Minnesota MonthlyBortel: What was the biggest obstacle that you faced in the last session, and how did you work through it?
Tuesday February 20, 2018
By Stacie Nielsen Bortel
Minnesota House Representative Ilhan Omar photo: Jamey Guy
Ilhan Omar is a policy analyst, community organizer, education advocate, and mother of three. In 2016, Omar also became the first Somali-American Muslim person elected to serve in political office. As a new Minnesota State Representative, Omar instantly drew national and international attention. She has been featured on the cover of Time, interviewed by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, and inspired a “hijarbie” doll, all while maintaining daily office hours open to her constituents. Writer Stacie Nielsen Bortel sat down with Omar to talk about her daughter, her downtime, and how she has overcome obstacles—reflecting, too, on Omar's physical assault during the 2014 DFL Party caucus.
Bortel: What is your proudest achievement from last year?
Omar: Surviving. You can’t plan how things will work out after you get elected. It has been a year of extreme pressure. It’s hard, when you are personally affected by policies, to continue to fight and shift the narrative and get people involved when you want to hide under a pillow. It’s like motherhood: no matter how sick or sad you are, you know you need to be strong. You need to show up. But I would also say that I am proud of the legislation I’ve been able to put forth. For the first time, we’re able to get funding for infrastructure, and that creates a lot of jobs for our district. I feel really lucky as a freshman legislator to be able to bring the lion’s share of that bonding appropriation to our district.
Omar: You’ll laugh at this, but last session I didn’t really have a lot of obstacles because many people didn’t think I was here to work. The biggest obstacle was overcoming the media storm and the scrutiny that came with being a first, because a lot of people were surprised that I actually understand policy. I understand how this place works. I can string sentences together, I can hold my own. To a lot of people, it was the surprise of, like, “You’re here and you want to do things. You don’t just want to talk about what it means to be Somali.”…But I say this all the time: You’ve got to count your blessings. Somebody would tweet something horrendous at me, but I would open my mailbox and there would be a letter from someone I never met—who might not even live in my state, or my city, or my country—who writes something like, “Seeing you has done this for me,” or, “There’s this idiot here who wants to behead me,” right? There are these people who are going through a hard time, and I’ve uplifted them. Magical things like that constantly reaffirm the beauty there is in our shared humanity.
Bortel: Speaking of the media storm, do you feel like the attention you’ve received in your first year has been helpful in pushing your interests or more of a distraction?
Omar: I think it’s more of a distraction, because the attention of the media is focused primarily on my identity, but that really doesn’t have much to do with why I got elected and the work that I want to do. I had no real interest in being a first. I was driven by the policy work, because that’s always been what I cared about…One thing I’m proud of is using the attention around my election to reshape our ideas of patriotism and democracy: who should be at the table, who these tables are designed for, and how we change that. I’m making sure everybody who shares any of the six marginalized identities that I carry can now see themselves and say, “Yes, young people can serve. Yes, somebody who has multiple children, young children, can serve. Someone who is an immigrant, someone who doesn’t have a majority religious background can serve.” All of these things now allow people to see that, yes, if I am a reflection of my community, then I can serve.
Bortel: I remember first wanting to interview you when I read the story, back in 2014, of your assault amid the fracas that broke up the DFL Party caucus in Minneapolis.
Omar: Yeah, when I got beat up.
Bortel: And you showed up for work the next day. You said, “They need to see me with the marks.”
Omar: That was my daughter who told me that. I actually wasn’t thinking about going to work. She said, “You need to go, they need to see it.” There’s one city council member who was behind it, and so she said, “You need to sit in his committees.” It shifted the victimhood. There was a rabbit hole I could’ve dug myself into, right? And that just shifted the way I thought about the situation, because I remember getting instantly healed in just seeing the guilt. It doesn’t really matter if you ever apologize, and it doesn’t really matter if you ever are held accountable. I know that you’re going to lose sleep over this.
Bortel: Is your daughter into politics?
