I am humbled to have been selected as a Champion of Change and to have the opportunity to represent the achievements of American diaspora communities with roots in the Horn Africa. The Horn of Africa and specifically Somalia, where I was born, is a region that is deeply impacted by political instability, extreme poverty and refugee crises. Immigrants and refugees from Somalia who come to the United States have to overcome not only the trauma of forced migration and civil war but many settle in high poverty communities where they struggle along with their fellow Americans to emerge from a cycle of intergenerational poverty. My interest in helping Somali refugees and low-income Americans to emerge from poverty and improve future outcomes for their children led me to join Columbus Metropolitan Library Ready to Read Corps.
As part of the Ready to Read Corps, I take the library into at-risk communities to teach parents and caregivers of children between the ages of 0-to-5 on how to be their child’s first teacher and prepare their children for kindergarten. We teach parents to develop their child’s literacy skills and show parents how taking little steps can have an impact on preparing a child to succeed in school. To reach low-income parents we work with food pantries, preschools, churches, social service offices, mosques, hospitals, schools, high school teen parent program, and we even hold trainings in people’s homes. We bring the library to the community and work with diverse low-income populations in Columbus, Ohio, which is home to the second largest Somali immigrant and refugee community in the United States.
In some local schools, 40% of the children entering kindergarten are not adequately prepared to succeed in school, according to the Ohio Department of Education’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment Literacy (KRA-L) scores. In some local immigrant neighborhoods, that score is as high as 77%. These early inequalities in school preparation have been proven in numerous research studies to adversely impact a child’s academic and lifelong success because children are continually attempting to catch up to their more affluent peers. The Ready to Read Corps of Columbus Metropolitan Library is an innovative early literacy program that works to prevent these persisting educational inequalities by educating and empowering parents and is an integral component in the fight against poverty.
To date, Columbus Metropolitan Library has raised almost $1.5 million to fund the Ready to Read Corps – nearly $1 million from grants and the rest were donations from United Way of Central Ohio, the Siemer Family Foundation, JPMorgan Chase and Nationwide Insurance Foundation. I believe that education is the great equalizer and I am grateful that Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Ready to Read Corps has allowed me this wonderful opportunity to make such a positive impact in the community.
Beyond my current work with Columbus Metropolitan Library, I have been highly involved in Somali diaspora issues. I believe that diaspora communities in America have the unique ability to form a critical link to, and have an impact in, their countries of origin. I co-founded End Famine (www.endfamine.com), a grassroots advocacy and fundraising initiative, to mobilize American and Somali communities to fundraise for famine relief and raise awareness of the impact of extreme poverty and the famine in the Horn of Africa. End Famine also seeks to support short-term and sustainable long-term solutions to famine through partnerships with local NGOs and increasing local ownership of relief efforts.
Somali-Americans as a whole are highly committed to addressing poverty in Somalia whether it is through sending remittances or volunteer work. When the greatest famine in the history of Somalia occurred in 2011, Somali-Americans of all backgrounds stepped up to provide famine relief. I am inspired by these everyday heroes and changemakers that are winning the future by uplifting and engaging their communities in service work. These heroes are Somali-Americans such as Hibak Kalfan, the co-founder and President of The African Future, and community activists in Ohio such as Roda Olad and Sahra Ahmed who worked tirelessly to fundraise for emergency relief efforts in Somalia. I co-founded Iftiin, the Somali Forum for Leadership and Development (www.iftiinleadership.org) to bring such Somalia diaspora changemakers together to find solutions to the issues affecting Somalia diaspora communities and to build better Somali leaders.
I strongly believe that in order to win the future, we as a country should support the future success of American children by investing in education and early literacy. As a Somali-American, I am deeply committed in working to reduce economic disparities and poverty in America and extreme poverty in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.
Sagal Ali is a Program Lead with the Ready to Read Corps, an early literacy initiative of Columbus Metropolitan Library that seeks to improve educational outcomes for low-income communities. Ali is also co-founder of Iftiin, the Somali Forum for Leadership and Development.