to-day varies, but my average day is filled with meetings and interacting with different kinds of people in various spaces. In an average morning, I will drive to Minneapolis or St. Paul to meet with community leaders or members about a specific project or issue. My task is to find others doing similar work and make connections happen.

What challenge in your life or work are you most interested in overcoming?

There are still many people who still confuse “outreach” for community engagement. There is plenty of evidence building that community engagement is a more effective method. Yet, community outreach tends to be the default method. Even though the two strategies lead to different results, the two terms are mistakenly used interchangeably. This lack of meaningful community engagement has resulted in wasted opportunities and precious dollars.

The biggest challenge I face is working with territorial individuals. These are individuals who feel entitled to do the project despite lacking the capacity to do so. These individuals also tend to be anti-collaboration and partnership.

What is the most beneficial aspect of living in the OTA region when it comes to your career?

The most beneficial aspect of living in the OTA region is that there is still a lot of untapped potential. Even in the area of public policy, the OTA region is ignored. Even though there is a lot going on here.

For example, during my graduate education, I worked as an intern with a Minnesota Sex Trafficking Taskforce and was responsible for analyzing and synthesizing data pertaining to gender-based violence, human trafficking, and girls and women’s rights. Our goal was to influence policy and promote public policy efforts to enact systems change to adopt the Minnesota Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Law. Under this law, youth who engage in prostitution are viewed as victims and survivors, not criminals. They are treated with dignity and respect, and directed to supportive services, and shelter and housing that meet their needs and recognize their right to make their own choices.

At what intersection do you live your life?

I live at the intersection of Community and Innovation.

What’s one current trend you think will change the world?

One current trend I think will change is the notion of the single innovator, or the single change-agent. Evidence is building good ideas that come from collaborations and partnerships.

I am challenging the status-quo with Iskaashi. We aim to partner directly with communities who seek to create awareness to community-identified concerns and to develop an action plan that addresses the challenges they face. By engaging people within the directly affected community and by connecting more broadly with resources that will assist communities in accomplishing their goals, we aim to achieve the greatest impact.

What’s the best way to put inspiration into action?

I helped to start Iskaashi with the aim of partnering with communities to co-create spaces in which all people can express ideas and opinions, identify solutions to concerns, and navigate the policy world to create sustainable change.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken?

The biggest risk I have taken is staying in this region after graduate school while others left for Washington, D.C., to pursue a career in public policy. I remained in the OTA region with the hope of bringing a little of D.C. to us. Iskaashi became my tool to build bridges and create sustainable relationships among community members, institutions, and organizations. I believe authentic community engagement is vital – engagement that is inclusive, meaningful, intentional, relationship building, transparent, and views community members as partners in finding solutions to communities’ pressing issues. I am working on changing people’s perceptions and assumptions of this region as a flyover country.

Who do you hope to leave a legacy for?

I want people to remember me as a connector.  My biggest strength is bridge building. This strength compels me to support communities to create meaningful, systemic, and sustainable change to address challenges they identify. My aim is to work with many different groups by providing all a platform to learn, educate, and be heard.

The OTA Builders are a group of individuals who thrive on possibility and use all opportunities they are given to grow both in their careers and in their passions. We seek creatives who are tenacious and strong-willed movers and doers and are driven to make a significant impact on the people around them and the community they call home. These people recognize their talents and capabilities and find ways to continuously grow and learn from them. Why is this you?

I have spent the last five years thinking critically about my sense of vocation, or calling. I the took path less traveled by others, I’ve thought outside of the box, and I’m just starting to reap the benefits. It all started with my undergraduate education. I went to Luther College (the oldest Norwegian-American institution in the U.S.). I studied Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies, and Africana Studies. At Luther, there were a handful of international students and it was with them that I felt most at home – especially with those from Africa.  As my four years progressed, many changes took place within me and perhaps most importantly, I became much more self-aware. I became aware of my ability to comfortably navigate between groups of people. I became aware of my leadership skills. I was active in student organizations and served as student body president my senior year. My student activism was my drive. It fueled my studies and my majors helped me gain respect for traditions that bind people together.

I learned to be comfortable in my own skin and with my identity, which was not exactly mainstream in a Norwegian-American Lutheran College. I identify as a Muslim, Somali and a feminist. (I checked, it’s not an oxymoron). At Luther, I learned that the intersection of those identities is not only possible, it was also a strength.

After Luther, I decided to move to Minnesota because I was tired of being the token Somali or token Muslim in my environment. Minnesota is home to approximately 100,000 Somalis (this number varies depending on who you ask). Besides the few years in the refugee camp, I haven’t had any other opportunities to interact with many Somalis. It took me a few months to adjust to life in Minnesota. I suffered from reverse cultural shock. There were times I felt like an outsider with my own people. I was so used to living with people from other backgrounds that I almost needed a reintroduction to my own culture. But by then, I was more comfortable at shifting across identities. I had learned to be okay with being a perpetual insider and outsider from an early age.

I joined AmeriCorps (the domestic version of the Peace Corps) when I came to MN. I work with students from diverse background to help them prepare for college. After my term with AmeriCorps, I went on to the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs to study Public Policy and Human Rights. The school is located near the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which is home to the largest concentration of Somalis in the Twin Cities.

I studied abroad in undergrad and graduate school to complement my student activism and studies. I traveled to Morocco to study Women in Islam, to Kenya to work with children in the slums of Nairobi, and Tanzania to learn about the rapid growth in Dar es Salaam and how that presents a range of public policy and planning challenges to the local and global community.

I’ve used both my education and travel experiences to inform my work with Iskaashi. A Wade Davis quotes sums up my world-view (which by the way heavily influences my work): “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

What project will you focus on as part of the OTA Builders Program?

My passion project to ensure the OTA region has the knowledge, skills and resources to effectively identify sexually exploited and at-risk youth. Most of the activism to end the trafficking of women and girls is concentrated in the Twin Cities, particularly in St. Paul. If we want to end this practice anytime soon, it’ll require comprehensive, multidisciplinary, and regional approach.

As a region, we aren’t engaged in meaningful conversations with community members about how this issue impacts their lives. There’s still a lot of stigma associated with sex trafficking. I would like to help fill this void.