Zaynab Abdi, human rights advocate and alumna of Wellstone International High School and the Step Up Youth Employment Program, has been selected as our 2020 Excellence Award recipient in honor of her outstanding leadership and advocacy for young women and immigrant communities. Zaynab will be recognized at our November 12 Evening of Excellence Virtual House Party, which will be livestreamed at 7 p.m.
Zaynab is a Black, Muslim, Middle Eastern, immigrant woman who is passionate about human rights and empowering young people to become strong, engaged leaders. A recent graduate of St. Catherine University, she currently serves as civic engagement coordinator for Reviving Sisterhood, an organization that amplifies the voice and power of Muslim women. She is also the immigrant and refugee youth ambassador for Green Card Voices, which connects immigrants and their communities through multimedia storytelling.
By age 17, Zaynab had fled wars in Somalia, Yemen and Egypt. She enrolled at Wellstone high school just two days after arriving in Minnesota, with very limited English skills. By the time she graduated 18 months later, she had a 4.0 GPA and was captain of the soccer team. Zaynab’s story was profiled in Green Card Voices: Immigrant Stories from a Minneapolis High School, and through this organization she connected with many other young immigrant and refugee women leaders from around the world, including Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai. Soon after she became an ambassador for the Malala Fund and spoke on behalf of the organization at the United Nations. She is also featured in Malala’s new book, We Are Displaced.
At Wellstone, Zaynab worked closely with our Career & College Center (CCC) coordinator Chris Stoltenberg to apply to college and adapt to life in the United States. Chris also assisted her in applying for the Step Up Youth Employment Program, where she secured a summer legal internship at the Meyer Njus Tanick law firm and participated in the Just the Beginning Summer Legal Institute at the University of Minnesota. During her Step Up internship, Zaynab decided to pursue a career as a human rights attorney. She performed so well that she was invited to continue working at the firm during the school year and up until she began college studies.
These programs supported Zaynab in planning and preparing for college at the University of St. Catherine, where she served as president of the student senate and graduated magna cum laude in 2020 with majors in political science, international studies and philosophy. As a campus leader and Newman Civic Fellow, she led the creation of the college’s new Civic Engagement Fellowship, which empowers student leaders through training and community projects such as expanding voter opportunities and 2020 census outreach.
After graduation, Zaynab directed Green Card Voices’ new summer civic engagement program, which she created to provide skills-training and resources for newcomer youth to become community leaders and change-makers. The program featured weekly interactive virtual workshops on voting, public policy and government, public speaking, storytelling, self-care and healing justice, racism and mass incarceration. She was also appointed by Governor Tim Walz to serve in the Young Women's Cabinet, a partnership between the governor’s office and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota that works to improve outcomes for young women of color, Indigenous women, LGBTQ+ youth, young women with disabilities and rural youth.
Zaynab was honored as a Step Up Outstanding Alum in 2017 for her exceptional community leadership and commitment to immigrant youth. In 2018, she returned to her high school to help establish a new program connecting Wellstone alums with current students to provide one-on-one, culturally relevant and multi-lingual guidance in applying to college, completing financial aid, exploring careers and finalizing plans for life after high school. Together with CCC coordinator Chris Stoltenberg, she helped secure a Minneapolis Educator Leadership Award grant to support this work.
“We are delighted to present our 2020 Excellence Award to Zaynab Abdi, a fierce advocate for young women, immigrants and refugees in Minnesota and beyond,” says Danielle Grant, our president and CEO. “It’s been a tremendous honor to witness Zaynab’s collaborative leadership skills grow and deepen from her years as a Wellstone high school student, to college at the University of St. Catheri Dr. ne, and now as a young professional who is making plans to become an international human rights attorney. As an exceptional critical thinker and role model, her strong commitment to helping young people to succeed reflects our vision that all students have full access to educational and career opportunities, resulting in a more equitable and vibrant community.”