POSTED: June 29th, 2012 • Latest News

Asian Economic Development Association began organizing Asian small businesses along the Central Corridor in 2006. Understanding the potential negative impact that the future light rail could have on small businesses along University Avenue during the construction of the CCLRT, AEDA started to build the capacity of small businesses along the corridor through business retention programs, technical assistance, branding, marketing and advocacy. In addition to engaging business owners along the Central Corridor, it has also started to expand its work to North Minneapolis to work with Southeast Asian residents along the Bottineau Transitway.

Although AEDA has enjoyed some success in its community organizing and engagement efforts, it acknowledges the barriers in organizing underrepresented communities who are ‘invisible’ to decision-making processes throughout the Twin Cities metro region. Seeing an opportunity to deepen its engagement efforts through the Corridors of Opportunity Outreach and Engagement grant, AEDA launched the “Organizing for Transit and Equitable Development” project to further engage the underrepresented Southeast Asian communities along the Central Corridor and Bottineau Transitway.

Along the Central Corridor, AEDA and the business leaders in the community wanted to create a business and cultural district that would not only bring in business during the construction season on the light rail, but would also be a key destination in the Twin Cities for years to come. In establishing Little Mekong, Va-Megn Thoj, the executive director of AEDA, shares that they had to look at other models throughout the region and across the nation to see how other cultural communities had created similar districts. In addition, AEDA had to be intentional about engaging the businesses along the corridor and did so by conducting focus groups to find out what they wanted.

Although the retention of businesses was the goal in creating Little Mekong, Va-Megn felt that it also served to preserve the character and cultural communities along the corridor.

“The light rail transit project is a transformative thing in our community. We want to be able to control that process as much as possible so that it does not take over our community,” he said.

In North Minneapolis, AEDA is working with the Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota to support their efforts in ensuring that the Bottineau Transitway benefits the surrounding community. Together AEDA and Lao Assistance are working to develop an engagement model and define a campaign that will increase the voices and power of the Lao community. Nancy Pomplun, AEDA’s director of community building and organizing, says that AEDA and Lao Assistance are careful to make sure that the work in the community is actually being led by the people in the community. AEDA and LACM staff only provide technical and resource support.

Although its engagement in North Minneapolis has been concentrated on the Bottineau Transitway, AEDA realizes that this effort is not just about the transitway, but the development and enhancement of the whole community. AEDA wants to see transit play a pivotal role in improving the lives of individuals and families, but it also acknowledges the place for deeper community development including parks, waterways and neighborhood safety. With these things in mind, AEDA is convening residents and organizations to help create a common vision for the community.
Since receiving a Corridors of Opportunity Outreach and Engagement grant, AEDA has noticed progress in engaging its community. Along the Central Corridor, businesses are more aware of what is going on with the LRT construction and there is broad support for Little Mekong. In North Minneapolis, people from the Lao community are beginning to step into leadership positions. Of this success, Nancy shares, “Lao community members are talking to and firing up other community members about the opportunity for change and are identifying ways in which the community would like to see North Minneapolis better developed to meet their needs.”

Va-Megn believes that AEDA’s engagement efforts along these emerging transitways is not just about outcomes, but also about process. “Are people being heard?” he asked. “This process is giving people who are historically underrepresented an opportunity to participate.”

Nancy echoed this sentiment, sharing that the Lao community has often felt lost in the community engagement process in the past. “Although efforts to include the Lao community members in transit planning have been made,” she said, “language and cultural barriers have prevented them from having an active role.”

The partnership between AEDA and Lao Assistance will help to overcome this cultural barrier by hiring a Hmong organizer who will engage residents in the community. This will allow Hmong residents to share their needs and wishes for their community in their own language, and will help them have a stronger voice.

With the Outreach and Engagement Grant, AEDA has been able to achieve these outcomes. This grant has supported the organization’s efforts to engage the underrepresented communities along the transitways. In addition, this Corridors of Opportunity initiative has given AEDA an opportunity to learn engagement models from other organizations that have also been funded through this grant program. Va-Megn said, “Beyond the work itself, it is about connecting with others and communicating what works best. All of us working together have a lot of leverage, and together we can be effective in changing inequitable policies.”

Here’s to AEDA for the great work you are doing in engaging underrepresented communities along the Central Corridor and Bottineau Transitway.

POSTED: June 29th, 2012 • Latest News

The Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) line will be a high-frequency train that will provide more transit access to residents from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. If it is built right, it also has the potential to connect residents to other opportunities in areas such as housing and employment.

Understanding the benefits that this project could bring, Asad Aliweyd, a Somali immigrant and the executive director of New American Academy, knew that communities of color and immigrant communities had to be involved in the development and decision making process of this project. NAA is a constituent-driven organization whose programs and services respond to the needs, concerns and unique circumstances of Eden Prairie’s Somali immigrant population As a result of this work, Asad believed that if representatives of this community were not involved in the planning of this project, that their needs and aspirations would be overlooked. When he realized that their leadership indeed was lacking on this major transportation investment, Asad saw an opportunity and started to mobilize his community.

Funded by a Corridors of Opportunity Outreach and Engagement Grant, Asad and his colleagues at NAA launched the Southwest Corridor Immigrant Council. The SCIC recruits the underrepresented community in the southwest metro area, who are disproportionately people of color and immigrant, to be key decision makers in the formulation, visioning, implementation, and evaluation of the SWLRT project. In recruiting SCIC members, NAA was intentional about making sure that the leadership was diverse and represented different constituencies. As a result, the council includes business leaders, a daycare owner, a college student, a youth program director, mothers, elders, a high school senior and someone who is physically handicapped. By having such a diverse leadership base, Asad feels that they will be able to influence and educate more people in the community. This also ensures that those who are most disinvested are instrumental partners in the engagement and decision-making process.

The SCIC is responsible for several activities. It hosts focus groups comprised of underrepresented communities and other representatives of various sectors along the Southwest corridor, and assists them in forming short- and long-term action plans for their communities. It guides these focus groups and helps them to identify businesses and residents along the corridor that will be impacted as a result of the development. SCC also identifies areas that have the potential to expand access to jobs, affordable housing, and economic development particularly for people of color, low-income communities and people with disabilities.

In addition, SCIC has been intentional about partnering with the government and city officials, business leaders, and the surrounding faith community. By partnering with other leaders in the community, NAA feels that their project will have more buy-in and will be more successful. Asad believes that forming these alliances beyond their immediate community will increase their ability to influence policy makers and other leaders.

According to Asad, this level of engagement with the community and key decision makers would not have been possible without funding from the Outreach and Engagement grant. NAA was one of 10 organizations who received a grant during the first round of funding. These grants are made to organizations working along emerging transitways to involve underrepresented and marginalized communities in participation, decision-making and leadership around transit corridor planning through the Corridors of Opportunity initiative. Through the work of SCIC, Asad and other leaders at NAA are making sure that these communities along the SWLRT corridor have an opportunity to play a key role in the planning and implementation of this project.

Here’s to New American Academy for the great work you are doing along the SWLRT corridor.