Burnsville schools have changed a lot since Suad Said graduated in 2005.
The local Somali community was much smaller when she attended schools. She had only a few teachers and counselors who understood the demands of her home life, helping take care of her family and translate for her parents. (Her family arrived from a refugee camp in Kenya in 1991.)
Now, the district sends parents information translated into Somali. Her children learn about Somali culture in school.
And this fall, Suad, who goes by Sue, became the first Somali American school-board member elected in the Burnsville–Eagan–Savage district.
Voters in Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan and St. Louis Park also elected their first Somali school board members this fall. It’s an important step for educational representation in the Twin Cities’ diverse suburban communities—and a repudiation of the anti-equity vitriol that swamped many school board meetings this summer and fall.
Different factors and dynamics came into play in each race: In St. Louis Park, the election was uncontested; in Burnsville, an appointed incumbent easily won; and in Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan, candidates backed by the teachers union out-organized a conservative slate.
But it’s hard not to see the trend lines and demographic changes. In 2001, enrollments in all three suburban districts were more than 80 percent white. Twenty years later, all three have grown much more diverse.
In the Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan district—the fourth largest in the state with 26,000 students—40 percent of district students are now people of color.
In St. Louis Park, students of color now constitute nearly half the district.
And in Burnsville, two-thirds of the district’s nearly 8,000 students are people of color—and 15 percent speak Somali at home, more than any language except English or Spanish.
Now Somali parents, some of whom came to Minnesota as students themselves, are running for school board to claim a more active voice in their children’s education.
Sue hopes that her election, and the election of other Somali school board members in the Twin Cities suburbs, will bring needed representation and confidence to immigrant students.
At the most recent Burnsville High School graduation, Sue handed out diplomas to new graduates. “Being able to congratulate the Somali students in the Somali language and just seeing them with that smile, I knew that this was it for me,” Sue said.
‘A leader of the entire Burnsville community’
Sue, a 34-year-old career counselor at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and the mother of four district children, first ran for school board last year.
The district had already started taking steps toward equity, representation, and better communication, Sue said. But there was no representation for Somali kids on the school board, which in 2020 was all white.
“If there’s any way that I can continue the different positive changes happening in our district, I want to be part of it,” she said.
Sue lost her first race. But another spot opened up due to a resignation. She applied. The board unanimously appointed her to fill the vacancy. This year, she ran in a special election to complete her term. She won with 72 percent of the vote.
Over the past year, she served on the school board’s policy committee. “I love detail,” she said. “Details, details, details!”
She identified one such detail in the school’s dress code: a prohibition on hooded sweatshirts, which was rooted in a racist stereotype that linked young hoodie-wearing Black men to criminal activity. In the policy committee, she moved for the ban to be eliminated; the board voted to get rid of it.
Eric Miller, the chair of the Burnsville school board, said Sue has become a “strong voice,” often advocating for teachers and underserved students.
“She sees her role as a leader of the community she comes from, but also as a leader of the entire Burnsville community,” he said.
Sue plans to use her career counseling background to help the district attract and retain more teachers of color. The issue is personal for her family: Qorsho Hassan, the first Somali American to be named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year, taught her daughter’s fourth-grade class at Gideon Pond Elementary School. Then the district laid her off during budget cuts.
“I remember my daughter feeling devastated that she was not able to continue to see Miss Qorsho,” she said. “Qorsho gave her a different type of connection than she’s ever had with any other teachers.” Her daughter could see herself in Qorsho, and bring conversations from home to school because her teacher understood.
Still, Qorsho left a legacy of influence among the teachers at Gideon Pond, Sue said. Her kids sometimes learn Somali songs in music class, or watch a Somali dance group perform in school.
Sue hopes that Somali students in Burnsville can see themselves in her, too. If she had been able to see someone who looked like her on the school board growing up in Burnsville, Sue said, it would have helped her develop self-confidence.
“When we take up space in places that we never thought we could be in, it really changes the trajectory of all of it, and our youth become successful,” she said.
‘If you give to the community, they will give back to you’
Abdihakim Arabow Ibrahim will be the first Somali American school-board member in St. Louis Park.
“We need true representation that reflects all of us,” he said. “I believe I can help the schools to be more inclusive.”
A 36-year-old electrical engineer and father of four, Abdihakim immigrated to the United States in 2014 to join his wife, an American citizen. He promptly became deeply involved in the community as an activist: joining the St. Louis Park Police Advisory Commission, encouraging votes for a school funding referendum, and urging people to take the census.
Abdihakim, who earned his electrical engineering degree in Pakistan and speaks five languages—English, Somali, Arabic, Hindi, and Urdu—hopes to improve services for the district’s multilingual learners.
Right now, he said, interventions for students with delayed speech are not available to those who speak another language at home. (Sahan Journal reached out to St. Louis Park Public Schools for insights into this question.) He also believes pulling students out of their regular classes for English language instruction puts them behind in their other classes.
Parents should get prompt notification about those services, too, Abdihakim says. He thinks the district can do more to communicate with parents who struggle with technology, and utilize cultural liaisons more frequently—not just when there is a problem.
He also wants to address discipline disparities. In 2018, the St. Louis Park school district agreed to a settlement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions, one of 42 districts and charter schools in the state to do so.
Nadia Mohamed, who was elected in 2019 as St. Louis Park’s first Somali American city council member, wasn’t surprised that Abdihakim won. “If you give to the community, they will give back to you,” she said.