Ibrahima Sow has made it his life’s mission to help immigrants in Columbus, Ohio, become active members of American civic and political life. In 2015, just one year out of college, Sow ran for city council promising to represent the city’s immigrant community. He lost to well-funded incumbents, but in other ways the campaign was a tremendous success.
“I’m the only foreign-born immigrant to have run for office and made it to November general elections in central Ohio,” Sow says. “That galvanized a lot of support. We pulled in people, like my mom, who hadn’t voted since 2009. It made them feel a part of the process instead of just working here and getting by.”
I’m the only immigrant to have run for office and made it to November general elections in central Ohio. That galvanized a lot of support.
The campaign inspired immigrants who’d been here for decades to apply for citizenship, and it compelled those who felt disaffected by the political process to go to the polls. But Sow’s campaign also became a beacon for Columbus’ undocumented community. To Sow’s amazement, immigrants volunteered, came to rallies, and even made financial contributions to his campaign. “All these people were starting to come out of the shadows,” he says, “even though they’re living in constant fear.” Many from the undocumented community brought their American-born children to campaign events to show them that even the most disenfranchised members of society can have a voice. “I gave the next generation a glimpse of what was possible.”
Sow’s relationship to his own immigrant status has undergone a profound transformation over the years. Though his family came here legally, his mother always doubted the stability of their status. She wouldn’t let her children talk about their Senegalese background or speak their native language in public. Much of her concern can be traced to the complexity of the immigration system. “She didn’t know how the process worked. She was really cautious that something on our application wasn’t real and we’d get deported. She’d say ‘Don’t ask questions, don’t answer questions, because you never know who’s listening.’”
Sow, who became a citizen in 2011, understands his mother’s concerns. Even in a city like Columbus, people have asked Sow if he’s “legal” or told him that since his name sounds Muslim he must not be an honest person. “There are all sorts of nasty things associated with being different,” he says. “That’s one of the areas we’re still trying to overcome.” The experiences helped motivate Sow’s political ambitions. “I was in it to win,” he says, “but at a certain point, it became about inspiring as many people as possible to not live in fear.”
Today, in addition to active community-building, Sow works as an underground damage prevention technician for American Electric Power; helps local organizations better support the elderly, the youth, and low-income minority families through Project Aspire, a group he founded; and serves as chief administrative officer of the Millennial Partner Group, a consultancy for social entrepreneurs and startups. Through all these venues, Sow is committed not just to the immigrant community but to the city at large.
“Immigrants give so much back to the economy. And every immigrant you see is paying taxes. Their purchasing power is huge,” he says. By advocating for communities with immigrants, Sow is bolstering the ability of immigrants to contribute economically. “Immigrants are one group of people who never stop moving, innovating, and adding to the social fabric of the economy,” he says. “Any more breathing room that you give them lets them build a little more. And that benefits everyone in the long run.”