In 2017, Rep. Ilhan Omar was serving in the Minnesota House of Representatives when a group of young people held a rally at the state capitol in St. Paul, calling for stronger gun control legislation. The demonstration hit home for her in more ways than one—it was led by her daughter, Isra Hirsi.
In that moment, Omar was reminded that she had been just a year older than her daughter’s age when the Columbine High School massacre occurred in 1999. “If my generation had acted with the urgency that her generation had acted,” she wonders, “would my daughter be at the state capitol asking for us to introduce sensible gun laws and to protect the lives of young people?” Omar shared the memory on Monday, when she and now 17-year-old Hirsi—who is cofounder of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike—joined a virtual conversation as part of Fortune Most Powerful Women’s “Paying It Forward” series.
Omar, a Democrat who in 2019 was elected to represent Minnesota’s Fifth District in the U.S. House of Representatives, said that moment of realization is one of the reasons she fights for “transformative change, because I know that complacency is what brought us here.” Hirsi’s action helped her understand “how we don’t have the luxury of waiting another year or two or three and passing the buck to the next generation.”
She said that while she’s not naive, she does tend to be the optimist in the room, and she is hopeful that the current social justice movement taking place in the U.S. would prevail.
Omar, who is one of just two Muslim women in Congress, pointed to history for supporting evidence, noting that the Montgomery bus boycott lasted 395 days before a single change took a place. The police killing of George Floyd occurred on May 25, and on June 25, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was passed. “Within 30 days, not only did we introduce a piece of legislation, we debated it in committee and passed it on the House floor,” she said. “That kind of rapid change has never been possible in our nation’s history, period.”
Omar, who fled Somalia with her family as a child and spent four years in a refugee camp before being granted asylum in the U.S., said that one of the reasons she—someone who experienced war and famine—remains optimistic, is that she is alive today because someone chose to invest in her. “Someone was optimistic about saving my life,” she said. “So I remain optimistic about what’s possible for us to save the lives of others who are not as fortunate as us.”
Omar also discussed why she decided to join her colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in responding to Rep. Ted Yoho, who reportedly called Ocasio-Cortez a “f—ing bitch” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. (Yoho has said he is sorry for the “abrupt manner” of the exchange but that he never engaged in “offensive name-calling” and that as a man with a wife and daughters he was “very cognizant of my language.”)
Omar said the incident was part of “a shared experience that women have across communities across the world.”
“What we’re asking for is fundamental respect and fundamental equality,” she said. She noted that in her House remarks, she talked about how she did not want men to act decently toward women because they have a wife, sister, or mother. “We want men to act decently with us because they think of us as equal humans deserving of decency and respect,” she said.
Omar added that out of the thousands of people who have served in Congress, only 79 have been women of color. “It’s an important milestone,” she said. “But once again that reminds you that people are still getting comfortable with the fact that we are here as colleagues equal to them, and wielding the same power and influence as them.”
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