New politics

Interview with Ilhan Omar, the first-ever Somali-American member of Congress
Current affairs | 4 January 2019
Interview James West

On 9th August 2016, Ilhan Omar ousted incumbent State Representative Phyllis Kahn to win the primary in Minnesota’s District 60B. Sworn in on 2nd January 2017, Omar became the first Somali-American Muslim woman to hold office at that level. Inside HEROINE 6, we interviewed Omar about this achievement.

Yesterday came another milestone, both in Omar’s career and US politics, as she was sworn in to Congress, becoming the first-ever Somali-American member of Congress. It’s a historic feat that represents a momentous gear-change for ground-up politics in the state and nationwide. More than that, it offers a stark wake-up call, made all the more poignant in the context of a divisive 2016 general election that saw a horrific normalisation of prejudice.

Armed with the understanding that education, resilience and steadfast determination are invaluable tools in the fight toward a fairer country, Omar understands first-hand the many faces of underrepresented America, and plans to fight for them all.

Here, we revisit our interview with Omar as she takes her new position at the vanguard of a new political era in America.

James West: What do you think spurred the change in the way people voted in your district?
Ilhan Omar: We have a diverse district, and for a long time people were comfortable with a representative that voted the ‘right’ way – didn’t do anything to upset them but didn’t do anything extraordinary; it was comfortable. But I believed that we needed someone who was going to be a champion, someone who really cared about all of our voices and the diverse issues here. Phyllis Kahn was elected so long ago and didn’t believe in a bottom-up process of creating that shared vision. So we knew that we needed to work on relationship building, to have conversations and try to innovate. I think that having a campaign run by millennials helped as well… A lot of energy and new ideas.

James: What issues do you feel are most important to the people who voted for you, and what kind of innovation do you think your campaign brought to the table?
IIhan: OK, let me give you a little background about the district. We have a lot of young people – there are two college campuses. We also have a lot of long-term residents and new Americans who are mainly East African. And so something that is important to a lot of people here is accessible and affordable higher education, it’s an issue that resonates with everyone. Either they are in college themselves right now and are dealing with the higher cost of tuition or they, like myself, are paying off their debts. There is also an older generation – the baby boomers – who understand that education was very accessible for them and that it has been lost.


“I knew that we had to try some new things in order to increase [voter] turn-out and to engage people beyond identity politics.”

If they want a [new] generation that is helpful to the economy so that they can retire peacefully, they need to alleviate that burden of high costs for higher education. So that was an issue we had a conversation about inter-generationally, because often people would only talk about these issues with students, and didn’t think it would be something that would resonate with everyone. But I believed it was – and it did. The second issue that is huge for us is criminal justice reform, it’s dear to my heart. I believe in making sure this country – which has ideals of liberty and justice for all – is actually living out these ideals through its systems by focusing on rehabilitation. And thirdly, our district is one of progressives, so environmental issues were big. For a long time we’ve had discussions about being environmentally friendly, and being champions for the environment, but nobody challenged what that actually meant.

So now we are interested in divesting from fossil fuels, both on campuses and also state-wide. So we knew that a one-size-fits-all model for campaigning wasn’t going to work for us. I’ve always played around with the idea of creating accessibility when it comes to democracy. I came here as an immigrant and spent the last two decades – from the age of fourteen – working with my grandfather and other new immigrants making the system more accessible for them. I knew that we had to try some new things in order to increase [voter] turn-out and to engage people beyond identity politics. We had to bring the issues to them, so that they felt they were stakeholders in the process.

“We wanted to create a process where people would invite their friends into the conversation.”

For the long-term residents who are mainly white, we knew that neighbourhood conversations would be a good idea, in their homes with neighbours. And so we did that, it helped get rid of the ‘otherness’ that I represented, and also to get rid of that complacency they felt in the representation they had before I came. In the last one of these primaries that happen in August, the highest number of students that voted was 123. We knew in order for us to win, we needed students to fully participate, and we knew that social media was going to play a huge role in that. Just having the normal conversation of ‘politics and social change’ with someone who they didn’t know and who they didn’t have a relationship with wasn’t going to work. We wanted to create a process where people would invite their friends into the conversation. People would interact with their friends on social media, tag them, and not say, “I need you to vote for Ilhan,” but instead, “Come and meet Ilhan, here’s why I care, here’s what she stands for.” So it would be an invitation to take action. We also tweeted a lot. We know people are busy and we created a text message system to send reminders for people to find out where their polling places were, to see if they had a voting plan and where they could contact us for more information.
So the young people that ended up choosing to become part of the campaign were bridge-builders to their friends becoming involved as well. We ended up with over 250 local volunteers for the campaign and over 400 overall volunteers who went out and door-knocked for us for nine months.

