“I will say the turnout is great,” said Binta Kawu, surveying the Dakota County Community Action Council (CAC) cultural festival and resource fair on January 12. “Up ’til the last minute, people were calling to say that they wanted to be part of it.” The fair, hosted at a Burnsville church, attracted more than seven hundred people.
“We kept adding on the list of participants,” said Kawu. “In the beginning, we thought there wouldn’t be a turnout.” For Kawu, the fact that many more Africans turned out than she expected proves that people are responding to the Community Action Council’s outreach program. The event was a first for the Dakota County Community Action Council’s New American Services Collaborative. The fair brought together forty-one different agencies working with immigrant communities.
Groups from Africa, Chile, Bolivia, Laos, and other countries played drums and performed traditional dances. For almost half an hour, Chile Sin Fronteras, a Chilean group in colorful folk dresses entertained participants. Nkauj Hmoob Zoo Nkauj and Txhais Nkauj Xwb performed traditional Hmong dance from Thailand and Laos.
“It is to show what the Hmong tradition is,” said Yer Xiong, 16, a dance teacher at the Hmong American Partnership. “It is to show how the cloths look like, and to show what we usually do at big events.”
“People here are having fun,” said Alix Ibarra, director of CAC’s New American Services. “So we have a group from Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Africa. It is a diverse group that is going to participate.”
The CAC initiative began last July by making contact with many of the community organizations in Dakota County. A collaboration that started with twenty organizations has grown to about forty-five community groups. Through raffles, students at District School 191 raised $4,000 to sponsor the resource fair through raffles. BlueCross and BlueShield of Minnesota, Fairview Ridges Hospital, Dakota County Public Health, and many other nonprofit organizations sponsored the event. BlueCross and BlueShield provided funds for African food. The organizers served free food and drinks for participants.
“We want to do it in part because the African and Latino community are similar in certain aspects,” said Ibarra. “It is why we tried to make it in a certain way that is very attractive, where we can have entertainment for children and a lot of food from different countries.”
According to Ibarra, the Community Action Council also works with almost 48 schools in Dakota County. The CAC tries to deter domestic abuse, help children to be successful in school, and help families to be self-sufficient. In many schools, CAC’s New American Services educate community leaders to understand the different cultures, educate new immigrant community to adapt to their new homeland, and then create resources to help their families.
Storefront, founded 27 years ago to help immigrant parents with children in schools, joined CAC’s community initiative a year ago. “It will help in bringing the community together,” said Somali Asha Guled, parenting empowerment program coordinator at Storefront. “Our mission is to help the immigrant families in schools.”
With increasing health problems among immigrants, insurance and health institutions decided to join CAC’s initiative. “We have a lot of members in this part of Dakota Country,” said Shereese McIntosh, MEDICA regional coordinator. “We want to come out to support the community. Also, we want to engage with members and prospective members in the community.”
For BlueCross and BlueShield, the partnership has been fruitful since joining CAC’s New American Initiative few months ago. “We work with them (CAC) to reach out to the New American Communities,” said Karen J. Major, director of government programs and external relations at BlueCross and BlueShield. “The first thing we’ve done with them is to donate and sponsor funds towards the event.”
Representatives of participating organizations expressed enthusiasm about the event. For Tina Kush from Adult Basic Education (ABE), the fair offered an open opportunity to look for prospective adult students from the immigrant community. The ABE offers free classes for adults who want to learn English, work toward a high school diploma, or prepare for the GED exam.
Ardis Lether and Doreien Busch from the School for Adults said they also offer classes for families in Burnsville and Savage. For them, the resource fair is the best place to recruit new students.
At the fair, the Burnsville Fire Department displayed a huge billboard on emergency medical care and fire safety awareness and distributed information booklets in two languages to visitors. The department hopes to translate the fire safety literature into other languages.
The Dakota County Attorney’s office sees the resource fair as an opportunity to interact with the immigrant community to talk about crime prevention, and available legal resources. “We have been involved in this partnership, in this collaborative, so our office is able to reach out and let the citizens know that we are available,” said Monica Jensen, community relations and crime prevention at the Dakota County Attorney’s office. “So whether a crime has been committed against them, if they are a victim, if they have restitution or services that they need throughout the court process, that we are a friendly face. We do have those materials and resources, and ready with any explanation we can to help bring people through that process.”
Jensen said that while her office has “an obligation to uphold the law and hold people accountable when they do break the law,” at the same time, the attorneys also have “a lot of ways to help those individuals through the process.” Realizing that many new immigrants lack information about U.S. legal processes, Jensen said, “this is our chance to not be the enemy, to show that we’re here to hold people accountable for the good or the bad that they do.” Her office, she adds, “also provides whatever we can to help people out of that situation.”
The CAC plans to make the fair an annual event.
Issa A. Mansaray is a strong advocate of press freedom and human rights. Born in Sierra Leone, he has traveled through Africa, Europe, and the U.S. reporting on press freedom and human rights violations. Mansaray is an award-winning journalist and a frequent contributor to the International Press Institute’s World Press Freedom Review. He is a graduate of Webster University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.