Hassan Yussuf is in the running for a St. Cloud City Council seat in November. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Hassan Yussuf and his supporters think St. Cloud is finally ready to make a big change.

The former teacher who now runs a tax and immigration service finished third in Tuesday’s primary voting for the city council. In November, he will be among six candidates, including three incumbents, competing for three seats on the council. If he finishes in the top three, the city will have its first Black, and first Somali, council member. 

Yussuf, who arrived in St. Cloud in 2001 when he was 19 years old, said he would bring to the city council his own experience as a refugee, which will help counter stereotypes and explain the perspectives of people like him. 

“All the people on the council are white,” Yussuf said. “They have all had similar experiences. They don’t get the experience of poor people, or people who have experienced oppression, or immigration.” Such a person “would be able to clear out the stereotypes because he would be constantly there and hearing the discussions behind the curtain. He could explain the perspectives of people who are not at the table.” 

Abdi Daisane, who ran for city council four years ago, said he thinks the city is ready for such a dramatic move. “A lot of people are really tired of the very divisive city council,” Daisane said. “We have seen a lot of hatred.”

In 2017, the city council voted down a proposal to freeze refugee settlement in the city. Last year, a New York Times article quoted white city leaders and community members expressing Islamophobic sentiments. 

That’s just the recent history. Look further back, says St. Cloud State University professor Christopher Lehman, and you’ll find St. Cloud has a long history of racism and anti-Blackness. Lehman, author of “Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders in the North Star State,” says Southern slaveholders who came to St. Cloud, either for vacation or to resettle permanently, influenced the city for generations.

“They were the people who funded much of the city’s business and its early politics,” Lehman said. The sentiments that slavery was good, or that African Americans should not have rights, proliferated even in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, when there was a very small African American population in St. Cloud.

A diversifying population is one reason things are finally starting to change, Lehman says, but it’s slow going. “I see more people in St. Cloud trying to improve the city in terms of its reputation,” he said. “But by the same token, you have people displaying the confederate flag in town, and close to town.” 

A former high school teacher, Yussuf now runs his own tax and immigration service and owned a coffee shop before the pandemic hit. Supporters reached by Sahan Journal said he is known for his easy laugh and his willingness to give back to his community. 

“He is a very humble person,” said Halimo Wagad, an interpreter in St. Cloud. “He has a nice smile and is always willing to help people. He gives extra time to people.” 

“He is always there for us,” said student Hafsa Heret. “He’s the kind of man we need for St. Cloud. He brings the community together.” 

Reached by phone, Yussuf said he is getting support, not just from the Somali community but from the larger St. Cloud community, of which he has been a part for 20 years. 

“People see we are ready for change,” he said. 

Yussuf went to college in the city, got married, and had children. “It became a second home,” he said. 

People in St. Cloud are tired of divisiveness, he said, such as the controversy that ensued when council member Paul Brandmire equated wearing a mask to protect against the coronavirus to wearing a yellow star during the Holocaust. 

“To me, it was anti-Semitic,” Yussuf said. “It was an ill-informed analogy. It raised controversy.   The council did not condemn it, so that gives him a pass. It divides the community more and more.” 

Yussuf said people in St. Cloud also are interested in addressing issues such as police reform, homelessness and affordable housing. 

“We have criminalized mental health,” he said, adding that some of the money that goes to the police—42 percent of a $78 million city budget — should go to social services instead. 

“I want to be in the community, so people can know me better,” he said. “I don’t want people to decide the election according to the color of my skin. I want people to decide because of my ideas and my ability to govern.” 

Mahado Smiley, who works in the healthcare field, said she believes Yussuf will be able to push St. Cloud forward. “This community has always been ‘White Cloud,’” she said. “It has changed in the last 10 years. We have more minorities. I am proud to see the changes, but we have always received negative backlash from the white community.” 

The only way to really see change, Smiley said, is through representation. “I see him out there. I see him connecting with people. I see him making a bridge to learn from one another.”

From the school district to the housing system, Smiley says communities of color still struggle with disparities and discrimination. “I think that he is very professional,” she said of Yussuf. “He is a connector. People listen to him, they respect him. They see a leader in him.  He will bring the white community, will bring the Black community.”

Bishar Hassan, who does outreach in the school district, said he’s excited about Yussuf’s candidacy because of how well-connected he is to the community. “It’s one thing to say someone is being elected to the city council who might not really know a lot about the community,” Hassan said. “When he gets there, he will just know where to start and what to tackle and what to bring to table.” 

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. You can find her dance writing at the Star Tribune, and other writing at places like City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, the Southwest Journal, and...