Ibrahim Mohamed, executive director of the Community Resource Center, poses for a portrait outside of the Shakopee Government Center in Shakopee. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

Putnam County, New York. 

Warrick County, Indiana.

Scott County, Minnesota.

Black people live longer in those three places than almost anywhere else in the country, according to new research by the Brookings Institution and the NAACP. The top counties range from rural to suburban to urban, from left-leaning to right-leaning, and from Maine to Washington to Florida.

“The overwhelming surprise for me was the level of diversity of the places that are doing well. It was like, ‘Oh, wow,’” said Andre M. Perry, co-author of the project and a senior fellow at Brookings Metro, a centrist think tank.

Black residents of Scott County, where life expectancy for Black people averages 89.7 years compared to the national average of 74.4, did not seem surprised. 

“I love the place,” said Ibrahim Mohamed, a 14-year resident of Scott County. Previously, Ibrahim, a school counselor, lived in sunny San Diego, California—but he prefers Shakopee. “I love the people,” he declared.

In order to create their new “Black Progress Index,” researchers scoured data related to “social determinants of health”—such as homeownership, education, business ownership, and air pollution—to determine where Black people are thriving. The researchers used a machine-learning technique called lasso to capture variables that aren’t usually considered. For example, as one key measurement, it pinpointed how far people live from their Facebook friends. The program allows researchers to rely less on cherry picking trends that can introduce bias and regurgitate findings from past research, Perry said. (The research excluded counties that didn’t have enough available data.)

The Brookings Institution released the results in September, and researchers hope the findings will help municipalities make policy changes that improve life expectancy for their residents.

About 153,268 people live in Scott County, home to regional entertainment destinations such as Valley Fair, Canterbury Park, Mystic Lake casino, and the seasonal Renaissance Festival; businesses such as Shutterfly and Amazon; and outer-ring suburbs including Shakopee, Belle Plaine, Prior Lake, and Savage. The Shakopee–Mdewakanton Reservation lies within Scott County, and the tribe is sometimes described as the wealthiest in the country.

Scott County is growing both in population and diversity. Between 2010 and 2021, the overall population grew 17.4 percent. The Black population jumped from 2.6 percent to just over 6 percent of all residents. The U.S. Census estimates that in 2021 Scott County included 6.8 percent Asian people, 6.3 percent Black, 5.8 percent Hispanic, 2.7 percent mixed race, and 1.1 percent Native American people.  

“Shakopee is more diverse … nobody can understand that,” Ibrahim said. “But it’s very, very diverse. We have great people, a great community.”

You have Scott County in Minnesota and you have Montgomery County in Maryland; you have Collier County in Florida. These are very different places. And so I think we should assume that the people in these places had something to do with it, not that there’s a certain kind of place best for Black people.

Andre perry, co-author of the black progress index

Of course, racial discrimination exists in Scott County: Most recently, police investigated racist videos and notes at Prior Lake High School. 

So why, exactly, does life in Scott County appear to be healthier for Black people? There are many ways to interpret the data. Looking at results nationally, researchers found that the most influential factor for Black longevity is a high percentage of foreign-born Black people. That’s especially the case in Scott County. 

To a much lesser degree, improved Black longevity here likely reflects safety from firearms, higher household income, housing quality, two-parent families, and higher levels of education.

Perry likes to think that the range of counties that topped the index is a sign that Black people have agency over improving the places they live.

“You have Scott County in Minnesota and you have Montgomery County in Maryland; you have Collier County in Florida,” Perry said. “These are very different places. And so I think we should assume that the people in these places had something to do with it, not that there’s a certain kind of place best for Black people.”

So what might be the most important factors influencing the 14-year longevity boost in Scott County? (Ready access to roller coasters and medieval turkey legs?) We took a closer look at the findings in the report, which calculates how many additional years people gained for each individual factor. And then we checked in with Black residents of Scott County to see which observations resonated with them.

The Black Progress Index findings in Scott County, Minnesota, where the Black population is 6,288. Credit: Andre Perry and Jonathan Rothwell, Brookings Metro, The Black Progress Index.

Foreign born: +5.3 years 

Across the country, the analysis found that the No. 1 predictor of longevity for Black people is the percentage of Black people who were born outside the United States. 

In Scott County, where 63 percent of the Black population is foreign-born, the researchers attribute 5.3 years of the additional 14 years of predicted life to the high percentage of immigrants.

“People have been trying to make sense of this for years,” said john a. powell, the founder of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota and current director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. (powell was not involved in research surrounding the Black Progress Index.) 

Immigrants from many different countries experience this phenomenon, he said. First-generation Mexican Americans, for example, enjoy longer life expectancy than second- and third-generation people. Researchers can’t say for sure why this is, but powell cites many possible explanations. 

For example, people who migrate to the U.S. are often healthier and wealthier than the average person in their home country.

“You need to be doing well financially and physically to go through the process of migration,” said Manka Nkimbeng, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. 

As an immigrant from Cameroon, Nkimbeng had to travel hours to an embassy to complete her immigration paperwork; then, she traveled eight hours to the airport. These are trips that many people in Cameron cannot afford. She arrived in the U.S., then, with possible health advantages over people who stayed behind.

