DES MOINES, Iowa — Turning 70 years is a milestone for anyone, but there were those who doubted that Ako Abdul-Samad would ever live past the age of 20.
Most Iowans know Abdul-Samad for his work as a state legislator and as the founder and CEO of his community nonprofit, Creative Visions. But behind his accolades is a story of pain and resilience.
Growing up, Abdul-Samad said he was a “mama’s boy.” What he lacked in a father figure, his mother made up with an abduance of love for her only son. But Abdul-Samad still got into his fair share of trouble as a teenager, causing his mother do to what most moms do — worry.
Abdul-Samad said his involvement in the Black Panther Party and the 1969 bombing of its Des Moines headquarters on Forest Avenue were events that gave his mother concern.
“During that time my mother was told several times that I would not be able to see 19 or 20,” he said. “But she was scared and very protective…because of the choices that I ended up making.”
His path led him out of Des Moines for a bit, where he tried out different jobs and ways of life. But eventually, his heart felt drawn to come back to his hometown and entrench himself in the community.
“I think that coming back here in 1975 and re-engaging with the community here was a turning point of my next chapter in my life,” he said.
But two decades later, the pages in one of Abdul-Samad’s greatest chapters would be colored by grief. One year after founding Creative Visions to help combat gun violence, his only son, Ako White Abdul-Samad, was shot and killed in 1997.
“That depression still sets in. It’s still there. And I can think of something and be at home and just sit in the middle of the floor for hours,” he said. “Or I can wake up in the morning sometimes and not want to get out of bed. I don’t want to hear the crisis that’s taking place, because that’s the business that I’m in.”
From that tragedy, Abdul-Samad went on a mission to use his pain as a vessel for power. It started with forgiving Rodney Anderson, who shot his son. “Little Ako” was a longtime friend of Anderson.
The police investigation concluded Little Ako’s death was an accident. A few days later, Anderson’s mother came pleading to “Big Ako” asking him to intervene with Rodney.
“His mother called me here and said ‘Ako you’re the only one who can keep my son alive.’ and this is like the third or fourth day after the death of my son,” Abdul-Samad said. “So I’m sitting here saying, ‘okay, that’s a lot you’re putting on me now,’ but she was serious. She was crying. So I went and talked to them and what that helped me deal again [with] that pain was to deal with forgiveness.”
“From pain to power” in the statehouse
Abdul-Samad went on to run as a Democratic candidate for state representative, where he has been serving Des Moines since 2007. Under that golden dome, he uses his same philosophy of empathy and understanding as means of reaching across the aisle.
Inside those halls, Abdul-Samad has forged unlikely friendships with Republican counterparts with opposing idealogies. One of those relationships includes Rep. Steven Holt, a conservative from Denison.
“I think a lot of times in politics, people have a difficult time separating the politics. And in other words, they take it personally,” Holt said. “For whatever reason, what Ako and I’ve been able to do is that we made fundamentally disagree on issues, but that doesn’t mean we have to dislike one another.”
Holt says the two bonded over their love of John Wayne films and have become good friends. While they often agree on what the issues are, their policy approaches remain polar opposite.
“We respect one another and we understand that we both very profoundly believe what we believe and we’re fighting for what we’re fighting for and we respect one another from I think from that perspective,” Holt said.
Without knowing that WHO 13 was also interviewing Holt, Abdul-Samad almost said the exact same things about him.
“We grew a mutual respect for one another — Representative Holt and I — because the thing that made him genuine, he believed in what he was doing,” Abdul-Samad said. “He wasn’t doing it for political reasons. I believed in what I was doing and it wasn’t for political reasons. So we were able to converse.”
The two have had fierce debates in the House on topics ranging from critical race theory to gun laws. But Holt said after their remarks are through and the votes are recorded, Abdul-Samad will walk over and give him a hug.
“I mean that’s something that I’ve really always appreciated about him,” Holt said. “He has his kindness about him that is just almost contagious.”
Mentorship to younger leaders
Abdul-Samad also helped form the first Black Legislative Caucus. His colleague and mentee, Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, said creating that support system for the few Black legislators in Iowa has created a space where they can seek comfort in one another.
“As a person of color, to have someone who has shared certain life experiences with you — it’s a tremendous asset during the highs and lows of trying to advocate for our communities, families and underrepresented communties,” Wilburn said.
Wilburn, who is also the Iowa Democratic Party chair, said one of Abdul-Samad’s lasting legacies will be his ability to connect with people from all walks of life — inside and outside of the statehouse.
“That’s a great strength — connecting with people who have a different point of view,” he said. “…He’s very good at finding some common threads with people. And I think that spirit is something that is a good reminder for people.”
Abdul-Samad has earned the nicknames of “godfather” and “the elder” to which he joked, “that’s how I knew I was getting old.” But Abdul-Samad doesn’t take lightly the responsibility of being a figure others admire and look to for wisdom.
“It’s a blessing for that respect. I don’t take it for granted,” he said.
Abdul-Samad’s “next 30 years”
Abdul-Samad said he is learning self-love and taking care of his physical health in hopes of living another 30 years. He did not specify if he has plans to retire from his role as a legislator soon but said he looks forward to taking a more passive leadership role in the coming years.
“I look at all our elders as librarians. And I want to be able to share the library that I have in me and that others have shared in their life with me…but I don’t want people trying to find it when I’m dead, I want to share it now when I’m alive,” he said.
Abdul-Samad said he is in the process of writing a memoir, so that “library” within him can be shared with whomever is curious enough to read it. One theme of the book is a phrase he uses often, called “the shoulders we stand on.”
“All of this love I have, everything is from my mom,” he said. “All of that is encompassed because I was able to stand on my mother’s shoulders and others. Because that’s how you begin to really define yourself, no matter how old you are.”