First Somali-American elected to Minn. office

Hussein Samatar was elected to the Minneapolis School Board on Tuesday.

Hussein Samatar conducts an interview shortly after his election to the Minneapolis School Board November 2 at the Minneapolis Hilton.

Hussein Samatar conducts an interview shortly after his election to the Minneapolis School Board November 2 at the Minneapolis Hilton.

Andre Eggert

Hussein Samatar knows the importance of a good education.

He completed his college degree just four days before the Somali Civil War broke out in 1991 and believes his is one of the few generations to receive an uninterrupted education in the country.

Now Samatar, who was elected to the Minneapolis School Board on Tuesday, plans to tackle the educational issues in Minneapolis Public Schools. He is the first Somali-American elected to office in Minnesota âÄî and perhaps the United States.

Samatar was among the first wave of people to flee his native country and, after staying in a refugee camp in Kenya, he arrived in Minnesota in 1994.

He learned English quickly, then pursued an MBA at the University of St. Thomas and got a job at Wells Fargo. In 2003, he founded the African Development Center of Minnesota, which leads consultations and workshops on finances and entrepreneurship and provides micro-loans to small businesses.

“I never, never looked back,” Samatar said of his time in Somalia and Kenya.

Though heâÄôs not an “educational policy wonk,” Samatar said he wants to push for improvements in his district to ensure all students are getting a quality education by getting the community involved, helping students learn English if they arenâÄôt fluent and promoting education to close the “opportunity gap” that plagues minority communities.

“Essentially, education is the key and way out of low income,” he said.

Equity of education is extremely important and requires raising the standards for those who are struggling without taking away resources from those who are succeeding, he said.

“Just because you live in [a poor] neighborhood or ZIP code doesnâÄôt mean you should be left behind,” Samatar said.

SamatarâÄôs determination and ability to see education as a vehicle to success make him an excellent addition to the school board, said Dan Loewenson , assistant to the superintendent and a school board liaison.

“He understands how education can really increase the trajectory for success” for immigrants, Loewenson said.

SamatarâÄôs arrival as a board member will help continue progress in Minneapolis Public Schools, Loewenson said.

The district has met with members of the Cedar- Riverside community to help improve the educational standards for Somalis.

Somali is now one of four languages that all “essential documents” are printed in. The other three are English, Spanish and Hmong.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he is a “big believer” in Samatar and what he will bring to the district.

“We have critical needs in our schools right now,” Rybak said. “His skills and the challenges of our schools will be a great match.”

Samatar brings a different perspective than a person who grew up in Minnesota, Rybak said.

“He has special insight into the experiences of the thousands of immigrants in our schools,” Rybak said. “[Samatar], regardless of where he was born, is a person who has used education to build ladders to the middle class.”

Rybak said he hopes this is the beginning of more involvement from the Somali community in politics.

“Hussein is the first, but I hope one of many, Somalis who will be in elected office,” Rybak said. “ItâÄôs already clear in our civic life Somalis are making an enormous contribution in Minneapolis.”

Though he is happy to be elected, Samatar shrugs off the significance of being the first.

“I know when things are new and have never been done before, itâÄôs a novelty,” he said. But what matters most, Samatar said, is “how I can be helpful to students of the Minneapolis Public School system.”