COMMUNITY VOICES | Mpls Park Board candidate Hashim Yonis, a study in failed refugee integration and role model gone sour?


As someone who has promoted diversity in my life and work, with sadness I raise concerns about a person of color, with whom I have worked, who is running for the Minneapolis Park Board. Some had high hopes for Yonis, a Somali refugee and St. Olaf grad–he appeared to be a success story, even visiting the White House as guest of Obama. But I had serious questions.

Recently, Yonis’ reputation has become tarnished. In August, the Park Board fired him for allegedly pocketing funds. The Board determined Yonis was guilty of: insubordination; violation of department rules, policies, procedures or City ordinance; misappropriation of City funds; discourtesy to public or fellow employees; soliciting or receiving funds for political purposes or personal gain during work; knowingly making a false material statement to the City’s representative during an investigation into employment related misconduct.

Despite this serious falling out with the Board, Yonis’ campaign continues full force. If only the Board had heeded my concerns in 2011, when I worked with Yonis at Matthews Park and was disturbed by his behavior toward youth and lack of integrity! 

I share a synopsis of my experience, not just because it suggests there are serious concerns about Hashim Yonis’ suitability for public office, but also because it serves as a case study about the integration of refugees and invites some tough questions: How did Yonis get so far with such apparently flagrant behavior? Where was the guidance and accountability that would have served the development of his leadership skills and attitudes? To what extent has he assimilated democratic values, and how might we better facilitate that?

Here’s the story–see what you think:

I was hired to facilitate a Teen Circle of Oromo/Somali boys and Hashim Yonis, a park employee, was assigned to the circle to build connections. I wondered how a Caucasian woman might fare, but quickly came to love being with these fine young men–bright, lively, respectful. I witnessed them practice democracy–sharing responsibility, speaking up, honoring differences.

Circle was a safe space for the youth to discuss current events, religion, school/family concerns…until the day Hashim exploded at them. “Shame on you,” he yelled. “How can you be so disrespectful to the artists. I can’t stand to be in the same room with you!” and he bolted. The kids were just following instructions–choose circle or art, options Hashim and I had agreed upon after I discovered, the night before, that months ago Hashim had scheduled an event during circle, without their consent (our protocol). I surmised he’d look bad if nobody participated in the event he scheduled.

The kids were shaken by Hashim’s rage, some, angered: “He has no right to treat us like this!” And they noticed his facts didn’t jive–he said he hadn’t known of the event until the day before, yet mentioned he’d gotten an email about it 3 months prior. “He lied,” several remarked. 

In subsequent weeks, Hashim told the boys repeatedly he disagreed with the way I led circle, scheduled another activity during circle without consulting us, and threatened to remove a visitor from circle/park for giggling. On a number of occasions he failed to show, notify me, order pizza. 

I noticed youths revising their stories in Hashim’s presence, and suspected they felt intimidated. He had power over them in the park and in school for many of them, where he oversaw administration.

When I sought to debrief the episode with Hashim, he refused: “I’m not going to be the bad guy here!” Soon he began citing cultural differences as the problem, but refused to explore this with a Somali organizer. 

I contacted Seward Longfellow Restorative Justice Partnership, sponsoring agency, voicing my concerns about the effect of Hashim’s behavior on the youth. “Doesn’t anyone get to be human around you,” exclaimed director Michele Braley. Board member Joey Brochin warned me, “If you don’t remain silent about this, we’re prepared to shut down the circle and reconstitute it with a new person. Hashim must be allowed to save face, crucial in Somali culture.” For park director Cynthia Wilson, Hashim could do no wrong.

Eventually, staff met to seek solutions. Hashim introduced himself: “In Somalia there’s an expression my father uses to greet guests, ‘It’s a good day, I have sons.’  And I have 2 sons,“ Hashim beamed. And again his story didn’t jive–one time he claimed to be a circle expert; next time he pleaded he shouldn’t be blamed, for he knew nothing of the circle. Later, when offered circle training, he refused: “I don’t need it and don’t support circle ways. Kids need to be told what to do, not empowered.” 

Shortly thereafter I received a certified letter terminating my employment. I could attend circle to say good-bye, then have no further contact with them. That final evening (Hashim absent), when the boys arrived and learned I’d been terminated, they huddled in the hallway. 

Minutes later 12 teenagers entered the room. One flashed a sign, “We love her.” “You’re tearing out a piece of our hearts–Jean is family,” another said. “It’s our circle–we should get to choose our circlekeeper.” Another stood and read: 

“This petition shows that we, circle attenders, would be very disappointed, outraged, if Ms. Jean is fired and will stop attending, reason being she gives us choices. Hashim doesn’t. He should be fired.”

I was moved–such courage, caring. We parted with hugs. Their petition was ignored by the Park Board and SLRJP, and my concerns about Hashim. 

This is about a tragic missed opportunity to influence Yonis’ development as a leader. I want people of color and refugees in public office, and in my life, yet discernment is essential.  

Now we have a chance to say, “Hashim, you are not suited for public office at this time,” and to reconsider how we integrate refugees into our public life in a way that embraces and celebrates diversity, yet protects and supports the democratic values we hold dear.

Jean Greenwood, Minneapolis

Presbyterian minister, Restorative Justice specialist