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In Burnsville High School, where Suad (Sue) Said graduated in 2005, a land acknowledgment and artwork by an Indigenous artist now greet students as they enter. It’s an example of how Burnsville schools are becoming more welcoming for all, Sue said. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Burnsville schools have changed a lot since Suad Said graduated in 2005.

The local Somali community was much smaller when she attended schools. She had only a few teachers and counselors who understood the demands of her home life, helping take care of her family and translate for her parents. (Her family arrived from a refugee camp in Kenya in 1991.)

Now, the district sends parents information translated into Somali. Her children learn about Somali culture in school.

And this fall, Suad, who goes by Sue, became the first Somali American school-board member elected in the Burnsville–Eagan–Savage district. 

Voters in Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan and St. Louis Park also elected their first Somali school board members this fall. It’s an important step for educational representation in the Twin Cities’ diverse suburban communities—and a repudiation of the anti-equity vitriol that swamped many school board meetings this summer and fall.

Different factors and dynamics came into play in each race: In St. Louis Park, the election was uncontested; in Burnsville, an appointed incumbent easily won; and in Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan, candidates backed by the teachers union out-organized a conservative slate.

But it’s hard not to see the trend lines and demographic changes. In 2001, enrollments in all three suburban districts were more than 80 percent white. Twenty years later, all three have grown much more diverse. 

Over the past 20 years, some of Minnesota’s suburban school districts have grown much more diverse. In Burnsville, two-thirds of the district’s nearly 8,000 students are people of color—and 15 percent speak Somali at home, more than any language except English or Spanish.

In the Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan district—the fourth largest in the state with 26,000 students—40 percent of district students are now people of color. 

In St. Louis Park, students of color now constitute nearly half the district. 

And in Burnsville, two-thirds of the district’s nearly 8,000 students are people of color—and 15 percent speak Somali at home, more than any language except English or Spanish.

Now Somali parents, some of whom came to Minnesota as students themselves, are running for school board to claim a more active voice in their children’s education.

Sue hopes that her election, and the election of other Somali school board members in the Twin Cities suburbs, will bring needed representation and confidence to immigrant students.

At the most recent Burnsville High School graduation, Sue handed out diplomas to new graduates. “Being able to congratulate the Somali students in the Somali language and just seeing them with that smile, I knew that this was it for me,” Sue said.  

‘A leader of the entire Burnsville community’

Sue, a 34-year-old career counselor at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and the mother of four district children, first ran for school board last year.

The district had already started taking steps toward equity, representation, and better communication, Sue said. But there was no representation for Somali kids on the school board, which in 2020 was all white. 

“If there’s any way that I can continue the different positive changes happening in our district, I want to be part of it,” she said.

Sue lost her first race. But another spot opened up due to a resignation. She applied. The board unanimously appointed her to fill the vacancy. This year, she ran in a special election to complete her term. She won with 72 percent of the vote.

Over the past year, she served on the school board’s policy committee. “I love detail,” she said. “Details, details, details!” 

She identified one such detail in the school’s dress code: a prohibition on hooded sweatshirts, which was rooted in a racist stereotype that linked young hoodie-wearing Black men to criminal activity. In the policy committee, she moved for the ban to be eliminated; the board voted to get rid of it.

Eric Miller, the chair of the Burnsville school board, said Sue has become a “strong voice,” often advocating for teachers and underserved students.

“She sees her role as a leader of the community she comes from, but also as a leader of the entire Burnsville community,” he said.

Sue plans to use her career counseling background to help the district attract and retain more teachers of color. The issue is personal for her family: Qorsho Hassan, the first Somali American to be named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year, taught her daughter’s fourth-grade class at Gideon Pond Elementary School. Then the district laid her off during budget cuts.

“I remember my daughter feeling devastated that she was not able to continue to see Miss Qorsho,” she said. “Qorsho gave her a different type of connection than she’s ever had with any other teachers.” Her daughter could see herself in Qorsho, and bring conversations from home to school because her teacher understood.

Still, Qorsho left a legacy of influence among the teachers at Gideon Pond, Sue said. Her kids sometimes learn Somali songs in music class, or watch a Somali dance group perform in school.

Sue hopes that Somali students in Burnsville can see themselves in her, too. If she had been able to see someone who looked like her on the school board growing up in Burnsville, Sue said, it would have helped her develop self-confidence.

“When we take up space in places that we never thought we could be in, it really changes the trajectory of all of it, and our youth become successful,” she said.

‘If you give to the community, they will give back to you’

Abdihakim Arabow Ibrahim, a 36-year-old electrical engineer and father of four, arrived in St. Louis Park in 2014 and became an active community volunteer. Now he’s a school board member–elect. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Abdihakim Arabow Ibrahim will be the first Somali American school-board member in St. Louis Park. 

“We need true representation that reflects all of us,” he said. “I believe I can help the schools to be more inclusive.”

A 36-year-old electrical engineer who speaks five languages, Abdihakim immigrated to the U.S. in 2014. He promptly became involved in the community: joining the St. Louis Park Police Advisory Commission, encouraging votes for a school funding referendum, and urging people to take the census.

A 36-year-old electrical engineer and father of four, Abdihakim immigrated to the United States in 2014 to join his wife, an American citizen. He promptly became deeply involved in the community as an activist: joining the St. Louis Park Police Advisory Commission, encouraging votes for a school funding referendum, and urging people to take the census.

Abdihakim, who earned his electrical engineering degree in Pakistan and speaks five languages—English, Somali, Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu—hopes to improve services for the district’s multilingual learners.

