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St. Louis Park Human Rights Award winner works with the Somali community

By Seth Rowe
Tuesday March 13, 2018

An icy snowstorm that canceled school activities did not prevent a crowd from supporting the latest St. Louis Park Human Rights Award winner during a March 5 presentation.

Multiple people nominated city resident Fatuma Irshat for the 2017 award, which Irshat accepted during a city council meeting.

Irshat gained recognition for her work with the Somali and African communities in the Oak Hill Neighborhood. In particular, she works with people living in the Oak Park Village Apartments where she lives, according to a city report about the award. Irshat works to inform residents about voting and elections, affordable housing and renters’ rights.

Irshat helped provide information to Somali-American residents about communicable diseases through her work with the Minnesota Department of Health. She is a member of the St. Louis Park Affordable Housing Team and facilitated meetings for Vision 3.0, the city’s latest comprehensive visioning process. She helps connect her neighbors to services for families and other opportunities to be involved with the community.

“She was nominated for this award in recognition of her ability to communicate and connect across cultures, her strong leadership ability, and her courage,” states the city staff report, prepared by Lt. Mikael Garland with the St. Louis Park Police Department.

Irshat has close ties to the Allies of St. Louis Park advocacy group and Jewish Community Action, Garland’s report adds.

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In particular, her work with the Somali community in the community has encouraged people to attend events they may not have otherwise participated in and has resulted in “a closer relationship between the city and its residents,” said Michelle Kornblit, vice chair of the St. Louis Park Human Rights Commission.

“We are inspired by her work and her leadership and her dedication to the community, and also the fact that she was not just nominated by one person but several people,” Kornblit said.

Susan Niz, founder of the Allies group, had been one of the people who nominated Irshat for the award.

“I’m honored to play a role in recognizing Fatuma Irshat in her efforts and accomplishments in our community,” Niz said at the presentation. “Picture this: it’s a cold and snowy winter, Minnesota evening. Hard to picture. Fatuma with her two young children in hand walks door-to-door talking with each of her neighbors in her apartment complex.

“She talks to them about tenant rights, about upcoming elections, about the power that they have to make decisions in their community, to speak up for injustices and the power that they have to create change.”

On Election Day last November, Irshat drove people to the polls and watched their children, Niz said.

“They asked her, ‘Who should I vote for?’” Niz said. “She said, ‘Get informed and make your own decision.’ Fatuma is an organizer. She’s willing to put in the time educating people, pulling them out to their first community meetings, and she’s willing to invest in processes that don’t pay off immediately. She doesn’t ask for the spotlight, but we need to give it to her so others can learn from her example.”

Irshat understands the power of grassroots organizing and is guided by courage, integrity and a willingness to serve her community, Niz said.

“Talking to Fatuma, you will believe that we can move mountains if only we can carry grains of sand,” Niz said. “Our future is women. Our future is immigrants. Our future is equal ground and all communities being represented and voicing their needs, voicing their power. Our future is Fatuma, and our future is her daughter.”

Irshat thanked Niz and others who she said are acting as change mechanisms in the community and inspired her to connect her neighbors with the broader communities in St. Louis Park to talk about issues and improve the city.

“I’m just so overwhelmed,” Irshat said upon receiving the award.

Councilmember Margaret Rog noted that Irshat has recommended that forums take place at the St. Louis Park Library because it is in within walking distance of the Oak Park Village Apartments. Irshat also suggested child care at forums and other city events and suggested civic engagement training for people who want to become more involved with the city. Irshat said the city could provide posters in multifamily housing buildings notifying people about elections.

“I hope that we can move those forward,” Rog said of Irshat’s ideas.

Mayor Jake Spano said that reading Niz’s nomination letter for Irshat “made me feel like I have a lot of work to do to keep up with you.”

To Irshat, Spano said, “Thank you again, and your daughter has big shoes to feel.”

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