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How to shatter the stereotypes that hold back Somali youth

By Joanna Tzenis

Before you read this, type "Somali youth Minnesota" into your Google search engine. Take a look at the stories that populate and see if you see a pattern.

Did you do it?  What did you notice? What did you learn?

I'm not trying to direct you to other sources of information about the Minnesota's biggest immigrant group. Instead, I want to draw your attention to an issue hindering the positive development of Somali American youth in Minnesota.

Notice that while your search results contain a handful of headlines about crime within the community, most of them feature youth organizations (like Ka Joog) or youth in their communities doing productive and positive things. This is wonderful, but here’s the catch -- the positivity is situated as an effort to counter harmful public misperceptions and stereotypes about their identities as Somali youth living in Minnesota.

This suggests that from a social vantage point, Somali youth are viewed as constantly and inherently at risk. These youth know it -- they see themselves as embedded in a world where their identity is tied to stereotypes. They're forced to invest their energy and agency into convincing others that they are valuable, rather than investing in their personal pathways to a positive future.

This hardly seems fair. What can be done about it?

I argue that the Somali youth narrative must be rewritten. This can be done by:
  • Conducting more empirical studies with Somali youth, their families and communities. Research-based knowledge about what matters most to the diverse individuals within this community is scarce.
  • Emphasizing the strengths of Somali youth by making what is empirically understood about the assets and strengths of the Somali community as accessible as the misperceptions and stereotypes. 

These studies do exist. Nestled in the latest Minnesota Student Survey is this nugget: Somali youth in Minnesota value education and are committed to completing high school and then going to college so they can contribute to their families and their communities here in the U.S. and in Somalia. They prioritize academic excellence so much that they cite friends or sports as distractions from their educational goals. Qualitative studies done with Somali youth in Minnesota and elsewhere (Abdi, 2015; Bigelow, 2010; Collet, 2007) back up these findings.
Somali youth report the highest commitment to learning of any social group in Minnesota.
Many Somali youth are the children of refugees whose parents were denied education by civil war. Fueled by a determination to offer their children everything they didn't have, they not only encourage their children to excel in school and pursue their aspirations, they consistently seek out experts and experiences that will improve their children’s educational outcomes.

Hopefully, these key findings will find a place in online search results. But there is much to be done to tell the true stories about Somali youth and their educational pathways. Asserting truth amidst stereotypes matters because misperceptions stifle youths’ agency. Imagine the possibilities if Somali youth in Minnesota will have to thrive if they could unshackle themselves from what others believe they are and if they could just be and become their best selves.

That’s a world I want to help create. I hope you’ll join me.

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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  1. Thanks for enlightening me to additional research Joanna! very helpful!

  2. Dale Blyth:

    Great blog on an important topic. I was surprised by number of positive references I found when I searched (I was frankly only expecting the negative news headlines that create the kind of climate you note that Somali youth face growing up). That said, many of the positive references were about overcoming odds or dealing with risk and not, as you rightly note, the tremendous strengths in Somali youth here in Minnesota. Breaking down stereotypes is never easy work -- it is however always critical work and I am glad you helped move it along! - Dale Blyth

  3. This is a thoughtful, informative and optimistic blog post, Joanna!
    Thank you for challenging us to recognize and challenge the stereotypes and to inform us about how you are engaging Somali youth in your research and our 4-H programming. I did the Google search and found an odd mix or "news" headlines. KaJoog definitely has an important presence in the headlines! Thank you for the blog post.

  4. Thank you for lifting up this important topic, Joanna. Working with Somali youth who are incredibly eclectic in their identities and experiences has indeed led me to see how limiting the stereotypes can be, and how much we as a society risk missing out on their extraordinary strength, creativity, perseverance, and vision for our shared future. What kinds of headlines would you like to write if you were able to do so?


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