The 2008 recession left a large number of African immigrants in Minnesota unemployed and without the necessary resources and services to survive. The downturn left many of these communities struggling to recover from the financial crisis.
It was then that Dr. Gene Gelgelu founded African Economic Development Solutions (AEDS). As president and CEO of AEDS, Gelgelu sought to provide services and bring much-needed change to the African immigrant community in Minnesota.
“While these problems were noticeable for years, the 2008 financial crisis exacerbated them. Many African immigrants did not have the resources or systems in place to support themselves,” said Gelgelu. AEDS has put in place a multitude of support systems for African immigrants in Minnesota, such as loans, grants and homeownership education. Calling it a “system change,” Gelgelu said AEDS programs and services work well because there aren’t cultural or language barriers.
Before the start of AEDS, Gelgelu noticed that many African immigrants had poor or no credit and had no assets or loans. In 2015, AEDS partnered with Concordia University and Dr. Bruce Corrie, an economist at the university, to conduct an African market study. The research showed nearly 67 percent of African immigrants didn’t have access to loans or traditional business funding.
“There’s a great need in our communities to seek out organizations that support our culture. Someone who speaks their language, someone who understands African culture, someone who understands what it really means to be an immigrant,” Gelgelu said.
St. Paul’s Little Africa
The Little Africa Plaza will be located in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood once construction is completed in 2024. The groundbreaking for the plaza was on August 6, just before the Little Africa parade and festival. The community around Snelling and University Avenues is known as the Little Africa Business and Cultural District and is home to several African-owned businesses and restaurants.
As part of the organization’s economic development work, Gelgelu and AEDS helped create the Little Africa cultural corridor in 2013. He wanted to use art and culture to spur the growth of the community. As an Oromo immigrant from Ethiopia, he understands the importance of building up immigrant communities.
“Each immigrant, African immigrant, has their own identity, including myself. I have my own Oromo culture,” Gelgelu said. “We created a space for us, a space where we, as a collective African diaspora, learn the culture that we normally don’t learn from each other.”
The focus of the Little Africa Plaza is not just to have a place for African immigrant businesses and art, but to fight gentrification in the area, said Gelgelu.
“The only way we can mitigate gentrification is by owning buildings,” Gelgelu said. “So we encourage our business owners to own more businesses in the corridor. We create systems so that they get the support they need.”
The plaza will host a Halal market (food prepared in accordance with Islamic teachings), a retail space, an African museum and AEDS headquarters. The African museum will display African art to showcase the rich culture and history of the continent.
While there are museums in Minnesota that showcase certain cultures in Africa, there are none that are collective, said Gelgelu. This museum is meant to add to the art and culture of the plaza and the Little Africa corridor.
He wants the plaza to be a place for people to learn from each other. Gelgelu hopes people from outside of the community will visit and learn about African immigrants and their stories.
National African Leadership Conference
In 2020, AEDS launched the National African Leadership Conference. Hosted virtually and in-person at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Minneapolis, the two-day event connected African leaders in Minnesota and African communities across the country.
The popularity of the event has led to AEDS hosting it annually, with the size of the conference growing every year. There are also multiple events leading up to the conference, including networking events, speakers and forums.
There were more than 12 sessions during last year’s event. The topics included youth leadership, business development, policy, homeownership, and health and wellness. These topics were selected based on feedback from the community. This was done by bringing in diverse African leaders from Minnesota and other states to provide input, said Gelgelu. The program designers then used this input to build the topics and itinerary.
“We always believe in a community-driven approach because it’s to solve a community issue,” Gelgelu said. “It has to come from the community.”
During last year’s conference, AEDS recognized leaders in the community for the first time ever with its African Lifetime Leadership Award. The award acknowledges and shows appreciation for those in the community who have served the public for years.
This selection was also decided in part by a committee. Community advisors from different states were selected and given the job of creating a set of criteria for the award. They then nominated people based on the criteria.
After the committee makes its selections, the nominee list was made public on social media. The public voted for who they believe should receive the award. Last year, AEDS received over 530 votes for the award.
The African Lifetime Achievement Award does not just go to one person. Five people were given the award during the 2022 conference. One of the recipients was an 80-year-old Oromo man from Seattle. Another was a Liberian medical doctor, Dr. Mardia Stone, from New York.
“She said she was about to cry and just got emotional. When she received the award, she said, ‘I’ve never been recognized all these years. I’ve been serving and never been recognized,’” Gelgelu said.
The point of this award is for the community to honor their own, said Gelgelu. That is why AEDS has no hand in selecting the recipients.
This year’s conference will once again be held virtually and in-person in December. There will be 43 speakers, with 13 breakout sessions and five African Lifetime Achievement Awards presented.
Faaya Adem is a journalism student at the U of M and part of the Oromo community in Minnesota. She welcomes reader comments at email@example.com.