This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.
Updated Nov. 12, 11:30 a.m.
By Becky Z. Dernbach
When Thom Miller decided to step aside from the St. Louis Park City Council, he asked Nadia Mohamed to help him find someone to run for his seat who’d reflect the city’s increasing diversity.
After two weeks of searching, Mohamed decided she wanted it.
“I realized how much my voice is needed,” Mohamed, 23, said Wednesday morning after making history, winning Miller’s at-large seat to become the City Council’s first Muslim and first Somali member.
Mohamed won easily with 63 percent of the first-choice votes in the race to replace Miller. It sent a message that St. Louis Park is a place to “be inclusive in the day-to-day decision-making levels in the city,” she said.
Mohamed came to St. Louis Park as a Somali refugee at age 10 and enrolled in St. Louis Park public schools. After graduating from high school in 2015, she said she struggled as an adult to feel at home in a city where social circles are often segregated.
“That’s when I started realizing how much I felt like a visitor in my community,” Mohamed said in an interview with Sahan Journal. She wanted to help build connections between different cultural groups.
“A lot of times you don’t get to have that space where you’re connecting to community members of different races and different cultures,” Mohamed said. “I wanted to build that space.”
Mohamed joined the St. Louis Park Multicultural Advisory Committee, which helps connect the city’s police departments with different cultural groups. She helped guide the city’s mourning of a 2017 terrorist attack in Mogadishu and outreach to the local Somali community.
She also helped teach community education classes, volunteered at St. Louis Park High School and hosted community Iftars. In March, her work connecting communities was honored when she won the St. Louis Park Human Rights Award.
Running for office meant “rewiring” how Mohamed thought about who an elected official could be.
“When I close my eyes and think of an elected official, I get a different image that’s been in the history books,” she said.
It was also a challenge to learn how to ask for support and votes “coming from a culture where asking isn’t the norm.” But she found that knocking on doors and listening to prospective constituents’ issues helped her get to know her community on a deeper level.
“It just builds that connection that I was always looking for,” Mohamed said.
As a council member, Mohamed plans to focus on affordable housing, climate action, youth engagement and racial equity.
A resident of affordable housing, she wants St. Louis Park to create more housing options for low-income people. She also wants to help the city achieve its goal of being carbon neutral by 2040.
Miller, the outgoing council member, said he realized over the course of his term that the City Council needed more diverse perspectives to move toward its priorities on affordable housing, racial equity and climate action.
The current council is all white and its members come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Miller said he asked Mohamed if she knew of anyone who could run for his seat who would bring a different perspective.
“When Nadia said that she was actually considering it, I was just elated,” he said.
Miller stayed in the race until the day of the filing deadline, hoping his incumbency would deter “establishment candidates” from running and leave the door open for Mohamed. Six hours before the deadline, Mohamed filed for the election. Miller endorsed her.
Miller said it was “a hundred percent worth it” to step back from the work he loved on the City Council to make room for a new voice. “If I could have stayed on the council and brought Nadia on board, that would have been great,” he said. “But the council is going to be far, far better with Nadia on it than Thom Miller."
Jake Spano, the mayor of St. Louis Park who won reelection Tuesday night and endorsed Mohamed, said her priorities of climate action, affordable housing and youth engagement align well with his own.
The two have already been discussing ways they can “accelerate that work,” he said.
“I’ve found her to be really bright and enthusiastic, and I would imagine that she’ll bring a fresh set of eyes to things that we have taken for granted,” he said.
By using city resources equitably and including more voices in decision-making, Mohamed said, St. Louis Park can be “a city that works for everybody.”
“Oftentimes we ask for different voices at the table but we don’t take effective action to really get there,” Mohamed said. “I think St. Louis Park has built up the support and built up the resources to get more people of color and more people of different backgrounds to come be engaged in the community.”
Spano said Mohamed’s identity as a Somali woman was only one element of the fresh perspective she would bring to the council.
“She also happens to be young, that is a perspective we do not have on our council right now,” the mayor said. “She also happens to live in affordable housing and is a renter, that is a perspective we do not have on our council.”