Meet Jamila Mame — Oromo-Ethiopian Muslim American Political Organizer, Education Advocate

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Photo Credit: Take Action Minnesota

By Lolla Nur

Salam Jamila! Tell me about yourself, how you identify as a human, and your work.

I’m a curious soul, a Black Muslim woman and Oromo immigrant from Ethiopia. I’m TakeAction MN’s Woman of Color Organizer. We just won our rent stabilizing campaign which I led and am excited about. 

I left Ethiopia when I was 9 years old and went to Kenya. I moved to the US as a teen, and lived in the Twin Cities until I moved to Arkansas for college. 

I studied political science and psychology, and later moved back to St. Paul to work for the DFL and various campaign work.

So, what was the reason you came to the US? And did you come with family? 

I came here with my siblings. My father was already here, he was exiled because of political reasons. When he left home, all of us had to leave. 

When we came to the US, everything was exciting. I believed in the American Dream, where this is the “land of opportunity.” You work hard, you get whatever you want. But, things were different. 

We lived in a one bedroom apartment, my dad worked two jobs, put us through school. I know it was difficult for him to support 12 of my siblings and other family members, like immigrants do. Transitioning from places I was familiar with and the language I knew to America was different because coming here, I didn’t speak English. 

You talked about the American Dream. Was there a myth vs a reality in your experience?

In the process of talking about America as the land of opportunities, no one talks about what that means. No one talks about race and classic dynamics. No one ever tells us that hard work doesn’t always equate success. 

[Prior to coming to America I thought I’m] gonna obtain the American dream and go to school, then college, and after college I’ll have a big job that’ll pay this much money. I believed in all that. But the challenges—access to quality education, language, the misunderstanding of the American system and history, the culture. It was a lot. 

It took long to acclimate to American culture because [prior], I was in a very familiar environment, even in Kenya. In Minneapolis, I was around people who spoke Somali or Amharic or Oromiffa, and then the school I went to, we learned our language. I went to a Somali charter school. It was different but it was very similar so I didn’t feel left out. A majority of my friends were also East African. 

So when would you say you had that wake up call of, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t fit in’? 

I had a huge ‘What is this?’ moment when I went to college and learned about American history, the reality of our system, the reality of what that American dream really meant. I realized the land that we are standing on is stolen land, with 400-plus years of slavery of my distant ancestors. It was an “aha” moment, a scary moment for me. But, I am thankful because I had amazing networks that invested and mentored me, [especially] Black women who took me under their wing and mentored me. 

That’s incredible. Can you tell me more about what you do at Take Action Minnesota? I know you started working there in 2019. 

My work with Take Action has been fruitful. It’s a passion of mine to work with women of color as a woman of color myself. I’ve been invested in and mentored by Black and Brown women, who shape a lot of my beliefs today.

When I got this offer, I got excited because there’s nothing more exciting than being with other women of color to talk about our individual and collective liberation.

What’s the importance of working with women of color?

My two-plus years at Take Action is a testament to how much I love the work. I’ve met hundreds of women of color and I feel like there’s this one story that connects all of us. When working with women of color, you don’t have to always repeat yourself. You can be your most unapologetic self and be embraced. Your voice is uplifted, and you are invested in for personal and overall growth.​​ 

At Take Action we believe so much in [the power of] stories. Other people tell us [women of color] stories about ourselves, and often we believe those stories. The women of color I work with and mentor — we talk about, how do we unlearn the things we’ve been taught about ourselves and know to be true about ourselves? 

And how do we get to the liberation that we’re looking for? That’s a beautiful space. As a WOC organizer, that is the same space I wanted and have created. Space where we celebrate, uplift, and invest in each other. Space to yield our power! 

Photo Credit: Jamila Mame’s Twitter account.

That’s a gorgeous space! It’s something I also think about… Our collective healing and healing justice, you know, what does and can that look like?

Yeah, as a Black Muslim immigrant woman, I with all the intersectionalities I carry — I know what the lack of healing and liberation looks like. 

Liberation and healing for me is for us to walk into our most powerful selves and unlearn things the system and society taught us about ourselves. ‘We’re not good enough,’ this imposter’s syndrome I know a lot of leaders of color share. They can be leading big organizations and owning a big project, and they still feel like they’re not good enough. 

Sis, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I want to stay on this topic of healing. How do you define healing? 

Healing is the process of reconciling with our past, unshackling ourselves from traumas that weaken us. [It] is that we heal from things that do not serve us. We walk into the space of liberation and say, ‘That is not who I am, that’s what the dominant narrative taught me about myself, but I’m this powerful and strong, gentle person.’ 

Our vulnerability and femininity does not make us weak and it actually adds to our strength and our power. 

You have strong values, beliefs and convictions. Where did these come from?

It’s rooted in my mama, in my sisters, in the many women I encountered throughout my life that invested in me from Little Rock, Arkansas to St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother lives in Ethiopia and instilled in me a love of learning, community service and doing things from love. My sister is one of the most resilient human beings. And City Councilmember Nelsie Yang of Ward 6 (the youngest and first Hmong American woman elected as councilmember in St. Paul)​​. Through them I learned these beautiful qualities. 

[My values] are also rooted in my faith, too. One of my favorite sayings of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) was, ‘Allah will not be merciful to those who are not merciful to people.’ That strengthens my love for the service I do.

Are there any specific indigenous African, Ethiopian, Oromo practices or maternal rituals you learned from your mother or family that have shaped you? 

Yes. My mother doesn’t have a formal education but back home she runs one of the strongest women’s literacy groups. A bunch of women, about 20 women, come together every Friday night to talk about business. 

