South Mpls cross-cultural, anti-violence project wins $100,000 grant

Dinner at the second anniversary celebration for the project.
Dinner at the second anniversary celebration for the project.

After 368 applications and 5,200 votes, the Native American Somali Peacemakers Project is taking home $100,000.

The project, which is part of The Family Partnership and based in the Phillips and Cedar-Riverside neighborhoods, found out Tuesday that it won the biggest slice of a $510,000 pie, furnished by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation's new Connect for Health Challenge. Of all the groups that applied to the challenge, 20 other Minnesota non-profits, schools and government units won $20,000 grants, and one group a $10,000 grant.

The challenge focused on groups that work on social connectedness, or in other words, getting people to interact and become involved in their communities. A panel of judges chose three finalists for the top prize, and then Minnesotans cast votes online, by phone, via text, and even in person, to award the Peacemakers the largest grant.

"This grant probably increases the project's funding 50 to 75 fold," says Chandra Kavati, VP of Development at The Family Partnership.

The Peacemakers Project started in Jan. 2010 when Somali and American Indian residents of Phillips and Cedar-Riverside decided to do something about rising tensions -- including several alleged attacks -- between youth in the two groups.

As residents started talking, they realized the problems weren't just with the kids, and that community elders had many of the same cultural misunderstandings. Now, the Peacemakers -- formerly known as the Native American Somali Friendship Committee -- host drum circles, outreach programs, conflict resolution sessions, and similar opportunities for conversation and engagement. Their overarching goal is to make the neighborhoods safer and create cross-cultural and inter-generational partnerships.

"When people meet and talk, it really solves a lot of problems," says Amina Saleh, one of the co-founders of the project. She heard the news about the grant while she was driving, and says she was so happy she had to pull over.

Now, the project is hoping to use the new funding to expand beyond Phillips and Cedar-Riverside, and bring the same model of youth leadership training and talking to the rest of the city. "We want to work with other communities, with African Americans, with Latinos, with all the people who live in the neighborhood," Saleh said. The grant will also provide greater compensation for Saleh, and the project is considering hiring another community organizer and providing stipends to its youth participants.

Beyond the work the new funding will allow the Peacemakers to do in the future, it also shows their progress. Back in 2010, when the project started, the Peacemakers applied for a grant with InCommons, the Bush Foundation initiative that ran the Connect for Health Challenge, but lost out to other organizations. The past two years have paid off.

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