By Bethel Gessesse
Oballa Oballa sworn in as Austin City Council member
AUSTIN, Minn. – Ethiopian-born Oballa Oballa was sworn in Monday to take his seat as the new Austin City Council member representing First Ward. The city staggered the swearing in of new council members and the mayor throughout the day to adhere to coronavirus pandemic social distancing guidelines with Oballa taking his oath of office shortly after 2PM.
Oballa, who was elected in November, is the first person of color elected to the Austin City Council. The city, a 15-minute drive from the Iowa-Minnesota border is named after Austin R. Nichols, the city’s first European settler.
Following the oath of office – administered by City Administrative Services Director Tom Dankert – Oballa outlined his priorities for his next four years on the council.
City Administrative Services Director Tom Dankert administers the oath of office to Oballa Oballa on Monday, January 4th, 2021. (Photo by Bethel Gessesse)
“Less than 5 years ago, I was in a refugee camp hoping and praying that I would have the opportunity at a better life. A year ago, I became a US citizen. And now, I stand before you as a council member,” Oballa said.
“We got more work to do… For our city to thrive we have to work hard and build more housing, affordable daycare, bring more jobs, and keep people of Austin in Austin,” Oballa stated, sharing a glimpse of the platform that helped him win in November.
The state’s Democratic Party dispatched its director of civic engagement Ian Oundo to witness the historic occasion.
“As a party it shows that in addition to the work we are doing in the Twin Cities, we continue to work to expand our base in rural Minnesota,” Oundo said in an interview with Mshale after the brief ceremony. “We have to understand that the face of our community is changing all over the state of Minnesota and all those voices have to be represented.
Not even the mask that city administrator Craig Clark was wearing could hide the joy he was feeling, calling the day “historic” as he spoke with Mshale. According to Clark, the moment was not an accident.
“There is excitement out there that a new era is upon us, it is a culmination of a lot of work from a lot of people to be purposeful about being inclusive and this is a manifestation of that,” said Clark.
Due to the pandemic, only a few people could be allowed into the council chambers to witness the occasion but they made it clear they understood the significance of the moment.
Oballa’s Aunt, Adalg Ojullu, was ecstatic. She drove almost 200 miles from the neighboring state of South Dakota to witness his nephew taking the oath of office.
“His picture will remain in this building forever, I am so proud of him and the people of Austin that elected him,” said Ojullu.
Echoing her sentiments were two Austin community leaders, Ojoye Akane and Santino Deng. Both said Oballa’s election will help them in their on-going efforts to encourage more civic engagement from the African immigrant community.
Mike Dean is the executive director of LEADMN, a statewide community college association where Oballa honed some of his leadership skills.
Dean spoke to Mshale after the swearing in and said: “If you look out there and you see the pictures of the former city council members, they are all white, so this represents a sea change within the City of Austin and greater Minnesota, it’s amazing what Oballa has done here.”
Watch: Oballa Oballa Swearing-in Ceremony in Austin, Minnesota
Oballa Oballa: Ethiopian Refugee Wins City Council Election in Austin, Minnesota
Soon after moving to Austin, Minnesota, Oballa Oballa [whose family fled Gambella, Ethiopia, in 2003] walked into the mayor’s office and asked if there was anything he could do for the city. He just became Austin’s first Black city council member. (Photo: Courtesy of Oballa Oballa)
November 7th, 2020
Oballa Oballa, a refugee from Ethiopia, wins historic city council election in Austin; becomes city’s first Black elected official.
Oballa Oballa, a former refugee from Ethiopia who became a naturalized citizen less than one year ago, made history this election by winning a city council seat in the southeast Minnesota city of Austin.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Oballa, 27, held a 14 percent lead over candidate Helen Jahr and declared victory. Oballa, who had been campaigning for the seat since the beginning of the year, said he is the first person of color to win elected office in Austin.
On the campaign trail and in interviews, Oballa described a dramatic personal history. His family fled Gambella, Ethiopia, in 2003, following what he describes as a genocidal attack on his community. They spent the next 10 years living in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. In 2013, the family moved to the U.S., and by 2015, Oballa had settled in Austin.
Oballa is just one example of how immigrant communities are shaping Minnesota politics well beyond the Twin Cities, and are now starting to win seats for public office. Oballa said his record of civic engagement earned him voters’ support.
“This makes me feel great, it makes me feel really happy and proud,” he said. “My work, I think, will still give hope to refugees who think the American dream is dead.”
He added, “Just seven years ago, [I] was living in a refugee camp and now am officially elected. I think that will give them hope that one day, when they come to America here, they will accomplish whatever they put their mind to.”