Q&A Esther Agbaje: State Representative 59B

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Esther Agbaje. Courtesy photo

In August, Esther Agbaje ousted an incumbent and won the Democratic primary to represent parts of North Minneapolis and downtown in the State House of Representatives. Earlier this month, she became the first Nigerian American elected to the Minnesota State legislature.

Minnesota Women’s Press asked Agbaje a few questions about what her hopes are for the district, what issues she plans to focus on, and what perspectives she will bring to State government.

This is your first run for public office. What motivated you to run for this office in particular?

I volunteer with the Volunteer Lawyers Network and have been giving advice to tenants over the past two years. I [also] started getting more involved in climate justice work. I saw that a lot of it related to larger laws and policies. It is important to have a voice of someone who is close to those issues at the state legislature in order to meaningfully affect change.

When it comes to housing, as a renter myself, making sure that we have deeply affordable housing is very important. Some of the clients that I saw at the Hennepin County Housing Court, many times they were being evicted solely because they just didn’t have enough money — so [it’s about] making sure that we are making housing that is truly affordable for people’s budgets. Similarly, with the climate justice I had been working on, [I was] seeing those effects close-up by talking to people who had experienced it.

Parts of this district have issues with high lead counts in the water. Some of the highest rates of childhood asthma are in this district. A lot of that is because of the factories that used to be here. Even now, with the highways, you get a lot of idling and CO2 exhaust. It is important to continue to have people speaking up at the state house about making sure that regulations are in place so people aren’t living in a place [that is] actively making them sick. 

Can you talk about the campaign strategy you developed and why you think it was a success?

From the beginning, I knew the big goal would be having to introduce myself to people as well as explain my vision of having a much more inclusive district focused on community wellness by addressing basic needs. That was the message.

Before COVID happened, it was a little easier sell because at that time we had a projection of a budget surplus and people were engaged in their imagination of what could be done. There was a sense of more hopefulness. When COVID hit, more than ever it is important to focus on people’s basic needs because now housing is [considered] public health. It wasn’t before — which I always stressed that it was — but now it became apparent that in order to survive COVID, you needed a place to stay. 

We continue to see high rates of homelessness and housing insecurity for people and that’s wrong. Our messaging tended to focus more on what people needed, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic when many people were losing their jobs and needed help securing unemployment benefits. We had some opportunities to guide people to where food distributions were happening, or how they could donate to mutual aid groups.

At the end of the day, our messaging was the same: people’s basic needs deserve to be met.

These are human rights. I think in some ways COVID helped make that clear for people if they didn’t see it before. 

Your district, 59B, has historically had a reputation of being divided. Can you talk about how you conceptualize the unique needs of your district and how you plan to bring investments back into the neighborhoods you represent?

That [divide] is definitely one of the stark things that people see about this district. It’s got the major businesses that are in downtown, luxury condos, and then we have the neighborhoods that have seen some disinvestment.

One of the things I want to do is make sure that business owners across the Northside are at the table when we have discussions that the state government has with business leaders. I think for a long time they have been ignored. I want to make sure that dialogue is open. I want to make sure dollars are being set aside, whether through federal or state funding, designated for Black and brown small business owners on the Northside and within Elliot Park, and that they can access it. 

I want to help build that bridge between downtown business owners and Northside business owners because I think there’s a lot of collaboration that can happen there. And make sure that whatever collaborations currently exist, we can expand and scale those up.   

You are the daughter of New Americans. What pivotal moments in your upbringing urged you to build a career around public service?

Both my parents have careers in public service. That’s always been a part of the family fabric. My dad is a priest in the Episcopal church and he oftentimes [had] an aspect of not only attending to people’s spiritual needs, but also being active members of our community — such as advancing healthcare opportunities for people, engaging in community policing programs. I saw a lot of that type of work from my dad.

My mom is a librarian and she spent time as a director of a homeless shelter when we lived in Virginia. Seeing her in that role, helping people get back on their feet, getting the tools they need to get an apartment, get a job, take care of their kids, deal with substance abuse issues — that was something I saw that there are ways to use our skills and talents to help people.

Since then if you look at my resume, a lot of my internships are with city or state local governments. I have also had a career with the U.S. Department of State, [where] I was working on programs that focused on helping organizations across the Middle East seek change — whether that was focused on freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, women’s rights, access to capital for youth entrepreneurs. It interested me to see what ways I could be involved in law and policy in the United States.

I decided to go to law school, and from there got involved in housing and law issues. I practice medical malpractice on the plaintiff side, which is another way to help people who have been hurt.

You have a history of involvement in racial and gender equity issues. How are you hoping to incorporate that perspective while serving in the legislature? 

I want to look at solutions through a racial gender equity lens. I think for far too long, those communities are afterthoughts. I want to be able to ask, anytime a policy comes across my desk, “How does this help someone who might be low income? How does this help advance the justice for Black people? How does this help advance justice for women? How does this advance justice for people in the disability community? LGBTQ community?” [I want to think] with all those lenses [and ask], are there things baked in here that are barriers to access? 

What are your hopes for the trajectory of your career?

For now I definitely want to focus on this, do a good job for my community, and make sure that things that particularly have been promised to the Northside begin to be delivered. For the future, I don’t know. I think this year has shown that you can’t really plan for a long-term future. I hope that whatever happens, I’m still in a position where I can continue to do good work for my community and do good work to better the lives of all Minnesotans. 

Details: estheragbaje.com

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