State Rep. Rena Moran: From a homeless shelter to the State Capitol

Rena Moran. Courtesy photo.

The more I heard about laws and policies that kept the black community in a place … and organized about that, the more I began to say, that’s not right, that’s not fair.
– Rena Moran

Unemployed and broke, Rena Moran arrived in the Twin Cities in 2000 with six of her seven children. They lived in the homeless shelter at Sharing and Caring Hands while Moran looked for a job and a place to live. That didn’t take long – hardworking and determined, Moran took the first job she could find, and then the next and continued moving up.

Today she owns her own home in St. Paul and is running for her fourth term in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Moran’s success story started on the south side of Chicago, where her mother, one of her heroes, emphasized the importance of education and was a model of community involvement. Moran went to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, graduating in 1984 after the death of her mother from cervical cancer and the birth of her first daughter.

Moran brought her family to Minnesota seeking better opportunities for her children. In St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, she says, “I found myself connecting to the community, learning the history.” She learned about redlining and “laws and policies that really kept the black community in a place. … The more I heard about that, and organized about that, the more I began to say, that’s not right, that’s not fair.”

Getting political

In 2008, she recalls, “I had already been organizing with diverse communities – Hmong, Black, Latino, Somali – to elect a progressive governor, Mark Dayton. It happened to be the year that Obama was running the first time, and I got so tied up in the political process!”

Her community organizing and political work led to a fellowship with the Organizing Apprenticeship Project (now Voices for Racial Justice.) At the end of the fellowship, the class was asked what each person saw herself doing in five years. Moran said she saw herself running for state representative. It didn’t take five years.

In 2010, her state representative retired and community members asked her to run. Before deciding, she took the question to her children. “I explained I would need their help and their support, and some days I wouldn’t be mama, I would be Rena running for political office.” She remembers her youngest daughter saying, “Mom, if you think you should run, run!” That was all the permission she needed.

Her first term in the legislature, as a Democrat, was a shock. She found “a negative, toxic environment.” The Republican majority was “cutting everything that I cared about, everything that I valued.” That meant programs to support women, children and families, pay equity, and education. Over her succeeding terms, despite opposition to her Women of Color Opportunity Act, she got funding for the Girls In Action community program. That program, she says, is “helping girls of color graduate in higher numbers and reducing suspension rates.”

“Legislation impacts people’s lives,” Moran says. “It encompasses the universe.” She focuses on “kids having a great beginning in life,” including support for early learning scholarships and “education as a pathway out of poverty.” When you do well in school, Moran says, you will do well in life.

Creating pathways to good paying jobs is also crucial. “When I knock on doors,” she says, “people want to work. They want a livable wage job. … That’s key to a thriving community and a thriving state.”

Relational change-maker

Moran feels pressure as the only African-American legislator in the Minnesota House of Representatives. “I am called upon not just by the African-American community,” she says, “but communities of color in general.” She feels “a huge pressure to represent the African-American community in ways that other colleagues do not feel such pressure.”

Creating relationships and believing in your vision are the keys to being an effective change-maker, Moran says. She works to bring people to the Capitol to testify and to build relationships with legislators as well as “bringing legislators and the governor into my community and showing them a diverse community.”

When she reflects on her time in political office, Moran says, “I am surprised at my destiny and where I am today.” She is proud of coming to Minnesota as an African-American mother seeking a family-friendly place to live and a good education for her children. She is proud of moving from homelessness to connecting with a community, and now representing that community in the Legislature. To other women thinking about running for office, Moran says: “Believe in you, that you have something to bring. Don’t overthink it too much. Connect with other people who believe in you and align with your values. And run. Just run. You don’t have to have all the answers. … Just have a passion.”