Feminist Hero Friday: Ilhan Omar

Original image by Richard Marshall for MPR News.

Original image by Richard Marshall for MPR News.

by Abaki Beck

Our Feminist Hero Friday this week is Ilhan Omar, who was recently elected to the Minnesota State Legislature. Omar became the first Somali American Muslim to reach this level of public office. She also works as the Director of Policy and Initiatives for Women Organizing Women, a local organization that works to empower East African immigrant women to become more engaged with politics.

Omar’s election was not only significant in that she was a “first,” but because it came just days after President-Elect Donald Trump disgustingly said at a rally that Minnesotans had “suffered enough” from Somali refugees. After her election, Omar noted: "Our campaign has been about more than just uniting a district, more than winning back the house, more than making history...Our campaign has been about shifting narratives, restoring hope and re-establishing access in our democracy."

Omar was born in Somalia and lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for several years as a young girl. Her family came to the United States in 1995, when she was thirteen. After living in Virginia, their family settled in Minneapolis, where she continues to reside. Omar became involved in politics at a young age - translating for her grandfather at Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party caucus meetings in Minnesota. In high school, she became a student activist. After college, Omar began a career in public health, working as a Community Nutrition Educator at the University of Minnesota and a Child Nutrition Outreach Coordinator, also at the University of Minnesota. Later, she served on the campaign of Andrew Johnson, and worked for him after he was elected to the Minneapolis City Council.

Omar has said her top priorities in the House will be to empowering women entrepreneurs, criminal justice reform, and advocating for environmental issues. While working for city council, she assisted with a number of significant changes in those areas, including: creating advisory round tables for small businesses run by immigrants, people of color, and women; expanding restorative justice practices throughout Minneapolis; and the formation of a task force to study the disparate impacts of pollution on people of color. Besides advocating for progressive policy issues, Omar is passionate about increasing access to the political system, particularly for immigrants and members of the East African community in Minneapolis. Women Organizing Women, where she is the Director of Policy and Initiatives, provides policy education and trainings for East African immigrant women to become more engaged with politics. Additionally, Omar is the co-founder of the New Americans PAC, which similarly works to engage immigrants with the political process.

Today, we celebrate Omar as a brave advocate, mother of three, and new politician who is paving the way for other immigrant and Muslim women like her. It is not only essential for elected representatives, like Omar, to advocate for underrepresented communities, but for these communities to continue to be empowered and engaged with politics. Omar recognizes the vital importance of both policy change and community engagement in strengthening marginalized communities. We wish her the best in her new position.