Cultivating opportunity in the East African community

A Cedar-Riverside establishment builds bridges between the underserved neighborhood and employment resources.

The Cedar-Riverside Opportunity Center (CROC) aims to create employment and educational opportunities for the residents of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The area is predominantly African American, with a substantial number of foreign-born residents, according to Minnesota Compass.

Ward 6 Councilmember Abdi Warsame, who represents the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, was deeply involved in the creation of CROC and is proud of its progress.

“The Cedar-Riverside Opportunity Center works at addressing a core issue in Minneapolis — the skills gap between White and Black residents,” Warsame said in an emailed statement. “It demonstrates how public-private partnerships along with buy-in from other levels of government can be leveraged to create economic opportunity for our most disadvantaged communities.”

CROC is a collaborative effort between an employment nonprofit called Emerge, Hennepin County, the City of Minneapolis, the Hennepin County Library system and Minneapolis College.

“The center also has become a community facility,” said Saeed Bihi, manager for the opportunity center. “Whether it’s the elders, whether it’s Islamic scholars, whether it is the youth — to come together and to talk about different issues.”

Bihi, who is employed through the City, said the center brings the City of Minneapolis’ resources closer to the community and offers services in languages reflective of the community. 

Aside from educational and career development, the center helps prospective business owners, provides financial wellness classes and helps community members navigate City resources such as the Minnesota Family Investment Program. 

In its first year, the center doubled its goal and found 321 jobs for individuals. CROC celebrated its second year as an institution in March. 

Holly Leppanen, Emerge’s director of adult education and training, said the team is currently focusing on healthcare through the Health Hire program, which is spearheaded by the City. Minneapolis College partners in the training programs, such as the nursing assistant training classes. 

Leppanen said while unemployment is low, there are still disparities — and Cedar-Riverside has especially high unemployment.

“There are also many new Americans who, you know, are learning about how to access resources, to do a job search in America, or are looking to access training resources, to move maybe from lower-wage employment to family-sustaining wages,” Leppanen said.

The first nursing assistant cohort was comprised of eight individuals, all who graduated from the program. The opportunity center is gearing up for another nursing assistant training in the fall. 

The team recently introduced an English for Industry course to ease barriers to entry into the healthcare field for non-native English speakers.

“One of the things that I really appreciate about our partners at the Cedar-Riverside Opportunity Center is that we use past project successes and learnings to inform our future work,” said Elaine Vandenburgh, customized training representative at Minneapolis College. “So, each pathway we do gets better and better. Because of this, we’re able to be better stewards of public dollars.”

Courtesy of CROC

Youth-oriented programming

Teenagers in the opportunity center have been working to make functional solar panel cell phone chargers. They purchased the panels and soldered them to the charger. Everything was connected before they stepped into the sun with high hopes. 

“It worked,” said Bilan Jama, the first member of CROC’s Teen Tech Squad. “It charges the phone, the green thing comes on like it’s charging, but it hasn’t really added any power to it.”

The establishment houses a variety of programs to empower and educate youth involved in the neighborhood run by the Hennepin County Library system. A squad of teenagers create projects, then hold presentations to teach elementary-aged children.

Jama said they’ve been troubleshooting for weeks on the solar chargers. They want to create a working example before teaching the younger kids but are still working to create a charger with the right voltage to juice the phones. Teen Tech Squad has completed a variety of projects beyond the chargers, like creating slime and constructing miniature catapults.

Jama, now 18, is moving on from the opportunity center after two years. Her supervisor, Community Embedded Librarian Sara Zettervall, has helped her find similar science and tech programs within the University of Minnesota, where she starts in the fall. Many of the youth have found internships and other community programs in the city due to their connections to the opportunity center.

Abshir Omar, Hennepin County Library’s community liaison for CROC, facilitates the Cedar Youth Leadership Group (CYLG), a youth-led initiative aiming to build skills among younger community members. He said it fills a gap for a youth-led leadership group in the community. 

“They feel like they want to give back to the community at that age,” Omar said. “Being a part of that group gives them a chance to work together and come up with a program to give back for youth.”

Currently, the CYLG is undertaking a mental health initiative. The group of teenagers hold discussions among themselves about mental health and stigma within their community.

Some of the teens have taken advantage of everything offered at the opportunity center. Zubeda Chaffe, 18, a Teen Tech Squad member, has taken the financial literacy courses and CPR training. 

Despite what she’s learned, she’s most passionate about giving back to the community and working with the kids.

“I’ve lived here for the past 12 years and this is like my community, I grew up here,” Chaffe said. “So just to give back to the kids and the people in my community, it just makes me feel happy.”

 To learn more about the Cedar-Riverside Opportunity Center, go