Trees. Water. Soil.

Creating the 'Eco-Mosque': Kenya McKnight Ahad

Masjid An-Nur is leveraging nature to protect their place of worship from climate threats.

A smiling Kenya McKnight Ahad stands in front of a tan building with grass and rocks forming a bioswale.
Kenya McKnight Ahad Sitting in the bioswale garden she created at Masjid An-Nur mosque in Minneapolis, Kenya soaks in the sunshine. © Alora Jones/TNC

When her mosque was having problems with flooding, Kenya McKnight Ahad didn’t just stand by. A community leader and activist who runs a nonprofit on behalf of Black women, she went right to work.

Illustration of birds, fish, squirrels and deer among the trees, water and soil.
Trees. Water. Soil. A campaign by The Nature Conservancy that explores the climate solutions that exist all around us and the Minnesotans who are already using them. © TNC

McKnight Ahad has been a member of Masjid An-Nur, a Sunni Muslim mosque in north Minneapolis, since the early part of this millennium. The community is the oldest Muslim community in Minnesota and the mosque is a prominent institution in north Minneapolis. In addition to its faith work, Masjid An-Nur operates the second largest food pantry in the community, provides rental support and housing to those in need and supports environmental justice efforts.

A few years ago, Masjid An-Nur was having problems every time it rained. The parking lot is on a level six feet above the mosque’s doors, and when it rained, runoff from the parking lot flooded the building, causing damage. Masjid An-Nur was using sandbags and blowers to handle the water, but it wasn’t a longterm solution.

Nature's Solutions to Climate Problems

McKnight Ahad saw the flooding as an environmental justice issue and used her experience in transportation policy and her professional contacts to develop a plan to address it. As CEO of the Black Women’s Wealth Alliance, a public-benefit corporation she founded in 2014 that works to improve the economic stability and prosperity of Black women, McKnight Ahad has a background in community development, economic development and transportation policy. As a result of her work experience, she knew there were resources available through government agencies to address her mosque’s flooding issue.

Kenya McKnight Ahad (4:14) A woman of faith and action, Kenya McKnight Ahad is truly a leader in her community. When her beloved Minneapolis mosque was experiencing flooding from Minnesota’s increased heavy rainfalls, she didn’t waste time.

Masjid An-Nur’s Imam, Makram El-Amin provided guidance, support and leadership, and helped steer the implementation process. With help from Imam El-Amin, McKnight Ahad reached out to the Metropolitan Council, Hennepin County, Metro Blooms and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization for assistance. She shared with El-Amin the options for solutions and applied for government grants to offset the costs of construction.

Masjid An-Nur eventually hired Metro Blooms to develop a stormwater management system. The $300,000-project to mitigate the flooding took two years to complete and was finished in early 2021.

Aerial view of Masjid An-Nur in north Minneapolis.
Flooding Woes This Minneapolis mosque's property includes a parking lot that sits six feet above the building's doors, which previously caused problems during rain events. © Stan Tekiela
Bioswale project showing newly planted greenery, rock dams and grass.
Nature-Based Solutions By installing a bioswale and series of small rain gardens, Masjid An-Nur was able to divert stormwater away from the mosque and tackle their flooding issues using nature. © Dudley Edmondson

The end result is a bioswale—a channel planted with vegetation that carries stormwater. The area includes a patio where people can sit, trees, space for a vegetable garden and a system of retaining walls. Now that flooding in the building has been addressed, the mosque can provide uninterrupted programming to its community.

“I’m smiling because it’s my baby. I feel so connected to this place,” McKnight Ahad says. “It’s beautiful, and it was quite a process to get here. But we have a nice plaza now and it still looks beautiful in the winter.”

Illustration of birds, fish, squirrels and deer among the trees, water and soil.

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Residents in north Minneapolis know the asthma rate is higher, and they know why it’s higher.

Investing in Community Health and Resilience

The environmental benefits of the new system are significant. Bioswales prevent flooding and filter pollutants out of runoff, leading to cleaner rivers and lakes and reducing the need for costly municipal stormwater treatment. They also beautify urban spaces and provide useful habitat for birds, butterflies and other pollinators. The vegetation on Masjid An-Nur’s new bioswale will also promote cleaner air in a community where asthma rates are disproportionately high.

Projects like Masjid An-Nur’s matter in communities like north Minneapolis. Polluting industries are more common in north Minneapolis than they are in other parts of the Twin Cities metro area. Periodically, dangerous levels of air pollution are recorded near those industries. Residents in north Minneapolis know the asthma rate is higher, and they know why it’s higher. They understand the impact environmental projects have on health and quality of life.

A Beacon for the Community

The bioswale project at Masjid An-Nur is a centerpiece of sorts in its commitment to the environment, and it solidifies their identity as an “eco-mosque.” For the members of Masjid An-Nur, that means stepping up and tackling environmental challenges to benefit their members and the larger north Minneapolis community. McKnight Ahad says, “as a result of Imam El-Amin’s involvement, we are now recognized as an environmental leader in the Muslim community and in the north Minneapolis community.”

McKnight Ahad explains, “Masjid Al-Nur means the Mosque of Light, and we want to be a beacon for the community, starting with our property and setting an example for things like recycling, gardening, use of space, water management and generally being good stewards of the environment.”

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