August 19, 2002

Yaphett El-Amin knows about working through adversity.

As a young woman and recent college graduate counseling young men in juvenile detention, she thought she was giving back to her community.

Then her home was robbed, perhaps by some of the same people she was trying to help. The incident gave her pause. But instead of letting the experience drive her from her home, she became committed to involvement in her St. Louis neighborhood.

Now, the winner in an upset in the 57th District Democratic race for state representative - who will be the first known female Muslim to serve in the Missouri House - she will get a chance to further test her grit in the Legislature.

El-Amin, the 1st Ward Democratic committeewoman since 1997, handily beat her opponent, Ocie B. Johnson, this month in the primary election. The vote was 2,333 to 1,832, or 56 to 44 percent. Johnson was endorsed by Mayor Francis Slay. El-Amin will be unopposed in the general election in November.

Rodney R. Hubbard, who also is Muslim, won the Democratic nomination in the 58th District. Hubbard will run in November against Republican candidate Isaiah Hair Jr., who was unopposed in the primary. The two districts traditionally have been Democratic.

El-Amin said last week in an interview: "When I first filed for the seat, I viewed it as something that I had to do. This was not a district that we could afford to give away to anyone that wasn't committed to strengthening our community.

"Securing the Democratic nomination for this seat was more of a confirmation for me that our people knew and desired someone with a strong voice that's not going to stop speaking for them in Jefferson City."

The voice that will now speak for the 57th District began developing several blocks from the northernmost boundary of the district.

Yaphett El-Amin was born and grew up in a lower-middle-class home on Park Lane near Riverview Boulevard and West Florissant Avenue in St. Louis. She attended St. Louis public schools until the early 1980s when, through the desegregation program, she was bused to Washington Junior High School in south St. Louis County and then Mehlville High School. She graduated in 1989.

El-Amin was reared by her parents, Janice Battle, a homemaker, and Eddie Hasan, director of MOKAN, a regional organization of businesses and contracting companies owned by members of minority groups.

The third of eight sisters, El-Amin, 31, is looked upon as the oldest.

"My sisters typically call me for guidance and advice," said El- Amin. "I just kind of play the role of a helper. That's what naturally comes out of my spirit."

El-Amin is deeply committed to her Islamic beliefs and often will refer to God as her source of direction.

"I'm Islamic," she said. "My parents came into Islam in the 1960s during the Black Muslim movement. We were raised, my sisters and I, as Muslim."

El-Amin works with the Diversity Work Force Initiative for the expansion of Lambert Field. She has been married for nearly four years to Talibdin El-Amin, who is active in political activities and is an autoworker. The couple have a 20-month-old son, Hasan.

Yaphett El-Amin says she is backed 100 percent by her husband in her political career.

"As much as possible I have to give him his accolades," said El- Amin. "He led the charge. He was a foot soldier. I have to say that he sacrificed a lot."

As a youngster, El-Amin loved to talk. She remembers her great- grandfather telling her that because she talked so much, some day she was going to be a lawyer.

"I was very small then, about 7," she said, "But for some reason that stuck with me." She attended the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where in 1994 she earned her bachelor's degree in political science.

"I think that's really where it started, as far as understanding that I had a purpose to do something," she said. "I didn't know then that I wanted to get into politics, but I knew then that there was a change occurring in me to reach out and help the community, because I started feeling it."

El-Amin applied to one law school and was not accepted, and then to another at Texas Southern University. But because of a mix-up in the application process, she missed the deadline for enrollment. But she hasn't forgotten the words of her great-grandfather.

"I'm thinking very seriously now of continuing to pursue my education and go to law school," she said. "I want to try it again."

After college, El-Amin returned here and moved about five minutes away from her childhood home. She worked for the Division of Youth Services, a rehabilitation center for juvenile boys.

