MINNESOTA VOICES | Dr. Ghafar Lakanwal


Dr. Ghafar Lakanwal is a native of Afghanistan, an ex-political asylee, a Muslim immigrant, a U.S. citizen, a victim of racism, and someone who fights against racism. Each facet of Lakanwal’s identity has impacted his life in a unique way, some facets more than others.

“Why am I telling my story? To show that everybody has their story, whether they are people of color who were here a long time ago and were brought by force as slaves, original inhabitants of this country like the Native Americans, European Americans, or the new immigrants that are coming here now from everywhere,” says Dr. Lakanwal.

Dr. Lakanwal is the founder and executive director of the MultiCultural Development Center (MCDC), a non-profit organization established in 1991 that aims to bridge cultural and racial gaps in the Twin Cities. Founded three years after Dr. Lakanwal left Afghanistan to seek political asylum in the United States, the organization is based on his “Sharing Diversity” philosophy. The philosophy teaches that by learning about and embracing cultural, racial, and religious differences, people can defeat their prejudices and challenge their fears.

Before coming to the U.S., Dr. Lakanwal had studied agricultural science at the Kabul University and then completed his doctorate in Germany. Afterwards, he worked for the German International Development Agency. During Afghanistan’s communist period, Lakanwal was appointed as Afghan Minister of Agriculture. Under Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika (openness and understanding), Lakanwal was selected as head of the Afghan delegation to the UN and had visited more than 30 countries during that time. By 1988, the year he fled his homeland, Dr. Lakanwal could speak English, German, and Russian fluently, as well as his native Pashtu and Dari (Farsi).

From Minister of Agriculture to manager of a pizza restaurant

Inspiration for the establishment of the MCDC began three years after Dr. Lakanwal came to America. He had had immense difficulty finding a job, despite his credentials and impressive CV. The reason, he believes, was racism.

Dr. Ghafar Lakanwal is the 2009 winner of the Facing Race Ambassador award. Since 2002, the Facing Race initiative of The Saint Paul Foundation has generated discussions among people of all backgrounds to provide a greater understanding of race issues and what the community as a whole can do to make it a more open and equitable society. The Facing Race Ambassador Award was created to honor individuals who excel in creating opportunities for people of all races to understand the impact of racism.

“One cannot even begin to acknowledge race and racism without knowing one’s own history and heritage,” says Dr. Ghafar Lakanwal. Born and raised in rural Afghanistan, he has spent the last 30 years traveling the world to learn and educate others about human rights, cultural diversity and inclusion.

Lakanwal earned his doctorate at the University of Hohenheim in Germany and went on to become Minister of Agriculture in Afghanistan as well as head of the Afghan Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. Fluent in five languages, Lakanwal fled his war-torn country in the late 1980s to seek political asylum and advance social equality in the United States.

In 2007 and 2008 alone, Lakanwal presented more than 25 trainings and organized nearly 20 community events to address issues of racism and cultural understanding. He has received local, national and international awards for his dedication to human rights and his work with immigration, race and cultural differences.

“Educating people about differences is the most important way that we can get them to face their fears and confront their prejudices,“ says Lakanwal.

“There are deliberate and institutionalized human resources and practices that prevent people of color and new immigrants from having equal opportunities and equal access to resources and employment,” said Lakanwal. “All immigrants are facing that.” Dr. Lakanwal also emphasizes that he was not the only overqualified immigrant who could not find work in America.

In 1991, a despairing Dr. Lakanwal was forced to work as an assistant manager at a pizza restaurant. His job description included washing dishes, mopping floors, and scrubbing toilets.

That period of Dr. Lakanwal’s life “is when I [started] questioning whether this land is the land of opportunity or the land of adversity. It motivated me to find an answer,” he said. He began researching the cultural, demographic, and corporate organizational structure in the Twin Cities area, when he “soon realized that there is resistance [to immigrants]. This land is the land of opportunity, there are plenty of opportunities. But unfortunately they’re not accessible to everybody. This leads to inequality and injustice.”

MCDC and Sharing Diversity philosophy

This wakeup call motivated Dr. Lakanwal to start working to change such exclusionary practices. After studying how racism can negatively affect the market, schools, and the community, Dr. Lakanwal came up with his Sharing Diversity principles.

“Facing fears and confronting prejudices are important. This foundation of understanding will allow people to start new relationships based on understanding, respect, and values,” says Dr. Lakanwal. Although Dr. Lakanwal believes that the source of racism and ignorance are one’s family, school, environment, or the media, he also thinks education is the cure. “Education is the best means [by which] to confront discrimination and racism. Increasing knowledge will give people the tools to have relationships with people who are different than them,” says Lakanwal.

Thus, the MCDC’s main goal is to educate the community about other cultures, religions, and practices through four annual workshops, several events, and customized diversity training sessions for corporations, private businesses, organizations, and educational institutions. The focus is on the Hmong, Somali, and Hispanic cultures. The MCDC has raised cultural sensitivity through collaboration with grocery stores like Cub Foods to provide accurate labeling of ethnic foods and to organize events like the Taste of Many Cultures. 1000 people usually attend this event filled with foods, art, and music from around the globe.

