Youth Organizer Spotlights offer a chance to learn more about the youth who participate in our Youth Cultural Organizing Training (YCOT) — and be inspired by the energy, power, and wisdom they bring to our racial justice organizing community.
Name: Maimouna Shariff Mohammed
How do you self-identify?
I identify with the pronouns she/her, multicultural, Somali, African-American.
Tell me a little bit about yourself:
I was born in Minneapolis, I used to live off of Como, kind of next to Dinkytown. My parents got married two years before they had me, so I was born in ’97, they were married in ’95. Both my parents used to teach at a Muslim private school and I went there for several years. I switched schools between afro-centric schools and public schools and private schools. I had two brothers, one passed away in 2013 and so it’s just me and my little brother Ahmed now.
How is your story or the story of your community connected to why you organize?
Definitely being multicultural, having to deal with microagressions from both of the communities that I am from, kind of drove me to find a community. And when I finally found that community and I started recognizing racial injustice and the disparities between many different people, especially in Minneapolis—I didn’t realize how many white people there were in Minneapolis—I saw how the conditions are so bad here for people of color. It didn’t hit me until I started working over South with Youthfarm and not seeing enough kids of color doing positive things. I realized there’s a system in place so kids don’t want to do positive things.
Is there a particular story you go to, that reminds you why you organize?
Most definitely, working in Powderhorn, I saw a lot of racial profiling, especially from the police on little kids of color, regardless of how old they were, whether they were with parents, regardless of what they were doing there. It was just a lot of microagressions and they’re just kids in the park trying to play basketball. They’re not menacing, they’re just little brown kids trying to have fun. And seeing a lot of that, and seeing a lot of racial profiling over south, and just the disparities is really what drove me. I decided I’m going to do something about this and I’m not going to sit by and watch this go down.
What does power mean to you?
Power to me is recognizing that you can make a change. Knowing that you can go out and make something happen, and watching the chain reaction of what you did, is powerful. Power is saying, I’m not putting up with this no more and we’re about to do something about it, and then you can say I helped do that. We did that. That’s what power is.
What does building power mean to you?
Solidarity. Definitely with other people of color. That’s power building. Networking with other organizations and just being there for people, and sharing our narratives.
What do you think is necessary to build solidarity? What do you need from someone trying to build solidarity with you?
Trust. Definitely. I feel like especially in Minneapolis in the Somali community there’s been a lot of distrust with people, because people, quote unquote, are being hired by the FBI to sell Somali boys to the prison system and just different things like that. I feel like I need to trust people to be able to be in solidarity with them and recognize that they’re actually there to help me, and they’re not doing that shady, undercover “we’re gonna get you.”
What were your expectations from the training?
I was definitely expecting to build networking skills and I did—I connected with some really great people.
What is something that surprised you?
The arts and culture piece really surprised me, because when I think of training I think of sitting in an office space and brainstorming for three hours, but being able to have sessions with drawing, and poetry and other things was really surprising. I didn’t know things like that were not considered serious, that it was just on the side instead of this is a part of organizing; this is a part of your narrative.
What was your biggest take-away?
I learned a lot of new things, a lot of things that were there but I didn’t recognize. Like with hearing different narratives about struggles of being undocumented, that really hit home for me. I never experienced how hard that is, because I’m privileged to be a citizen here. Learning about the food desert over North, and being off of Broadway a lot and recognizing that there are fast food restaurants on every block. Mostly I took away that there are different solidarities in building power with other people. Knowing that people who may not have the same struggles than you, care about you and want to see you succeed. That kind of power building is something I took away.
How have your views changed as a result?
I’m more open-minded and I’m more cautious when approaching issues, and I learned that there are some things I don’t get to speak about and I won’t because they don’t affect me. I’m going to sit down and listen, and take away what I can do to help this person, to help my fellow brown people.
What is your favorite part of organizing?
Seeing the end-result of things I do. Being able to work here and see the behind-the-scenes organizing and all the little things that we do here that are a part of organizing.
What do you think is the role of art in organizing and movement building?
Being able to share your narrative and having it be embraced by other people. Personally I didn’t consider myself an artist and I still have trouble doing that. But when we were in the poetry session in that space, and the poetry I wrote—I surprised myself, I was like damn, I didn’t know I had it in me. The fact that it was provoked by being in this training, helped me recognize that this is a part of organizing—being able to share your story with other people and being able to build that power and solidarity and just knowing that people care for you.
How are you implementing what you learned this summer during the YCOT?
Definitely at school, a group that I was a part of, we are an official Black Student Union. Using the organizing tools I learned like relationship building, power-mapping, and all those different technical things helped me get this group started. Also, starting an internship here (Voices for Racial Justice) I feel like now I’m a real organizer, like I work here, I’m involved in campaigns, and I feel like what I’m learning is different. I’ve also been going to a lot of different events like for Indigenous People’s Day, and all these other events in solidarity to learn and connect more. After I took this training I reached, and started doing things I normally wouldn’t do and events I normally wouldn’t go to.
What are some different ways you have been involved in organizing?
With Youthfarm I organized on how to get more kids in Powderhorn involved in our programs. Knowing that we’re in a community with people of so many different ethnicities and cultures—seeing them not involved, is something that I decided to organize around. I also helped with events and worked with Laye (YCOT alum) organize a protest in solidarity for the girls in Boko Haram. Just connecting with people at protests I think is another slight organizing piece I did before the training. But now a lot of the conversations I have with people I took from the training around being more conscious in what I say and what I do, and how that affects people.
What do you think is the connection between actions, organizing, reflection—how are those connected?
Definitely reflections are the most important pieces for me. That healing space—I remember with the Black Liberation Project we did that Whole Foods protest and then after we went and we reflected, and it just felt really powerful to just be able to sit back and listen to others about how they felt about it and being able to share how you felt about it. That one day was what showed me the connection between all three, because we did action, and then we reflected, and I’d never done that before, so doing that really showed me the impact of healing space. To be able to do something really, really real and then sit back and be in your feelings about it.
What’s the role of healing, of opening healing spaces in organizing?
Healing spaces make me realize, damn these people care about me and I didn’t even know them, and the fact that they want to hear what I have to say…just creating healing spaces for sharing your narrative and listening to other people’s narrative and resonating with that. Healing spaces in organizing is what prevents burn out. It’s knowing that you have that community of people to fall back on when you think you’ve been going at it too hard, that there are people there to motivate, and hold you, and help you.