Azrin Awal, 25, is the first Asian American and Muslim city council member in Duluth. Credit: Azrin Awal Campaign

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Family and friends surrounded Azrin Awal at her Tuesday night election watch party when she found out that she had become Duluth’s first Asian American and Muslim city councilmember.

Awal won almost 31 percent of the votes in an election for one of two at-large seats on the City Council. Elections also filled two district seats. Awal is a youth advocate and public health undergraduate student who ran as a DFL-endorsed, progressive candidate. Awal joins incumbent Terese Tomanek, board chair of the Lake Superior College Foundation, who won the other open seat.

“It feels exhilarating,” Awal said. “I recognize the privilege and the honor that comes with that. It makes me want to ground myself with my community even more as we go forward and make positive change.”

Awal, an immigrant from Bangladesh, moved to Duluth to attend college six years ago. She’s currently working at Life House, a nonprofit organization that serves youth experiencing homelessness. She also works at Mentor North, a youth mentorship program. On weekends, Awal, 25, cooks healthy meals at community-based meal-delivery service Individual Nutrition.

While 88 percent of Duluth’s population is white, and just 10 percent are people of color, Awal said her grassroots campaign brought new voices into the political process. Three percent of Duluth residents are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I’m getting a lot of pushback,” Awal told Sahan Journal in October. “But I’m also opening people’s minds and forcing people to reevaluate what equity means.”

Awal’s campaign involved knocking on 19,000 doors and about 2,000 conversations—about half in dorms at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where she wanted to ensure student input. She also faced hateful, Islamophobic memes circulating about her on Facebook.

“There’s a lot of hate-driven comments,” Awal said. “But the level of support that we’ve gotten so far, it’s mind blowing.”

The campaign surpassed its fundraising goal of $20,000 and raised more than $27,000. Awal said her grassroots campaign raised one of the highest amounts in Duluth history.

“It’s not just a monumental moment for me but every single person on my team,” Awal said, “With sharing our stories and being present in the community—that’s how far we’ve taken the needle. We’ve moved it to allow people to become more open and understanding.”

Equity is at the center of Awal’s platform 

Awal and her family immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh shortly after she was born, in 1996. Awal grew up in the Maple Grove area, where her family previously owned an Indian restaurant called Kabob & Curry. They had to let go of the business during the Great Recession, Awal said. 

Awal attended college at the University of Minnesota Duluth. At first, she intended to stay two years and then transfer to another school. But she said she became enamored of the port city. She’s been living in Duluth for six years now.

Awal helped found the university’s chapter of the NAACP. She currently serves on the Duluth chapter’s board. As a student, Awal was a staunch advocate for sexual assault survivors. She also advocated for people struggling with homelessness, particularly as a student who struggled to find safe, affordable housing herself. At one point, Awal lived out of friends’ cars or couches for three months. 

She noted a lack of single-unit family homes and low-income housing in Duluth and said she will be working to expand affordable housing as a City Council member.

Awal said she will also prioritize climate issues in the city to better prepare for extreme weather events. She also hopes to decrease carbon emissions in Duluth, expand public transportation, and create accessible, walkable neighborhoods.

The Duluth City Council is currently considering a $1.8 million proposal to create a citywide crisis response program to ensure mental health professionals respond to emergency needs in conjunction with police officers. Awal said securing funding for the crisis response team will be her first priority.

“I will be backing that up from the beginning, and try to help support the crisis response team, the police department, and the mayor’s office,” she said.

She added that she approaches the issues on her platform through a racial and class equity lens. After her election, she wants to remain attuned to the voices of all Duluth residents. 

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.