Ibrahim Mohamed co-founded the Shakopee Diversity Alliance. Now he's bringing diversity to the Shakopee school board as its first representative of color. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Ibrahim Mohamed first spoke at Shakopee City Hall during a mayoral diversity summit in 2012. Standing at the podium, he told the audience about the city’s Somali community. He felt empowered when he saw how people listened to him and applauded his words.

Out of that summit, Ibrahim co-founded the Shakopee Diversity Alliance. The group’s multicultural leadership decided their first activity should be an international festival. 

The festival took place on a beautiful summer day later that year, with a pleasant breeze and featured African drumming, Mexican salsa, and Scottish dancing. “I saw the beauty of the diversity, and I loved it,” he said.

Eight years later, he’s bringing that diversity to the Shakopee school board. Ibrahim, an immigrant from Somalia, will become the seven-person school board’s first representative of color.

“The diverse population needed a voice,” Ibrahim said. “We have wonderful board members. But they cannot get it the way I can understand the people’s feelings. Because I know what they are going through.”

Angelica Contreras, who became the first person of color elected to the Shakopee city council in 2018, said in a victory celebration for Ibrahim that his election would create pathways for all Shakopee’s residents to make their voices heard.

“You’re opening the door for our communities to talk to us,” she said. “When they elected you, when they elected me, they do it for a reason. They want us to talk about the situations that are happening that other people don’t know.”

Shakopee, an outer-ring southwest Minneapolis suburb, has about 40,000 residents, some 30 percent of whom are people of color. That group includes large Native American, Somali, Latino, and African American populations. The school district has more than 8,000 students and 500 teachers; the school board sets the budget, hires and fires the superintendent, and guides school policies.

Ibrahim, who has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in school counseling and psychology, will also bring his personal experience to the board. He’s the parent of six children who have attended Shakopee schools, and he spent more than a decade as an educator in the district.

In Shakopee schools, Ibrahim worked as a reading and behavior interventionist. He also served as a paraprofessional, helping immigrant kids with math and science and advocating for families from diverse backgrounds, and as a cultural liaison. After earning his master’s degree, he became a school counselor in Rochester schools, and now works in Richfield’s SciTech Academy, a science-focused charter school that serves many students from African immigrant families.

‘When you have fun together, then the other things will come’

As co-founder of the Shakopee Diversity Alliance, he’s helped organize seven international festivals honoring the city’s diverse communities.

“The more people [who are] together, the more they have music, the more they eat together, when you have fun together, then the other things will come,” Ibrahim said.

The festivals have become an annual space of cultural exchange featuring food and entertainment from different countries. “We have a rich community, culture-wise, in Shakopee,” Ibrahim said.

The alliance has also created educational resources for new immigrants in Shakopee so they can learn where to find housing and other resources, he said. Over the summer, the organization raised funds for Lake Street businesses owned by people of color that burned down in Minneapolis’ civil unrest after police killed George Floyd. 

Mary Hernandez, a fellow co-founder of the Shakopee Diversity Alliance, said she considers Ibrahim a brother. The two met working in Shakopee schools: He was the Somali cultural liaison, and she was the Latino community liaison. And she saw how he stood up to fight against racial disparities in the schools. He’s been a tireless advocate not just for children, but for everyone in the community, she said at his victory celebration.

“I look forward to Ibrahim’s leadership, I look forward for him being my voice, and for him taking care of my kids,” Hernandez said.

Hamse Warfa, the deputy commissioner for workforce development at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said that at the celebration that Ibrahim’s election was cause for celebration for all of Shakopee. All cities are experiencing demographic change, he said, but not all are choosing to embrace it. Those that do reap benefits in their workforce and diverse representation, he said. 

“It’s a win-win,” he said. “So really we are celebrating tonight for the city of Shakopee.”

Ibrahim’s finance background will be important on the school board, which is facing a budget crunch. Voters rejected a tax increase referendum to fund schools: As a result, the district will need to cut 48 teachers, fifth-grade band, and middle school athletics.

The referendum’s failure was disappointing, Ibrahim said. He’s known some of the teachers facing layoffs as a parent and as an educator.

“It will impact all the students,” he said.

Another challenge facing Shakopee schools is a trust deficit from the community. A former superintendent resigned in 2017 under a police investigation for improper use of district credit cards; in 2019, he was convicted of theft and embezzlement. Though the scandal occurred several years ago, it still affects how some people view district leadership, Ibrahim said.

“I want to say loud and clear we have a wonderful superintendent and great school board members,” he said. “They have good in their heart.”

Ibrahim hopes to use his community relationships to build trust in the district and make sure more culturally and politically diverse voices are heard. He also plans to work on racial equity in schools, including creating more after-school programs for English learners once the pandemic allows. He stressed that he will represent all Shakopee’s diverse communities, including Latinos, Russians, Indians, and Bengalis, who haven’t had a voice at the school board before.

“For the rest of my life, I’m ready to serve my community,” Ibrahim said. “I love Shakopee people, regardless of who they are. They are my people, they are my community, and I cherish that relationship.”

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