As a member of a St. Paul budget committee, Abshir Ali reviews public improvement projects and a $7 million budget. He sits through long meetings about the city's parks and sidewalks, often waiting months to see projects come to fruition.

But the 17-year-old Central High School senior loves it. It's how Ali, who is Somali, got his start in public service — at the age of 14.

"It was kind of daunting," he said. "These people have, like, 20 years of experience, and then there's a ninth-grader having the same level of authority in the room."

Ali joined St. Paul's 18-member Capital Improvements Budget (CIB) Committee through the city's Youth On Boards initiative, which allows young people ages 16 to 21 to serve as decisionmakers on city committees and boards.

But joining the CIB committee is just one of many ways Ali has launched his career in public service. And he has his sights set on running one day for the St. Paul City Council.

Ali has interned for Mayor Melvin Carter and City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, and helped review job applications for a new police chief in 2022. Twice a week after school he chairs meetings of the St. Paul Youth Commission, which works with elected officials on issues concerning young people.

"He's definitely a leader," said Stephany Lopez, a youth leadership program manager for St. Paul.

As Youth Commission chair, Ali lobbied legislators to pass a bill providing free school lunches for all Minnesota students. The bill passed and was signed into law earlier this year.

"I'd say I played some part in that, because as young people speaking to state House members, it helped a little. ... It felt like my work paid off," he said.

Lopez met Ali this summer when she became the manager of Sprockets, an after-school program for kids and teens in St. Paul. She heard him speak at a news conference at the Frogtown Community Center, highlighting the city's youth organizations.

"He talked about his experience, how programs like RightTrack [a youth employment training program], Youth on Boards and the St. Paul Youth Commission opened a lot of doors for him," Lopez said.

Ali, his parents and seven sisters emigrated from Ethiopia to St. Paul nearly 10 years ago. The family joined the large East African community, but Ali noticed a lack of citizen empowerment there.

"I came from Ogaden, which is a subpart of Ethiopia," Ali said. "Not a lot of political rights, you know? No one in my family really knew what voting was, or the idea of civilian bodies in government."

Explaining his role in the city to his parents was also a learning curve, he said. It eventually clicked for them when they visited Ali while he was interning in Carter's office this summer and met the mayor himself.

"Being as involved as I could is a way for me to show that if I can do it, then you can do it," Ali said.

Moua Yeng Xiong, a project manager for RightTrack, encouraged Ali to join Youth On Boards in 2021.

"Abshir was not like most 15-year-olds," Yeng Xiong said of his efforts to join the CIB committee. "There were a handful of other boards and commissions he could have selected. But from my understanding, the reason why he was interested in CIB was he wanted to see how funds are allocated throughout the city, and how the CIB is part of that influence. "

Ali was nominated for the CIB committee by Noecker, for whom he interned in 2022.

"It's so important to have young people involved, because they bring a completely fresh perspective to the work that we do," Noecker said. "They bring personal experience of how the city operates in their daily lives, which is easy to forget as an adult working inside City Hall."

Twenty-two young people from Youth On Boards serve on city committees, including the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Human Rights Equal Economic Opportunity Commission, and the Transportation Committee.

Along with school and his public service work, Ali works as a parking attendant in downtown St. Paul. He added that he enjoys photography and filmmaking, and often takes photos around the city.

With his 18th birthday approaching Monday, Ali told Sahan Journal that he's hoping to go to the University of Minnesota, where he plans to major in political science and eventually pursue law school. But he doesn't have plans to leave St. Paul any time soon, he said; he's waiting for the right time to run for City Council.

"I have to live here to run for office," he said, adding that he didn't want to run against his mentor, the mayor. "I'm not old enough yet, anyways."

About the partnership

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for a free newsletter to receive Sahan's stories in your inbox.