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Ardo Hersi

Photo: Michael Maine / AFSC

Organizing against institutional racism and youth incarceration

By Ronna Bolante

When Ardo Hersi was growing up, she probably never imagined she would one day help reduce youth incarceration in Seattle. Her family came to the U.S. from Somalia in the 1990s, and she was born in California before they moved to Washington.

There, Ardo found a home in activism. In high school, she helped spread awareness about Muslim refugees displaced from Myanmar. Later, she became interested in environmental justice, including promoting local composting. Last year, as a student at Seattle Central College, she helped organize a rally demanding justice in the death of Hamza Warsame, a Somali-American teenager whom many feared was the victim of hate-fueled violence.

Ardo, now 20, says her faith plays a big role in her efforts. “It’s important for me that people know I am unapologetically Muslim,” she says. “There’s a lot of Islamophobia—with people saying things like ‘all Muslims are terrorists’—but our faith teaches peace, fairness, and justice. It motivates me to help others.”

Ardo attended AFSC’s Tyree Scott Freedom School in Seattle in 2014. Offered throughout the year, AFSC Freedom Schools help young people analyze the systems that perpetuate violence and injustice, learn about social change movements, and discuss ways to promote racial justice and human rights.

“Although I had been organizing in high school, my first AFSC Freedom School put words to things that I was feeling in my community but didn’t know how to describe,” Ardo recalls. “Institutional racism. Overcoming oppression. It all struck a chord with me.”

Since then, Ardo has helped plan and facilitate AFSC Freedom School workshops for other young people. She now teaches a section on media justice, guiding participants in conversations about how the media has depicted people of color throughout history and the consequences of those portrayals.

She is also completing a two-year internship with AFSC’s Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) program, which gives young change makers a place to build on their AFSC Freedom School experience by deepening their knowledge about social justice issues, honing their organizing skills, and implementing projects that challenge racism.

“While Ardo is clearly brilliant and a natural leader in YUIR, I’m most impressed with her desire to learn and grow as an antiracist organizer,” says Dustin Washington, director of AFSC’s Community Justice Program. “She carries herself with a spirit of inquiry and humility that is unique and inspiring.”

One of Ardo’s most significant achievements at YUIR came through her participation in a youth-led campaign against the building of a youth detention center in Seattle. Ardo and other YUIR participants canvassed neighborhoods, held protests, and attended public hearings to stop the city from constructing the facility.

In response to public pressure from YUIR and their partners, the Seattle City Council announced last year that it would downsize plans for the facility and stop locking up youth for minor offenses. The city council also passed a resolution that endorsed “zero-percent detention” of youth and put resources behind their commitment—a half-million dollars to community alternatives to incarceration. YUIR members will help direct how to spend the fund.

“For young people, that was so affirming,” Ardo says. “Now I tell this story all the time to others—it’s an example of what can happen when young people organize and stand up to make a change.” 

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