Omar: Yeah! She tweeted, right after I appeared on The Daily Show, that reporters should remember her name because she was going to run for president in 40-something years—whenever she’s eligible. I think it got retweeted, like, 20,000 times. People thought it was the cutest thing. She’s not tweeting about how embarrassing it is that her mom’s a [politician]. She’s actually embracing it, right? Like, when is my turn?
Bortel: I’m fairly certain you’ll laugh at this, but what do you do in your downtime?
Omar: I’m not much of a sleeper, so I do have some free time. I watch TV. I am addicted to Scandal. I also watch SVU [Law and Order Special Victims Unit], Criminal Minds, House of Cards. I watch a lot of standup. I grew up watching Def Comedy Jam, so we would watch a lot of the black comedians. I still watch some of the reruns on YouTube. I am a very nostalgic person in that way. I consume a lot of the stuff that I watched in my childhood. All of the music I listen to is pre-2000 because it brings comfort. My uncle kept piles of records—James Brown, the Bee Gees, Mick Jagger, The Commodores, MoTown, Bob Marley. The Somali music I listen to is pre-war. I grew up listening to the radio, so it is kind of like time stops for me. It takes me back there, and I remember the smells and I remember my grandfather and my uncle making us memorize the songs and do duets. It takes me back to lunchtime, 2 p.m. in Mogadishu with my whole family, listening to the radio play and having people stop by, drinking tea and coffee. Just things being joyful.
Digital Extra: Full Interview
Bortel: What achievement from the past year are you most proud of?
Rep. Omar: Surviving. Under the circumstances, you can't plan. Can't plan how things will work out after you get elected. You can't plan who else also gets into office. So for me it's been a year of extreme pressure. And it's at times really hard, when you are personally affected by policies, to sort of step out of that and to think about how everyone else is also affected, and to be there for them, and to continue to fight and shift the narrative and get people involved when you know you yourself just kind of want to hide under the pillow, and just really not engage. It's sort of like motherhood. No matter how sick or sad you are, if you know you need to be strong for your children, you need to show up. So, I feel like [motherhood] was really good training for me, this session, as there certainly were days where I personally was devastated by the movements that were happening in regards to policy nationally, and some of the devastating things happening internationally. I know that I am privileged to at least have a voice and to actively do something, whereas many of my constituents, who are also impacted, don't. And so I needed to be strong for them, and I needed to carry that torch and make sure things would be OK for them.
But I would also say that I am proud of the legislation I’ve been able to put forth and all of the bonding appropriations I got for the district, for the first time we're able to get funding for infrastructure and that creates a lot of jobs for our district and I feel really lucky for the first time, as a freshman, to be able to bring the lion's share of that bonding appropriation to our district.
Bortel: How did you feel about all the media attention you got your first year?
Rep. Omar: I have a love/hate relationship with media. I understand that they can be part of the process of creating the kind of change we're looking for. And all of the work that we're doing to reshape narratives about students, immigrants, refugees, Muslims—they are an essential partner in doing that. But they can also be a pain. Oftentimes, they are responsible for furthering negative narratives. And that five-second or ten-second sound bite isn't useful in furthering a nuanced, complicated narrative, I guess.
Bortel: So, having that media attention, do you feel it's been helpful in pushing your interests or has it been more of a distraction?
Rep. Omar: I think it's more of a distraction, because the attention of the media is focused primarily on my identity, but that really doesn't have much to do with why I got elected and why I’m here and the work that I want to do.
Bortel: What would you want people to focus on, in an ideal world?
Rep. Omar: I would love for people to focus on how we've taken a process that’s really complicated and made it tangible, and have engaged so many people in that process. I want people to care about all the constituent engagement we are doing. We're one of the only state legislators with an in-district office that has daily office hours and regular, monthly conversations—and doesn’t just report back on what's happening at the legislature, which we also do. We produce two to four newsletters per month for constituents. We've been active in door-knocking and engaging constituents not only in my district but throughout the state, making sure they are laser-focused on the issues that matter to them and understand that everything in politics is local. We educate people about what it means to be part of a representative democracy, and how you can ask for things from these people that represent you—because you have the power to do so. And then, how do we add that extra layer of a reflective democracy, where we have people who reflect us on a class level? People who reflect us on race? People who reflect our own neighborhoods?