James: How do you feel about the label of the first Somali-American female legislator? Because your work doesn’t just deal with race and immigration, as you said, it deals with environment and advocating for women and investment in mental health. Do you feel it’s a distraction or a positive thing?
Ilhan: Being the ‘first’ is sometimes a blessing and a curse. For me, I think the blessing is that I represent identities that are often marginalised and underrepresented in politics and society positively. I’m proud of the fact that there is this positive news of what people who represent all of my identities are able to do. Whether it’s a young woman, a mother of three, a Muslim, a Somali. All of those things are getting a positive play in the media which is exciting.
The negative side is that it can be distracting from the real issues and the real reasons why I ran. I didn’t run to break a record and be a first, I ran because those particular progressive issues that I cared about weren’t getting the attention that they deserved. I wanted to be a voice for that. So I’m actually pretty happy with the media that is surrounding the idea of being the first, because there’s also positive media on the things that I care about, people are covering that as well.

James: A lot of the ideas that were key to your campaign you would hope are ideas that are important to everyone; advocating for women, for diversity and supporting minority groups, and they were key themes in the wider Democratic general election campaign. From your experience on the ground, what do you think caused a vote that appears to be in the opposite direction, for Trump? A vote that wasn’t so much about inclusiveness or diversity.
Ilhan: On the right, they were able to tap into a particular underlying economic anxiety. This idea of scapegoating and rhetoric in politics excited a different base. That is what happens when you convince people it is because of diversity that we have economic hardships, that it’s because of ‘these people’ that we are struggling, and that’s the most dangerous campaign rhetoric that we’ve seen here in the United States. You know, it’s these ideas of fascism that are finding roots within our society, it’s disheartening and alarming.

James: At this point, when many people will be disheartened with the political process, what do you think is most important for the younger generations to consider to get us moving in the right direction. Is it just about voting?
Ilhan: Often when we think about the younger generation, we’re only having a conversation about them being future leaders. For me, in our campaign, it was really important for young people to understand that they are the leaders of today, not the leaders of tomorrow. Because what they do today sets the trajectory of what tomorrow looks like for them. Yes, voting and being a full citizen is one way to engage. But to show up in their society is also important, in contributing to causes they care about and making sure they are having conversations as to what kind of future that they want, and what steps they can take today to assure that future.


“I think, when it comes to young people, when it comes to minorities and when it comes to women, there is often an unspoken rule of needing to feel like you’ve been granted permission to partake in society and in politics.”

James: What do you think can be done on a wider scale socially to combat religious tension in the US? There’s been a rise in Islamophobia, how do we get people talking about it properly, constructively without just slipping into sensationalism?
Ilhan: I think that the danger has always been the ‘othering’ of these situations. I like to go back to the ideals of America. A lot of people came to this nation because it offers religious freedom, and it was in our constitution that it’s granted to all of us. To uphold one particular faith as the faith of this country isn’t really what it’s all about. When we’re talking about the immigrants and having a conversation about this idea of scarcity when it comes to new immigrants taking over, we forget that it’s not too long ago that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were considered those kinds of immigrants. Unless you are indigenous to this nation, we are all immigrants. Everyone came and the first immigrants – they weren’t welcome. There wasn’t a process set up for them to arrive. But they came and they settled, whether peacefully or not, found peace here and contributed and made a home for themselves. And that’s why I like to remind people what our nation’s history is about. So we don’t all have amnesia about who we are and how we got here.

James: For marginalised people that wanted to get involved, from whatever background, how do you push those glass ceilings?
Ilhan: I think, when it comes to young people, when it comes to minorities and when it comes to women, there is often an unspoken rule of needing to feel like you’ve been granted permission to partake in society and in politics. I remember at a young age, just showing up without permission and without invitation to rooms where discussions were being had about representation and societal change. Often people were confused about why I was there and what my purpose was. For me, I always felt that I lived here and that I had something to contribute. So that’s what I tell communities that are living in the margins of society – we have an equal right to these spaces. It’s sometimes painful to be in the room where you feel unwanted. But ultimately, you should own it and make something out of it. So I would say just show up.

Interview originally published in HEROINE 6.


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