2022 Changemaker Somali Sisters Network: Culture Shifters

(L-R) Sadia Ali, Safiya Ali, Farhiyo Hashi, Anisa Haji, and Hamdi Hassan at Sadia Ali’s studio for her business The Creative Studio MN. Photo Sarah Whiting

The events of 2020, from the outbreak of the pandemic to the uprising after the murder of George Floyd, sparked action in Minnesota’s Somali community. Sadia Ali and Anisa Haji saw that health disparities, social isolation, language barriers, substance use, and sexual violence were impacting the lives of Somali women and girls.

“These issues were bubbling for many years, but the pandemic and everything else brought them to a boiling point,” says Ali. From her perspective, the first problem was that Somali women had friend groups, but they were generally disconnected from one another. No statewide organization existed solely to support their demographic. She knew that problems could not be addressed without bringing women into conversation and community with one another.

In 2019, Haji met Ali at a Reviving Sisterhood event for Muslim women. Haji expressed her desire to create a series of informal gatherings specifically for Somali women. As a small business owner, graduate student, and program manager at a local housing organization, Haji had a network spanning college students and community elders, including elders who enjoy spending time with other Somali speakers.

Ali loved the multigenerational approach, and saw the potential for growth. As the creative director of her own media company, she is another natural networker. “Originally it was just women getting to know each other more,” Ali says. “Then we started thinking, ‘How can we benefit each other professionally and in terms of resource-sharing?’”

That was the beginning of the Somali Sisters Network (SSN), which launched in November 2019 with a networking event. The mission of SSN is to build leadership within the Somali sisters’ community and utilize their expertise and resources with each other and with others. The organization expanded rapidly beyond casual socializing and developed four tiers of leadership programming.

The first tier at SSN is Leadership Ladder, a pipeline for Somali women in their senior year of high school. Next is Community Connectedness, where the organization shares a calendar that connects women and girls with local fellowships, entrepreneurships, and activism. Because of the founders’ shared entrepreneurial skills, SSN added a program called Economic Elevation, which hosts an annual open market featuring Somali women–owned businesses. Finally, Advocacy & Adjustment is a resource connector that specializes in referrals for Somali women and families who are new to Minnesota.

Program coordinator Safiyo Ali says the leadership programming “means a lot to me, because I didn’t get the help or guidance I needed after I graduated from high school. Now that I know what to do, I don’t want another girl to go through the same struggles.”

Collective Culture

The heart of the Somali Sisters Network is in its name — the organization functions first and foremost as a web of women connected to one another personally as well as professionally. “I feel understood, seen, and supported,” says board member Hamdi Hassan.

The networking is purposeful, because “we come from a collective culture.” The needs of the community are put before those of any single individual. “If you are in any form of leadership, they ask what you are doing to help our people,” says Sadia Ali.

In the summer of 2020, a viral tweet by a local survivor of sexual violence led to a wave of Somali women breaking their silence. The network showed up in solidarity with survivors and spoke publicly about their experiences of sexual violence, defying cultural expectations of silence.

In coalition with B.R.A.V.E. Foundation Inc., Minds Matter, Caafimaad Collective, and Ayada Leads — all Minnesota-based organizations that serve women and girls of the African diaspora — SSN launched a “Cancel Ceeb Culture” campaign. Ceeb means “shame” in Somali. The culture of “ceeb” stigmatizes survivors who speak out, while failing to hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable.

If a woman is assaulted, she is told, “You don’t have to talk about it, because that is going to affect your reputation or your chance to get married,” says Haji.

The campaign included a shared public statement, a social media series raising awareness of sexual violence, and a healing circle and retreat where women and girls were welcomed and supported in sharing their stories.

Haji and Ali are eager to see the same women blossom into leaders of the organization. “It is always for the community,” Haji says. “I hope that 60 years from today, the Somali Sisters Network will still exist with my daughter and granddaughter part of it.”

Action = Change

“Somali Sisters Network wants to challenge you to give to not-so-traditional nonprofit grassroots [organizations] that are up and coming. Also, [we] encourage corporate giving in the company you work for to tackle new issues in your community. Nominate your favorite nonprofit doing an amazing job, so it can get acknowledgment and resources. Also, any readers are welcome to contribute to our Leadership Ladder scholarship program as well as our open market small business grant for women who are starting vocational training, side “solo-preneurship,” or small, local-based business. This helps the economic disparities in the community. They can also give to our nonprofit if they appreciate what it stands for. Encourage [your] family and friends to give to nonprofits making our communities better.”