Sahan Journal spoke with ACER’s executive director, Nelima Sitati Munene, about the impact the pandemic has had on Black immigrants and how her team has responded to the needs of the affected communities. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series of short videos and written pieces examining the impact of COVID-19 on immigrants and refugees in Minnesota. The project is produced in partnership with Minnesota Transform and the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota.

In the mid-2000s, African immigrant leaders in the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis began to notice that many in their communities were traveling to the Twin Cities for social services. They came together, then, and devised a plan to bring those services to people in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. 

The result was the African Career, Education, and Resource, Inc. (ACER). In 2008, the nonprofit emerged in Brooklyn Park to connect Black immigrants and refugees in the northwest cities to education, employment, healthcare, and affordable housing.

The demand for advocacy agencies that provide such services has increased over the past two decades as Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center have seen substantial population growth. In 2000, 96,500 people lived in the two cities. Today, that number is 120,000.

In the intervening years, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center also witnessed a dramatic demographic change. The population of these cities was 70 percent white in 2000. Today, nonwhite residents—most of whom are immigrants from West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America—outnumber the white population. 

But just as the number of residents in these cities has grown larger and more diverse, economic challenges have multiplied, too. Amanda Kolson Hurley, a journalist who covers urban planning issues, painted a mixed picture of a housing trend that has come hard on the heels of rapid diversification. 

“The Great Recession and foreclosure crisis walloped Brooklyn Park: In 2008 alone, 983 homes went into foreclosure,” Hurley wrote in a Bloomberg CityLab report. 

“Meanwhile,” she added, “the share of rental units in the suburb’s housing stock and the incidence of poverty rose; the median home value declined. The share of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches spiked, from 27 percent in 1997 to 65 percent in 2014.”  

When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Minnesota in the spring of 2020, ACER leaders knew that thousands of Black immigrant families in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center were on the brink of catastrophe. So they shifted the organization’s services to combat the spread of the virus among Black immigrants and assist those who struggled to pay their rent or put food on the table. 

The decision to turn the focus onto African communities was particularly important as the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black communities in Minnesota and across the country. According to numerous reports, Black people are more likely to contract COVID-19, be hospitalized for the virus, and die from it. 

Blacks are more susceptible to the infection, as Dr. Sherita Hill Golden of Johns Hopkins University explained, because of widespread social and economic disparities predating the pandemic. For example, Blacks—like other communities of color—often live in crowded housing projects, work in jobs that can’t be performed remotely, lack access to healthcare, and suffer from chronic disease.

As part of our “Stories from the Pandemic” series, produced in partnership with Minnesota Transform and the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, Sahan Journal spoke with ACER’s executive director, Nelima Sitati Munene, about the impact the pandemic has had on Black immigrants and how her team has responded to the needs of the affected communities. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

Let’s begin with the origins of African Career, Education and Resources, or ACER. It was established in Brooklyn Park in 2008. Why?

ACER was founded by a group of African immigrants and other allies because they recognized the need to serve a growing diverse community in the northwest suburbs. It was very clear to these folks that the suburbs and some towns outside the Twin Cities metro areas were changing. 

Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, and Worthington are the only cities in Minnesota that have more people of color than white folks. In Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, we have a very large and diverse community. One in every four people in Brooklyn Center is foreign-born, and one in every five people in Brooklyn Park is foreign-born.

The initial work of the organization was to connect the community to resources. People were coming to us, saying, I want to advance my education but I don’t know how to do it. I have the skills required for such and such, how do I get a job? I have finished a four-year degree, how do I get connected to work? 

So the genesis of the organization was to provide that opportunity—to connect African immigrants to resources. And we brought these services to Brooklyn Park so they didn’t have to travel all the way to St. Paul and Minneapolis. We also wanted to center folks in the community that they live in and to make sure that resources were also flowing to where the community is.     

I spent some time on the organization’s website. There’s a number of initiatives listed there, including civic engagement, economic development, and immigration reform. What are some of the main projects?

A big part of our work right now focuses on housing justice, organizing tenants, health equity, economic justice, and civic engagement. We believe that civic engagement and organizing are the engines of our work, because we believe our communities have to participate in the civic engagement process so their voices can be heard. 

