Local Action for Global Progress: How Minnesota is Embracing the SDGs

Anisa Hajimumin and Mark Ritchie are both passionate advocates for the Sustainable Development Goals in their home state of Minnesota. Photo: Anisa Hajimumin and Mark Ritchie.

As a melting pot in the Midwest, the state has a long tradition of welcoming immigrants, refugees, and international visitors alike. By using the Global Goals as a framework for local action, Minnesota is showing the world that global progress starts at home.

Anisa Hajimumin and Mark Ritchie bring unique backgrounds to their careers in Minnesota’s public service and civic advocacy. However, the pair share one thing in common: a passion for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the set of 17 ambitious aims adopted by all countries at the United Nations to achieve peace and prosperity for all people and the planet by 2030.

As the Assistant Commissioner for Immigrant and Refugee Affairs in Minnesota, Anisa is harnessing the power of the SDGs to help revitalize the state’s economy rocked by an ongoing pandemic, a national workforce shortage, and a global supply chain gone awry. Anisa previously worked as a government official in her native Somalia, where she drafted landmark legislation to prosecute gender-based violence and helped the country become the first in Africa to support a campaign against female genital mutilation.

As Minnesota’s former Secretary of State and Global Minnesota’s current president, Mark hosts SDG roundtable events to unite local leaders’ efforts across sectors. He’s also leading the initiative to bring the 2027 World Expo to the state, in part, by utilizing the SDGs as a unifying and universal theme. The U.S. is competing with four other countries — Argentina, Serbia, Spain, and Thailand — to host the event, which promises to attract millions of visitors from across the globe and promotes public diplomacy, corporate investment, and innovation. If the effort is successful, it would be the first time the U.S. has hosted a world’s fair since 1984.

From left to right: Mark Ritchie, President of Global Minnesota; Dr. Siyabulela Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela; and Anna DeWitt, International Student Engagement Manager at Global Minnesota. Photo: Mark Ritchie.

As part of our series on how U.S. leaders are bringing the SDGs home to their communities, Mark and Anisa met to share their experiences as leaders in Minnesota championing the Goals to support sustainability, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Mark Ritchie: It’s been such a privilege and honor to work together on the Sustainable Development Goals, and many other things, including the resettlement that’s going on for our friends from Afghanistan and many others.

Anisa Hajimumin: Thank you. I’m grateful to UN Foundation for bringing us together to continue this conversation. It’s an honor to continue collaborating and partnering with Global Minnesota in this work. We need people who have different lenses from state government and local communities, bringing both sides together to realize what it means to have community inclusion for our state. Moreover, being involved in welcoming Afghans and now preparing to make sure our Ukrainian refugees have a safe journey throughout the United States, particularly in Minnesota, and feel embraced and welcomed.

"We need people who have different lenses from state government and local communities, bringing both sides together to realize what it means to have community inclusion for our state."

Anisa Hajimumin

Assistant Commissioner for Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, Minnesota

MR: When I have the opportunity to travel to other countries, I’m painfully aware of how much further along other communities are in their understanding of global solutions like the Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]. I bet you’ve experienced that a little bit yourself.

AH: Definitely. The first time I learned about the Sustainable Development Goals was when I was appointed as the Minister for Women, Development, and Family Affairs in the Puntland region of Somalia. Now, in Minnesota, we’re discussing creating an Office for New Americans that will serve our state’s immigrant and refugee communities. We are losing $5.1 billion a year by not utilizing immigrant and refugee talents. So having the SDGs as a framework is extremely important because it makes it easier for our state’s leaders and policymakers to make decisions based on needs at both the local and state levels, like the workforce shortage, for example.

MR: I remember when we first saw that we were going to have a sudden increase in evacuees from Afghanistan. I recall one company in particular in the hospitality industry asking, “How do I connect? I need to hire 169 people for all kinds of jobs.” This company was already thinking of housing for these new arrivals. It reminded me that sometimes when it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals, companies are leading the charge because there’s something very practical about the SDGs. The Goals are good for them, good for their bottom line, and good for the community.

AH: That’s one of the reasons that immigrants and refugees are drawn here, because of that commitment to ensuring that communities can come and call Minnesota their home and have opportunities and support right away. Despite Minnesota being seen as a very cold state, it’s a place where they can achieve their dreams and be welcomed and embraced.

MR: A place that warms hearts. [Laughs]

Anisa Hajimumin, fourth from left, Assistant Commissioner for Immigrant and Refugee Affairs in Minnesota, stands with leaders of the state’s robust Somali community. Photo: Anisa Hajimumin.

AH: Exactly! You’ve seen the community roundtable for Afghans, right? All of these incredible community members are coming together asking, “What can we do?” And that makes my heart warm because it’s one of the great things about Minnesota. And that’s one of the reasons that it makes sense that Minnesota should be on the forefront of the Midwest states to have an Office for New Americans.

MR: I know that many immigrants and refugees that first arrived in San Diego or Atlanta ended up in Minnesota after hearing from family, friends, and others that there are jobs here — well-paid jobs with employers who respect tradition, other cultures, and other religions. There’s a vibrant immigrant community here. We have the largest Hindu and Buddhist temples in the nation here. It is part of who we are to be welcoming, but it’s also part of who we are to know that that’s a forever process.

AH: We’re one of the few states that have councils focused on diversity and inclusion, including [on] Latino Affairs, Asian Pacific Minnesotans, the African Heritage Council, the Council on Disability, and the state’s Indian Affairs Council. These key offices and councils are one of the ways that we can really coordinate and incorporate the SDGs into our work.

MR: Here you have this solution-oriented set of Global Goals that the world has said we want to achieve. I know that within the university community, and now more state agencies, we’re starting to use data and benchmarks because it’s hard to make progress if you don’t know where you’re headed. Are you seeing ways that we could use local benchmarking to help move us along in a larger way?

