Co-creating a True Justice System

November 18, 2020


What will it take to transform the justice system? 

In late 2019, three of Minnesota’s largest community foundations committed to working together to find out. 

Acknowledging that the current system is rooted in longstanding racism, Greater Twin Cities United Way, The Minneapolis Foundation, and the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation realized that the path forward would require learning from, supporting, and partnering with the Black and Brown people most directly impacted by racialized disparities and inequities. So they dedicated themselves to a shared effort to drive transformational systemic change by working with local communities to co-create solutions and then funding their implementation.

Recognizing that they needed someone to lead their effort and support their partnership with the broader community, in early 2020 the foundations posted a Collaboration Director job description.

With a track record of helping a variety of organizations—from academia to local government to foundations—achieve real change, Culture of Health Leader Huda Ahmed was uniquely positioned for the role. Reading the position description, she saw three crucial ideas: co-creation, power-sharing, and transformation. Together, those words reflected her most deeply held values and her understanding of what it takes to create a more just and equitable society.

Excited by the foundations’ groundbreaking approach—rooted in co-leadership with communities—Ahmed saw that it had the potential to drive fundamental change in the seven-county Twin City metro region and beyond. The foundations’ vision was also perfectly aligned with her career trajectory and skills, including her aptitude for building relationships and bridging gaps between communities and institutions.

In early May, Ahmed got word from the foundations: They wanted her to direct their collaborative effort. 

Weeks later—on May 25, 2020—Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, sparking nationwide public protests and increased demands for radical changes in policing. The fundamental and racialized injustices built into the justice system had never been clearer. 

Eleven days after Floyd’s death, the foundations announced their joint initiative and Ahmed’s leadership of the work. Grounded in a deep understanding of equity, systemic injustice, and the power of community voice, she has spent the past several months working with the foundations and with local communities: listening, building relationships, developing a plan, and getting community input on the plan.

“We’re at a critical moment here in Minnesota,” Ahmed said. “There was a time for reform—for fixing what’s there—but that moment has passed. This effort’s commitment to transformation—to a deep remaking for the future—means that we are open to wherever the community process leads us.”

Over the past few months, Ahmed has also drawn on the wisdom and support of her fellow Culture of Health Leaders. Stan Andrisse, Fatimah Loren Dreier, Catoya Roberts, and Caitlin Dunklee have deepened her understanding of issues central to conversations about the justice system. “The network of other leaders has been really powerful,” she said. “My colleagues have helped solidify what I already knew and reinforced my commitment to and vision of co-creation.”

This fall, Ahmed is putting her plan into action, kicking off the effort with a community process—including interviews, listening sessions, focus groups, and surveys—designed to define both problems and solutions. 

“Community-driven solutions are critical,” she said. “We want to identify areas for change, then have a community visioning process to create transformative change in policy and other parts of the system.”

Ahmed knows that transforming the justice system is essential to building a Culture of Health. “It’s all health,” she said. “I truly believe that.”