Black Community Building Collective: Voices of Tomorrow
The Black Community Building Collective is a coalition of 15 Black-led organizations brought together by United Way of King County to build relationships, form strategies that impact the Black community and implement those strategies with United Way funding that cedes decision-making power to communities. The Collective launched in 2020 to invest $3 million in local, Black-led organizations. We’ve invested an additional $1.5 million in 2022 and we anticipate more funding in later years.
United Way features monthly spotlights of Collective members. This month, we’re spotlighting Voices of Tomorrow, a Burien-based organization that aims to reduce educational disparities for East African immigrant and refugee children statewide. We stopped by Bow Lake Elementary School in SeaTac, one of six schools that houses a Voices of Tomorrow program, to chat with Voices of Tomorrow policy and advocacy manager Sumaya Ali.
United Way of King County: What are the origins of Voices of Tomorrow?
Sumaya Ali: Iftin Hagimohammed [now chief financial officer] and Zamzam Mohamed [now chief executive officer] were the co-founders of Voices of Tomorrow. They both were early learning teachers and they started Voices of Tomorrow because they saw that there was a lack of congruency in King County regarding services that the East African community could access. They started working with their community to understand what problems they were facing accessing early learning support.
They started in Iftin’s basement 10 years ago, and Voices of Tomorrow has blossomed since then into providing wraparound support for the entire community. Although everything we do is based on the children with an early learning focus, we provide plenty of other sources to make sure the whole child is being supported. We focus especially on cultural preservation.
United Way of King County: Which area of King County does Voices of Tomorrow serve?
Sumaya Ali: For our preschool programs, we have six classrooms, including this one at Bow Lake Elementary School. We have two classrooms at Thorndike Elementary School in Tukwila and two classrooms in South Seattle and a school at the Boys and Girls Club in West Seattle. We also work with providers all over Washington with their own preschools in their homes.
United Way of King County: What are the countries represented in your programs?
Sumaya Ali: It’s predominantly East African—Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. We also help and work with other immigrants and refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.
United Way of King County: How did you get into this work?
Sumaya Ali: I got into this work about seven years ago. Policy and advocacy has always been my passion. I’m also Somali; Washington is one of the first states my family immigrated to when they moved to the United States. And Thorndike Elementary was my first school as well. I really believe in this work because growing up I saw that my parents didn’t have as much support as we give to our parents today. A lot of this work are things I wish I had growing up, all of these services that we provide to our families.
United Way of King County: How are needs, lessons and learnings from these schools different from a school that doesn’t have this level of diversity?
Sumaya Ali: What we’re really trying to do at Voices of Tomorrow is preserve culture and identity. We want to make sure that when they do come to America, they don’t have complete culture shock. When they come into our classrooms, they will see things translated into their native languages. We have foods that they are used to. We have teachers who understand them. A lot of schools don’t have that.
What we’re really trying to do at Voices of Tomorrow is preserve culture and identity. We want to make sure that when they do come to America, they don’t have complete culture shock.Voices of Tomorrow policy and advocacy manager Sumaya Ali
United Way of King County: Given a recent report that students of color are now the majority in Washington state public schools, how will that and organizations like Voices of Tomorrow change education in the state and, in particular, King County.
Sumaya Ali: As Samantha Grono, Voices of Tomorrow policy and advocacy specialist has stated, we do know that the majority of teachers are white, and in particular white women. Being able to start at the youngest age and preserve culture and language especially—so that kids can see themselves in the classroom—is the most important piece. When we start at the earliest ages like Voices of Tomorrow does, as they grow older and get into the public school system, at least they have some cultural preservation. They know who they are going into those spaces.
Hopefully, as Washington is going to try to push some cultural diversity in the workforce, that is what Voices of Tomorrow is starting [to do] as well. All of our lead teachers are Somali or East African women. They are able to provide those dual language programs that we teach our kiddos with, where they can go home and talk to their parents in their native languages. We want to make sure there is congruency and as they grow into the public school system, they will have that foundation after leaving Voices of Tomorrow.
United Way of King County: How many students go through your program each year?
Sumaya Ali: About 120 students, and that’s just for direct services with our preschools. We also work with providers, when early learning child care is done in a home setting, and we help them get their licenses and certification. With those included, there are 220 students enrolled.
United Way of King County: What do you hope to see in these students 10 years from now as a result of being enrolled in Voices of Tomorrow?
Sumaya Ali: I would hope to see them still be very true to who they are culturally, their identity—that they still have a strong sense of who they are and where they come from—but also knowing where they’re currently at.