AH: Yes, we’ve got the University of Minnesota taking the lead gathering data and working with Esri, the mapping and spatial analytics technology, to handle the analysis that the state is actually using. When we’re able to focus on these 17 Goals, we can really assess the need and measure the success as well. This means we can quantify the success and see the funds that our legislators are appropriating for us, how much it’s costing, and what’s not working. Without that information, it’s difficult to know how we’re doing.

MR: Take our friends up in Fergus Falls at the Regional Economic Development Agency. They represent nine counties right along the South Dakota border. They have created an integrated economic development strategy for rural communities there that are facing a lot of challenges like depopulation and disappearing hospitals. It’s hard to have babies. It’s hard to have football teams, but in their search, they discovered the SDGs as a way to join a global conversation. These local examples can inspire other people to think, “Wow, they did this up in Fergus Falls for a whole region? How could we do that?”

Another example is when Minnesota finally passed a law on distracted driving just a few years ago. The organizations that were the most deeply involved in making that happen realized that this local issue made them a part of SDG 3 [good health and well-being], including halving the number of road fatalities by 2030. These organizations saw that placing their advocacy in a global context gave them energy and connection to help other local families avoid tragedy and loss and contribute to a Global Goal that would save lives everywhere. And that feels like the Minnesota way.

"I love the SDGs because they offer a way for our policymakers, leaders, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders to come together and embrace each other and have a conversation."

Anisa Hajimumin

Assistant Commissioner for Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, Minnesota

AH: Definitely. I remember when I was in Somalia, we were advocating for more hospitals in rural areas so expecting mothers could safely deliver their babies. I didn’t realize this wasn’t a problem just in rural Somalia. In reality, it’s a challenge all over the world. I love the SDGs because they offer a way for our policymakers, leaders, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders to come together and embrace each other and have a conversation. It removes barriers that would otherwise exist between those parties. Uniting for the SDGs is like being at an iftar dinner, where Muslims gather to eat together and ensure everyone is fed. Being a part of a community means we all get to take our share and do our part to clean up, whether it’s putting away the dishes or whatnot. [Laughs]

MR: I love how you’re describing collaboration across the state. This collaboration is partnership in action. And now we’ve deepened those partnerships and we are better prepared in thinking about sudden humanitarian situations like Ukraine.

Minnesota’s state capital, St. Paul, at dusk. Photo: Yinan Chen / Pixabay.

AH: Yes, like creating more opportunities for immigrants who earned degrees outside of the U.S. to work in Minnesota because we need their talents. A physician educated abroad shouldn’t have to work here as an Uber driver. They should have the opportunity to be trained and licensed in the U.S. In fact, Minnesota just became one of the few states to create funding for this. When people are trained and prepared to live and work and contribute, they have a better chance of being part of that community. And they also have the chance to help rebuild our state and our country.

MR: I know that when I’ve been talking to ambassadors and foreign ministers of other countries asking for their support of our plan to host an expo here in Minnesota on the SDGs, they would quiz me. People who are serious about using these Goals as a guide to the future want to know that other people are equally serious, and if they are, they want to add their support, their voice, and their perspective. And I was glad that I’m able to take those opportunities and turn them into real conversations about why I’m passionate about the Sustainable Development Goals. I know enough specifics in my own backyard, and I work on some specific ones that I personally relate to, but I’m also able to thank these officials for their broader commitments. And I think that’s the other side of it, moving toward shared goals creates opportunities for praise, for appreciation, for inspiration.

AH: I remember when I was working in Somalia as a government minister, many leaders were asking, “Why don’t we just continue what we’ve been doing and disregard the SDGs,” and the international community responded with: “If you use the SDGs, then there’s a way to coordinate all of the work that you’re doing with different agencies, countries, companies, and community-based organizations.”

MR: When I wear my SDGs pin, people from other places — especially other countries — know what that symbol means, but less so in the U.S. The other day I was out buying coffee and the person serving me said, “I’m taking a sustainability course at Arizona State University and we’re learning about the SDGs right now!” So I gave her my pin and it was a great conversation starter and a connection point. I feel like we have the opportunity in our state, but also in the nation and in the world, to use these SDGs to really ratchet us forward, especially when we can see right in front of us what happens when a pandemic goes wild, when there isn’t universal health care, what happens when the climate is wacky, what happens to immigration and refugees. This is our daily reality, but there are solutions right in front of us.

"I feel like we have the opportunity in our state, but also in the nation and in the world, to use these SDGs to really ratchet us forward."

Mark Ritchie

President of Global Minnesota and Former Minnesota Secretary of State

AH: The pandemic woke us up. Many people are willing to collaborate and coordinate existing initiatives in our state and amplify the great work that’s been happening. By 2030, I’d like to see the state of Minnesota establish an Office for New Americans. Despite not knowing each other, we’re still a big family that needs each other. All of these actions can lead us to an even better Minnesota than we have ever known before.

MR: Being part of something larger generally gives us satisfaction. It’s something that we crave and something that is energizing and inspiring. I want us to create an atmosphere in Minnesota where Minnesotans feel like they are both contributing to reaching those goals and contributing to thinking about what comes next. We have the potential to unleash all of this energy, force, and intellect, because when you have universal education and health care, everybody can be a contributing member of society. The SDGs are global goals, yes. But they are only reached by achieving local goals around employment, education, health care, food, housing. These are all the building blocks of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that you can establish in your own community. The genius of the SDGs is how they encourage action — from the most local to the most global.

This story is part of a larger project launched by the UN Foundation and the Brookings Institution to build and support American Leadership on the SDGs.

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