“Sahan,” said Sahan Journal founder Mukhtar Ibrahim, “is a beautiful Somali word which means pioneer.” He explained that when faced with a drought, the ancient nomadic villagers of East Africa would search for greener pastures by sending out the sahans: “The most trusted figures in the community doing the scouting and coming back with reliable information.”
The Sahan Journal is a Minnesota news outlet focused on immigrant communities and communities of color. When Ibrahim started the Sahan Journal in 2019, he became a pioneer himself, venturing into the uncharted lands of starting a publication from scratch.
“The first six months I was like, ‘What am I doing?’”
A former reporter for the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio, Ibrahim would email story ideas about immigrant communities and communities of color to an editor, which weren’t utilized. He would open the paper and not find stories he could relate to.
“You question being there in that newsroom that doesn’t really value stories about your community,” he said. “So, you either put your head down, do your work, meet the deadlines and go home disappointed, or you take the risk and do something that will address the need.”
Celebrating the journal’s two-year anniversary, Ibrahim now has a better idea of what he is doing and says that the risk paid off. He runs a full-time staff of 10 people.
Race quotas, insufficient staff diversity and story restrictions that hinder mainstream newsrooms are no longer a problem for Ibrahim in Sahan Journal’s newsroom. “We don’t say, ‘We had this community yesterday. We don’t have to cover it today,’” Ibrahim said. “People continue to dream big and write all the stories that they want to pursue.”
The stories keep coming. Readers see stories relevant to their lives, and in return they call and email ideas for more. “They see their communities being valued,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim said the Sahan Journal sets the agenda by showing “there are stories besides tragedies and breaking news” about people of color that can be shared.
Whether sharing successes or exposing injustices, the Sahan Journal is rooted in providing trusted services to its communities. In 2020, a new responsibility arose: keeping the community safe.
COVID-19 hit communities of color hard, and from the early stages of the pandemic, Ibrahim and his team went to work publishing COVID-19 guidelines in languages like Hmong and Somali.
Essentials were the minimum for Ibrahim. He wanted to take a “holistic approach” that showed the full impact of COVID-19 on communities, whether tragic or inspiring. For example, partnering with the University of Minnesota journalism program, Sahan Journal published a series of obituaries for people of color and immigrants.
“Coronavirus killed a lot of people from our communities,” Ibrahim said.
Sahan Journal also published features of community members helping out in health care. As the vaccinations rolled out, Sahan Journal launched a vaccination FAQ series featuring trusted leaders of the community. Staff wanted to give “the microphone to the community and let them address issues in their own voices,” Ibrahim said.
COVID-19 continues to shape the newsroom, having uncovered inequities in health systems, housing, insurance and education. Ibrahim plans to expand Sahan Journal’s coverage across Minnesota to represent more communities. Ibrahim will continue to build on his vision to become a sahan for communities across Minnesota.
He also encourages others to follow his lead and break away from mainstream media.
“If you are a person of color in the newsroom you face a lot of challenges, and you cannot do anything about it because you are within the system. So as soon as you step out of the system, you can dream big and pursue things that you care about.”