Communication and connectivity: Ethiopian 'Immersion Lab' in Woodbury prepares to wrap up proposals

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Improved communication and unity dominated the objectives members of the Twin Cities' Ethiopian community pinpointed during their brainstorming sessions with the Human Immersion Lab in Woodbury.

A coordination among the Woodbury YMCA, Woodbury Community Foundation, Woodbury Thrives and Minneapolis-based Mission Impact Council, the Immersion Lab took place in three four-hour brainstorming sessions over two months.

The program aimed to help community leaders and Ethiopian residents identify their needs and formulate their own solutions.

During the group's meeting Oct. 14, participants discussed a need to strengthen the community's connection between youths and elders as well as among the different ethnic groups.

Ethiopia is home to more than 80 unique tribes and languages. The "elephant in the room," as one participant described it, was the failure of some previous Ethiopian leadership organizations to focus on their entire community rather than their specific ethnicity.

Deraje Wudmatas, a YMCA accounting manager who spoke at the most recent session, said the community previously had few opportunities to collectively discuss the future for Ethiopian youth.

"This was the first thing that everyone has in their heart but were waiting for the right platform to start talking about it," Wudmatas said.

About two-dozen participants broke into smaller groups throughout the sessions to discuss three focus areas: after-school opportunities, youth leadership and education and employment.

All three workgroups agreed digital media would play a key role in their proposed projects.

Those focusing on education and after-school opportunities both pitched ideas for a website that would compile links to existing resources and help link Ethiopian Minnesotans to one another.

Rather than establishing new programs, the website proposed by the education and training focus group would provide links to existing resources and programs like tutoring, ACT assistance and higher education assistance.

The after-school opportunity group proposed a website that would help connect Ethiopian parents, youth and elders to one another and provide culturally-specific information and resources.

Ramon Pastrano, the Mission Impact Council coordinator who led the group's discussion, said the website would have to set ground rules. Among those, he said, would be no political discussion.

The youth leadership group pitched a multi-faceted effort to improve participation in community leadership.

They proposed enlisting community and Ethiopian-centered groups like Neighborhood House and Ethiopians for Ethiopians to recruit 20 youths to attend Spark Summit. This free event aims to equip attendees with digital platform skills to make changes in their communities.

Those 20 attendees would then be tasked with organizing and promoting an event connecting Ethiopian elders with youth to improve kids' participation in leadership activities.

The event would include food, performances, a resource fair featuring several organizations and connect multiple generations of Ethiopians with one another.

The event could also serve as a stepping stone toward establishing a Youth Bank in Woodbury. An international organization, Youth Bank helps young people partner with local credit unions to provide youth-led community improvement grants.

The groups' ideas differed slightly from one another, but Pastrano said the shared goal of developing better communication means participants could combine the ideas into one project.

"Through the previous convening, they realized that they are not a strong community as they'd thought," he said. "They are not as connected with each other. They don't know what their resources are because they don't share information."

Although organizers intended to wrap up outlines for the projects at the Oct. 14 session, they decided to schedule one additional session at a later date to finalize the next steps.

Pastrano said the extra session will allow for a more organic resolution while respecting cultural norms.

"This is what you want to happen, for them to emerge naturally," he said. "You don't want to influence them as an outsider, you want the idea to come from them. You want to challenge them."