Hamse Warfa has worked at the intersection of community building, philanthropy and social entrepreneurship for the past 20 years. He is deeply passionate about rewriting and changing the social and economic 'rules' and systems that marginalize and exclude people from opportunities to live their lives with dignity. Warfa is the founder and principal of Tayo Consulting Group LLC, a professional services firm comprised of cross-sector experts in human development and poverty solutions. Warfa is also the co-founder and executive vice president of BanQu, a technology company working to eradicate poverty by connecting the unbanked to the global economy.

A Q&A with Hamse Warfa

Tell us about yourself, what were some formative moments in your life and career as they relate to race?

I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia in the late 1970s. When my birth country became a war theater after the outbreak of civil war, each day was a blessing and a curse. For instance, toward the end of my family’s journey in the refugee camps, I thought we were at a safe village in Kenya. But one afternoon, tribesman raided our destitute settlement with machetes, slaughtering those in their way and setting fire to shelters. 

And then something extraordinary happened. One of the young people my brother befriended from the hostile tribe, a boy named Salim, appeared in our doorway and announced he had convinced the attackers to spare our family. Salim insisted he would protect us for no other reason than because we were good people. His promise was true. The Red Cross eventually arrived and we stumbled out into a wasteland, vowing to seek asylum in another country as soon as possible. That country became America, and I am here today because of many people like Salim.

I thought America would deliver freedom from post-colonial clan and tribal conflict in East Africa. My first American home in Denver had been quite peaceful, but I got my first taste of racial tension when my brothers discovered our vehicle’s tires punctured. And again. And then again! Eventually the culprit placed a note with a racial slur on our front windshield. This terrified my widowed mother, who was home alone most of the time. We decided to move to San Diego, where many Somali speakers had settled.

My perspective on race relations in America matured quickly after my “second migration." San Diego often reminded me of how we had survived the bad days in the refugee camps. In our adopted neighborhood of City Heights, I often didn’t feel safe walking to and from school, especially early mornings and late evenings. Crime was rife, especially prostitution, drugs and gang life. In fact, City Heights was declared as ‘emergency area’ by the city in early 90s due to its level of decay and crime. My peers and I were frequently targeted as easy gang recruits. The police often never responded to calls for help. It wasn’t their ‘territory’.

School was even tougher. It seemed many of the neighborhood’s problems became concentrated in those corridors. There were many sporadic fights between Somalis and longer-term residents who felt threatened by the growing numbers of Somali immigrants in the area. There were also cultural misunderstandings and differences arising from dress styles, religion and anything else that could create a difference that was unnecessarily exaggerated to the point of causing perpetual tension. The worst street fights were often the ones between minority students, especially Somalis and long-term African American students due to lack of understanding of their respective history.

City Heights used to be a majority “white” neighborhood, but during the same years I was fleeing violence in Somalia, “white” families began fleeing City Heights to San Diego’s rapidly growing and bank financed suburbs. I had to learn the difference between malicious racism – a punctured tire, a hateful note, a heel to the head – and structural racism – in which some neighborhoods don’t get responsive and accountable police stations, the quality of education is substandard and many other problems.

My experiences with race and group conflict have instilled in me, since fleeing Mogadishu, a belief in the critical importance of working across social barriers, especially between communities of color and between long-term residents and newcomers. The education and well-being of children depends on it. But so does the effectiveness of our career pathways and workspaces. So much work happens in silos because we feel most effective as experts working in known cultural spaces. As adults, I firmly believe we always have room to grow as long as we believe in a kind of social progress that we rarely talk about – the progress of character. It is the kind of progress displayed by Salim, whose pagan and tribal background did not stop him from defending Muslim Somalis, risking retribution by members of his own tribe who would condemn him for disloyalty. This progress is about the radical courage to stand alone and stolid between both sides of a doorway that delineates us and them, individual identity and group identity, tradition and change.

What does this award mean to your work in the racial equity space?

I'm deeply honored to receive this award and appreciate The Saint Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations for recognizing the importance of this critical work. The contentious issues of racial justice, xenophobia and confronting ideological extremism at home and abroad are exerting great pressures on our fabric and seek to cause damage to the ever-evolving perfect union from which our forefathers laid strong foundations. This award could not have come at a more opportune time. With every challenge comes reward at the end, and I believe that with your commitment to tackling the challenging issue of race relations, we will, in the end, reap rewards from it. I am grateful to you for recognizing this important work.

What has been your greatest challenge?

I adamantly believe American society has seen amazing progress since the mid-90s in creating new policy frameworks, organizational tactics and cultural assets to create a more equitable society founded on mutual uplift, not hateful conflict. Our greatest challenge is now confronting and convincing the millions who want to stop this paradigm shift in actionable values and demographic make-up out of fear they will become victims of a new majority.

What has been your greatest reward?

Besides my beautiful wife and four active, brilliant, and smart young children and supportive family and friends, my greatest reward has been the ability to serve our increasingly borderless communities due to my increasing rootedness in the state of Minnesota. Since my journey as a refugee began, I have longed to be a valued member of a community. I am grateful to call Minnesota my home. Today, I am at a critical junction in this journey. Numerous nonprofits, corporations and government leaders have called on me to help address the structural challenges in our Minnesotan communities, especially among our youth and between people of different backgrounds.

What are your hopes and goals for the future of anti-racism efforts in this community?

My passion is to help rewrite and change the social and economic 'rules' and systems that marginalize and exclude people from opportunities to live their lives with dignity. Every day, I am spirited by the many conversations I have with people from many different backgrounds who deeply care about this critical work. They are students. They are wildly successful retired business owners. They are filmmakers. They are elected officials. They are leaders of small non-profits. They are teachers, single parents and meat packers. Through tragedy, luck, or in search of religious freedom, we are all here - more often than not working together. We all must tackle and dismantle the belief that there is human hierarchy. I am hopeful we can make huge dent against this belief.