By Carmen Peota
As founder of an organization helping African-born women who’ve experienced domestic violence, MPA candidate Comfort Dondo has long recognized that she needs to understand the cultural backgrounds of those she serves. But it wasn’t until she participated in Change Network Minnesota, a new kind of leadership development program offered jointly by the Humphrey School and the Minneapolis-based Cultural Wellness Center, that Dondo realized she also needed to better understand her own cultural roots.
Dondo, who was born in Zimbabwe and immigrated to the United States 12 years ago, is part of the first cohort of Minnesotans in this Bush Foundation-funded program created to better equip participants for leadership as society becomes increasingly diverse. There are also Change Networks in North Dakota and South Dakota.
Creating the Change Network experience for the Minnesota participants is a team from the Humphrey School and Cultural Wellness Center, which provides social services and education in the Powderhorn neighborhood of Minneapolis. “We’re both bringing the strengths of the curriculum that we have at our organizations,” says Stephanie Jacobs (MPP ’07), director of the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center at the Humphrey School.
Participants engage in “cultural self-study,” essentially completing readings and exercises that prompt them to reflect on experiences and their reactions to them. “We say, ‘What is that saying to you? Where is that coming from?’” says Atum Azzahir, CEO of the Cultural Wellness Center. The goal is to help participants recognize how culture has shaped them and to embrace that. “We really want people to see that they belong to a people, that they’re culturally connected,” she says. “As we go into the future, we have to bring forward other ways of knowing, other systems of thought. If we don’t, we can’t expect that we’ll bring [all] people forward.”
Dondo, who traveled back to Zimbabwe for the first time in nine years in February to explore her roots, says she can already see how the insights she’s gaining will help her lead. “I think it’s going to be a much deeper way of serving after this experience,” she says.
Applications for the second Change Network Minnesota cohort are being accepted through June. More information, including application details, is available at changenetworkminnesota.com.