Heartland Democracy

Addressing All Types of Violence with Peace

Bjorn Ihler’s talk tonight, his final appearance during the week he spent as Heartland’s guest in Minnesota, circled back to the role that civil society organizations like Heartland Democracy can and will have in leading top-level conversations between people in different layers of society to improve community building and non-violent solutions. Learn more about his discussion.

Modeling More for Our Youth

In collaboration with Hamline University, Heartland recently hosted the first of two events featuring Bjorn Ihler. Mr Ihler is an academic, activist, technologist and storyteller working to end extremism. He is influenced by his experiences as a survivor of the attack on Utøya in Norway on the 22 July, 2011 and subsequent work with experts and former extremists. Read more about the event here.

Letter from Executive Director Mary McKinley


Heartland Democracy applied for a federal grant in 2016 to continue and expand our work on education, civic engagement, and community resilience, and we are dedicated to serve the students, parents, immigrants, and refugees who participate in our programs. Our proposal, which was covered extensively in local and national press, centered on our curriculum of empowerment, educational programming to strengthen identity and self-expression, and a focus on the humanities to find ways of connecting with our communities in holistic and sustainable ways.

Heartland Democracy remains committed to this work, and we are so proud of our programs and partners, including the small team of board members, consultants, teachers, coaches, and staff who work tirelessly to pilot what we believe are innovative and inventive projects to serve and strengthen parents and students in our state. What has always distinguished Heartland Democracy and our programs is the fact that we help participants find the motivation to get involved in building civil society and the tools to do it themselves, guided by coaches from their own communities.

In the past few days, Heartland Democracy has been the focus of some social media chatter regarding potential partners and colleagues we listed in the draft proposal we submitted to the Obama Administration in 2016. Though this proposal was publicized without our knowledge, we strongly stand behind its content and mission.

As is often the case with grant proposals, the ideas and partnerships described don’t always materialize as envisioned. While the partners in our work today reflect the partners listed in our original proposal, several of those listed have moved away from this work and many new partners have emerged that we could not have imagined we would have the good fortune to work with. Such is the life of a nonprofit organization.

It has come to our attention that specific attacks have been leveled against Hodan Hassan, a colleague we have connected with at times in the past, relating to her purported involvement with our organization and the work described in our proposal. These attacks are unfounded. To be clear: Ms. Hassan is not, and has never been, a partner in our work. Unfounded attacks have also been directed at other individuals listed in our proposal with whom partnerships never materialized, including Abdirashid Abdi and Christa Perkins. We consider these false accusations to be counterproductive and contrary to the spirit of community and collaboration we are trying to build.

Heartland operates our programs based on three guiding principles: transparency in our work, privacy and anonymity of our participants, and trust in our community. We are a nonpartisan nonprofit organization with deep roots in progressive ideals and democratic institutions. We trust our partners and participants, and we hope they put their trust in us, because we know this is the only way to create meaningful learning, growth, and connection.

We are thankful for the partners with whom we work and look forward to engaging new partners on meaningful, if difficult, challenges in our communities. Our positive, healthy relationships with colleagues and partners make this work possible and valuable, and we know that only together can we grow into the community we want to be.

Please feel free to contact us at any time with any questions or concerns, or to get involved!

Teaching the True Story of MLK

Melinda Anderson, writing for The Atlantic, offers an excellent perspective on the teaching social justice. She states,

As the country observes the federal holiday named in King’s honor, it seems that schools are increasingly coming under sharp criticism from educators and activists for their approach to teaching King’s life. Some question a sanitized teaching of the black civil-rights movement, its leaders, and other struggles for social justice that denies students an accurate and complete account of history. These debates are complicated by the inherent professional dangers in teaching through a social-justice lens.

Read more online.

From Board Chair Sara Evans

Heartland Democracy Logo

2015 was a breakthrough year for Heartland Democracy and our work creating new models for civic engagement that can begin to address some of the most pressing issues of our time. As the year is coming to a close, I hope you will support Heartland Democracy with a year-end contribution today.

Heartland Democracy’s Empowering U program has proven to be an extremely effective tool for engaging people from marginalized communities around issues that affect their lives and the lives of those around them. In the past year, Empowering U has helped a diverse group of people from a variety of communities – marginalized teens, ex-offenders, people suffering from extreme poverty, and many others – connect with their communities and begin the work of building a common future. Our curriculum, team, and experience have been sought out for critical partnerships developing innovative models to help young people and families in crisis.

Early this year, we realized the potential for Empowering U and our broader civic engagement model to engage and begin to address issues facing one of the most disaffected communities in the Twin Cities: young people in the Somali community at risk of recruitment by extremist groups. Since then, we have been engaging deeply with the Somali-American community, government and civic leaders, educators and national and international experts to implement our civic engagement model in the Twin Cities in a way that will engage those at highest risk and connect them with the possibility of a positive future. The model we are developing has been recognized locally and nationally (including by Hillary Clinton in her recent national security speech in the Twin Cities), and we believe it holds great promise for addressing one of the most important issues affecting our community today.