We know we lack representation in women in general, but then we have women who are single, women who might not have children, women who have children, women who are indigenous, women who identify as people of color, women who come from religious diversity. People should understand that this person you are electing is representative of your voice. If we are always being represented by the 1 percent in our communities, they are not channeling any of our voices…and we cannot count on them to put forth policy that reflects us.
I know, and I appreciate, things differently than anyone who has been born into the privilege of this democracy. And this year, one of the things I’ve been proud of is using the attention my election brought in reshaping what the ideas of patriotism and democracy really are: who should be at the table, who these tables are designed for, and how we change that. I’m making sure that everybody who shares any of the six marginalized identities that I carry can now see themselves and say, “Yes, young people can serve. Yes, somebody who has multiple children, young children, can serve. Someone who is an immigrant, someone who doesn't have a majority religious background can serve.” All of these things now allow people to see that, yes, if I am a reflection of my community, then I can serve.
Bortel: Recently, there has been a lot of talk about women and harassment. What would you say to women who are considering getting involved in the 2018 elections but see stories coming out about harassment and think that maybe it's not worth it?
Rep. Omar: In any situation, you have to think about the good outweighing the bad. For me, I count my blessings, because I think about those women that served in times when we couldn't even have had these conversations, and what they did for me because they struggled through that. They persisted. I am able to be here, and I am able to call out things now, because they paved the way. And so, I want [women] to know that there are those of us currently serving who are actively working to make sure things don't stay the way that they seem. And that [those women] will become part of the crew that moves the wheel forward, so that some day we can get to a place where women will only be seen as humans capable of doing things, rather than as something to be objectified and used for one's desire, and controlled, and manipulated. You see it, too, in your workplace.
Bortel: Unfortunately. I would love to say that that there is a place out there that is insulated from that, but there's not. And that's why I am concerned about the younger generation who are considering going into politics. I don't want this to hold them back.
Rep. Omar: I think the boldness of our generation, and the generations after us, is such a breath of fresh air. And it's needed. Because if we don't get my generation and the generations younger than mine [involved] we will be stuck with people who come from generations before us who are complacent to the idea of this just being the norm. And there's nothing normal about being objectified. If you think about every single woman that currently is taking a stand against what's happening, it's my generation, and the generations after, right? So, to me, it's a sign of hope that we are the ones we've been waiting for.
Bortel: I’m curious about any obstacles you faced in the last session that you didn't anticipate. What was the biggest, and how did you work through it?
Rep. Omar: You'll laugh at this, but, last session I didn't really have a lot of obstacles because many people didn't think I was here to work. The biggest obstacle was overcoming the media storm and the attention and the scrutiny that came with being a first, because a lot of people were surprised that I actually understood policy. I understand how this place works. I can string sentences together, I can hold my own. To a lot of people, it was the surprise of, like, “You’re here and you want to do things. You don't just want to talk about what it means to be Somali.”
Bortel: That brings you back to what you said earlier, that people focus on you being a first, and yet that's now what got you elected.
Rep. Omar: No, I mean, I also didn't get elected by them—you know what I mean? I didn’t get elected by the people who would celebrate that first. To me, it is one of the funniest things to celebrate, because it really wasn't why I started on this journey. I had no real interest in being a first. I had no real interest in serving one particular community. I was driven more by the policy work, because that's always been my thing and what I cared about. It was fascinating that all of these people would say to me, when I first got here, “Tell me about what the needs are in the Somali community.” And these would be representatives who also represent Somalis. I started looking up demographics in their districts, and a lot of them represent minority-majority districts. I don't. And so, to me, it was fascinating that these people, who are not minorities but who represent the minority-majority district, are asking the minority who represents a white district. Right? And I’m like, “You have ample access to the people who elected you. You should ask them what they want.”