They’ll come, and everyone will agree upon a certain amount of money to give per month. My mom collects the money. They count it, and each month give it to one woman, and that woman will build a business. Everyone will buy whatever she’s selling and support that business. Then they come together and celebrate the next person to support. 

Oh! I know what this is! My mother also used to do it with her friends in the community. We have this in Eritrean cultures and many other Ethiopian cultures as well. In Tigrinya it’s called “equb,” what do Oromos call it?

Yes, equb! It’s the same word. 

Imagine: this is a group of women who don’t have an education, or a lot of support. They live in a male dominated world. But this instilled in me so much about hard work and what is possible. My mom actually reminded me to start doing it and I started in November 2019. I wish, when I go back home, I’ll get to see the women when they meet.

You’ve also done campaign work for Mary Anne Quiroz’ campaign for St. Paul city council, and you’ve run for St. Paul Public Schools board. Do you ever plan to run for office?

Running for office was never my thing. I always liked investing in elected officials who are grounded in community. Who are in accountable and transparent relationships with our community. 

The moment I decided to run (for SPPS board) was when I looked at our school board leadership and realized we don’t have one single person who is of immigrant background, although in St. Paul, we have a lot of immigrant students attending our public schools. I felt like I could support students like me and parents who want to get involved with their children’s learning, but have a language barrier or don’t understand school policies. 

What were the biggest lessons you learned from your SPPS board campaign?

I learned the power of community voice and uplifting young peoples’ leadership and young leaders’ voices. We often leave young voices behind and focus just on voters. But if we’re going to run for them, we need to bring them along and make sure they also have decisions at the table. We need to consult with them. They’re young adults. 

[I learned the importance of] bringing people you’re serving along with you. Not just saying, ‘I’m gonna represent you’ — but actually standing and doing the work with them. 

My campaign was run by young people, by the parents of students who attend public schools. They would doorknock with me. I had that privilege of working with those parents and students and meeting a lot of great teachers. 

You’ve been doing a lot of work on rent stabilization and housing equity, which disproportionately affects BIPOC, immigrants and refugees. As an East African and Muslim yourself, how have you been able to use culturally relevant, faith relevant community outreach?

I love this question! One of the ways we did this at Take Action was by having community ambassadors and multilingual organizers addressing the community in Amharic, Oromo, Somali. There were different ambassadors for each community. We grounded the rent stabilization campaign in peoples’ lived experiences and stories.

Also, meeting people where they are. A lot of our community members work several jobs to provide for their families. [They] have been deprived from building trust with elected officials so I try my best to understand my community and meet them where they’re at. In doing outreach, I have one-to-ones with community members to come to a place of trust, co-governance, and transparent communication. 

Photo Credit: Women Winning.

We [in society] often talk about certain practices in different areas of life but we don’t talk about culturally relevant engagement. A lot of people are receptive to different languages. For example, my mom might find acceptable what others might not find acceptable. 

Were there other examples of culturally relevant engagement?

Yes, through the healing and liberation process. We try to normalize the struggles of Black, Indigenous, People of Color as a community struggle, [as opposed to] a personal struggle. Our communities have been excluded from the political decision making table for a long time. With that in mind, I try to work from a place of understanding and transparency about what I am inviting them to and having ongoing communication about the work we do. [Mainstream] political spaces often miss these steps. 

A lot of people in our immigrant communities don’t like talking about how they live in a one bedroom apartment with four people because that’s what they can afford. But to say, the problem we have is not our problem, it’s a larger societal problem due to rent increases and unaffordable housing. We have to talk about it. This is not something we should be ashamed about. 

People think it’s just them going through problems alone, but when you turn that individual story into a collective story it becomes a collective struggle. And then people [start to] think, how can we overcome this?

That is powerful. I have noticed African immigrants, especially our Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali communities, tend to experience and project a lot of shame when they feel unsuccessful. Perhaps that’s due to our migration trauma. 

People will come and say, “My rent increased by 63%” and people started building resonance with their stories and lived experience. This is not private pain. At Take Action, we use private pain to build public memories. We brought peoples’ private pain into public memory by building that resonance, that alliance. [By] showing that you’re not struggling alone, this is a community struggle. So building that solidarity with renters is what helped us win the rent stabilization campaign. 

What about storytelling and art? Did or does that play a role in your work at Take Action with immigrant, refugee and BIPOC communities?

A lot of art! We had this event called “Women of Color Week of Action Plus Allies Week.” We talked about housing justice, racial justice and we had people at that event ensure that we started every event with stories. 

People can find resonance and relation to what is happening by sharing what they love about their community. Why do they want to stay in their community? What does rent stabilization do for them? 

Jamila, I just have to say that mashaAllah, your work and your articulation of who you are is inspiring to me! I can relate with your observations, especially around the power of arts, culture and storytelling to heal and inspire. 

I’m curious: what’s next for you?

My issue areas are rent and education right now. After running [for SPPS board] and helping run the rent stabilization campaign [this year], I’m excited about issue campings. That’s where we can enact change and that’s what I’ll be focusing on. 

One other thing I want to work on is Universal Basic Income. If there’s anything COVID brought us, it’s abundant resources, so how can we make UBI possible in St. Paul? Other cities in the nation are looking up to us with our recent win on rent stabilization. 

I’m also interested in working with Take Action to build accountable partnerships with  our elected officials and our community. Elected officials only come to our communities every four years. That is unacceptable.

Any final comments on the future of politics in Minnesota, especially as it relates to East African women?

Well, [St. Paul, Minnesota] just elected our first and youngest Eritrean school board member — Halla Henderson. I still care about the education system so I’ll be able to work alongside Halla and all the people we just elected to school board to make sure we are getting students the quality education they need.

We are the future of what is possible in Minnesota.

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