Jothsna Harris (left) and Abdirahman Muse (right) Credit: Obama Foundation

Two Minnesotans are among the 100 people named to the first convening of the Obama Foundation’s Leaders USA program.

Labor organizer Abdirahman Muse and climate justice activist Jothsna Harris were named to the program in late July.

The Obama Foundation Leaders USA program is a six-month leadership development program that seeks to inspire, empower, and connect emerging leaders across the country, according to the foundation’s website. The participants will have the opportunity to engage with former President Barack Obama, leadership coaches, subject matter experts, and each other throughout the program.

Abdirahman is the executive director of the Awood Center in Minneapolis, a labor organization that works closely with the East African community. Awood has helped organize several demonstrations against workplace practices at local Amazon facilities, including issues around quotas and pay, and claims that the company did not give workers time off to celebrate the Islamic holiday Eid.

Abdirahman has also served as a policy aide and liaison for former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, working with the Somali community on  employment and housing issues.

“We are really honored to represent Minnesota,” Abdirahman said. “But you know, it’s an opportunity to acquire new skills and to deepen our real connections with other leaders, learn from their experience, but also offer our experience.”

Harris is the founder of Change Narrative LLC, a national consulting service that builds capacity in the climate justice movement through the power of stories. She was recently featured in the documentary, “Drawdown’s Neighborhood: Twin Cities,” highlighting voices in the environmental justice field.

“I was surprised and excited—elated about the opportunity and especially to learn what robust offering this actually is,” Harris said of being selected for the leadership program.

Abdirahman described finding out he was chosen as a “thrilling” experience. He and Harris submitted applications to the program several months ago.

Harris described being selected as “life-changing.”

Former Minneapolis City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, a deputy director at the Obama Foundation, said this year’s cohorts will spend six months learning from the Obama Foundation before meeting for four days in Chicago. 

This year’s applicant pool was competitive and represented leaders from all over the country, Cunningham said. 

“We looked for value-driven changemakers with at least three years of traction and demonstrated impact in their field,” Cunningham said.

The program is open to people aged 24 to 45 who “aim to drive systems-level change across sectors and issues,” according to the program’s website. This year’s participants come from 37 states; Washington, D.C.; American Samoa; Guam; and five Tribal Nations.

“The Leaders USA program offers participants a unique and comprehensive experience, including a values-driven leadership curriculum, action labs focused on strengthening democratic institutions and culture in the U.S., community groups for fostering constructive dialogue in a polarized environment, and one-on-one support to help tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time,” said the program’s website.

Abdirahman and Harris said they’re excited to begin the journey, connect with other leaders, and share their own experiences.

Cunningham said once the participants complete the six-month course, they’ll be a part of a global network of more than 900 “Obama Leaders” from across the world. The program launched in Africa in 2018 and expanded to Asia Pacific in 2019 and Europe in 2020, according to the program’s website.

Harris said it’s especially gratifying for her to be a part of a group that is majority women and Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

“I’m excited about the lens that many other leaders are coming with, of inclusivity and belonging and understanding,” Harris said. “These are essential testimonies that we need to be able to seek.”

Alfonzo Galvan is a reporter for Sahan Journal, covering work, labor, small business, and entrepreneurship. Before joining Sahan Journal, he covered breaking news and immigrant communities in South Dakota,...