Difference Maker Naciima Mohamed: ‘I really do want to see my school be successful’

A person poses for a portrait
Naciima Mohamed poses for a portrait at Columbia Heights High School on Feb. 1.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Naciima Mohamed, a student in the Columbia Heights school district, had grown up hearing about racism and Islamophobia, but she used to think it was something rare.

Then, in 2020, her mother, who wears a hijab, visited a Walgreens and was followed around in the store by someone who harassed her and told her to ‘go back to your country.’ The incident shocked Naciima. She’d never experienced anything like that. 

“Even when we think that it just really doesn’t happen to us or things like this aren't common, it really is because it happened,” Naciima said. “Once I heard that my mom was a target … that’s when i realized that I had multiple identities. I can’t just work for the Black community or the African community, but I also had to work for a Muslim community and all the other identities that went into making me a whole person.”  

A few months later, after her Columbia Heights school closed its doors to in-person learning due to the pandemic, Naciima, who was 14 years old at the time, decided to start a blog. She called it “Voice to Unify,” and she wrote articles and published interviews with people about racism, history, and other issues. 

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Weeks later, when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, she began to see more and more students and young people like herself who were discussing similar things online. 

“Before George Floyd and before the … rise of attention to social justice came, I really didn’t understand that I was a target to most of the issues that I was writing about … it really changed the intensity of the work … how much I devoted my time to it. I realized it was urgent … it didn’t change the direction, but how hard and how fast we pursued the issues and we learned about them and how fast we could gain information and rally people together.”

Naciima connected with other Minnesota students who were doing similar work, including Minnesota Teen Activists and other online groups. She started several clubs at her school. They painted a mural to highlight health disparities in Black communities and ran club meetings. She founded a Muslim Student Association that organized culture shows and a World Hijab Day celebration. 

The focus of Naciima’s work has changed over the last three years. She no longer runs her blog, and some of the classes she’s taken at Columbia Heights High School and the University of Minnesota have shifted her focus. Reading literature from nonwhite authors and studying history from nonwhite perspectives has been revelatory. It’s an experience she wants other students to have the opportunity to share.

“That was where I found the most personal connection,” Naciima said. “We really found it very personal to us. It dealt with racism, it dealt with xenophobia, it dealt with so many other issues that I really felt interested to learn about … we really wanted a more accessible way for these books and topics to be taught within classes … (we want) it to be not so difficult to introduce topics about our lives into the school setting.”

Naciima is no longer writing her blog. But she’s doing other work, including on a report to suggest policies to legislators that would help reduce incarceration and getting more diverse curriculum and books into classrooms at her school. She hopes her work will make a difference. But she also hopes it will encourage other students.

“I was never really an outgoing student. I was always the shy, reserved student, so it was kind of nerve-wracking for me to be doing this, but I saw that no one else in our school was doing work like this so it was really important for me to step up and fight for the changes I wanted to see and just rally other students who I knew if I did it, they would be able to do it … I really do want to see my school be successful.”

This story is part of a series produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.