Freedom, Fire, Reason: The Hope I See in the Nation's First Somali-American Woman Lawmaker

by Lulete Mola

Give me freedom, give me fire, give me reason. This is how the beloved song Wavin’ Flag by K’Naan begins. This song was also the song of the night at a celebratory party for Ilhan Omar, my friend and the nation’s first Somali-American woman to be elected to state office. I cannot get the words freedom, fire, and reason out of my head and heart. These words are captured inside of me along with the images of people rejoicing on that night. Like the image of Ilhan’s supportive husband Ahmed and their son Adnan in tears, yes, African men standing beside their African wife and mother as she prepares to lead. Or the image of Ilhan’s two daughters, along with other young girls, many in hijabs, standing as fierce as their mothers knowing that this day would come. Or the image of our Black American sisters crying with us as they understood this win was a win for all Black women across the Diaspora. Freedom. Fire. Reason. My sister Ilhan Omar, a Black, Muslim, East African immigrant, and intersectional feminist woman will become a lawmaker in the United States of America. What a moment for all of us. All of us like Ilhan.

Freedom. When I first heard Ilhan had made history by unseating a 44-year incumbent, one of the nation’s longest serving legislators, in a hot, packed, room, I felt tears coming down my face. Tears that have been buried deep inside of me. Some of these tears coming down weren’t just mine, no, they belonged to others. They were tears of my family, my people, and our journey. I cried because like Ilhan, my family and I traveled from the horn of Africa into the unknown, hoping for a better life. I cried because like Ilhan, I was also a refugee in Kenya. She fled a civil war in Somalia; I fled domestic violence and economic hopelessness. Like Ilhan, many hoped that young girls like us would thrive in America. Like Ilhan, once we arrived, we understood that thriving was next to impossible with the layers of structural and systematic oppressions, that were specific to Black women and girls, waiting for us. And I am not alone; there are many of us like Ilhan. Many of us who have come to this great nation for freedom who are still searching for it.

Reason. Throughout this campaign, as part of Ilhan’s campaign team and as a resident in her district, I have intimately seen how systems of white supremacy and patriarchy have tried to work together to keep Ilhan and her community of supporters down. First, when Ilhan decided to run, she was told she couldn’t do it. Some said she would not raise enough money. Others told her to wait until the current 22-term Representative decided to retire. Some in her own community said that she shouldn’t run because one of her opponents, a Somali man, deserved this seat more than she did. These systems are strong. They are structural and showed up during the campaign both in theory and practice. But we were resilient.. How can they do this? We would wonder, if they believed in the ideas of equity, representation, and voice, couldn’t they understand that it was time for Ilhan to lead? The answer is no. Systems such as these were built to keep women like Ilhan from leading. Systems like these know that if more people like Ilhan became legislators, structurally racist and sexist policies would not have the same violent power they currently do. Systems like these don’t work if Ilhan does.

In response to the negativity, Ilhan became our reason. She was the reason we kept fighting, she was the reason we kept believing. Ilhan became a reason for generations of immigrants, long-time residents, and students of the district to organize, donate, and volunteer. Ilhan became a reason for us to continue hoping, even in the midst of senseless shootings of Black women, men, and trans people at the hands of police. We kept going because we had reason to continue to seek freedom.

Fire. We ready, we coming! If fire represents strength, passion, determination, and will to fight for justice, than fire is inside of Ilhan and all of us like Ilhan. When Ilhan enters the Minnesota House of Representatives, she will be the first Muslim woman and the the second Black woman. I’m not saying that Ilhan will not have a hard time participating in and creating change at the Capitol. In fact, the same structures and systems that tried to prevent her from getting there will be waiting for her and will try to keep her silent. What I am saying is, after enduring and surviving everything women like Ilhan endure, backing down now is not an option. Many of us will be with Ilhan as she sits through long hearings,and tough legislative sessions. We will be there in spirit for Ilhan’s journey is our journey. Ilhan, we believed that you would win and you did. And now, we believe that we will win. And we will. Go get em’, sis. We have your back.

Lulete Mola currently holds a Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship, a three year program created to infuse new ideas into philanthropy. Born in Ethiopia, raised in Minnesota, Lulete is committed to social change that is intersectional, inclusive, complex, and just. This commitment directly contributes to her ongoing devotion to community organizing, most recently with VoteRunLead. Lulete is the Founder of SHE, a young women’s leadership program for Minnesota girls in select high schools. Lulete also leads social engagement and professional development initiatives in Minnesota’s East African community and is active in the movement for Black lives. Lulete sits on the University of Minnesota National Diversity Board, on the Women's Foundation of Minnesota girlsBEST committee, and on the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Equity Advisory Committee. Lulete is the recipient of the Humanity in Action Fellowship, Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project Fellowship, and the Scholarly Excellence in Equity and Diversity Award. Lulete graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Minnesota in 2014 with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Family Violence Prevention.

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