Mustafa Diriye helps parents advocate for their rights
Mustafa Diriye is a community organizer for Students for Education Reform - Minnesota. He grew up in Somalia and has lived in the U.S. for 22 years. He graduated from Metro State University with a major in political science and a minor in community organizing and gained experience working with parents and families in his time coaching soccer and teaching first and second graders. He lives in Saint Paul with his wife. We sat down at Capitol Café on Franklin Avenue in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis to discuss what motivates him to organize for educational justice.
How did you first connect with SFER?
I’ve always been deeply respective of human rights. When I was at Metro State I took a human rights class with Khulia [Pringle, then an SFER member at MCTC]. She introduced me to SFER. I don’t have my own kids, but I want all kids to have an opportunity. I went to school in Africa up until 10th grade. Our education there wasn’t strong, but at least it was fair. The president’s son and I had the same education. At the end of the day the wealthy kids rode home in nice cars and I caught the bus, but our education was really the same. It’s not equal here. Being in SFER has given me a lot of opportunity to advocate for my community and for our kids. Many parents ask me: ‘You don’t have kids, so why are you so into this?’ I tell them that my kids are in the hand of God. When they come one day I want to raise them where public schools are working for everybody. So I am doing this for my community. All kids are my kids, and if they don’t have a voice or somebody to advocate for them, I want to be that voice. So, that’s why I believe SFER is really beautiful organization to work for.
How have MN’s academic opportunity gaps affected our Somali community?
Imagine: So many people who’ve lived here their entire lives don’t understand the magnitude of our disparity. What about immigrants who’ve been here twenty years or even less? A lot of the East African community grew up with a high regard for the education system. They trusted the school system and the teachers to do everything to educate their kids. So they come here with the same mentality, and there’s a lot of miscommunication, a lot of disappointment, and a lot of our kids aren’t at the level they’re supposed to be. They don’t go to college because they’re embarrassed. So we have a lot of dropouts, especially our Somali boys.
Why is SFER’s work necessary?
Because there is no one else like us. I talk to a lot of people, from teachers to ordinary citizens, who say we have never seen anyone like you working for educational justice. There is a big need and I believe that SFER can fill it in even greater numbers in the future.
Do students and families have a voice in education?
Not as we speak today they don’t. I hope as SFER grows as an organization, that they will have more of a voice in the future. Right now, other groups are making decisions for them and that’s not the right way to do it. The parents should be the number one voice for the kids. Who knows better than a kid’s parent? They should have a voice, the biggest voice, because the goal is their child. It’s not about me, teachers, or anyone else. It’s about the kids. You have to do what’s necessary to educate those kids, and we should also ask the students, because they might have a better answer to give you.
What’s an SFER experience that was particularly meaningful to you?
There’s a lot, really. Yesterday, I was meeting with a mother from Libya. She has a four-year degree in psychology and she broke down crying, telling me how she is trying to navigate the school system, saying I need your help. I see a lot of parents like this who want to engage but need support. There are so many issues that they are sharing with me in depth. My biggest joy is hearing from parents like Fadumo [an SFER chapter leader]. I helped her to take her two daughters out of a struggling school, find a school that worked for them, and now she is telling me that her daughters are doing great, their grades are up, and they’re excited about learning.
What do you personally hope to achieve through SFER?
I want influence youth and families. I want them to see what a quality education means. Because we now we have a word – “quality” education – but really it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. I want the kids, no matter what zip code they belong to, what color their skin, what religion they belong to, to go to school to learn and come home different. My goal is to see children grow and make progress. I hope in the future there is justice in our education system, because right now is there is no justice.