Minneapolis Police Chief Brian O'Hara, third from left, speaks at a community forum about mosque safety at Masjid Ar-Rahma on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. Credit: Nicole Neri | MPR News

Picture this: You’re looking for the restroom at Masjid Al-Rahma–or Mercy Islamic Center–in south Minneapolis. You’re told the women’s restroom is on the second floor, so you take the first flight of stairs you see. There’s a faint smell of smoke that grows progressively stronger as you bound up the stairs. 

When you reach the top, you immediately notice that the walls are charred black. Ash and debris line the large hallway, and when you find the restroom, it’s borderline unusable. Water is leaking from the sink’s pipes, and the door is coming off its hinges. You take a few moments to explore the rest of the floor, and you realize that many of the other rooms are in the same condition. 

I’m painting the scene at Masjid Al-Rahma—only three days ago—where Sahan Journal and MPR News hosted a community conversation Tuesday evening on mosque security and safety

Masjid Al-Rahma is one of four Twin Cities mosques that were attacked between April and May. On April 24, 36-year-old Jackie Rahm Little allegedly lit a fire at Masjid Al-Rahma that caused an estimated $50,000 in damages. Nearly 100 people were inside the building at the time, including approximately 50 children in a daycare located in the basement. A security guard noticed smoke in the second floor hallway and quickly evacuated the building.

A day earlier, on the evening of April 23, Little also allegedly started a fire in the bathroom at Masjid Omar Islamic Center, which is located in 24 Somali Mall. Bystanders put out the fire before it could cause serious damage and followed him out of the building.

These recent attacks on mosques have, understandably, shaken the Twin Cities’ Muslim community. Luz Caicedo, 48, who previously attended Masjid Omar Islamic Center, told Sahan Journal: “I just pray at home. I go home and I pray because I don’t feel safe.” 

We received a flurry of questions from our Muslim readers that highlighted their newfound anxiety about spending time at their local mosques. As a news organization that serves the news needs of Minnesota’s communities of color–many of whom rely on houses of worship as a community space where they can find others with shared values–our readers were expecting us to provide answers to questions such as:

  • Should the Twin Cities’ Muslim community be worried about copycat attacks?
  • Is there any reason to believe these recent attacks are connected to the adhan–or call to prayer–being broadcast in Minneapolis, which may have led to increased visibility of Muslims in the Twin Cities?
  • Who is responsible for providing security to mosques, when many mosques are struggling to keep the lights on?

We also heard from mosque leaders, who shared that federal funds available to houses of worship to pay for security costs are hard to come by, and that the application process is convoluted and hard to understand. It looked like bootstrapping and self-funding was the only tangible path forward, but mosque leaders were concerned that safety wasn’t on the general public’s radar. They did not have high hopes that they could raise enough money to meet their most immediate needs.  

Well, as a newsroom, what could we do to help? 

We felt that our most logical next step would be to host a live community conversation where we would invite the necessary stakeholders who could answer the Muslim community’s most pressing questions and outline what the next few weeks and months could look like for a community that was anxious, frustrated, and on edge. This would be a public event, and all community members–Muslim or not–would be welcomed.

That sounds pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. I can tell you right now that, in the last three weeks, we resuscitated this community event from the brink of disappearing multiple times. 

In the process of putting together this event, we faced some of our toughest community engagement challenges yet:

  • Making this event happen while the issue was still top-of-mind for our readers while trying to convince different stakeholders to participate in time.

We knew the issue of mosque security and safety would not resolve overnight; local mosques needed time to find a roadmap to security, and the investigations into each mosque attack would likely take more time to wrap up. 

I make these two points to highlight that we technically had a lot of time to put together a community event on mosque security. 

On the other hand, we knew we had community buy-in and attention now, so why let that go to waste? A core part of how we do community engagement at Sahan Journal is that we let the readers and communities we serve tell us how important a story or topic is to them, and we meet that need in a proportional, intentional, and timely way. As such, we could not let this opportunity go to waste. 

So, it was decided: We would put on a community event!

We gave ourselves a rough timeline of two weeks, which was anxiety-inducing but feasible, and set off to conduct research, book a venue booking, and reach out to potential panelists. (Did I mention that this was Sahan Journal’s first post-pandemic live event?!) 

