Huda Ahmed will lead a collaboration among the Greater Twin Cities United Way, the Minneapolis Foundation, and the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation aimed at transformational criminal justice reform. Credit: Photo courtesy of Huda Ahmed

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Working at a domestic violence shelter in Mankato taught Huda Ahmed how to listen to many different kinds of voices.

She encountered women from widely disparate backgrounds and parts of the state, who often had nothing in common — aside from their experience with domestic violence. 

“It really formed my ability to be able to appeal and hold conversation and connect with all types of Minnesotans,” she said.

Huda, who describes herself as a public engagement practitioner, bringing together community voices with institutions to make systemic change, has led community engagement on issues from climate change to the census. 

Now she’ll be taking that experience to her new role as the director of a collaboration among the Greater Twin Cities United Way, the Minneapolis Foundation and the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, aimed at transformational criminal justice reform.

The collaboration was announced Friday, less than two weeks after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, sparking nationwide mass protests. In recent days, growing numbers of Minneapolis city council members have vowed to disband the city’s police department altogether and replace it with a new public safety model.

While the goals of the new collaboration will be driven by community feedback, it will also focus on dismantling inequities “and barriers that keep people from being safe in their neighborhoods,” Huda said.

Acooa Ellis, senior vice president of community impact at Greater Twin Cities United Way, said the new collaboration will draw from the expertise of people who have lived experience in the criminal justice system, and others who have worked on the issues for a long time to guide its approach to reform.

“There are so many people who are sitting in prison, sitting in jails, locked in their homes through some sort of controlled release that possess so much wisdom and power and brilliance,” Ellis said. “But we don’t benefit from it as a community. We’re missing out.”

Huda’s family, originally from Somalia, arrived in Minnesota in 1998, when she was a teenager. She’s lived in the Twin Cities, as well as Mankato and Waseca in southern Minnesota.

She started her career in direct service work and holds a master’s degree in community health education. She’s also worked on public health and the environment at the local level, and steered collaborations between researchers and community members at the University of Minnesota. Her background in bringing community members’ voices to the table with powerful institutions to create social change will guide her work with this collaboration, she said.

“We identified Huda as the leader for this work [as] someone who was committed to listening, committed to building consensus and bringing community along,” Ellis said.

Minnesota’s well-documented racial inequities are personal to Huda. When she gave birth to her daughter prematurely nearly 13 years ago, her doctors couldn’t explain why she had gone into labor three months early. 

She remembers standing in the neonatal intensive care unit, standing next to her daughter’s incubator with her mother, mother-in-law, aunt and grandmother. The women in her family didn’t know what to say: They had given birth in Africa, and none of their children had been born prematurely. 

“That struck me that they migrated here and brought their children here for their safety and well-being and hopes that they could thrive —  and here we are, not as healthy and having preemies, and also our children not being as safe and actually targeted because of their skin color,” Huda said.

She researched the issue, and found that as a black woman she is more likely than women in other communities to have a baby with a low birth weight — and that her babies have a higher rate of infant mortality. The horrifying realization spurred her work toward racial equity.

Huda has a son now, too — he’s almost 5. She said she has felt an “urgent call to action” around criminal justice and police brutality. One in three black men is likely to spend time in prison in his lifetime, according to the Sentencing Project.

The collaboration she now leads will provide research and data on solutions communities are already advocating for, and will provide support for dismantling criminal justice policies that cause disparities in the criminal justice system, she said.

In its launch announcement, the collaboration also announced a rebuilding fund of more than $1 million to help businesses owned by people of color to recover from property damage caused by the unrest. 

In keeping with the spirit of listening to communities most directly impacted by inequities, Ellis said, they consulted with groups that represent businesses owners of color to find out what was most needed. 

Grant applications are available by invitation only, and technical assistance will be available to business owners in their native language. The foundations’ work is different from efforts of the past because it’s about justice — not just about charity, Ellis said.

“We’re starting with listening, not coming in, assuming we have the answers,” Ellis said. 

That’s where Huda’s expertise in public engagement comes in. “Our path going forward is really harnessing community-led solutions and amplifying it and galvanizing it,” she said, “throwing the power and influence of these three large foundations behind it.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

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Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.