You can read more about this work in some of the coverage we’ve received in major media outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, StarTribune, and others here.

While this past year has been a year of growth, learning, and amazing new partnerships, there is still so much to be done, and we need your help to fulfill the mission we have set for ourselves in the coming year.

In 2016, we will build on our successes and expand our work by:

  • Leading efforts to develop a real Minnesota Model for preventing extremist recruitment of our most disconnected young people. 
  • Expanding partnerships to bring the work of exciting groups like Affinis Labs andWomen Without Borders to Minnesota – to build on the strength and resilience of our diverse community.
  • Launching our programs of deep civic engagement in several area high schools, to connect our young people to a better education and to a brighter future.

This work has never been more important than it is right now, and we couldn’t do it without the support of you and the many others who are helping us engage our communities to build a better world. I hope you will support Heartland Democracy with a contribution today. 

Thank you, and very warm wishes to you and yours during this holiday season.

Best regards,

Sara Evans
Board Chair
Heartland Democracy

P.S. Be on the lookout for some exciting news we will be sharing after the New Year. Your support helps make it all possible. Please send your year-end contribution to Heartland Democracy today!

Recent Report Debunks Common Immigration Myths

Immigrants march in DC, 9/2006

According to a recently published study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, immigrants are healthier, learning English faster than ever, and less likely to commit crime than native born Americans.  In a summary article, Think Progress‘s immigration reporter Esther Yu-Hsi Lee writes:

Culling data from the 41 million foreign-born immigrants in the country — a population that includes the 11.3 million undocumented immigrant population — the study authors write in their 400-page report that integration into American society “may make immigrants and their children better off and in a better position to fully contribute to their communities.”

“They’re integrating as well as, or even faster, than immigrants who came from Europe in the last century,” lead author and Harvard University sociology professor Dr. Mary Waters told ThinkProgress in a phone interview this week. “In that way, I think it should be reassuring to Americans who are often worried that somehow the immigrants are not learning English, are not progressing well, or becoming full Americans. What we find overall — there’s a lot of details and caveats — but overall, the immigrants are rapidly assimilating into American society.”

Read more of Ms Lee’s excellent article on Think Progress, or download the full study from the National Academies Press.

Empowering U Part of Groundbreaking Experiment

Heartland Democracy has been asked to participate in a groundbreaking experiment in the Twin Cities.

Empowering U will be the key program for a young Somali-American man as he is released from custody pending his trial.  Judge Michael Davis has agreed to release a young Somali-American man, Abdullahi Yusuf, into a halfway house after being arrested in December.  Read the story here.

This decision by Judge Davis, one of the first of its kind in the United States — allowing a pre-trial release of someone accused of serious federal terrorism-related charges — has received much local and national coverage:

MPR story on Mr. Yusuf’s release into halfway house

National Public Radio coverage of Empowering U

We are looking forward to this work, as it combines many of the most important aspects of our work, namely working within an often disengaged or disconnected community of youth; deep examination of values and challenges by young people themselves; and work toward creating a sense of identity within community, and a commitment to positive connections and engagement within that community.

As we work to expand our program beyond this opportunity, we are seeking the support we will need to bring Empowering U to Somali-American teens and young adults across the Twin Cities.  Please contact us if this program is of interest to you.

Heartland Democracy in the News

We’ve had some great media coverage of our efforts and our methodology:

On Sunday, April 29, Heartland Democracy was featured on the front page of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, in an article about our work and our coach, high school teacher Ahmed Amin.  See the article here.
This past week, Miriam Jordan, in her article in the Wall Street Journal, wrote:

Like other Somali Americans lured by extremists, “what is puzzling is that they seem to understand how the [U.S.] system works and what they need to do to get ahead,” said Mr. Amin, “but there is a stronger force that pulls” them toward extremism.

As he sees it, Mr. Yusuf and his peers have to figure out how to be a “hybrid”: a person who can feel American while still identifying with both cultures.

We are using our Empowering U curriculum to help young people do just that: navigate the difficult terrain of young adulthood while interpreting the multitude of messages and priorities competing for their attention, trying to determine, at this crucial stage in development, just who they are and what they believe.

We all know, whether we remember this stage from our own lives, or whether we are raising teens ourselves, how treacherous this time can be for any young person.

Now, Heartland has an opportunity to expand our work with teens and young adults to a community working through some of the most complex issues of our day:  culture, religion, race, gender, economic hardship, and confounding generation gaps.

Please help us bring our programs to more young people in Minnesota.  Visit our Donate page to support our work!  We need your help!

McKinley Named Executive Director

mcKinleyHeadshotMary McKinley has been named executive director of Heartland Democracy. She has been involved with the organization since it was founded by Tom Vellenga almost 9 years ago, first as a member of the Advisory Board and then as a consultant, assisting Tom with development, outreach, and organizational strategy and management. Her background in nonprofit management and philanthropy will help to guide Heartland during our exciting next stage of work. She is committed to Heartland’s mission of teaching and mentoring young people who have a desire to engage in their communities and the greater world.