And within a few days, we had hit our first major roadblock…

  • Understanding that the groups who could answer the Muslim community’s most pressing questions could also be the same groups that had the most contentious relationships or history with the community.  

The main goal for this event was to give mosque leaders and the general Twin Cities’ Muslim community a platform to share their perspectives, the challenges they were facing, and their priorities for the next few weeks. 

This would, ideally, be a discussion that included mosque leaders, local and federal law enforcement, legal experts, and community members.

However, we ran into a major challenge when we began inviting mosque representatives. 

The Twin Cities’ Muslim community—specifically the Black, East African and Somali communities—have a long and contentious relationship with law enforcement. The mosques that were attacked have predominantly East African congregants. Some examples that Muslim community members shared with us include:

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative nearly a decade ago under the Obama administration. The objective was to reduce the risk of terrorism by providing grants to organizations that purportedly focused on prevention efforts. The endeavor was led locally by Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, who we hoped to have on our panel about mosque safety.

These programs were aimed at radicalization and recruitment within Muslim communities in the United States, and disproportionately impacted the East African Muslim community in Minneapolis and St. Paul. While the proposed intention was to prevent extremism, many community members expressed skepticism, criticized the programs for potential stigmatization and surveillance, and had major concerns that CVE programs were exacerbating the Islamophobia that had emerged post 9/11. 

The murder of George Floyd, racial profiling, excessive use of force by police, and the Black Lives Matter movement: The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020 sparked worldwide protests, and ignited a global movement for racial justice. It highlighted long-standing issues of racial profiling and excessive use-of-force by law enforcement against Black Americans. 

The Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, with demands for police accountability and reforms to address systemic racism. This movement further intersected with the experiences of Muslim and Somali communities in the Twin Cities, as they too faced instances of racial profiling, discrimination, and excessive use of force.

Feeding Our Future investigation: Feeding Our Future, a now-defunct St. Anthony-based nonprofit,  distributed millions of federal dollars earmarked to feed disadvantaged children and adults to smaller nonprofits in Minnesota during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Federal prosecutors allege that instead of feeding hungry children, some Feeding Our Future employees and several of its contractors spent the money on personal cars, trips to places like Las Vegas, and real estate located as far away as Kenya. This is an ongoing investigation, and a significant number of the 60 defendants charged in the case are East African or Somali.

We knew that we would have to clearly state the event’s goals in our pitch to mosque leaders, and make it clear that we are an impartial news organization. 

What we didn’t anticipate was that some mosque leaders would outright refuse to “step into a room” with local and federal law enforcement. Some mosques suggested that we remove law enforcement from the discussion entirely. 

We seriously considered nixing the whole event. After all, if some Twin Cities mosques were not interested in participating, who were we doing this for? 

We were already doing solid reporting on the mosque attacks, and in doing so, engaging in meaningful community outreach that informed our ongoing reporting on mosque safety. (For example, one of our reporters is working on an explainer about how mosques can apply for federal, faith-based funding that pays for security measures.)  

We saw this event as a means to bring community concerns directly to organizations that could move the needle forward and bring about change. Removing law enforcement would mean losing so much of the accountability we were looking for and voices who could speak about useful next steps for the Muslim community. 

But, we couldn’t completely disregard the feedback we had received; it made no sense to move forward if we didn’t have buy-in from the community. So, what to do next? 

We contemplated canceling the event, but that didn’t sit well with our editorial team. We opted to give ourselves time to do more community outreach with mosque leaders. How about two more weeks?

  • Double and triple-checking that we were centering the interests and needs of Muslim community members.

For the next week, I spent a significant amount of time speaking with various imams and mosque directors to understand their concerns and expectations, and to learn what it would take for this event to be valuable for them.

This was a deeply interesting experience: on one hand, it was a lot more politicking and diplomacy than I’m used to as an editor and a journalist. On the other hand, some parts came naturally to me. For example, in one of my conversations with an imam, a verse from the Holy Qur’an came up. Chapter 13, verse 11, states that God will not change the condition of people until they change that is within themselves. 

We discussed this verse as we contemplated what it would take for the Twin Cities’ Muslim community to see meaningful, positive change when it came to how safe our mosques could be. In essence: could mosque leaders afford to give up an opportunity to advocate for themselves in a discussion that included powerful stakeholders?