Regardless of how much I talked about the facts surrounding my election, the media and everyone refused to hear it. It was as if I was talking to no one, talking to myself. I would say to people, “There was a Somali guy running against me, and most of the Somalis in my district voted for him. But I increased voter turnout by 37 percent, and that's how I got elected.” People would say, "Somalis must be proud that they were able to elect one of their own!" And I’m like, “Uh-huh…”
There's no win! Because, yes, Somalis are proud. Somalis are over the moon. And that is my primary identity. No one can take that away. That is one thing that is identifiable about me, the fact that I am Muslim and Somali. So, young girls, young boys, older women, older men [in the Somali community]—everybody gets to see me and say, “That's my daughter, that's my sister.” That's there for them. But were they a part in actively making that happen? No.
Half of America gets to hear about me, and they comment that they're proud, they're proud that I represent this country—but they obviously were not part of my election. They didn't vote for me. And those two truths can exist, right? You can not want, or participate, in getting someone elected, but then also be proud of the fact that someone like that person gets to be a representative in this country. And that's essentially the feeling that a lot of Somalis have, whether they actively participated in my election or not, around the country and abroad. They are excited about the possibility that someone who looks like their sister, their daughter, their mother, gets to be a representative in this country.
Bortel: I have to be honest that I’m guilty of being excited by the identity.
Rep. Omar: Yeah. I mean, it happens!
Bortel: I was a teacher for 10 years, and I love that you mentioned “changing the look of what a patriot looks like.” Because I remember doing a brief unit with my students on multicultural literature, and we looked at Arab American literature, and my students actually said, “I’ve never heard someone say Arab American before.” Those two have always been separate. And you're a Somali American. In your role, you get to blend that and show that this is American.
Rep. Omar: I mean, yes. It's a clear counter-narrative.
Bortel: I’m interest in the fact that being popular for you was actually an obstacle, and yet you were able to push through it and talk about the issues and bring attention to the things that mattered to you.
Rep. Omar: For me, the obstacles—people talk about them all the time, and in my head, I just…My whole life has been obstacles. So maneuvering the halls of the capital, to me, doesn't really seem like an obstacle compared to what I would actually consider obstacles in my life. I think about all I had to overcome, and all that women have overcome, Muslims have overcome, and I can't really complain.
I wrote a list of all of the things that could horribly go wrong if I ran for office. Because I always worked on campaigns, I ran campaigns, I’m a political junkie — self-professed. I really thought everything would fall apart—you know, [thinking that] my community was in no way ready to elect someone like me. And then I thought my broader community also was not ready. We're in Minneapolis. We might say we're liberal and all of these things, but all of me will be an issue.
And then I thought about my family and of all the things that could fall apart. We hear stories of women running for office and their marriages falling apart. I know a lot of electorates who [deal with] all kinds of issues. I thought about my father who is still alive, I thought about my aunts and uncles who'd also have to maneuver this— it's not just me. I thought about my siblings, who are just not really into anything I’m in to.
And then I thought about my politics, right? Because there are my identities, which I thought would be a huge obstacle, and then I there are my politics, and how much pain they could bring to everybody that loves me—because they are sometimes contrary to the politics of my communities. People would say, “Ilhan, why don't you run? I do trainings for women to run for office.” Statistically—we always quote this statistic—we say it takes asking women seven times before they say yes to running for office. Men just show up and say, “I think I’m going to run.”
Women always come up with things, like “My résumé isn't long enough.” Like, “I have children.” “I don't have children.” “I’m not married.” “I’m married.” “I’ve only been on my job for two years, I don't know if my boss would let me.” Whatever. I would say, with all of the marginalized identities I carry, that I needed to be asked 14 times before I would make that decision.
It took months and months of people walking me through every tragedy that I could imagine and being like, “You think it's a tragedy? Did you even go talk to your husband? Did you ask your dad what he thinks? Did you ask your boss?” I would be like, “I know what they're going to say.” I had made the lists for myself.
Bortel: The lists of obstacles.
Rep. Omar: Everything that could drastically go wrong. Because my dad is a very, very pragmatic person, and he raised us to think through things. I’m like the hippie in the family. I’m the free spirit—I think I can overcome everything, always. So, I thought about everything that could happen, happening, and none of it really affecting the outcome of my election, my personal life, my children's lives.