"I wanted to be there," she said. "I wanted to be able to help. I was a youth specialist. I taught, I counseled, I mentored - you wear so many different hats there. I had young men that I advocated for, and tried to strengthen them and basically alter their pattern of behavior."

Becoming a victim herself tested her resolve.

"I was burglarized a few times there on Durant, where I live now," she said. "I was crying and saying, 'I'm getting out of here.' I want to leave. Here I am, a single, young sister trying to help. I kind of felt betrayed in a sense."

The pain and despair El-Amin experienced turned into strength and rage and led her to stay in the neighborhood and try to find a solution to the problem instead of retreating.

El-Amin complained about the burglary to Alderman Irene J. Smith, 2nd Ward, and "she encouraged me to get active in the community."

El-Amin began to work on Smith's campaign and the campaign of Rep. Quincy Troupe, D-St. Louis. She also worked for lawyer Eric Vickers, a 1994 candidate for Congress.

"Yaphett was very energetic and very community-committed," said Vickers, reflecting on his first impression of her. "She represents a Muslim woman that is different from the traditional perception of a Muslim woman. Yaphett demonstrates that she is a woman that is outgoing and stands in her own right."

Smith lost in her second bid for alderman, and the committeewoman at that time became the alderman. That left the committeewoman spot open.

"The way it goes is, if there is a vacancy, the committeeman of that ward would recommend a person for appointment," said El-Amin. "So he asked me.

"Even though my undergraduate degree is in political science, I didn't have the slightest idea what a committeeperson did."

Velma Bailey, Smith's close friend, also lost her bid for alderman. Bailey was the first person El-Amin consulted about being a committeewoman.

"She (Bailey) said, 'No, I wouldn't do it,'" El-Amin recalled. "'You don't get paid. People call you at 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning with their problems. It's a big headache.'"

"She was right," El-Amin continued. "It's a big challenge, especially in north St. Louis. We're underserviced, our communities are unstable, and people need help."

As committeewoman, El-Amin built relationships with the residents in her area by helping them to get the services they needed.

"This was a natural fit for me," she said. "God had a plan for me, outside of the plan that I have for myself. That was the beginning for me. That's how I started out politically."

Through her efforts in securing help for the neighborhood, El- Amin gained support from local and state political groups and individuals.

El-Amin is excited about her new responsibilities, and she aspires to take advantage of the opportunities in the 57th District.

"One thing that I will be very proud of if I'm able to accomplish it for this district is build businesses and bring solid and viable economic opportunity," she said. "And not only bringing businesses here but witness those businesses being built with the core of people in this district."

El-Amin believes her detractors have no choice but to deal with her now.

"In order to move this platform that I plan on moving in my district I'm going to have to deal with them (the detractors) and I want to deal with them," she said. "It's not 'Oh, you didn't support me, we don't have any conversation for each other.'

"It's not that at all. It's about being able to move this district forward so if those (detractors) are the big business people, the little business people, the other elected officials, we are going to have to work together. This is about building coalitions."

El-Amin says she's looking forward to sitting down at the table, ironing out differences and coming up with a plan that helps her district.

"I'm not upset with anybody," she said. "I would hope at the end of the day we could come together. It's going to take 81 votes for me to get any legislation passed in Jefferson City, and that's the mindset that I'm in. There are no hard feelings."

El-Amin said that her campaign had raised and spent $30,000 "or close to it."

She said that she initially had thought her opponent would have more money than she had, but after reviewing his financial disclosures, she said they were about equal.

She contends that most of her support came from five out of seven wards in the district, which is predominantly black.

"I believe because we secured the endorsements of those five wards, most of the black leadership was supporting me," she said. "The ward leadership means a lot to them, and those people got behind me."

El-Amin characterizes herself as a person who wants to help empower others.

"I believe that God has strengthened me and put this will and desire in me, so I'm executing and moving forward on it," she said. "I'm the type of person that's not going to turn my back on people who need me. As long as I can be there to help, God willing, I'll be there."

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