Name: Abou Amara
Title: Public policy director, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change
Education: Master of public policy, University Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs; bachelor’s degrees in economics and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Abou Amara brings an insider’s perspective from four years of work in the Minnesota Legislature to his new role as public policy director for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.
Amara, the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, joined NOC in March after most recently serving as an adviser to House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. One of his first projects for NOC was working with other civil rights groups to create the United Black Legislative Agenda to address the state’s racial disparities.
“Part of my [legislative] job was to help understand the process, the context, the politics, the motivations and also understand the actors, the individual players involved,” Amara said. “That translates well into this [NOC] position. I’m bringing my set of experiences inside of the Capitol outside of the Capitol. It’s an asset to the community.”
Q. What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?
A. Say hello. One of my favorite things to do is to meet people. People’s stories, when you talk to them and hear their stories, that’s when people come alive. I thrive on that. So the best way to talk to me is say hi. I will always say hi back.
Q. Who was the first presidential candidate you voted for and why?
A. The first presidential candidate I voted for was John Kerry in 2004. The reason isn’t a very political one. At the time I felt that much of our efforts at the national level should have been focused on domestic issues. As someone who was in college, thinking about student debt, there was a subset of issues that I was really focused on, I felt we should be focusing more at home.
Q. What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?
A. One of my favorite books is “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathon Haidt. The subtitle is “How Politics and Religion Divide Us.” It’s about how we process information as human beings. It’s almost social psychology in nature. It’s a fascinating book because it applies to so many other things. It’s a great book for anyone who wants to think about how they think. If you are trying to meet people where they are trying to advance a piece of legislation or ideas you’ve got to know where people are.
Q. What is a pet peeve of yours?
A. One of mine is people who talk on their speaker phone in public. If you’re on your phone that’s fine but if you press the speaker button and you’re talking into the phone for some reason, that just bugs me badly. I saw that from time to time in the Capitol and it made the hair on my neck stand up.
Q. If someone visits you in your hometown, what do you always take them to see or do?
A. My actual hometown is Madison, Wisconsin, but I moved here eight years ago. If it was in Madison, I probably would take them to see my high school (Madison East High School). The architecture, it’s an amazing, beautiful high school. If I were to bring somebody to Minneapolis, I would take them to Midtown Global Market. To me that is the microcosm of what I think the future of Minneapolis is. It’s new Americans. It’s an integrated community. It’s innovation, new ideas.
Q. What’s one way to end partisan polarization?
A. It’s not going to change overnight, but part of changing polarization is rooted in the ability to see the humanity and the common experience with each other despite our differences. That has to happen not just at the Legislature but in neighborhoods and communities all around the state because the Legislature is just a reflection of the problems that our communities and society are having. We’ve got to take ownership of that as citizens and say what can we do to contribute to a better climate for our elected officials, for our decision makers and for our society.
Q. What’s your favorite place at the Capitol?
A. One is the fourth-floor room above the legislative chamber where we had many strategy sessions on urgent stuff, last-minute deliberations at the end of the session when you’ve got an hour before midnight. Then there’s the (House) Retiring Room, where you get to meet and converse with elected officials from all across the state.
Q. Is there someone at the Capitol who you think does a lot of work without getting a lot of credit?
A. The nonpartisan staff, specifically House Research and Fiscal Analysis. They do an unbelievable job and never get credit for it. There’s always a debate but to have that debate you have to have a baseline of facts. That is what nonpartisan Research provides and oftentimes that is taken for granted.