Housing advocate Jamal Osman won the Ward 6 City Council seat following a two-day election extension to accommodate mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Caroline Yang

The newest member of the Minneapolis City Council has a message for the large immigrant communities in densely populated Ward 6: You’re not a guest. You belong here, and you deserve better housing, better jobs and someone who will pay attention to your mental health.

 He knows, he says, because he’s been through it himself.

After three days of staring at computer screens and researching the complex ranked-choice voting tabulation process, Jamal Osman’s campaign finally had a chance to celebrate Friday when he was declared the winner over 10 other candidates.

After ballots flooded in during the election’s two-day extension, the Minneapolis Elections Office tabulated the ranked-choice votes Friday morning. To process voters’ top three choices, the elections office had to wait until all ballots were in by Friday before confirming the results on Twitter.

Jamal, 36, first came to Minnesota as a Somali refugee when he was a teenager about to start high school. At the time, he and his family lived in public housing.

“I understand the issues that newcomers in the country face,” Jamal said. “I’ve been part of all the issues that the city, and residents of Ward 6 are facing right now.”

After graduating high school, Jamal completed an associate’s degree in global studies at Century College. He then went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the Metropolitan State University.

“I didn’t know what to study so I thought, what can I do to help the community?” Jamal said. He majored in social work.

His message to the immigrant residents of Ward 6 is one of inclusion: “You belong here, you’re not a guest here, this is your community,” he said. “What makes Ward 6 unique is the diversity of nationalities that we have here. My campaign has always been about the unity of the residents here and bringing residents together.”

Jamal spent 15 years working in the nonprofit sector as a resident advocate for CommonBond Communities, where he worked to expand affordable housing and services such as youth mentorship programs and career counseling. He has also worked in the mental health field, advocating for culturally competent care while addressing the stigma surrounding seeking mental health care.

Jamal said housing is at the top of his agenda as the new city council member. The death of George Floyd and the protests that ensued prompted an increase of homeless encampments in city parks throughout Ward 6. The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has also unsettled people’s housing, making this a major concern for the Ward 6 candidates.

In his campaign, Jamal called for urgent action in building more affordable housing units. He proposed tax breaks to create an incentive for builders. Jamal also pledged to secure funding to expand public housing overall and improve safety measures such as sprinkler systems.

Almost 90 percent of residents in Ward 6 rent housing, according to the city. “We want to make sure that we are keeping those residents and not evicting them,” Jamal said. “At the same time, we also want to build more affordable housing. There’s not enough affordable housing right now.”

Through his work with CommonBond Communities, Jamal advocated for tenants’ rights and provided education about leasing to renters. He also worked in unemployment counseling and helped individuals search for jobs and prepare for interviews.

For Jamal, mental health is tied to many of the issues Ward 6 residents face, and should be treated as such. 

“It’s a taboo here in Ward 6 and we want to make sure that people know it’s okay to have your mental health weakened. We can help those individuals,” Jamal said.

As someone who has worked in mental healthcare through the Department of Social Services and the Phillips Community Clinic, Jamal emphasized establishing alternative approaches to public safety that involve mental health professionals. Jamal said public safety should better reflect the community being served through cultural, racial and gender diversity. Ward 6 has a significantly higher Black and Latino population than the rest of the city. Non-white residents make up more than half of the population in the ward. Fifteen percent of Minneapolis’ residents overall are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census.

By involving mental health workers, Jamal said the city can better address the opioid crisis through focusing on treatment and recovery rather than policing. A mental health focus in law enforcement would also address youth homelessness and increasing crime rates among young people.

Jamal supports community-driven policing, one of the most important debates of the race. The Minneapolis City Council advanced a proposal to dismantle the city’s police department in June, one month after the police killing of George Floyd. Ward 6, however, did not have any representation in this historic vote. The city council is currently negotiating a contract with the police union.

The seat opened up in March, after former councilman Abdi Warsame resigned to become executive director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. Jamal, now the city council representative for the smallest and most densely populated district in Minneapolis, will hold the seat until all council members come up for reelection in November 2021. 

Warsame’s departure set off a tense and crowded race between almost a dozen ambitious candidates, during a time when Ward 6 representation perhaps reached its most urgent demand. 

Residents of Ward 6 neighborhoods—including Seward, Cedar–Riverside, Philips West, Elliot Park, Stevens Square, and Ventura Village—lacked a city council member during the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the debate over dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department. Fires and looting damaged the area’s businesses. On top of that, most of the neighborhoods in the Sixth Ward report some of the state’s highest concentrations of COVID-19 cases. 

Despite social distancing rules limiting in-person campaigning, Jamal ran a successful campaign virtually. His standing in the Ward 6 community already gave him a headstart in gaining name recognition. However, some candidates like AK Hassan and Abdirizak Bihi also had a significant standing in the Ward 6 community.

“If anybody knows about being part of the community, it’s me,” Jamal said. “Running a campaign with COVID-19 we were able to pull that off. I want to create office hours outside the city hall where I can meet with residents, where I can get to know the residents.”

Jamal said Ward 6 has always been particularly lively, and the crowded field of candidates displayed that excitement.

“People are passionate about improving their community,” Jamal said. “There were 11 passionate candidates, too.”

AK Hassan, the Minneapolis Park Board commissioner, ran for the Ward 6 seat, too, but did not have enough votes to make it through to the final round of ranked-choice votes tabulation. In an interview with Sahan Journal just before election day, AK said the incoming council member will have to advocate for housing in a “strong and intentional way.”

“I will work with whoever wins. I’m not going away,” AK said.

Still, the pandemic will keep Jamal from cultivating a relationship with his fellow city council members and residents of Ward 6 in person.

“I’m just ready to embrace the challenges, get back to my community, work on the issues they are facing and create opportunities for the residents that live here,” Jamal said.

Jamal’s campaign is planning a celebration next week. But for now, Jamal said he’s going to spend some time returning the many congratulatory calls and texts he’s received.

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

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...