Family and colleagues shuffled through the winding halls of the Minnesota State Capitol on a snowy January morning to watch Zaynab Mohamed sign a Quran ahead of her official swearing-in ceremony.
This book holds the names of almost every Muslim elected official in Minnesota. Now, it would include Mohamed’s.
Her imam invited her to read Arabic lines before the crowd.
“This is my biggest fear,” laughs 25-year-old Zaynab Mohamed.
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Her imam offered well wishes. Inshallah. Her mom murmured short prayers. Amin.
Opening the legislative session on Tuesday, Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan called the day historic, noting the state Senate took “another step towards looking more and more like Minnesota.”
State legislatures nationwide typically don’t represent the diversity of their state, according to the latest available data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2020, 90 percent of Minnesota lawmakers were white, but 83 percent of the state is white, according to Census data.
Mohamed stood out among the sea of blue and gray suits on the chamber floor. She pairs a sharp-shouldered, coral red dress with a cream-colored hijab and matching heels. She wears a Somali cloth — hidhi iyo dhaqan — draped over one shoulder.
Mohamed, a former senior policy aide and community organizer, is one of three women sworn in on Tuesday who became the first Black women in the state Senate. She is also the first Gen Z person to be elected to the state Senate — 24-year-old Republican Elliot Engen was also elected to the state House — adding to the ranks of Gen Z-ers taking office across the country.
“We are all collectively showing up because we’re so tired of waiting on people to do the right thing that we’re taking power into our own hands,” Mohamed said.
And she’s hitting the road running.
An hour after session had officially started, Mohamed’s office sent out a press release: the freshman legislator is leading an effort to provide access to driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status.
She outlined more first-term priorities in an interview: protecting reproductive rights, creating affordable housing, passing a hate crime bill, economic development in underinvested communities and addressing climate change.
Mohamed also has an eye on the $17 billion state surplus. She held her first town hall in December to engage constituents before session starts.
“We built policies and past budgets and have done things for people in our state, but my experiences were never at the table. That isn’t just my identities in the sense of just being a Black woman or Muslim or immigrant. It also means being a young person,” Mohamed said.
Many of the issues she’s tackling are what pushed her into politics.
When she was 9 years old, Mohamed and her family immigrated from Somalia, a country torn apart by a civil war that started more than three decades ago. As a child, she helped her parents settle and learn a new language.
They moved often around south Minneapolis, a chunk of which Mohamed now represents for Senate District 63. She said it was hard for her parents to find housing with enough bedrooms for her and her eight siblings. That meant always transitioning schools, too.
“I always grappled with the idea of like, ‘What’s going on? Why is life so difficult for some of us while for others it seems so easy?’” she said.
In 2018, she began community organizing with CAIR-Minnesota, a Muslim civil rights organization. There she worked on public safety bills alongside state legislators, picking up chops that both peers and older politicians say make her a powerhouse.
“I expect that we’re going to see a Senate in a way that we have not seen a Senate before,” said former Rep. Rena Moran.
Moran said it’s ‘beautiful’ to have young people and other diverse communities represented.
“Unless you have been impacted by an issue, you often do not know it is an issue or how to bring solutions to the table on a subject area.”
After the historic win
Several elected officials were part of Mohamed’s intimate election night party in November, brimming with joy for their new representative. Mohamed gave her victory speech beside outgoing Sen. Patricia Torres Ray.
Despite the widespread support, Mohamed hadn’t initially been sure if she could win an election.
“I cannot tell you how many people have told me ‘you are way too young,’” she told MPR News host Angela Davis in November. “People will always tell you to wait your turn. Like there are turns for everything.”
Friends, mentors and community members urged her to run anyway after former senator Torres Ray announced her retirement, so she decided to give it a try. In December 2021, at the age of 24, she officially filed for office.
Her first concern was about financing. Her entire campaign team was under 25 years old, many also new to political campaigns.
“Most of my friends are recent graduates who don’t come from money or are poor,” she said.
That was an opportunity to be creative. Mohamed wanted to get people who were never involved in a political system involved.
“Young people don’t have an appetite for politics because they don't see themselves in it. They don't get engaged,” she said.
She met people at grocery stores and synagogues, over digital spaces. Relationship-building activities like kickbacks became a way to successfully hook people into engaging their neighbors with door knocking and phone banking.
Senior campaign advisor Aurin Chowdhury said Mohamed’s campaign was a “lightning rod” for young Black and young Muslim people, so much so that she recently announced her own run for Minneapolis City Council in Ward 12, an area of Minneapolis that overlaps with Mohamed’s district. Chowdhury describes herself as a first-generation Bengali-American.
“We're in a moment where our values need to be moved into action. I feel like the vision is there. Zaynab has been pushing for it. A lot of other young people have been pushing for it,” Chowdhury said. “We just need individuals that will run and represent the community and bring them into solutions.”
Mohamed is leaving her position as a senior policy aide with the City of Minneapolis, planning to work full-time through the legislative session. She hopes she can find a job for off-session to find ways to meet income to pay for rent and still take care of her family.
Correction (Jan. 4, 2022): An earlier version of this story incorrectly defined Zaynab Mohamed’s status in the Minnesota Legislature. It has been updated.