As an issue-based organization, we take on projects that are important to our communities. Sometimes community members come to us and tell us what they need. Other times, we notice that there’s a major issue that just crops up. So we get involved, especially if we feel like our community should participate in the decision-making process.

We’ve seen over the past two years how the COVID-19 pandemic changed our work and our lives. How has it shifted the services the organization provides to the community?

When the pandemic hit, we knew all the bad things that were going to happen. So our initial work was to push for the stabilization of people’s housing and make sure that there were not going to be any evictions. We wanted people to be secure in their housing so that they were not exposed to the virus.

In addition, we knew that our communities are not only disproportionately impacted by respiratory illnesses and other health conditions, but they are also frontline workers. So, in the initial weeks and months of the pandemic, we felt an urgency to reach out to them and give them correct information about the pandemic, and to make sure they had the ability to shelter in place. 

How did you do that, exactly?

People were making the difficult decision to choose between paying rent and buying food. So we launched a campaign to collect donations from individuals. We also approached some of our funders and asked for money to help folks with their rent. There had been a few instances where people came to us saying they were $200, $300 short of their rent payment. 

We also helped families with children apply for the emergency housing assistance program that Hennepin County put in place. Many people don’t have access to the internet or computers. So we were literally going to their houses to help them with their applications. 

In total, we assisted 1,500 people to pay rent by either giving them funding or supporting them with the process to apply for the county’s emergency housing assistance program. 

The organization also served many Black immigrants facing food insecurity in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. Tell me about the process of working with these families. 

Due to the lockdown, many people in the African immigrant communities could not leave their homes. Some did not drive because they don’t have cars. These were often elderly people. But there were also people who had their school-age children at home. They’d been telling us that their grocery bills had gone up. 

All of these caused the demand for food to go through the roof.  

So we approached the governments of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. We told them to act quickly. As a result, city governments put funds into the local food shelves. We helped drive food to the needy families in the area.

Your organization has also worked with immigrant-owned businesses.   

We’ve been doing work with micro-businesses for years now. We have a lot of entrepreneurs in our community. We realized there was a gap in support for businesses. 

So during the pandemic, we continued our support for the struggling businesses. We did a lot of grants to help businesses maintain themselves. Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center also put in some seed money to assist these individuals. We also contracted with Hennepin County to do grants for businesses. 

In total, we’ve supported some 600 micro-businesses. 

A big part of ACER’s work has been providing education and awareness around vaccinations. How’s that going?

We’ve hosted a host of vaccination clinics. We’ve worked with city governments and communities to bring vaccinations and resources to where people are. 

We’ve also worked to change how the vaccination system was initially carried out. For example, one of the challenges in our communities, apart from language, was the required pre-registration for those seeking to get vaccinated. 

We quickly found out that the registration process was not working for our community. One of the first vaccination sites was in Brooklyn Center. But it was full of white people from places like Eden Prairie. The general narrative was that people in our community were apprehensive about vaccines—they didn’t want to be vaccinated. 

That was not the case. The registration process was the problem, because people were required to create an account. We worked with Hennepin County to change that. We asked the county to allow us to register people. This really changed the game for how many people in our communities were able to access vaccines in the beginning.

There are still many in the community who are reluctant to get their vaccine shots. Is the organization trying to reach out to these people?  

Yes, there’s still vaccination hesitancy. Right now, there are two main types of people who have not been vaccinated. The first group is people who haven’t been able to make it to a vaccination clinic for one reason or another. It could be that they don’t have access to transportation. That’s why we’ve been going to their apartments and community centers and helping them get vaccinated.

The second group is those who have some apprehensions about vaccination. For this group, we’re using peer connectors in the community. Right now, it’s not that they don’t know about the vaccination. It’s just that they need to see someone whom they know and trust.  

So we’ve invested in peer connectors in our community. We’ve given them some stipends to talk to their unvaccinated family members and friends and colleagues in an informal way. Right now, it’s not about having the scientific or medical knowledge of the vaccinations. It’s about people being comfortable with the people they’re most familiar with who are able to influence them.  

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...