Hussein Samatar said he owes a lot to the Minneapolis Public Library system. Now he has a chance to give back.
Since the mid-1990s, he and his family have clocked countless hours in Franklin Community Library, learning English and reading Somali books.
Last week, Mayor R.T. Rybak appointed the Somali immigrant to the Library Board. He joins an eight-member Board of Trustees, which administers a budget of more than $20 million.
Monday night, Samatar, the mayor and Somali community leaders celebrated the appointment at the recently renovated Franklin Library in south Minneapolis. At least 100 people attended, feasting on sambosas and flatbread while marking what many said is a milestone for the local Somali community, the largest in the United States.
“I will be speaking in three languages tonight,” Samatar told the standing-room-only crowd before thanking the mayor and his supporters in Spanish, Somali and, mostly, English.
Samatar, who has served as director of the African Development Center in south Minneapolis since 2002, said he was “humbled” by the appointment and would work to improve the library system for immigrants and all Minneapolis residents.
“He is a very articulate spokesperson for why libraries are important,” said Rybak, who appointed Samatar after the previous appointee, Laura Waterman Wittstock, won election to the board last month.
“After the election, I did feel there needed to be more views from broader communities at the table,” he said.
Kit Hadley, library system executive director, said Samatar brings helpful financial experience to a library system facing a funding crunch.
Three years after voters “generously” invested in renovating and constructing new library buildings, “the bottom fell out of the operating budget,” she said.
That means libraries are open fewer hours and are understaffed, she said.
Samatar vowed to reverse those trends.
The appointment is a step in the right direction, said Ahmed Yusuf, a case manager at the Community-University Health Care Center a few blocks from the event.
“It means that Minneapolis recognizes that there is a Somali community and that it is an important part of America,” he said.
Somali Student Association president Mohamud Ahmed said public officials now will be more responsive to the community.
“Having a voice in the local government means you have a voice in whatever decisions are being made,” said Ahmed, who is also an immigrant, in the group’s Coffman Union office.
Samatar, a 2003-2004 public policy fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said right now he’s focused on fulfilling his new role. But he said he’s not ruling out a future political career.
“This time, it’s just based on making sure everyone has a book to read,” he said.
Ahmed, a biomedical engineering junior, said he hopes Samatar and other educated Somalis dream big.
Although the appointment was a huge step forward, he said, “We shouldn’t be satisfied with (the library board) level.”
Before Rybak spoke Monday night, a young Somali boy told him that he wants to be a politician someday.
“I look forward to the day when I can vote for Somalis,” Rybak said.