Also held by the MCDC are the annual Women’s Leadership Forum. This October brings the MCDC’s biggest event of the year: “Microinequities, the Power of the Small.” It’s a lecture by an internationally acclaimed speaker on diversity, Stephen Young, on how subconscious “micromessages” sent out every day by each individual everyday can affect performance in the workplace.

Muslims in the U.S. and 9/11

9/11 and the Bush administration’s ensuing rhetoric and foreign policy affected all Americans, including Muslims. “9/11 impacted our lives. That was a tough time,” said Dr. Lakanwal of his family, with tears in his eyes. By that time, they had been living in Minnesota for ten years, but Dr. Lakanwal says that he and his family were not treated like American citizens, due to their religion and ethnicity. “Our identity was that we’re natives of Afghanistan, we’re Muslims, the perpetrators [of 9/11] were Muslims and trained in Afghanistan, so we were subject to discrimination,” he explained.

At the time, his wife owned an Afghan restaurant in Bloomington. It had been just two weeks after 9/11 when a few strangers walked into her restaurant and demanded she display a sign broadcasting her innocence. When she asked if other restaurant owners had to do this, they replied, “No, but you have to do it and you know why.”

One week later, three strangers walked in and gave his wife a sealed box as a “gift,” which she later discovered contained an American flag filled with blood. “I still get emotional about this,” said a tearful Dr. Lakanwal. “We knew there was fear in our neighbor’s minds, restaurant clients, customers – we knew they were all saying, ‘who are they? Are they one of them?’”

Still now, Dr. Lakanwal says that when asked where he is from, saying Minnesota is not enough. “And if something happens in Afghanistan, people start asking me [questions]. Similarly, if there are a few Somalis shot in Mogadishu, then all of a sudden there’s a fear of Somalis here in Minnesota,” he explained.

Experiences and conversations like these propel Dr. Lakanwal to work harder in battling racism. He has educated thousands of people through diversity training. A popular MCDC training session is “Living, working and communicating effectively with Muslims in the U.S.,” which Dr. Lakanwal has presented to several airline companies. He tries to raise awareness of the parallel between “black while driving” and “Muslim while flying.” After the six imams were taken off their flight in 2006 because they were praying, the MCDC used that to encourage airports and offices to have a meditation or interfaith room, as opposed to just a chapel. Also important to local businesses and organizations, besides having a prayer room, is accommodating Muslim employees with their dress codes and lunch menus. Dr. Lakanwal says that businesses and organizations are starting to listen because they understand that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandates that employers must accommodate the religious practices of employees unless it causes the employer undue hardship.

He says they also understand the “bottom line,” which is that if the company accommodates its workers, the workers will bring in more revenue and less problems like lawsuits and low worker productivity. Accommodating workers, however, can contribute to high worker performance, retention, and productivity rates. “Organizations are definitely willing to accommodate [because] they’re seeing it from the strategic, economic perspective and they want their customers to be happy,” said Dr. Lakanwal. He also explained that companies and businesses can lose revenue without a lawsuit, because entire communities can be lost from a workplace if they perceive racism.

Long way to go

Despite the MCDC’s success so far, Dr. Lakanwal believes that institutionalized racist practices are still implemented. One concern is that organizations will cut diversity training in the tough economy, when training is needed now more than ever, according to him.

“Corporate management practices are still fear driven. And fear driven management practices create a hostile exclusionary environment,” says Dr. Lakanwal. He believes this fear is that of “losing control and privileges. There’s a fear that if there’s dialogue, everyone – African Americans, GLBTs, Muslims – will have the right to make it to the top and move up the chain.”

The argument that America is over racism because of a black president doesn’t resonate with Dr. Lakanwal either. “A black president doesn’t mean we don’t see color. The problem is that most organizations say they don’t see colors, but this is where the ignorance comes in,” he explained. “Exclusionary practices don’t recognize who you are. They recognize your differences, and use them negatively.”

Differences, Dr. Lakanwal says, that must be recognized and embraced. His request to those who are racist is that they merely ask themselves how to make a difference, learn more, and acknowledge their prejudices. To victims of prejudice, Dr. Lakanwal’s advice is to not give up.

“Have hope, join the forces of change, and know you are not alone. If you want to be a leader, if you want to be successful, you have to manage the world, and the world should not manage you. Be spiritually strong, lead from the inside out, and be a change agent. That’s what I became.”

The MCDC’s funding comes from annual membership fees, which vary for individuals and organizations. The MCDC also publishes a World Cultural calendar every year, sponsored by several organizations. If you’d like to be a member of the MCDC click here. If you’d like to make a donation to the MCDC click here. If you’d like a customized diversity training session presented for your organization click here

Lolla Mohammed Nur (lolla@tcdailyplanet.net) is a student at the University of Minnesota and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.

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