How Ilhan Omar Became The First Somali-American Muslim To Win Public Office
The Minneapolis State Representative refuses to give into Trump’s politics of fear and division.
“Every day is a busy day,” said Ilhan Omar, the new State Representative from District 60B in Minneapolis, Minnesota, shaking off the cold and slipping her shoes onto a shelf by the front door of her local office. In the months since Omar was elected — the same night as Donald Trump — she’s had a nonstop schedule of legislative hearings, constituent visits, speaking engagements, community meetings, and interviews like this one, all marked with a deep sense of urgency for her and her constituents.
The 34-year-old mother of three is as directly affected by the current administration as any elected official in the country. As a Muslim, a proud African woman, a former refugee, and the country’s first Somali-American lawmaker, her life and career is at the confluence of Trump’s venom. Her district is the heart of one of the largest Somali communities outside of Mogadishu — the capital city where Omar was born and then forced to flee when she was 8 years old during the Somali civil war. It’s a community that just two days before the general election last November found itself the target of Trump’s persecution during a campaign stop in the state.
Not only does Omar represent a glimmer of hope for new Americans against the politics of division, but an example to follow for a Democratic party pressing for a path forward. The former Minneapolis city council policy analyst built a coalition of college students, East African immigrants, and longtime residents around a bold, forward-thinking platform: 15$ minimum wage, sweeping criminal justice reform, empowering women in politics and entrepreneurship, state divestment from fossil fuels, and closing the opportunity gap for students making their way through school. In doing so, she increased voter turnout by over 30 percent to unseat a 44-year incumbent.
At the end of another long week, Omar curled up in an office chair and discussed the problem of complacency, the power of authenticity, and why she invited the president to spend a day in her district.
You’ve said that your first inspiration to enter politics was translating for your grandfather at a caucus when you were a kid in Minneapolis. Can you point to any moments in your life that were foundational in the way you approach politics, particularly your commitment to social justice?
Ilhan Omar: The house I was born in in Somali was right next to a big market. A lot of beggars or panhandlers would be in front of our house constantly, and my grandfather and grandmother would always invite them in to have food with us, and have them take whatever was left over. My great-grandmother would get a discount from the meat market that was next door when they were closing because there was no refrigerators, and she would give meat to the people that worked around the house. And so, that particular care and the need to share was always part of my upbringing. I was always made aware of inequality in society, that there was a class system. In Somalia we have clan structures. My mother’s family is ethnically not Somali, and so we spoke often about what it meant to be “other” in that way.
In the aftermath of the election, many Americans are coming to terms with the fragility of democracy. Does your family’s background inform the way you see your duty to uphold democratic norms?
When you experience that kind of instability, you really appreciate and want to work hard to live in an environment that is free of that. I grew up under a dictatorship. I knew what it meant for people to not have the ability to freely express themselves. For my father and grandfather, the idea of coming to the United States and living under a democracy meant that they would have the freedoms of liberty, and justice for all would be extended to them, and that it would be extended to their children. I want to make sure that these ideals and the legacy that our country is supposed to uphold, does so.
You recently spoke out on the house floor against a bill that would potentially fine and imprison those who engage in protest and civil disobedience. Where do you see yourself working with protest movements that usually feel like they don’t have an elected official that has their back?
I am against complacency. I think we need protestors, we need organizers and we need agitators to constantly create urgency, so we don’t become complacent with the policies we create or the people we advocate for. We need to be constantly reminded that this is a representative democracy and we need to be in tune to what people are talking about. I think there is a space for the people who quietly organize too, who write note cards and make phone calls. But we also need the people on the streets and at our doors with the bullhorn, screaming for what they care about. There’s room for everyone to have their voices heard. As someone who thinks of themselves as a movement builder, I embody that. So whether that’s on the house floor or in other forms, I see myself as someone who brings the people with me and is not working for them, but working with them.
You increased turnout in your district by over 30 percent in your election. Why do you think your campaign resonated the way it did?