And many immigrants live a healthier lifestyle in their home countries, eating more whole foods and more home-cooked meals. Many follow a more active lifestyle, and rely on longstanding social support. 

Another school of thought holds that immigrants experience less structural racism, because they haven’t encountered the same level of discrimination in their home countries as they do in America. For Black people born in the U.S., the effects of structural racism keep compounding, whereas there’s a buffer for foreign-born Black people, Nkimbeng said.  

“There’s discrimination in every part of the world,” she said. But being Black in the U.S. is distinct, she said, and newcomers don’t immediately bear the full brunt of racial discrimination.

While structural racism is a constant across America, Perry said, “how different communities respond to that constant of racism varies. It varies because of civic action, it varies in the political dynamics that take place, and it certainly varies because of different demographic factors.”

Perry concludes that in the places where Black people thrive, residents may play a role in shaping their community.

“The assumption I have is that there is agency,” he said. “There is action on the part of Black people that can impact the outcomes in their lives.”

There is action on the part of Black people that can impact the outcomes in their lives.

andre perry, co-author of the black progress index

Scott County appears to be a prime example of this: a place where an increasing number of immigrants run for office and get involved in community organizations. 

Ibrahim, 48, helped cofound Shakopee Diversity Alliance in 2012, for instance, bringing together Latino, Somali, Asian immigrants and Native Americans with a mission of embracing cultural diversity through volunteerism and education. 

In 2020, Ibrahim also became the first Somali American elected to the Shakopee School Board. He’s served as a board member of the YMCA, and he runs the Community Resource Center, a nonprofit that serves as a weekend gathering spot for people to socialize and play dominoes.

Another community hangout arrived in Scott County through Ziyad Abdi. In 2021, he opened Rugsan Coffee Shop: a small cafe that serves sambusas and Somali tea in a strip mall near the American Legion  and Shakopee Fishing and Firearms. Ziyad is a 41-year-old father of seven who ran for Shakopee City Council, losing to two other people of color

He’s lived in Shakopee for 10 years, and he loves it, he said. He ran for city council “to make this already great city more vibrant, diverse, and innovative.”

The Black Progress Index can’t precisely quantify how serving on the school board or city council affects Black lifespan. But civic participation and leadership probably influences other factors that contribute to longevity, including some listed below.

Household income: + .9 years

The researchers calculate that the Black median income accounts for almost a year of additional life for Black Scott County residents.

An abundance of hourly-wage warehouse jobs at companies like Amazon makes Scott County very attractive to immigrants, residents say. 

But those $15–18 dollar-an-hour jobs don’t add up to $70,924. That’s the Black median household income in Scott County, according to the Black Progress Index. (While $70,924 is far above the national median for Black people of $44,139, it’s well below the median income for people of all races in Scott County, which is $106,987.) 

Many residents of Scott County work in manufacturing, health-care, and retail, according to government data. Scott County offers some higher-paying jobs in science, technology and finance. Opportunities also abound within commuting distance in the Twin Cities, said Sahra Odowa, the executive director for the non-profit Advocates for Thriving Communities, and an employee with  Scott County Public Health. 

Black people increasingly own small businesses in Scott County as well, Sahra points out. Ziyad, who owns Rugsan Coffee Shop, recently opened a clothing store in downtown Shakopee, and has hopes to help develop a mall.  

Gun deaths and safety: +1.2 years

The researchers used gun deaths as a measure of safety for the Black Progress Index. Scott County ranks in the top 4 percent of U.S. counties for the lowest rate of Black gun fatalities, according to the Black Progress Index. The researchers project that the low incidence of shootings adds an average of 1.2 years to the lifespan of Black residents in Scott County. 

Residents who spoke to Sahan Journal say immigrant communities enjoy a feeling of safety and cordial relations with the police.

Union organizer Khalid Abdi, 23, said he became accustomed to police pulling him over on flimsy pretenses when he lived in Eden Prairie. But that doesn’t happen in Scott County, he said.

“The police have community meetings every couple of months at the town hall, and when we’re hosting events like an Eid prayer, the police come,” Khalid said. “They send three or four cops and make sure the parking is in check. When we ask for assistance for events they’re always willing to help.”

Also, he points out, the Sahama Islamic Center sits across the street from the police station. 

“In a way, that protects us from racist people burning down the mosque,” he said. 

Father present in the family household: +.7 years

Children who grow up with both parents at home enjoy more quality time with their dads, doing things like reading, playing, and getting homework help, according to the Black Progress Index. That early investment from fathers correlates with healthier behavior from those children later in life, such as reduced rates of smoking.

 Kids who have at least one foreign-born parent are more likely to live with both parents. Compared to the U.S. as a whole, Scott County has more than double the number of Black fathers who live with their children.

“For the most part, the father is present, financially and emotionally, as well as being there,” Sahra, the nonprofit leader, said.

The researchers conclude that intact families account for .7 of a year added to life expectancy in Scott County.

