The New Face of a City of 50,000 People


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When Nadia Mohamed arrived as a 10-year-old refugee in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, she remembers, there were no faces that resembled hers. On Nov. 7, as the 27-year-old mayor-elect, she became the new face of the city of 50,000.

Mohamed will become the country’s first elected Somali-American mayor on Jan. 2, after she completes her term as a City Council member — a seat she won at 23, becoming the youngest person, the first Muslim and the first Somali-American to serve in that body. Her family migrated to Kenya after the civil war in Somalia, and she lived in the Kakuma refugee camp until she was about 10.

Election Day also brought mayoral milestones in Philadelphia, where Cherelle Parker became the first woman and the first Black woman to win the position, and in Wichita, Kan., where Lily Wu became the first Asian American elected to that office.

In St. Louis Park, whose population is 80 percent white, Ms. Mohamed centered her campaign on increasing homeownership and community policing. I recently spoke with her, and our conversation below has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you had a political awakening? Or did the need to become the change you wanted to see happen gradually?

2016. I was going to college, and I grew up with Michelle Obama and Barack Obama. I had only known a Black president, and one that ran on unity.

And then in 2016, here came this candidate who attacked the Somali community in Minnesota. Oh my gosh, is this politics in America?

It was my first time being able to vote in a presidential election. I remember feeling like I was not at ease. Is my face the kind that America wants?

So I started reaching out to my neighbors, organizations and our Police Department. I connected people and had those dialogues. Not only did it add to my sense of belonging, but other people felt like they belonged here, regardless of what was happening outside St. Louis Park. I was then asked to run for office. It opened up a possibility of political life and how I could make an impact.

The experience of that election was an awakening. I think a lot of people woke up.

You handily won this race. How did you get people interested in civic participation and build a coalition?

What really helped was reminding people that I grew up in St. Louis Park. I lived in many of the neighborhoods that I was door-knocking in during the campaign, and people recognized me and they knew the work that I was doing.

What was really inspiring was the college students and high school students going out after their classes and obligations. The older generations would see that and said it was amazing. We need the younger generation to be active in their civic duty and participate. We actually got the biggest turnout in St. Louis Park in at least 30 years.

What has been the biggest takeaway from your experience as an elected official?

Government is slow, and it should be slow.

When we are not being intentional with our policies, we’re not doing our jobs right. Being fast is an easy route to making mistakes.

“This is a milestone — this is not the destination,” you said after your election. What do you mean by that?

It’s important to note that I’m Black, Somali-American, a woman. We still have so much work to do and often BIPOC elected officials don’t get their stories told beyond their identities.

I want people to be proud of the work that we’ve done. It’s a testament of how hard we worked as a community to be inclusive. And it’s just the first chapter.

The world doesn’t automatically become more equitable just because we have a person of color at the seat.

Black Americans live a complex existence when they live and go to work and go to school in spaces that are largely controlled by white people. Sometimes they can’t be their authentic selves. You appear to have overcome that challenge. If that is right, how do you think you resisted that tension?

Resisting that tension isn’t something that I’ve overcome. It’s something I will continue to experience, and I will use the people in my network, whether it’s my neighbors or colleagues, to help me fight that.

It’s also important to acknowledge that we have had our fair share of discriminatory policies in Minnesota. For example, we see higher rates of white Americans in St. Louis Park who own their homes versus people of color.

How we advocate and implement policies that lead to equitable impact starts with recognizing our history. Now we have a first-generation home buyers program. We have to be aware of who’s being impacted and what barriers remain. I’m in a unique spot where I have lived experience to be able to speak to that.

If you can be immodest for a moment, what can others learn from your life story and your successful campaign?

Honestly, even being immodest, I didn’t get here by myself. It takes a coalition who truly supports you. A little courage doesn’t hurt.

Who are your political role models?

I’ve spoken with mayors in the area who’ve offered their support and advice. But I’m more of a Maya Angelou girl. In my heart of hearts, I am a poet. It’s even in my Somali culture — we are a people of poetry and oral languages. She has long commented on the injustices of the world in a beautiful way. I take her with me everywhere I go.

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