The system is currently set up in a way so that you don’t matter in the conversation, that politics is a space and a platform for certain people. We wanted to make sure that people saw themselves in the process and people understood that they had a stake in the game, that local government is supposed to function for them. We wanted to reach out to everyone, and that’s why I think we were able to increase voter turnout. We didn’t approach it like, “These types of people don’t get engaged in this process.” We thought, “Everyone will want to get involved, they just need to hear about it and be made aware.” Once you create that access, everyone has an ability to come in and participate.
“The system is currently set up in a way so that you don’t matter in the conversation, that politics is a space and a platform for certain people.” —Ilhan Omar
You also made proposals in your platform that weren’t designed around their political expediency, but that were really true to your values. How do you look at that relationship, between getting things done and raising the expectations of what can get done?
Another way of looking at why complacency happens is that we get so comfortable with what is the norm. Right now as a legislator, everyone thinks I’m supposed to say a certain thing or do a certain thing, and when I don’t they’re surprised like, “You’re a freshman aren’t you afraid about this?” It’s like, “No, this is not supposed to be about what my place is as a freshman or what my place is as a politician; I’m supposed to change the conversation and speak authentically and I’m supposed to put forth the things that are actually important.” I think all of us are looking for that authentic kind of leader; we’re pretty tired of political speeches and politicians with their well-formulated messaging and the ideas of what gets you elected and what doesn’t.
You recently visited Lino Lakes state prison and spoke with inmates, which we don’t see politicians do very often. Why is that important to you, and what reforms are you looking to make within criminal justice?
We see a person who commits a crime, and we think justice is served by punishing them and putting them away. We don’t think about how we’re collectively impacted by that crime. I think it’s an important piece for us to consider, what it means to have this person not a member of society anymore. I’ve been working on restorative justice for a long time, going to different jails and leading restorative justice circles with inmates. They’re an important group for us to have a conversation with, and talk about how we on the outside can enact criminal justice reform that’s truly impactful.
One thing I’m actively working on is closing the school-to-prison pipeline. I’ve introduced a bill that would prevent schools from hiring resource officers. Another reform I’m working on with other legislators is restoring the vote for felons. We’re working on a bill to create guidelines around solitary confinement and on creating prison policies that would allow women with headscarves to wear them while they’re in prison or going through booking, to create some dignity for them. I’m working on some policies around mandatory sentencing and I have a piece of legislation that will get rid of the grand jury process for police-involved shootings.
There’s a pattern of policing that’s fairly unique to the Twin Cities and other cities with large East African, majority Muslim communities, and that’s the different ways those communities are seen and treated by both local and federal law enforcement.
It’s hard being a triple minority right? I think about a lot of the young men in our communities particularly. For one, they are policed as black men in America, so that in itself has a huge impact on them. They are always seen as a criminal. You add the layer of them being Muslim, so now they’re not just a criminal, they’re seen as potential terrorists, so there’s further scrutiny. And then regardless of whether they were born here or not, they’re seen as an immigrant, and that I think those layers have a huge impact on the way that our community gets policed. The chances that we have for success gets limited. I think about the amount of surveillance and profiling that goes on; it’s hard. A lot of our community resources are delivered through the lens of anti-radicalization, which in itself is profiling. So it’s hard to have a narrative of excellence when every narrative that surrounds you is about your deficiencies and how you’re a threat to society.
You invited the president to spend a day with you. What would you want him to see?
There’s a misunderstanding of what immigrants are, what we care about and who is an immigrant. The truth is, we’re just like everyone else. We have the same dreams and aspirations and work as hard as everyone else does for them. I want the administration and our president to see us the same way they see every other American. To actually experience what the Somalis he wants to ban from this county care about, and look like and the dreams they have for their children, for themselves and for their country.
I’m sure by now you’re tired of hearing questions about being the “first.”
Yes! [laughs] Thank you for not asking me about that. But here it comes right?
You must be thinking about ways to make sure there’s a second, and third and fourth and so on. How do you plan on laying the groundwork for more marginalized women, East African women, immigrant women to become involved, who don’t usually see politics as a space for them?
I work for an organization called Women Organizing Women, and that is our mission and vision, to have first-generation and second-generation East African women in the public arena running for office or running others for office. It’s something I think about a lot, and for years I’ve been holding trainings for women who are interested in running for office. I’m looking forward to the second-generation of “firsts” — whatever that might be.