News of the death of Hussein Samatar, although not unexpected given his lingering hospital stay, cuts short the life of a promising public servant.
The Minneapolis school board member was the first on the board to call this reporter late in 2011 when I returned to covering schools after a four-year absence. His eagerness to talk was so infectious that I met him at his Cedar-Riverside office on my day off.
Our conversation that morning revolved around the needs of the district’s immigrant students. Although many of them find success first in the district’s classes tailored for English language learners, then in mainstream classes, or continuing in adult basic education if needed, Samatar wasn’t satisfied with 35 percent of them achieving a degree in four years. He constantly prodded for the district to improve those efforts, pushing it to disaggregate data on the performance of traditional African-American students and children of African immigrants. The district's English Learner Commission is one of his accomplishments.
Samatar made the transition from Somali refugee to Somali-American success story early in his adulthood. He earned his undergraduate degree before Somali’s civil war made remaining in that nation unfeasible. He worked first for Wells Fargo, then founded the African Development Center, which specialized in loans to the startup businesses of immigrants.
He got his start in government by the relatively easy path of an appointment by Mayor R.T. Rybak to the city’s Library Board. The appointment came at a critical time as the city was negotiating the terms to a shotgun wedding to the Hennepin County library system. The merger of the two libraries also made Samatar’s appointment short-lived, even as it made him the first Somali to serve on a public board in the state.
Samatar earned his next political job, winning election unopposed with 96 percent of the vote in an east central district containing the heavily Somali-American Cedar-Riverside precincts. That made him the state’s first elected Somali, and possibly the pathbreaker in that regard nationally.
He was invaluable during the tensions that arose between students of Somali descent and traditional African-American students at South High School last February. He didn’t toe the administration’s line, and provided an outlet for Somali parents and students to vent their frustrations.
He was preparing a run for mayor when he learned of his diagnosis of leukemia. A Samatar candidacy would have drawn heavily on his banking experience to pursue an agenda of economic and housing development. He knew that a critical operation awaited that would take him out of the heart of the campaign season, and accepted that fate. As it turned out, Samatar lingered in hospital care for much of the summer until he died late last month.
Two things I’ll take away from my encounters with Samatar. One is that he took the duty of accountability as a public official seriously. If I called with a question, Samatar was quick to respond. It’s an example followed by too few of his fellow school board members, with Chair Alberto Monserrate, Richard Mammen and newcomer Josh Reimnitz most emulating Samatar in that regard.
Second, when I called on a sensitive topic, while others were stonewalling, Samatar was wiliing to voice the inconvenient truth.
Both are legacies worth emulating.
A fund has been set up for the support of Samatar’s wife and four children, who live in Phillips. Donations to the Hussein Samatar Memorial Fund may be made at any office of Bremer Bank.
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