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A Conversation With Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan: What We Can Celebrate Around the State

"Diversity in Politics" coverage is made possible by Women Winning and Vote Run Lead.

Photo Sarah Whiting

You championed legislation in 2023 to provide free breakfast and lunch in schools. What stands out for you from that productive year?

This past year has been just incredible. For me, I literally ticked off all the policy priorities I’ve ever had — we got them done. That’s a beautiful and powerful thing.

I was pretty overwhelmed when we did our school visit recently and saw all these kids come through the line to get lunch. Instead of needing tickets or a number to eat, kids were simply eating, smiling, and laughing. We’ve heard anecdotally that it is making a difference with school attendance, increasing the students’ ability to concentrate and be present, and reducing the overall stress level in the classroom. There is also the quantitative data that tells us there is a 30 percent increase in students who are getting breakfast and lunch.

The child tax credit, paid family medical leave — the system will be built over the next few years. Things don’t always move quickly in state government, but some things have. We’ll be feeding kids this summer. The full spectrum of investments we made in housing are linked and impact children directly — from our relatives who are sleeping outside; to those who are seeking shelters, transitional housing, and supportive housing; to those in need of rental assistance; to first-time homebuyers.

Our priority is to make Minnesota the best place in the country to raise a child. We’ve always had a hypothesis about what would happen if government were focused on that. We are in the middle of that experiment, and I think we’re going to get good results.

The things that remain, of course, are disparities. I think about the disparities around Black and Native maternal health and birth outcomes. We’ll be looking at that. Our Office of American Indian Health and our new African American Health State Advisory Council will be important for research and policy ideas to help close some of those gaps. Helping families stay on Medicaid and medical assistance will be important for those outcomes. So, we’re doing good work.

In the grand scheme of the country, when we look at rates of poverty or well-being, we’re doing well in Minnesota. But for us, “well” is not good enough, until we make sure that we’re closing all the gaps that our children are falling through. The new Department of Children, Youth, and Families is going to offer the foundation for making sure that we’re continuing to move this work going forward.

How do we actually pay for everybody to have well-being?

You pay for it now, or you pay for it later, right? We are nerdy research-based people in Minnesota. We know that early investments pay off in the long run with reading scores, high school graduation rates, and going on to get an advanced degree. The proof is in the proof — we make these investments early, and the state saves money in the long run.

I truly cannot wrap my mind around how people object to feeding children at school. As Minnesotans, this is who we are. We should feed kids. We can’t afford not to.

We recently did a story with the University of Minnesota’s Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy, talking about the gender wage gap. You were a champion of legislation about that. What are you excited about in terms of closing gender gaps?

I want to make sure that we have the best paid family medical leave program in the entire country. In order to do that, we have to roll it out intentionally, very carefully, so it can be a model for everywhere else.

The policy area that is my priority is making sure that landlords can’t discriminate about sources of income. It absolutely is a women’s issue. My mom and I moved to Saint Louis Park when I was a baby because she had a Section 8 housing voucher that was allowed there. It completely changed the entire trajectory of our life; being in the community of Saint Louis Park gave me tremendous opportunities. We shouldn’t deny that to any other family. I think that will be the policy that I’m championing.

We’re focused on gender-based violence. What would you like to see happen statewide about teaching young boys healthier masculinity?

We don’t talk about it enough — how we teach young men and boys about healthy masculinity and what it means to be a man, which includes being caring, supportive, and tender. People have to have those conversations in their homes. I see Native men having these conversations in places like Duluth.

I am a survivor and a child witness. For me, it has also been about breaking the cycle, [making sure] my daughter sees what a healthy, loving relationship looks like so that she doesn’t have to endure what, frankly, generations of women in my family have gone through.

I invite you to look at the comments online after any woman in politics says anything, especially a woman of color or indigenous woman. There are attacks on looks, grounded in gender-based violence. How do we have conversations around the toxic environments that are created there? Social media is not real life, but it seeps into reality.

The Red Flag Law that just became law on January 1, led by Cedrick Frazier (D-43A), was about gender-based violence, because of how many women die at the hands of an intimate partner with a firearm. So there are policy solutions as well, yet it’s not just one thing that we do. It has to be a cultural shift. It is about how men demonstrate respect in discourse — what happens in committees, how the governor and I conduct ourselves. It’s all part of how we model what this can and should look like, especially for our young people.

What are you seeing around the state, particularly in Greater Minnesota, that gives you hope in terms of moving the needle in electing more representative voices?

I think about being one of the founding members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus in 2016. And now what we’re seeing is growing and really powerful. I want to mention my new Saint Louis Park mayor, Nadia Mohamed. We were at an event at Westwood Hills Nature Center on racial healing. It really did look like the city — super diverse, age-wise, race-wise, different schools.

I think about Liish Kozlowski (D-8) in Duluth, who has taken tremendous risks in their leadership, and how they’ve shown up as their authentic [two-spirit] self. Sometimes it’s been really difficult, but I also have watched people feel like they are reflected in a way that they just haven’t been before.

I look at the work AICHO [American Indian Community Housing Organization] is doing in Duluth, investing in housing for survivors of domestic violence and their families. The art that’s there, the garden on the rooftop — while not directly related to elected leadership, they’re changing the conversations that are happening in the community.

We just did a tour of shelters, listening to people who have experienced being unhoused as well as advocates, to talk about culturally relevant and supportive housing that wouldn’t have happened if the conditions hadn’t been curated in the community. Representative Kristi Pursell brought new housing to Northfield; women were the developers building that housing.

Building new housing — it’s mostly women who are doing this work, finding these solutions, and bringing people together to craft the policy.

All the victories that we had last session didn’t happen just because of the 2022 election. That would be the easy part of the story. It’s actually because many of us have been working on these issues for two decades, and we are now seeing the fruit of that organizing.

Photo Sarah Whiting

When we talk about ecosystems, one of the most important ecosystems we have here is of progressive movement leadership. I’m looking at my picture of Senator Paul Wellstone, thinking about how many of us grew up on that campaign — Saint Paul mayor Melvin Carter being one of those people — moving into positions where we could pull the levers to get things done that we wanted to see.

It’s been really important that we’re having intentional conversations together. Of course there are tensions that are very hot for people, but when it comes to getting things done at the state capitol, we have been clear that we are moving toward something together.

One of the most powerful stories of women in Greater Minnesota is the passage of driver’s licenses for all. It has been from the beginning a woman-led movement — women who kept the faith, women who would not give up, women who would testify and hold space, leading conversations in the basements of churches.

Another woman I adore is Anne Schwagerl, who is the vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. I watch her work in an industry that has been historically dominated by men, bringing the voices of women in, talking about child care, paid family and medical leave — bringing in emerging farmers and more people of color, more indigenous folks, and creating the ecosystem. Agriculture is changing. The Minnesota Farm Bureau just had an urban agricultural conference focused on the work around emerging farmers.

So we’re in this moment — the ecosystem and the culture that we have built around moving big things here. Yes, there are people who are pushing back, but there are always people pushing back.

We’ve continued to organize and have conversations with Minnesotans about the kind of state that they want, and how they want to show up and care for each other. We’ll continue to take big strides forward and move back a little, but we have consistently moved forward. That’s part of who we are.