By Mohamed Shidane, Policy and Systems Manager at Somali Health Board, 2017-2019 RVC Community Impact Fellow
As cumbersome and tiring as community work can be to those familiar with it, we see promising young leaders of color at work in it throughout the country on any given day.
This is not simply because they can do the work, but because they have to do the work. They feel compelled by their passion for community.
These young people have to work all of their magic to pull together whatever minuscule resources are available to them in this lopsided and often white-centric industry in order to help build capacity for their communities every day.
And as much of a sense of hope that the sight of a determined young leader of color might give us, this hope fades away quickly into oblivion when one thinks about the enormity of the challenges and the limited opportunities that lay imminent within communities of color. The inescapable task of navigating through the complex world of nonprofits is enough to inspire the most passionate young leader into quitting and leaving the sector.
Imagine being a newbie or newly arrived in a community of refugees scrambling to get the resources in a foreign land with so many different rules — just to stay above water. Imagine wearing weights on your shoes as you do this.
Now, imagine trying to create an environment that is not only based on survival, but also on growth and flourishment wearing those shoes. Imagine how hard it would be to build this system with no models to draw from, because there are no accessible leaders of color anywhere to teach you.
But as disheartening as that imagery looks, now imagine Rainier Valley Corps (RVC)’s Community Impact Fellowship Program — an opportunity that places talented leaders of color in a two-year full-time position at local grassroots organizations led by communities of color.
My name is Mohamed Shidane, and this is my journey.
After a few weeks of waiting after my interview with RVC and the subsequent offer for the fellowship position, I was getting somewhat impatient. I wanted to hit the ground running.
I remember reading that email with instructions about the upcoming onboarding and training over and over again, not even realizing that it couldn’t prepare me for what I was about to feel over the next two years. I never imagined, not even in my wildest dreams — how joyous and empowering just the first week would be.
I walked into a small office already filled with other young people that looked and sounded a lot like me, each with back stories and journeys as fascinating and almost identical to mine, but at the same time, very different from one another — all worthy of marvel.
After breakfast and exchanging intros, I fell in love with all of the uniqueness in all of them and, in my very distinctive way, mastered all of their names and the CBO’s in which they were placed.
Let’s rewind a bit. This is why community work is important:
I have been organizing within my community since I was 18. Because all of us, new Somali refugees, hustling and bustling wasn’t scraping even the surface of the gazillion of needs my isolated and struggling little community required. Disappointment, burnout, information deficiency, and loss of friends was a daily occurrence for me.
However, I still had enough determination to get back up to give it another go after every fall. I still wish that was enough to lessen our problems. I wish it was enough for us to stop losing our youth to the justice system, for us to be spared abject community-wide-poverty, and for us to have enough resources.
RVC didn’t give me all of the answers or the tools right away.
But I was given a dignified title, a fellow cohort of magical young leaders of color to pull on and lean on, but most importantly, a living wage and excellent benefits.
We all were hungry for empowerment —and we got that — but most notably for me, what mattered so much was that I wasn’t lonely in this war anymore.
I was placed at Somali Health Board, an organization led by some of the favorite leaders in the community and one in which I was almost a regular contributor of both mind and muscle (in the form of my trademark — restless volunteerism).
The following two years opened my eyes to a world of knowledge and professional development. I wasn’t only an African, Muslim, Somali refugee at RVC, I was a prospective leader of color. This was a new status, identity, and a title that installed pride and confidence in every stride.
And as for my fellow fellows, well, meet my new tribe.
They are relentless sisters and brothers with unmatched love and enough flame to start a wildfire! Their brilliance as individuals alone would take up a book, even if I only wrote about the little I have learned from them.
We grew into each other and, together, debated issues affecting our communities and the limits of our work. We cooked together, cleaned together, flew to conferences across the nation together, and there isn’t a single one I couldn’t lean on for comfort when I was down. Our immediate problems ranged from the heavy: a death in the family — to the light: a new puppy. There were no challenges unattempted or unenjoyed.
These fellows’ love and genuine care for one another are unmatched. During our fellowship together, we exchange skills, books, songs, and even drinks on training days. We pull our minds and strengths together whenever any of us had upcoming events, and we wore our hearts of love on our sleeves.
As individuals, we might still be seen as “minorities” to the world we live and work in, but together, we are a united force for all that’s good and have tremendous energy to tackle anything the world throws at us.
If I had the money …
I would retain, sustain, and expand RVC’s Community Impact Fellowship Program. I would also recreate it in not only this country but also all around the world.
Imagine a world run by influential leaders of color, with the love and the knowledge to swallow and positively repurpose any hateful president or leader, reform the prison system, and end the poverty that devours people of all colors around the world.
That might sound a little far reaching today but we have to believe that it’s a reality within our reach! We have to because all of the injustices against people of color and our leaders have not subsided — it is only increasing. We have to stand united in order to create the change we need!