Right now, he said, interventions for students with delayed speech are not available to those who speak another language at home. (Sahan Journal reached out to St. Louis Park Public Schools for insights into this question.) He also believes pulling students out of their regular classes for English language instruction puts them behind in their other classes. 

Parents should get prompt notification about those services, too, Abdihakim says. He thinks the district can do more to communicate with parents who struggle with technology, and utilize cultural liaisons more frequently—not just when there is a problem. 

He also wants to address discipline disparities. In 2018, the St. Louis Park school district agreed to a settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions, one of 42 districts and charter schools in the state to do so.

Nadia Mohamed, who was elected in 2019 as St. Louis Park’s first Somali American city council member, wasn’t surprised that Abdihakim won. “If you give to the community, they will give back to you,” she said.

She first met Abdihakim, an active volunteer, through neighborhood events. 

“His passion for education and excellence really stood out to me, especially to kids of immigrants, as well as BIPOC students,” she said.

Nadia, who graduated from St. Louis Park High School in 2015, said having a Somali school-board member would have “made the difference” in her time there. 

As a new immigrant, community volunteer, and dedicated father, Abdihakim will bring “a perspective and depth to the St. Louis Park education system,” Nadia said.

Abdihakim hopes he can inspire others through his school-board service. “I think when the kids see someone look like them in those seats, a lot of kids will really be willing to take the opportunity and take the challenge and go for it and become the leader of the future,” he said.

‘The kids needed representation’

Sakawdin Mohamed holds his lawn sign in the City of Eagan’s Nature Park. Sakawdin secured the most votes of 16 candidates to earn a spot on the District 196 school board, representing Rosemount, Apple Valley, and Eagan. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

In Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan, 16 names appeared on the ballot to fill three school-board slots. Sakawdin Mohamed, 43, won the most votes of any candidate, securing a seat on the board. All three candidates backed by the local teachers union won their elections. They bested a conservative slate of candidates with platforms that opposed COVID-19 protocols and the use of diverse curriculum materials.

Sakawdin, a finance manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said that many of his neighbors told him his name and background would make it difficult to win an election. “But here I am,” Sakawdin said. “I think I spoke to the people, and at the end of the day, people made their choice.”

Kate Schmidt, the president of Dakota County United Educators, said the union endorsed candidates who supported the labor movement, public education, and equity and inclusion. Sakawdin, a district father and union member, fit the criteria—and will help bring representation to one of the district’s largest and fastest-growing communities, she said.

Several candidates dropped out after losing the endorsement, which helped eliminate the risk of dividing votes. Art Coulson and Bianca Virnig, the other two candidates to earn the union endorsement, also won.

Sakawdin came to the United States at age 17 with his brother and settled in Fargo, part of the first wave of Somali refugees in North Dakota. His education had been interrupted by the civil war, and he dropped out of high school to focus on sending money home to his family back in East Africa. Instead, he studied for his GED while working full time, and then enrolled in North Dakota State University.

In Fargo, Sakawdin started a nonprofit to support refugees in the Red River Valley. He noticed how disruptive the river’s annual floods were for refugees in Fargo and Moorhead. They often lived right by the river and needed help accessing and understanding emergency resources.

“There were a lot of moms with a lot of kids, and they don’t know the language and their house gets flooded,” he said.

His nonprofit helped support refugees with translation and benefits applications. They also led diversity trainings in Fargo and Moorhead schools.

When Sakawdin graduated, he took a job as a social worker in Mankato. Two years later, he moved to the Twin Cities for a job with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. He’s now a finance manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.

He decided to jump into the race for school board after supporting his kids through distance learning at home. Four of his six kids are currently district students; his oldest recently graduated from Eagan High School, and the youngest is an infant. As he became more directly involved in his kids’ education, he tuned in to school-board meetings, and noticed that no one there looked like him.

“I felt that the kids needed representation,” he said. “I developed a lot of appreciation for our teachers.” He wanted to help bring kids back to school safely. 

Elizabeth Mukanga Kingoina, a district parent and Apple Valley resident, was also watching the school-board meetings. She’d never gotten involved in local politics before. But while organizing a Juneteenth event this summer, she started to hear about pushback against racial equity in local school-board meetings. In Lakeville, a 9-year-old student had recently spoken at a meeting, where she denounced Black Lives Matter posters and poet Amanda Gorman. The child’s speech went viral on conservative media. 

Mukanga Kingoina started watching her own district’s school-board meetings and found similar dynamics—including a school board candidate referring to George Floyd as “Fentanyl Floyd.”

“There’s absolutely no way that somebody who is saying things like this is going to represent my child,” Mukanga Kingoina said.

Mukanga Kingoina teamed up with other parents and educators organizing for the school board election. She knocked on doors and used her extensive social-networking skills—she administers a Facebook group for Minnesota Black moms with over 6,000 members—to encourage people to get involved.

She saw in Sakawdin a relatable African father—someone who in ways reminded her of her own Congolese father. “I could see and feel how much he cared about the whole community: our neighborhoods, our schools, our families,” she said.

The wins for Sakawdin and the other union-endorsed candidates demonstrate that voters want the district to be inclusive and welcoming, Schmidt said. 

“At the end of the day, people care about who will provide a solution and who is best representative of our community and our students,” Sakawdin said. 

For Mukanga Kingoina, who grew up in Apple Valley, Sakawdin’s win is monumental. She remembers having one Black teacher throughout her education. “It’s tough, living in a community like this and feeling that lack of representation,” she said. “Having that representation, it matters more than people know.” 

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.