Strong homeownership rates: +.2 years 

The rate of homeownership is higher in Scott County than the national average (53.1 percent vs. 42.8 percent). But residents offer a critique about housing options in Scott County: not enough bedrooms. (It was the only criticism of Scott County that any of the residents shared with Sahan Journal.)

Many immigrant families in Scott County have large families; Ziyad, for example, has seven children. Ibraham has six. And those families are on the smaller side, according to Sahra. 

“The only problem is housing,” said Ziyad, whose campaign for Shakopee City Council included a pledge to encourage the building of homes with more bedrooms.

“We’re seeing a growing number of families who are first-time home buyers,” said Sahra, whose organization helps people find housing. But most of the houses were not built with 12-person families in mind, she said. 

After meeting with local property developers, however, she said that more properties with multiple bedrooms are in the works.

The current homeownership rate contributes to .2 years of the additional 14 years of life, according to the researchers.

Better school math scores and more college graduates: +.7 years

Black public school kids in Scott County (which includes the districts of Belle Plaine, Shakopee, Jordan, Prior Lake-Savage, and West Central Area Schools) ranked slightly higher than the national average on numeracy. In Shakopee, for example, Black students across all grades scored 11 percentage points higher in math proficiency than Black students statewide in 2022. And in Jordan, Black students across all grades scored 22 percentage points higher than statewide.

“We have very good schools, nice teachers and counselors, and Black kids do better on math tests here,” said Ibrahim*, the school board member who also worked in Shakopee schools for 11 years as a cultural liaison. “We are so lucky. That’s why people like it here.” 

Shakopee voters approved a $102 million bond to expand the high school in 2016, and it now boasts multiple theaters, an auxiliary gym, and, of course, a state-of-the-art hockey arena. The administration has also developed  “schools within schools”: programs that specialize in areas such as engineering, each with its own principal. The school often partners with local businesses for training opportunities and internships, Ibrahim said. 

Mahamed Cure, a 2017 Shakopee High School grad, praised the school’s English Language Learners programming. The school employs three cultural liaisons and an AVID program that prepares children of immigrants for college.

Also, almost a third of the Black people in Scott County have a bachelor’s degree.

The researchers estimate that these two factors combined add .7 years to life expectancy.

Unexplained sources: +6.8 years 

To compile the Black Progress Index, researchers based their numerical estimates on social science research. But some of the factors that played big roles in other U.S. counties didn’t seem to have much of an impact in Scott County. Elsewhere, life-expectancy improvements appeared to follow factors like air pollution, the number of people who bike or walk to work, distance from Facebook friends, religiosity, and population density. 

Looking at Scott County, the researchers also ended up with an unusually high number of unexplained years of life expectancy. Ultimately, they couldn’t account for 6.8 of the 14 extra years.

While the researchers are confident that Scott County lands in the top 1 percent of counties, as the index indicates, there’s a chance that the county’s small population size plays a role in making it an extreme outlier. For example, no data was available on Black-owned businesses in Scott County, according to Gallup principal economist Jonathan Rothwell, a partner on the project.

Or there could be an “unknown factor that affects the Black population there or is an unusual characteristic of the community,” Rothwell said. “We cannot say.”

The project is ongoing, however, and more insights may be revealed in the next stage, which  will focus on self-reported data, Perry said. (A planned survey, produced in collaboration with Gallup, is in the fundraising stage.) 

Talking directly to people is important, powell said. “Data may give you the outline, but it’s not the story,” he said.

In the meantime, residents of Scott County have a ready explanation: community. The Somali residents who talked to Sahan Journal said they enjoy both the Somali network in Scott County and the larger community. “There are always some people who don’t like us, but we’ve very much a part of the community,” Ibrahim said. “We’re taxpayers, home owners, we interact with everyone, we’re very visible.”

By 2040, Scott County is going to be one of the most premier areas to live in Minnesota. I’m proud to be here. I’m happy to live here. I’m  happy to be one of the first, one of the beginning settlers for the Somali community.

scott county resident Khalid Abdi

Both the coffee shop and Community Resource Center have become hangout spots for Somali people on the weekends to watch soccer, eat, play video games and dominoes, and pray. People stop by for help with things like job advice  or filling out health forms. 

Such “ethnic enclaves” could be benefitting lifespan, Nkimbeng, the University of Minnesota professor, said. “It’s something being studied right now heavily, the role of ethnic enclaves. So it’s the idea that when you have a huge number of people from a given culture living in a geographical area, it confers some benefits, especially around social support.”

Khalid, the union organizer, moved to Shakopee over 10 years ago and sees the area growing in appeal. “By 2040, Scott County is going to be one of the most premier areas to live in Minnesota,” he said. “I’m proud to be here. I’m happy to live here. I’m  happy to be one of the first, one of the beginning settlers for the Somali community.”

In the end, Perry said, it would be ideal for everyone to have access to the assets and social goods that predict higher life expectancy. Black residents of Scott County live 26.7 years longer than Black people in Jefferson County, Ohio, one of the worst in the country. 

But, there are no perfect communities, he added.

Scott County’s Black residents may disagree with that: Some believe they have found it. 

*Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Ibrahim Mohamed as a former school board member. He is, in fact, a current school board member for Shakopee Public Schools.

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...