Exclusive interview: MN legislator Ilhan Omar

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Iya Abdulkarim

BEHIND THE SCENES: "I think that for me one of the biggest surprises...was just realizing that ninety percent of the work that we do nobody ever gets to see," Omar said, "and nobody ever gets to know, and the little bits and pieces that they get to see are things that have taken months and hundreds of meetings and one on one conversation to be able to have it be presentable to the outside world."

Ilhan Omar made history in the fall of 2016 when she was elected, making her the first ever Somali-American legislator in the U.S.

Although she has gained an international following, working in government is only one facet Omar’s life.

“I’m a mother, and I consider myself a community organizer and I’m also a legislator, and my role as a legislator is three things: one is to create laws that have a direct impact on our lives; the second is appropriate funding for important things like education, and building roads; and my third is to convene: to have conversations, and to be a representation of people’s voices,” Omar said.

Omar’s campaign was small and her team worked hard trying to convince people to pay attention to their message. Now, having a global following has helped with her outreach.

Starting Out

Omar felt completely prepared to take on her role as a legislator, but there were still some things that surprised her.

“I think that for me one of the biggest surprises of arriving here was just realizing that ninety percent of the work that we do nobody ever gets to see, and nobody ever gets to know, and the little bits and pieces that they get to see are things that have taken months and hundreds of meetings and one on one conversations to be able to have it be presentable to the outside world. So what might seem like it’s being done with ease, a month ago, felt like a mountain to push,” she said.

Nothing can replace the joy Omar feels in office.

“[My favorite part of the job] is the conversations with people. That’s the one thing that sustains me. The deal making and negotiations can strip away your humanity often times, and for me I find solace in knowing that I am connected to the people,” she said.

Finding Balance

One of the most difficult parts of Omar’s job is balancing many roles.

“I think finding the balance of being a mother, a legislator, and a public official is a challenge. There is no separation often times. Everything sort of gets muddied together and there aren’t really clear boundaries,” she said.

Her challenge is to make sure that there are clear boundaries when she is in her different roles.

My biggest accomplishment is creating access to places of power for people.”

— MN Legislator Ilhan Omar

“When I am with my kids and at home I will not take [work] phone calls; these things don’t matter at the moment when my job is being a mother. The same thing goes for when I am a legislator, that is my job. I am here to work: I am here to legislate and I will show up,” she said.

Identity

Omar’s identity plays a huge role in her job. Being an elected official who is a woman of color, she has struggled with people doubting her along the way.

“I joke often times that I’m a minority in the minority, and I am a minority in every sense of the word: I’m a minority as a black woman, I’m a minority as an immigrant, I’m a minority as a woman, and I’m a minority as someone who isn’t from a Christian faith,” she said.

Omar was born in Somalia, and as the civil war in 1991 began, her family fled to a refugee camp in Kenya. From there, they moved to the U.S.

“I think often times people don’t expect much from me here. So when I show up for something, it’s easy to have those conversations because people are often surprised that I have ideas and I know how things work. So, before they are able to mount a defense against whatever it is I’m pushing, it’s done because they underestimate what I am capable of doing,” she said.

Even so, there are still challenges that Omar faces on a regular basis.

“For me the challenge is to remember that all of these people are in the business of diminishing our power, our light, and getting us to the point where we are afraid of our own voices so we whisper,” she said.

The Future

While in office, Omar hopes to accomplish specifically one thing:

“Whether my time as a legislator ends next year or it continues for a few more years, what I think would be my biggest accomplishment is creating access to places of power for people,” she said. “For people to see that there isn’t particular permission that you need to be able to do something or to activate for yourself, and that, as legislators, we are privileged enough to represent you because you let us.”

This story is reprinted from The Rubicon Print edition: Oct 24, 2017