All the opinions I cared about, from everybody that I cared about, were so on board, beyond on board. And the ones that I didn't really care about—they would say, “Oh, you don't have any chance.” That became a challenge for me, because I wanted to prove them wrong.
I think every big or little obstacle we had allowed, in coming through it, bigger doors to open. I saw in real time what happens when you persist through small challenges. How much the world and the universe reciprocate, rewarding you with abundance. It’s like magic. Somebody would tweet something horrendous at me. And sometimes I share, sometimes I don't. But you can rest assured that I would show up to my office, at my home, or at my in-district office, open my mailbox and there would be a letter from someone I never met, who might not even live in my state or my city or in my country, who writes me something like, “Seeing you has done this for me,” or, “There’s this idiot here who wants to behead me,” right? There are these people who are going through a hard time, and I’ve uplifted them. Magical things like that that happen to me that constantly reaffirm the beauty there is in our shared humanity.
Bortel: I remember one of the first times I wanted to interview you, I was reading the story, from 2014, of your assault amid the fracas that broke up the DFL Party caucus in Minneapolis.
Rep. Omar: Yeah, when I got beat up.
Bortel: And you showed up for work the next day. You said, “They need to see me with the marks.”
Rep. Omar: That was my daughter. My daughter told me that. I actually wasn't thinking about going to work. She said, “You need to go. You need to go, they need to see it.” And there's one city council member who was behind it, and so she said, “You need to sit in his committees.” and I was like, “I have no business.” And she was like, “No, it doesn't really matter. You show up.” And I did. It shifted the victimhood. There was a rabbit hole I could’ve dug myself in, right? And that just re-shifted the way I thought about that situation, because I remember getting instantly healed in just seeing the guilt. It doesn't really matter if you ever apologize, and it doesn't really matter if you ever are held accountable. I know that you’re going to lose sleep over this. And I no longer will.
Bortel: Is your daughter into politics?
Rep. Omar: Yeah! She tweeted, right after I appeared on The Daily Show, that reporters should remember her name because she was going to run for president in 40-something years—whenever she's eligible. I think it got retweeted, like, 20,000 times. People thought it was the cutest thing. She’s not tweeting how embarrassing is it that her mom’s a [politician]. She's actually embracing it, right? Like, when is my turn?
Bortel: I’m fairly certain you’ll laugh at this, but what do you do in your downtime?
Rep. Omar: I'm not much of a sleeper, so I do have some free time. I watch TV. I am addicted to Scandal. I also watch SVU [Law and Order Special Victims Unit], Criminal Minds, House of Cards. My husband always teases me because he can't watch SVU and Criminal Minds with me. He's just like, “I don't understand how this is entertainment to you.” And I’m fascinated by it and can't get enough. But I also like comedy. I watch a lot of standup. I grew up watching Def Comedy Jam, so my family would watch a lot of the black comedians. I still watch some of the reruns on YouTube. I am a very nostalgic person in that way. I consume a lot of the stuff that I watched in my childhood.
When we came to the United States, it's actually funny: Most of the movies we used to watch here were musicals because we didn't know how to access Bollywood movies, so that was the closest thing. I remember my sister and I were obsessed with Crybaby, with Johnny Depp, because it had all the singing and dancing.
I grew up in a very religious family, and we couldn't listen to music that was not conservative, mainstream Christian. So I have whole chunks of my life that people reference that I never listened to. So I go back and listen to it now and make up for lost time so I can understand cultural references.
But we listened to a lot of American songs that were popular in the ’70s. My dad and grandpa used to have a record player, and my uncle kept piles of records, like James Brown and the Bee Gees and Jagger. The Commodores. All of Motown. Bob Marley. Anything produced after the ’70s I don't know. Everything was from the ’50s to the ’70s, and we listened to them in the ’80s.
A lot of my Somali friends think it's weird that all the Somali music I listen to is pre-war. I grew up listening to the radio, so it kind of stops time for me. It takes me back there, and I remember the smells and I remember my grandfather and my uncle making us memorize the songs and do duets. It takes me back to lunchtime, 2 p.m. in Mogadishu with my whole family, listening to the radio and having people stop by, drinking tea and coffee. Just things being joyful.