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Khadijah Lamah didn’t grow up wearing heels.

A proud West African who also describes herself as “a Minnesota girl,” Lamah was the oldest of six kids whose parents, refugees from Monrovia, were displaced by the Liberian civil war. They eventually resettled in the Twin Cities: Lamah was born and raised in Brooklyn Center.

Her girlhood can be summarized by the sound of “a pot with a spoon hitting it very loudly,” she said. In such a noisy and musical home, “you have to yell to get your point across and talk over siblings.”

After attending Osseo Senior High School, she went to Virginia State University. That’s where she first got a taste of royalty, serving as a campus queen.

“It was a way to build self and self-esteem,” said Lamah, who’s struggled with insecurities involving weight and “being a dark-skinned Black woman.”

“You just assume that you’re not good enough,” she said. “It got in the way of me pursuing a lot of passions.”

That, in part, is what spurred her on to the national pageant scene. She represented Virginia in Miss Black USA 2016 and Minnesota in Miss Black America 2018. She placed among the top 10 contestants for both.

Her ultimate goal is to open a school in West Africa in 10 years, by the time she’s 40. It will be centered around STEM and “prepare young leaders for the way our world is moving and what we’re headed towards.”

As the winner of the Division 5 category (ages 25 to 30), she’s the big “sister” to Little Miss Juneteenth Minnesota (Ceray’na Alexander), Junior Miss Juneteenth (LaMariya Swain), Teen Miss Juneteenth (Kamira Nelson) and Miss Juneteenth (Breona Maynard).

The mission of the nonprofit Miss Juneteenth Minnesota State Pageant is to “inspire all women of color including young girls, teens and young adults with the hope of assisting and encouraging them to become better public speakers, embracing their diversity, understanding their self-worth and gain poise,” according to its website.

This year, Juneteenth was celebrated as a state holiday only for the second time. (It became a federal holiday in 2021.)

Although Juneteenth remembers the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas belatedly learned they were free, the pageant is open to any girl or woman from the Black diaspora, which includes generational African Americans, Black immigrants and people who hold Afro-Latinx or Caribbean heritage — cultural differences that “are beautiful,” Lamah said, and that “make us unique.”

During the competition, Lamah shared with the audience and judges what she calls a “poem-speech,” which incorporated the skills of anaphora, pacing and rhyme. In it, Lamah asks for “a place where I can be the force behind my people” and “a place where we’re actually all equal.”

Already, the five royals made appearances at Juneteenth celebrations, participated in a radio show hosted by former WNBA player Tamara “Tee” Moore and met with Black leaders across the metro area. They also hope to attend the Minnesota State Fair.

Compared with other pageants, Miss Juneteenth Minnesota is focused not merely on outer beauty, but on character, Lamah said. It celebrates and develops “the whole woman,” and the message is that you deserve to claim space “no matter what you look like,” she said.

Those are lessons she’s tried to share throughout her life, working in the Freedom Schools program with the Children’s Defense Fund and later when she became a teacher. At Northeast College Prep in Minneapolis, she teaches math, reading and science to second-graders. Next fall, she’ll teach third grade.

Lamah considers teaching an underpaid profession and calls it her “good karma. You do it because you love it,” she said. But she has an even more compelling reason to be in the classroom: “It’s so important for Black and Brown students to see their selves reflected in the people they spend most of their young lives with,” she said.

During her yearlong tenure as Ms. Juneteenth, Lamah will be working on a project called Planting Today’s Seeds to Grow Tomorrow’s Trees. A way to champion her passion for literacy, the goal of the project is to improve low academic rates and scores for Black and Brown students and provide resources for training and licensing more educators of color, who are underrepresented in Minnesota, she said.

Planting Today’s Seeds will host readings at public libraries and allow kids to “visualize themselves in different environments,” she said. She also intends to partner with schools to do book drives, provide class supplies, implement new tutoring programs and give hair care services.

Black women’s hair “has been such a political topic for so many years,” she said. Black and Brown youth should “know they are allowed to wear their hair however they choose to — whether it’s natural, braided, bald, locks or extensions. Their crown is whatever they want to do with it,” she said.

As for the school she hopes to open in West Africa, “Access to adequate education in other parts of the world looks so different,” she said. “So many kids from other nations have to pay for their education. They don’t have access to school buses, to a free or reduced lunch.”

In the short term, she will keep nurturing her elementary students, in whom she finds such a sense of wonder.

“At this age, they’re very fascinated about identity, how people choose to identify themselves or dress, who you are as a person.”

When the new school year starts, it’s likely they’ll find it enchanting to be around Minnesota royalty.