By Bridget Read
Wednesday June 24, 2020
Illustration: Lauren Tamaki
Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar is the first Somali-American member of Congress and the first woman of color to hold elected office in Minnesota. Since winning her seat in 2018, Omar has bucked the Democratic establishment as an outspoken progressive and has been targeted by Donald Trump for publicly denouncing his child-separation policy, his ban on Muslim immigration, and his equivocation on white-supremacist violence in the U.S. In April, she introduced a bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments in response to the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic. This month, her district erupted in protests against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, which spread throughout the world.
Omar lives in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., with her husband and their four children. She recently published This Is What America Looks Like, a memoir. Here’s how she gets it done:
Omar spoke with the Cut before the death of her father, Nur Omar Mohamed, on June 15 due to complications from the coronavirus. In a press release, she wrote, “No words can describe what he meant to me and all who knew him.”
On the hidden blessing of quarantine:
I’m mostly in Minneapolis right now. Traveling feels really scary, and my three children live at home, all school-aged: a junior, an eighth-grader, and a second-grader. I’m up much earlier than them; my day starts with morning prayers. Having them home has been a hidden blessing: You’re worried that they’re bored and annoyed, but you’re also excited that they’re getting this extra time and attention. My little one shows up in many of my Zoom calls. I don’t think I’ve cooked this much in the last five years. My son loves crêpes, my oldest daughter likes my pastas. The littlest one likes everything.
On wedding planning amid the coronavirus:
My husband, Tim, and I essentially got married the day the shutdown was announced, so we’ve been honeymooning with four children. We were hoping to have a small ceremony in late summer, so we haven’t canceled our plans yet. The hope is, we’ll still be able to have the opportunity to have something with family.
On her atypical path to office:
My first real job was as a cashier at Target — actually, the same one that was recently burned down in Minneapolis. I never imagined running for office. I’m much more of a pass-the-mic type of person. I wanted to be a math teacher. I was a first-generation college student without guidance, but I knew that I wanted to do something that would be helpful.
I had been represented by a woman who was in office for nearly 44 years, and I’d been involved in the search for a candidate who could unseat her. At first, I hesitated running, because I didn’t really believe that activists like myself could run. But I eventually realized that representation was about being fluent in the day-to-day struggles of the people you seek to represent.
On raising a teenager:
Isra, my oldest, had political aspirations before I had political aspirations. When she was 5, she wrote a letter about where she was going to be in life, what university she was going to go to, and it ended with her being president. She ran for student body president when she was in fifth grade and won. Now I think she doesn’t want to be in formal politics. Her views about what it takes to make political change have shifted over the years. She is often challenging me to think and have conversations with myself about how I’m showing up. She is a really cool child.
On taking risks:
Oftentimes, we deal with a lot of pressures to conform and to worry about where this road might take us. That creates a space where you don’t have clarity and courage. That’s how systems become more and more oppressive, because people continue to be complacent in them. I believe if you want to make change, we have to be as bold as we can. We don’t fight for a seat at the table just to keep it warm. We fight for a seat at the table to actively use that seat.
Fear can be a debilitating thing, but it can also be a very liberating thing. It can fuel you to be courageous. For someone who’s been through a lot and come really close to losing her life many a time, I have really been a person who is very centered in the today. There is an urgency in recognizing that our time is limited. In the demonstrations that are taking place here, it’s such an inspiration to be in a space with young people who are so fearless and so clear about the kind of world they want to live in. It’s exciting to have a little part in helping create that with them.