Tony Sanneh

Tony Sanneh

Looking down a soccer field, you take stock of the obstacles between you and the goal. There’s no one set way to progress, no certain path that will close the distance between you and the goalkeeper. The object is never to let them stop your forward momentum. 

Today, navigating an education isn’t dissimilar. And in a country of haves and have-nots, some kids are looking at a field with far greater obstacles than their peers. 

In the last 30 years, the number of Minnesotans born outside the United States has more than tripled. This shift has been led by an influx of immigrant and refugee families, primarily in greater Minneapolis and St. Paul. Our cities’ growing diversity is a point of pride and an incredible shared strength. But meeting the challenges of a transforming population means we have to pay special attention to those who are getting left behind. 

When I retired from my career as a professional soccer player, I came back to my hometown of St. Paul and dedicated myself to engaging the low-income and minority kids that were getting lost in our public schools. We founded the Sanneh Foundation, which works in and around schools to improve student lives by providing programs that strengthen physical health and social and emotional development, and unite communities by advancing diversity, equity, and community well-being. Today, the programs we run organize soccer leagues and sports camps, provide in-school advocates in Twin Cities Public Schools, and support a local community center.

Using digital tools, we were able – over the course of five years – to grow the Sanneh Foundation from a one-program, local operation with a budget of $60,000 into a change-making six-program campaign with an annual budget of over $3.5 million. Internally, scaling has been easy using such tools a Google Non-Profits. 

Recognizing the value of these technology platforms is crucial in today’s political and regulatory environment, perhaps most alarmingly represented by the announcement that attorneys general from across the U.S. are filing an investigation into several high-profile tech companies like Google and Facebook. While the outcome of this investigation is yet to be determined, it’s important that our elected officials take into account the value that these companies’ digital tools bring to advocacy organizations and the communities we serve. 

The work we do is not easy. It’s why communicating about our successes, internally, is so important. When one of our fellows, Heidi, was able to open a dialogue with a dejected student, he told her that he had a passion for student government, and a calling to change the way school works, with more focus on discovery and less on repetition. To the benefit of our staff and the thousands of other students we work with, we have access to an open source of shared data and materials accessible anywhere we go, and we were able to instantly share insights from Heidi’s experience across our team and target ways to engage similarly disaffected students. 

As Minnesota looks out at the field of obstacles we’ll face in the coming years, we’re learning both from the victories in our work and the difficulties we encounter. Let’s not add to these obstacles by demonizing the very tools that community organizations like ours use day in and day out to better the lives of those around us. Community leaders must ensure we continue to expand and protect the array of digital tools that have enabled the Sanneh Foundation’s growth and encourage the technological innovation that propels us forward.

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