Providing barbecue meals for displaced residents and emergency personnel is one small way to temporarily soothe the harsh realities of immense recovery efforts.
On her last day of speech therapy in eighth grade, Amina Ghouse panicked: “No, you have to come with me to high school — I can’t do this!” Amina told her teacher.
That’s when the teacher played a recording of Amina in fourth grade. “I went from not being able to get a word out to being able to read a speech,” remembers Amina.
As she summons this memory, Amina is sitting in a sunny gazebo with the distant shouts of an impromptu soccer game behind her. This small park in New Brighton, where her father settled in the 1980s, is the spot where she spent many summers as a fourth grader, an eighth grader, and today a city commissioner.
Her soft pink hijab rustling in the breeze, her gentle voice rising and falling, Amina remembers the helplessness that came with her speech impairment: “There was a point in my life when I just wanted to shut off and not talk to anybody. I had so much I wanted to say, but I wasn’t able to do it.”
She goes on, “Now I am able to express my thoughts and my opinions and my passions because of that teacher of mine.” The gift of self-expression isn’t the only blessing that this teacher gave to Amina. As a young daughter of immigrants, she had a sense that the power of speech was something that she could use for others too.
“Being part of a growing community that was trying so hard to establish itself and then being able to give back to them and advocate for them — that made a huge difference in my life,” she says.
A Philosophy of Care
Thanks to her father and her uncle, an architect and an anesthesiologist who were two of the first members of the Muslim community in New Brighton, Amina had felt at home in the city since she was a young child. “It’s a really nice place to grow up. I had friends all throughout the neighborhoods,” she says. “It was just a wholesome childhood.”
When Amina was a teenager, her father requested her help in his Sunday school classroom at the Islamic Center of Minnesota. At age 20, she was offered an opportunity to teach her own class. “I was like, I don’t know how I’m going to teach a room full of preschoolers! When they reached out, I said that I was still learning,” says Amina.
But just as she had when she started high school, Amina stepped up and started using her voice. She had felt the transformative power of teaching during her therapy sessions, and she wanted to pay it forward.
“We all need someone to reach out to us,” she explains. “If there’s one person who’s hurting and you can reach out to them, you don’t know what kind of difference you can make in their life.”
Amina went on to teach first grade full-time, and she continues to substitute for all elementary grades. And no matter the subject or the situation, she takes her teaching philosophy wherever she goes: “Even if I step into a classroom for one period just to substitute, I always make it a point to show those students that I care.”
When Amina is around, care seems infused in the air, sitting on the breeze like the scent of the lilac bush nearby. It’s almost like you can breathe in her compassion.
A Plan of Action
Although her Sunday school was the first occasion where Amina had a classroom, she had been educating others her whole life. “Just because I was one of a handful of people of color in the entire city, I grew up having a lot of explaining to do,” she says. “Not just with my peers but also with my educators.”
According to Amina, values of openness and inclusion guide New Brighton. As she got older and saw the number of people of color increase, though, the city’s government showed little representation. Amina was feeling especially hopeless as the 2016 election approached.
“I was just really uncertain of what opportunities would be in front of me as the child of immigrants and as a Muslim,” she remembers.
That’s when Amina turned to RISE, who organized a civic engagement panel that included candidate Ilhan Omar, RISE’s Advocacy Director Asma Mohammed, and Columbia Heights School Board member Dr. Hala Asamarai.
“I realized that this election cycle proved how uninvolved we were as citizens,” she remembers. “We got motivated to get more involved.”
It was a turning point for Amina. The next day, she went down to city hall, filled out an application to become an election judge, and handed it in. Amina spent two weeks counting absentee ballots, and on the day of the election, she worked for 15 hours to register first-time voters. She loved every second.
“It was such a great experience for me, getting to know the people who work in our city,” she says. “I felt more welcomed. Even though I grew up here, I felt like I wasn’t connected internally before that.”
A Happy Heart
While she was serving as an election judge, Amina was introduced to the city manager and asked him about recent changes to New Brighton’s drinking water source. Impressed by her commitment to the city and the wellbeing of its citizens, he invited Amina to apply to commissions.
Amina decided that public safety would be the best fit for her “because there’s so much going on right now in Minnesota, in Minneapolis and St. Paul — I really wanted to share my opinions and contribute.”
As a Public Safety Commissioner, Amina plays a key role in advising the City Council on human rights issues. Along with other commission members, she follows the beat of the city. “We have the ability to bring up situations that are concerning us and just keep an eye on what’s happening,” she explains.
Unexpected blessings have emerged, too — “there’s an opportunity as a commission member to be part of the greater faith community here,” says Amina. “Especially since there’s not a mosque in New Brighton, I feel very special being able to expand the city's horizons.”
Ultimately, her position on the commission illustrates Amina’s pride in her city. “It’s shown me what an amazing city New Brighton is. Now I see that we have a lot of really great values here,” she says. “And the leadership reflects those values. It’s forward-thinking, it wants to be two steps ahead.”
“Now I feel like it’s my city, not just a place I live,” says Amina. In her 20s, she fantasized about moving to a big, bustling city like New York. But now she asks herself: “If your heart is happy where you are, why change that?”
As difficult as it may be for Amina to consider calling another city home, it’s also impossible to imagine New Brighton without her. She’s a cherished educator, a caring advocate, and a compassionate leader using her voice to better her community and her city.
In her own words: “If God’s given me the ability and the opportunity to make a difference in anyone’s life, that’s such a huge gift."
- story by Sarah Gruidl
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