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This article has been updated.
For five months, the main photo on the website of Mankato Area Public Schools showed all the board members of the district posing with the superintendent. Except one: The only person of color ever elected to the Mankato school board.
Abdi Sabrie, an educator and a longtime resident of the Mankato area, said his repeated calls to update the website to be more representative of the board members were ignored for years by the rest of the board members and the superintendent, who are all white. Despite his frequent requests, a new photo went up in January that left him out altogether. Abdi asked both the superintendent and the board chair to take the photo down. But it stayed up.
He attributed their reluctance to change to systemic racism on the board.
Then, a black man was killed in Minneapolis by a police officer.
“I feel their collective knees on my neck,” Abdi wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday, invoking the way a police officer put a knee on George Floyd’s neck until he died. “I feel my humanity negated, my oath and function of public office blocked.”
“Their expression represents for me their desire for me not to exist,” Abdi added.
The header photo on the Mankato School Board website, which showed the six other board members and the superintendent, was replaced with a collage of students after Abdi’s Facebook post.
In a post to the Mankato Area Public Schools Facebook page Tuesday night that has since been deleted, board chair Darren Wacker said he was “disappointed” by Abdi’s post.
“Mr. Sabrie’s comments are especially painful given the events of the past week, as a result of the horrific and unjust death of George Floyd in Minneapolis,” Wacker wrote. “However, it is important to note that Mr. Sabrie’s allegation that he was excluded from a school board photo is simply untrue.” He did not provide an alternate explanation. Wacker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“I remain confident that every leader and educator in our district remains deeply committed to equality and racial justice in our community,” Wacker wrote.
On Wednesday evening, Wacker released a new statement in which he apologized for the first post and said he had missed an opportunity to “embrace and acknowledge the experiences, pain and challenges Abdi Sabrie expressed on his social media feed.”
The previous statement, he said, “created more questions than answers, fell flat and did not acknowledge Abdi’s feelings or viewpoint. This was a mistake, for which I am sorry.”
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Abdi, who was born to a nomadic family in Somalia, has been in Mankato since 2009 and was elected to the school board in 2015. He is running for reelection this year. He works as an academic advisor for the Trio program, which supports low-income and first-generation students, at South Central College. He is also a recipient of a prestigious fellowship from the Bush Foundation and a member of the state educator licensing board.
The protests around the country following Floyd’s death motivated him to speak up about what he called the micro- and macro-aggressions he’s experienced on the school board. During his five years on the board, Abdi has pushed for rotating officer positions to represent more perspectives, but he says the same people are always elected to leadership roles. He has also sometimes found himself alone advocating for students of color, who make up 27% of the Mankato Public School District.
In an interview with Sahan Journal, Abdi said his exclusion from the website photo is not about him as an individual. “The only reason they are excluding me, it’s not per se about me,” he said. “It’s about my advocacy for the students who are at a disadvantage in our public education.”
“This school district has been engaged actively in denying children of color the opportunity to thrive and succeed and attain their public education,” he said.
In 2018, Abdi intervened when five East African students between the ages of 18 and 20 were steered away from Mankato’s high schools and into Adult Basic Education, although Minnesota law entitles students to a free education through age 21. Abdi brought the issue to the superintendent and the board at the time, but they didn’t listen, he said. Only after he connected the students to a legal aid lawyer were they able to enroll alongside their peers in high school.
Abdi said he would not attend the special meeting on Friday unless the board apologizes to him and takes down the statement that appeared on the Mankato schools Facebook page.
“I really hope that this is a learning moment for all of us and that our district and our state will be better for it,” Abdi said. “That’s all I want to happen.”
Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.