How did you get the idea to run for Hennepin County Commissioner?
Three years ago, I thought I’d never get into politics.
Fifteen years ago I got a job as a County financial worker. I was a single mom with two little ones. I had been housing insecure. I was a survivor of intimate partner violence. I had relied on an EBT card. I knew that everyone whose welfare application I processed, was in a place they didn’t want to be.
I went to school on weekends to get my social work degree and my masters in public policy, because I wanted to change the system that kept them in poverty.
I worked five years before I was promoted to state. The farther I went up in management, the less people looked like me; the less chance they had a lived-experience concerning the policies they implemented.
I wanted to become Director of my department so I could affect policy, but I was never offered the opportunity.
So I ran for office.
Your win is historic — the first Black person on the Hennepin County Board, beating a 28-year incumbent. What did you learn?
The fourth ward is economically and racially diverse. In neighborhoods with higher economic status, people wanted to know my education and credentials first. In the heart of the city, I’d say, “I am running for a board that has never had a Black person in its 165 years,” and they were with me. Students were concerned about housing and food insecurity. They wanted leadership they could connect with. Everyone got my whole story, I just learned to start in different places.
I have four kids. My older children, ages 19 and 20, were instrumental, cooking dinner and putting my younger ones to bed. Without them I don’t think I would have been able to do it. Every night I picked up my youngest at daycare, called my oldest and said, “Come get your brother out of the car, I gotta run.” Every night I was knocking doors, on phones, organizing volunteers. It was the kind of campaign we had to run, given my opponent.
I was challenging more than an individual.
My predecessor was well-connected, embedded into the machine of Minnesota politics. I challenged an institution that historically said, “You can’t sit here.” We organized a movement. It was amazing and humbling, to watch people showing up to volunteer, opening their doors, feeding us, spreading the word.
I received many resumes. I wanted to tap into the knowledge and power of Black women. I am often the only Black woman in the room. I know the experience of being turned down for high-level positions.
The women I hired for my staff have worked in state and local offices and on campaigns. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience. Cacje Henderson, my Policy Director, had been Senior Policy Aide for [City of Minneapolis city council representative] Jeremiah Ellison. Cheniqua Johnson, my head of District Outreach and Scheduling, ran for State Representative in Worthington — House District 22B, at age 23. Like my campaign, she changed the narrative about who had the right to run.
Why did you select “The New Jim Crow”for your swearing-in?
I had two other books on my short list: Alex Haley’s “Roots” and Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” “The New Jim Crow” made the most sense. While focused on mass incarceration, Michele Alexander weaves in how institutions constructed this racial caste system. The Hennepin County Board is one of the institutions that created and maintained white supremacy. We set the budget for the jail, the first stop toward mass incarceration. There is an intricate web that traps people in our system. Often, those trapped look like me.
Why is housing insecurity a priority for you?
When we think of Maslow’s hierarchy [a psychological theory about five basic needs], food and shelter come first. It is a violation of human rights to have such a large population of unsheltered folks, especially when we have luxury condos popping up all over. Stagnant wages, soaring cost of living and a disinvestment in affordable housing created this humanitarian crisis. I am committed to do what is in my power to solve it.
On the campaign you talked about creating a Racial Equity Advisory Council. Why is that important?
Everything we do has to be rooted in a racial equity framework. We are the second worst state to live in for Black and Native peoples. We have this great economy, a highly rated park system, beautiful green spaces, the Boundary Waters. But, everyday I see those who don’t have access to what makes this state so beautiful — what makes other people want to flock here to live and work.
The experts in any issue are not the data collectors or the consultants, they are the people impacted by our policies. We need those people at the table, to direct us on how to reduce inequities in our jails, in our transportation, in our housing policies.
I have a sense of urgency. I hold the title of public servant very closely. This seat is for people who have been shut out of this room: people in prison, people who are unemployed, those in homeless shelters; the most vulnerable among us. Government can be unreachable.
I plan to be present. I want people to know who I am and that I care about their issues.
I am deeply rooted in the community. I am still Angela Conley. Now I just have Commissioner in front of it.
This conversation was adapted from Anne Winkler-Morey’s “Minneapolis Interview Project.” Find more at turtleroad.org