When Zaynab Mohamed began visiting the Minnesota state legislature in St. Paul to advocate for her community, she noticed something very troubling.
“What inspired me was going to the Senate speaking to legislators, and never seeing myself in there, never seeing anyone who looks like me,” she said.
Mohamed decided to do something about it. The 24-year-old Somali immigrant is running to represent District 63 in the Minnesota State Senate.
“For the past two years I’ve been at the state level advocating for simple things around issues of criminal justice reform, public safety, around housing and other things,” she said.
Mohamed launched her campaign in December after Sen. Patricia Torres Ray—a Colombian immigrant who made history in 2006 when she became the first Latina to be elected to the State Senate—announced that she would retire at the end of the current term.
Mohamed is one of two African immigrant women who are seeking election to the Minnesota State Senate in November. The other is Huldah Momanyi Hiltsley, a Kenyan immigrant, who announced last year that she would be running to represent District 40, but ended up in District 38 when redistricting was done. If one of them is elected, she would make history by becoming the first Black woman, and first African immigrant woman to serve in the upper house of the Minnesota legislature. Additionally, Mohamed would be the first Muslim woman, and the youngest senator in the state.
Since launching her campaign, Mohamed has received a series of endorsements from several leaders, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, who made history in 2018 when she became the first Somali-American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Mohamed has also been endorsed by every elected member in her district. She is running a grassroots campaign that has so far raised more than $50,000.
Andrew Johnson, a Minneapolis city councilman representing Ward 12, said he chose to support Mohamed because she reminds him of Omar, who had worked as his campaign manager when he first ran for office in 2013, and later as his first senior policy aide before she ventured into active politics.
“I see in Zaynab the same qualities I saw in Ilhan,” Johnson said. “She is somebody who knows the issues well, and who has a natural ability to build coalitions and lead.”
Johnson, who has been a member of the Minneapolis city council since 2013, said he would like to see Zaynab continue the legacy of Torres Ray. He said that he thinks Zaynab is the right person to work on legislation without compromising her values.
“I just encourage folks to get a chance to know Zaynab because there is so much depth of knowledge and wisdom and skills that she brings to the table that really qualify her for this role,” he said.
Mohamed said she is running to address issues in labor rights, economic justice, healthcare, education, affordable housing, and environmental justice. She considers healthcare to be amongst the most critical for people in her district. It’s also a personal one to her.
“I only recently got health insurance for the first time in my life,” she said.
Mohamed explained that she had been uninsured until January of this year, when she began her work as a policy aide for Jason Chavez, who represents Ward 9 in the Minneapolis City Council.
She said that being uninsured was a source of great anxiety for her, especially during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I got COVID-19 in 2020 August,” she said. “I remember having anxiety on top of the issues that come with COVID and I was really struggling.”
Mohamed said she would not have been able to seek health treatment if it wasn’t for laws that made it possible for COVID-19 patients to have their medical bills covered.
“If we weren’t in a global pandemic, I would not have gone to the hospital as quickly as I did,” she said.
Another issue that Mohamed said she wanted to address is public safety and police accountability. Prior to her role with the council, she worked for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) promoting legislation centered around public safety reform.
“The work I did for the past two years was pushing for accountability bills which would include things like no-knock warrants,” she said.
No-knock warrants have been controversial because of their likelihood to mistake innocent people for those sought by law enforcement. One such case is that of Amir Locke, a Black man who was fatally shot in a downtown Minneapolis apartment when officers tried to arrest a homicide suspect.
“I am someone who understands and fully comprehends that community safety is number one,” Mohamed said. “But good policing needs accountability.”
The legislation that Mohamed advocated for did not pass in a divided Minnesota House and Republican-majority Senate, but it was through this advocacy work that she met civil rights attorney and Minneapolis resident Nekima Levy Armstrong.
“Zaynab is amazing,” Levy Armstrong said. “She is a phenomenal leader, a woman who leads with integrity, and a very strong organizer and a serious advocate for justice. I’m just so happy that she’s running.”
Pastor and racial justice advocate Nathan Roberts said he supports Mohamed because of her constant dedication to serving the community. Early last year, the two worked together and organized a town hall in Columbia Heights, a suburb of Minneapolis, after the death of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man a Brooklyn Center police officer killed during a traffic stop on April 11, 2021.
“She shows up for people in the community in ways that, when the community’s hurting she is out meeting with people, talking to people,” Roberts said.
Mohamed said she is dedicated to advocacy and positive change in the community and she wants to encourage civic engagement and voting regardless of the election outcome.
“I think the one thing that we have in this country is our vote,” she said. “Whether you elect me or not, I will continue being a member of this community and leading on the issues that we care about.”
About Cynthia Simba, Mshale Reporter
Cynthia is a graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism. She has interned at Mshale and Voice of America and previously worked at the Minnesota Daily. She recently returned from Seoul, South Korea where she was an English educator.