A breakthrough occurred when an influential imam expressed trust and confidence in our newsroom. He dedicated his time to making calls to other mosque leaders and vouched for Sahan Journal; his endorsement played a pivotal role in gradually garnering support from other mosque leaders. As each imam came on board, our newsroom’s credibility and trustworthiness grew, further solidifying our relationship with our Muslim readers and the larger Twin Cities’ Muslim community.  

Throughout this entire process, I had been taking meticulous notes on the questions, concerns, and perspectives each mosque leader brought forward. We used these insights as the backbone for the event, from the venue to the questions we would ask panelists. Feedback from the mosques were factored into every decision we made.

At this point, we had nearly fifteen mosques who confirmed that they would participate in the event as attendees, speakers, or panelists. (Twelve showed up on the day of.) We now felt that we were in reasonably good shape, and could focus on logistics. 

We chose Masjid Al-Rahma as the venue, because it was essential that we hold the conversation in a space that was familiar to the Muslim community and that had recently experienced an attack, so attendees could see the stakes for themselves.

So, now that you know what it took to plan and pull off a live community event, let’s get into how the evening actually went.

Program and structure: Hibah Ansari, Sahan Journal’s immigration reporter, and Brandt Williams, Race, Class & Communities editor at MPR News, moderated the discussion on Tuesday, June 6. 

During the opening remarks, we heard from the director of Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, the imam of Masjid As Sunnah, and Minnesota U.S. Attorney, Andrew Luger. 

Our panelists came from five different organizations: Islamic Association of North America (IANA), Council of American Islamic Relations–Minnesota (CAIR-MN), Racial Justice Law Clinic at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis Police Department, and the Saint Paul Police Department. You can read more about the event here

Breaking news: We often mark a community event as “successful” when there’s a productive discussion (check!), and a reasonable turnout (30-35 community members came to watch this discussion in-person, so… check?!). We were also live-streaming, but more on that later. 

However, a pleasant surprise was that there were two new pieces of information that emerged from this discussion: Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced that his office will participate in a national campaign called United Against Hate, which aims to provide support and resources to communities of all kinds affected by hate. And St. Paul Police Deputy Chief of Operations Joshua Lego also revealed that a suspect had been identified in the vandalism at Masjid As Sunnah. (She has also been charged in the case.)

Collaboration with Minnesota Public Radio: We collaborated with MPR News on this event, so the discussion could live on and have impact outside of Tuesday night. MPR is the state’s largest broadcaster, and reaches a million listeners per week across its three regional services. 

We live-streamed the event via MPR News’ YouTube channel. A truncated version of the discussion also aired on the radio at 91.1 FM at 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. Thursday, June 8. 

Getting personal for a second (if I may!): This community discussion was a whirlwind—and at times, a headache—to plan, but I’m incredibly proud of the time, intention, effort, and dedication both Sahan Journal and MPR News put into the event. I believe community events present a strong, unique, and particularly impactful opportunity for newsrooms to (re)build trust with the communities we serve. 

When done with intention, community events create a safe and inclusive space where authenticity reigns supreme and transformation takes place. It’s not just about reporting the news; it’s about actively engaging with our community, diving deep into the issues that matter most, and working together to co-create a more just and equitable society.

Traditional news reporting often feels like a one-sided conversation, with reporters and editors doing all of the talking and our readers simply listening. But when we host community events, that dynamic flips on its head. Suddenly, our audience becomes an active participant in the conversation. They share their thoughts, ask us tough questions, and hold us (newsrooms, public officials, community organizations, etc.) accountable. 

It’s an exhilarating exchange of ideas, where we learn just as much from our community as they learn from us. It’s a beautiful give-and-take that fosters a sense of ownership and empowers people to become informed, engaged citizens.

And here’s the thing that really excites me: community events have the power to ignite a spark of curiosity and interest in even the most disengaged individuals. They draw people in, not just the regular news consumers, but also those who may have previously felt disconnected. Suddenly, we have their attention, and we can channel that interest towards important issues that deserve a spotlight. It’s about sparking conversations, inspiring action, and creating a ripple effect of positive change throughout our communities. 

Here’s to doing more thoughtful, intentional, community-focused events at Sahan Journal!

Aala Abdullahi is the innovation editor at Sahan Journal, where she leads the newsroom's community engagement efforts. An Al Jazeera and CBC alum, her passion lies most in using concrete data and audience...