Ellen Longfellow: Winning Civil Rights

Ellen Longfellow; photo Sarah Whiting

At the start of her long legal career, when she was an attorney at the League of Minnesota Cities, Ellen Longfellow was known as “The Sewer Queen.” Although her cases were small, she took many of them to trial and defended cities against sewer backup claims, sidewalk mishaps, potholes, and the like.

“I enjoyed that, because a lot of the claims involved public works–type issues,” she says. “Public works people are kind of the salt-of-the-Earth, who are underappreciated until something goes wrong.”

She persevered at that job for 24 years. Seeking a change, Longfellow became a loss control trainer, teaching city authorities on how to avoid claims and lawsuits. She conducted legal clinics with the Hmong population in St. Paul and the Somali population in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. She worked as a crime victim advocate and with the elderly.

Eventually, her path led her to the Council on American- Islamic Relations (CAIR), where she became an attorney focused on helping Muslim communities in Minnesota fight discrimination.

“Civil rights was a totally different area I had not worked in before. It was inspiring to try to help people with discrimination claims,” Longfellow says. It also was challenging work. “It was hard to figure out if they were being discriminated against because of their race, religion, or ethnicity. For many people in the Muslim community, they [face all] three.”

She did clinics in the community and took on criminal and administrative cases. Many of CAIR’s clients were temporary workers in fractured workplaces.

“Companies have been cautious about hiring [full-time] workers,” Longfellow says. Many employers take advantage of unskilled Muslim immigrants who are working through temporary agencies. Whereas temp workers used to move into permanent positions, in the current job market, “people are working temp [jobs] one, two, three years,” she says. “If you are working temp, all you get are low wages, no benefits. They get stuck in this. It is very difficult to get significant wage increases or promotions.”

When a discrimination claim came up, often the temp agency and the company contracting it would bicker over who was at fault. “That was very frustrating: to try and figure out who should be responsible,” Longfellow says. “We think that both of them should, but the way they set up the system, they could point fingers at each other.”

Many of the issues that arose involved prayer in the workplace, especially if the employees did shift work or were on an assembly line. Some Muslims pray five times a day, which didn’t always coincide with designated break times.

Another common workplace issue involved clothing, such as a woman who wanted to wear long dresses or the hijab at work. Sometimes an employer had a legitimate objection, like a printer who was concerned that a long dress would get caught in mechanical equipment; other times there was no good reason for the employer to object.

CAIR didn’t have the resources for civil litigation, so Longfellow relied on other methods to resolve her clients’ issues, from writing letters to employers to filing claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Sometimes, she was able to get employers to change their workplace policies.

“You’re not just helping one person, but you’re making it a better place for other people to work,” Longfellow says.

Longfellow’s largest settlement on behalf of CAIR involved a case against the Minneapolis Park Board. In 2018, four Somali teen boys were handcuffed and held at gunpoint by Minneapolis Park Police after someone claimed they were harassing a white couple. As it turned out, the boys were the victims of harassment.

CAIR worked with the boys’ mothers, none of whom spoke English. They were eventually awarded a $170,000 settlement. “It felt good to help these mothers get some resolution for what had happened to their sons. They were so young, and it was very traumatic for them to be handcuffed and put in a police car when they hadn’t done anything,” Longfellow says. “Civil rights you don’t win very often. But when you do, it feels good.”

Longfellow retired from eight years with CAIR in March. Her work was recognized by CAIR executive director Jaylani Hussein, whose suggestion led to her selection as a 2020 Minnesota Women’s Press Changemaker.

Longfellow has no regrets about her career trajectory, unpredictable as it has been. She sees each role as a stepping stone to the next.

“I would recommend that you take advantage of opportunities when they come up,” Ellen Longfellow says. “I didn’t know I was going to become any of these things, but the connections you make can lead you to different places.”

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