For Woodbury resident Ruth Cherinet, a church offers one of the strongest connections she feels to her Ethiopian heritage and community.

Cherinet said the unity she feels with the congregation at the Ethiopian Evangelical Church in St. Paul is somewhat rare in Minnesota's Ethiopian community.

Her parents' home county is home to at least 10 different ethnic groups, which can sometimes drive a wedge between Ethiopians both in Minnesota and abroad.

Rather than identifying as Ethiopian, Cherinet said many Ethiopian Minnesotans identify more with their specific ethnic group.

"At the moment, we're divided," she said. "The younger you are, you don't think about ethnicity. In youth group, you just think, 'I'm Ethiopian, and there's a whole bunch of other Ethiopians here.'"

The desire for stronger connections between the cultures was among the topics discussed at the first installment the Ethiopian Immersion and Innovation Lab Aug. 26 at Woodbury's Central Park.

A joint effort between the YMCA of Woodbury and Twin Cities-based Mission Impact Council, the four-piece series aims to identify the needs and prioritize opportunities for Ethiopian youth in Minnesota.

According to the 2008 U.S. Census American Community Survey, Minnesota is home to nearly 14,000 Ethiopians, many of whom live in the east metro. Leaders within the community estimate that number is much larger today.

Dr. Ramon Pastrano, president of ImpactLives Inc. and architect of the Immersion and Innovation experience, said the goal of the events is to inspire targeted communities to reach solutions to their problems.

"It's more powerful when the process we facilitate is the process of self-discovery; people realize they can contribute," Pastrano said. "When people discover that and move collectively to solve the problem, they realize there's more power in community-based problem solving than one organization. They were learning this process and can learn it again and again and again."

Strengths, struggles

The first event focused the Ethiopian community's strengths and struggles in five categories: youth leadership, cultural identity, health and wellness, employability and education.

Participants broke up into small groups matching both Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian community members with representatives from community organizations for discussion.

One of the most common concerns Ethiopian Minnesotans at the event discussed was preserving cultural connections while contributing to the larger community.

For Tibebu Ogeto, who lives in Oakdale, helping Ethiopian youth maintain their cultural identity, rather than feeling shame, is crucial to their success in Minnesota.

"I think it's good to teach them about their roots, so they'll be confident," he said. "They'll be empowered just by being Ethiopians. Everyone should be proud of their background - everybody. If you are confident about your background, you'll be OK in society."

Another struggle participants discussed is the language barrier some Ethiopian parents face as they raise children who were born in Minnesota and speak fluent English.

Teenagers who speak more English than their parents, Ogeto said, sometimes "feel that they know everything more than their parents" and don't listen to them.

Hedy Lemar Walls, chief social responsibility officer for the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, said this is common among children of non-English-speaking parents.

"Every community we've worked with that is either first or second generation immigrant communities are going through the same thing," Lamar Walls said during the discussion.

Despite the struggles participants discussed, Cherinet and Ogeto agreed that Woodbury offers Ethiopian youth ample access to employment and education.

As the events continue through September and October, participants will brainstorm ideas and work to build a prototype for possible solutions.

"Now the fun begins," Pastrano said of the next event Sept. 14. "It's not one person that will come up with one idea, it's a collective process. It's when people add 'and' to the end of the sentences that we see how the solutions really live within each of us."

Mission Impact Council has previously organized similar events with several different communities, the results of which include:

• Somali community members developed a multi-location system of culturally-specific community centers to expand the reach of their network.

• Native American youth established a youth movement aimed at improving employability, expanding education opportunities and preserving cultural identity.

• Members of the Latino community developed a mobile app to improve communication with schools and parents who don't speak English.


Future Immersion and Innovation Lab events

•Thursday, Sept. 14, 5-8 p.m.

•Thursday, Sept. 28, 5-8 p.m.

•Thursday, Oct. 12, 5-8 p.m.

Light meals will be provided at each event.