Patricia Torres Ray: Primed for power

State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray is on the campaign trail even though she is not running for re-election this year. She is busy working to get other women elected to political office.

The Minneapolis DFLer often talks about the importance of diversifying the state Legislature and of bringing more women, especially women of color, into positions of power.

“Each person has their own lens,” Torres Ray says. “We need more people who can share their experiences so that they may be able to say: ‘Now hold on, how might that affect someone like me – an immigrant, a minority, a woman of color?'”

Reaching out to other women has always been important to Torres Ray. “I work with young women of all ethnic backgrounds trying to encourage them to move their ideas forward,” she says.

Indeed, she has been intentional about recruiting women of color to run for office. She is supporting Iris Altamirano’s bid for a seat on the Minneapolis school board in the November election. Previously, she encouraged Melisa Franzen, a Puerto Rican candidate in Edina, to run for the state Senate (Franzen won a hard-fought race in 2012) and helped to elect Nelly Korman, a Latina, to the Bloomington school board in 2011.

Torres Ray also has hired young women early in their careers as her aides, often encouraging them to move on to policy positions outside the halls of the Legislature.

“If you’re going to work with me,” she says laughing, “you’re going to have a big plan for the future.”

Foster-care advocate

Torres Ray has carried out some of her own big plans during her eight years in the Legislature. She authored 125 legislative proposals in her first term and was vocal about pushing the Senate to go further on minimum-wage efforts. She authored the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights – a measure she is very proud of – to protect homeowners facing foreclosure. The bill passed the Senate despite opposition on the part of some large banking institutions. She also authored a bill to reform limited English proficiency (LEP) policy, a measure she says “will transform the way we teach children who speak English as their second language.”

Torres Ray learned how to move bills through the Legislature during her early, formative professional years. A native of Colombia who met her husband when he was studying abroad in her hometown of Pasto, she came to Minnesota with a law degree. When she was 23 and a recent immigrant, she looked for work in her field and landed in legislative advocacy around foster-care issues.

“I was basically ‘adopted’ professionally by a group of African-American and Native American women, and a few Latinas, who were pushing legislation to protect African-American and Native American children in the foster-care system,” she says.

Torres Ray helped these women lobby for legislation that would, among other things, place these foster children in African-American or Native American households.

“These women, who were mostly women of color, were powerful voices,” Torres Ray says, “They taught me so much and they are the reason I didn’t go into the private sector.”

‘How can we change this?’

Advocating for foster care with this group of women also taught Torres Ray a surprising lesson. She quickly learned that despite having lived as a member of the majority in Colombia, she was viewed as a minority here.

“I didn’t know what a ‘person of color’ or ‘a minority’ was,” she says. “But I found out that I was one.”

Torres Ray says that this actually helped her learn about disparities in this country. She became curious about the difference between the Minnesota she read and heard about, with its statistics about educational achievement, and the Minnesota she was seeing.

“I realized that kids who look like me weren’t getting ahead, and I kept asking myself – especially with this outsider’s perspective – why is this? How did this happen? How can we change this?” she says.

Asking these questions has moved her career from legislative advocate to the Office of Ombudsperson for Families to program administrator in the state Health and Human Services Department to state senator and now chair of the Senate Education Committee.

And though this journey has put her in positions of power, she now keeps one foot in the Legislature and one planted in the grass roots.

“I can’t imagine not being in the community in some meaningful way,” Torres Ray says. “It triggers big ideas for me. It gives me opportunities to see how things we’ve passed in the Legislature might be working or not working. I don’t think I can do policy that is relevant if I don’t see the impact of my work.”

Mentor to teens

Torres Ray is currently working on a mentorship pilot project in the Minneapolis public schools that targets 17 ninth-grade Latinas. The girls get together regularly to talk about homework, jobs, tutoring, family life and the challenges of excelling in high school. Torres Ray regularly comes in to talk to the group about life after high school, with the hope of opening their eyes to opportunities and helping them to think of themselves in roles they might not otherwise.

In exchange, the girls help ground Torres Ray.

She compared and contrasted passing the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights to her work with Latina teens. The biggest challenge of passing the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights, she says, was getting banking institutions on board.

The challenge in her work with the Latina teens is finding a way to connect with the girls that truly motivates them to stay in school and think of themselves as leaders.

“They can both be daunting tasks,” she says.

At the very least, if Torres Ray’s efforts to get more women of color elected to political office bear fruit, the girls will have more public role models to look up to.