St Paul Teen Story

St. Paul teen Abshir Ali reviewed police chief candidates, weighed in on $7M budget. How the city nurtures public service in youth

St. Paul’s Youth On Boards initiative allows young people between the ages of 16 and 21 to serve as decision-makers on city committees and boards.
Abshir Ali reviews public improvement projects and an approximately $7 million budget as part of a committee for the city of St. Paul. He sits through long meetings about improving the city’s parks and sidewalks, often waiting months to see projects come to fruition.
But the 17-year-old high school senior loves it. It’s how Abshir, who is Somali, got his start in public service—at 14 years old.
“It was kind of daunting,” Abshir said of his unusually early start in local government. “These people have, like, 20 years of experience, and then there’s a 9th grader having the same level of authority in the room.”
Abshir joined St. Paul’s 18-member Capital Improvements Budget Committee through the city’s Youth On Boards initiative, which allows young people between the ages of 16 and 21 to serve as decision-makers on committees and boards. But serving on a committee is just one of the many ways Abshir, a Central High School student, sparked a career in public service.
He has interned for St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and City Council Member Rebecca Noecker. He also helped review job applications when the city selected a new police chief in 2022. Now, he chairs the St. Paul Youth Commission, which works with local elected officials on issues concerning young people.
“He’s definitely a leader,” said Stephany Lopez, a youth leadership program manager for the city of St. Paul. “But something I realized about him is that he makes space for people to speak up.”
As he approaches graduation in 2024, Abshir has his sights set on going to college and one day, running for St. Paul City Council.
A seat at the table
Sahan Journal recently met with Abshir at the St. Paul Center for Youth Employment, which houses the St. Paul Youth Commission and other youth organizations like RightTrack, Sprocket, and Youth on Boards, all organizations Abshir has worked closely with.
Abshir chairs the St. Paul Youth Commission’s meetings twice a week after school, sitting at the head of a circle of tables behind a nameplate with a gavel at his disposal.
One commission project Abshir worked on was contacting state legislators to urge them to pass a bill providing free school lunches for all Minnesota students.
“I spoke to a lot of people,” Abshir said humbly. “I’d say I played some part in that, because as young people speaking to state house members, it helped a little.”
The bill was eventually passed and signed into law earlier this year.
“I felt very happy about it, because it was a very pet project of mine along with a few other commissioner members who were on the project,” he said. “We were also volunteering in food banks. It felt like my work paid off.”
Lopez met Abshir this past summer after she became the youth leadership program manager for Sprockets, an after-school program for kids and teens in St. Paul.
“Coming in, I heard Abshir’s name come up a lot, because he’s so involved,” Lopez said.
She heard him speak at a news conference at the Frogtown Community Center, highlighting the city’s youth organizations and how it opened doors for him. Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan was in attendance, too.
“He talked about his experience, how programs like RightTrack, Youth on Boards, and St. Paul Youth Commission opened a lot of doors for him,” Lopez said. “Programs like these heavily changed his trajectory.”
Overcoming hurdles
Abshir and his parents and seven sisters immigrated from Ethiopia to St. Paul nearly 10 years ago. The family moved to be close to a large East African community, but Abshir noticed a lack of citizen empowerment.
“I came from Ogaden, which is a subpart of Ethiopia,” Abshir 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, Abshir said. It eventually clicked for them after they visited Abshir while he was interning at the St. Paul mayor’s office this past summer, and met the mayor themselves.
“That’s one of the things I wanted to change,” Abshir said. “I like my culture, but it’s a keep-your-head-down-and-just-go-with-the-flow kind of culture. Being as involved as I could is a way for me to show that if I can do it, then you can do it.”
Moua Yeng Xiong is a project manager for RightTrack, a youth employment training program. It was there that Yeng Xiong noticed Abshir’s interest in public service and encouraged him to join Youth On Boards in 2021 as one of its first members. The initiative, founded in 2021, trains and supports young people to serve on boards, committees, and cohorts.
“Abshir was not like most 15-year-olds,” Yeng Xiong said of Abshir’s efforts to join the Capital Improvements Budget Committee a few years ago. “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 (Capital Improvements Budget Committee) was he wanted to see how funds are allocated throughout the city, and how the CIB is part of that influence. “
As part of his appointment to the committee, Abshir was nominated by City Council Member Noecker, whom he interned for in 2022. Noecker described him as someone who comes off quiet, but is warm and funny when you get to know him.
“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. They reflect the city much better than the older generation that typically is part of these leadership groups.”
There are 22 young people from Youth On Boards serving on city committees such as the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Human Rights Equal Economic Opportunity Commission, and the Transportation Committee.
Abshir worked closely with Carter’s Chief of Staff, Peter Leggett, while interning for the mayor this past summer.
“Abshir’s engagement in an array of spaces reflects his deep commitment to service,” Leggett said in a written statement. “I look forward to his ongoing work and leadership in our community.”
Yeng Xiong described Abshir as someone who is very involved.
“That just speaks volumes to who Abshir is, taking advantage of opportunities but also not being afraid to try new things, not being afraid to take the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I would like to intern at Mayor Carter’s office.’”
Political aspirations
When asked how he likes to spend his free time, Abshir said he prefers to be very stringent with his time, planning exactly what he does every day.
“It’s kind of old to say,” he said, noting that his time management style makes him feel older than his age.
Along with school and his public service work, Abshir also works as a parking attendant in downtown St. Paul. He added that he enjoys photography and filmmaking, and often takes photos around St. Paul.
With his 18th birthday approaching on December 25, Abshir told Sahan Journal about his future plans. He’s hoping he gets into the University of Minnesota, where he plans to major in political science and eventually pursue law school.
He doesn’t have plans to leave St. Paul any time soon.
“I have to live here to run for office,” he said.
He’s waiting for the right time to run for the St. Paul City Council.
“I didn’t want to run against my former boss, and I’m not old enough yet anyways,” he joked

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