This ongoing series of conversations with Minnesota women about their engagement in politics was created as a collaboration between Amra Avdic, journalist and project director of the Contemporary Women’s Festival in Bosnia, and Minnesota Women’s Press, thanks to support from the global Community Solutions Program.
Dr. Habon Abdulle is the executive director and founder of Ayada Leads, a nonprofit organization committed to fostering an environment in which new American women are encouraged to lead and advocate for policies that positively impact their communities. Dr. Abdulle has over 25 years of experience in gender and politics. She is a respected voice on building a platform that celebrates women’s civic leadership efforts and success.
What are the goals of Ayada Leads?
Ayada Leads is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to strengthening our democracy by ensuring that nobody is left out of the civic process. We focus on revealing the full talents that America has to offer for service in elected offices. We work with the new American women in general, but particularly African diaspora women. Our focus is leadership, but we look at this leadership and meet the women of our community in three ways.
One is that we work with women who are interested in politics; we provide training, sometimes we recruit them, we provide all the skills that they need to run for public office and to win.
The second program we have focuses on young women and girls that are attending either high school or college. We want to prepare them to become the future leaders; we provide mentorship where they can learn what they need to proceed with their education and get into college. If they are in a college, what they need to prepare themselves to get into the careers and become successful in any area they may choose.
The third [program] is that we work with women who are new to the country and who are still having some issues in navigating the system in general and struggling with the languages.
What are the key issues that you have noticed when it comes to the political engagement of BIPOC women in the USA? What makes them engaged? What makes them hesitate?
Women of color definitely share all the issues that the wider community have: health issues, housing, childcare, employment. At the same time, we have a set of issues that comes because of our intersectionality. Meaning, we are women of color. Some of us, like myself, are visibly Muslim wearing a hijab. Some of us, like myself, are immigrants who were not born in United States. Therefore, whether it is an immigration issue or the status of refugees, we are looking to have our identities and culture not only be respected, but be added into the social fabric. Those are the issues that we are working on that are different when it comes to other women or other people who are American like us.
How do you help women awaken their potential and how do you prepare them for the obstacles they will face?
I myself experience prejudice. I am originally from Somalia. I used to live in Italy, where I attempted to get into civic leadership. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful. The reason I did not succeed in that attempt was because of my gender, and that is where I learned that I shouldn’t be waiting for somebody else to open the doors for women. I myself have the opportunity and the power to start that.
When I moved to United States and saw the same issues, I had to try to make the change and gather women who have the same ambitions when it comes to civic leadership. Yes, I believe that we succeeded in that attempt, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done. The way I succeeded is because we used the same reasons that misogynists have been using against us. We have been told because of a cultural background or our religion, women shouldn’t be in a position of leadership. We reversed that — we have been using culture and religion to actually demand the rights of women and our presence in leadership.
In Bosnia Herzegovina, my country, a terrible war happened in the 90s and we still feel the consequences today. What worries me is the strong expansion of patriarchy. I’m even more frightened by the minimal existence of the system that empowers women and supports them for political engagement. How did you create such a successful system in the United States and make this powerful platform with clear and very powerful results?
As I said earlier, I used to live in Italy. It was the 1990s when the Civil War was happening in Bosnia. I must have had a friend who migrated to Italy at that time, who was doing an amazing job, galvanizing the Bosnian community in Italy and trying to make known to other communities the struggle in Bosnia. Bosnia has amazing women as great leaders.
For example, if I were to go now to Somalia and try to replicate the success that happened here in Minneapolis, it wouldn’t be easy. Therefore, I have to use other ways to galvanize and organize the women in Somalia. What I think many women in Bosnia need to do is to look at the structures they have in place right now — if that is women in the workplace, use that path, and organize the woman in their workplace. From there, start doing more work where they can become leaders.
There are women in politics, but the number of women you want to have [in politics] is not even close. Women need to organize themselves. That is the main thing. We can get to the community, but women need to organize themselves and have a voice, so they can say, see, and achieve what they want.
We have the second problem that is a really huge one — how we can change the community’s opinion that men are better leaders.?
Community includes men, women, and children. If the women actually have an organizing mindset and want to achieve and change the culture — because culture is a social construct we created — we can change the same way it was created. In 2015, we were an informal group of women. The reason we decided to start it that way, instead of us becoming an organization, was because we want to actually prepare the Minnesota community to be ready when one of us wants to launch her candidacy and run for office.
I am glad that the work you do right now is this kind of a gathering, where you and the media engage, and it invites more women, and talks about the issues and how we can dismantle the barriers we have. The more we talk with people, people see us as people, not women or men. The more they see us, the more they see that we hold a position of power, the more they see women who can be a role model that will change. I applaud you for what you are doing now.
One of your big wins was the election of Representative Ilhan Omar to the Minnesota Legislature and then to U.S. Congress. Originally, I read that she did not see herself in politics, but you didn’t let her get away with that so easily. How did you help her build her confidence to become the strong elected candidate she became?
Representative Omar was always involved in politics, but she was hesitant to run for office. That is what I helped her with, and insisted that she run for office. I saw her leadership capacity, drive, and ambition and I wanted that to come out. At that time she was working in different campaigns. She was the campaign manager of various men who were running for office. Then she was working as a policy aide for city council in Minneapolis. But she had everything that anyone would need to become a leader.
Mmany women in general don’t think of themselves as capable of running for office or being in positions of leadership because of how we have been inculcated of this idea that we are not capable or deserving of leadership positions. She wanted to see when the community would be ready. What we did is we worked and made the community ready for her.
The first five years, the work we did was to prepare the community to accept a woman to run for office. It wasn’t because we wanted the permission of the leaders of the community or the community in general. The reason we wanted the community to be ready is because of how the mainstream sees women who look like me not being ready to run for office. Oftentimes, if you are a person of color, the question that is asked is ‘do you have your community support if you want to run for office?’ That question is not asked of white men running for office, but is usually asked to white women and people of color. That is the reason we wanted to have the community ready.
I’m thinking about women who will be watching this interview, and maybe they are potentially thinking about running for the office or next elections, but they don’t feel themselves ready. What would you say to them?
Don’t ask permission. That is your ambition. If you feel that you have what it takes to run for office and become a leader, run for office. If you are located in Minneapolis, contact Ayada Leads. We will work with you to prepare you.
Please stop asking for permission. It is your life. You know that you are a leader. Run for office.