This ongoing series of conversations with Minnesota women about their engagement in politics was created as a collaboration between Amra Avdic, journalist and project director of the Contemporary Women’s Festival in Bosnia, and Minnesota Women’s Press, thanks to support from the global Community Solutions Program in Fall 2021.
Transcript (lightly edited)
Minnesota State Representative Heather Keeler has been an advocate and an activist in the tri-state region for two decades working tirelessly to improve community health care, education and public welfare. This is your first term. Given the election process took place in pandemic times, the campaign itself certainly looked different. Can you explain for me how you ran that campaign?
I didn’t knock on any doors. Working in health care, especially with underserved communities — it was something that was really important to me, that I didn’t want to increase any exposure, any risk, or any fear in my community around the pandemic. So, it was a lot of phone calls, we did social media activities on different platforms. We tried to be creative and find different ways to connect with people. I think that my previous experiences working in the community helped, even though I had never run for anything before. I have been really involved in the community, so I think people knew me from that space.
You said that you were not a politician. I read that your decision to enter the political arena is motivated by the same passion that drives your activism. How important is that passion if we decide to take on a political race?
In the system’s design today, there is not really a path given to people who look like me on how to become state leaders, federal leaders, local leaders. Growing up, I didn’t see people who looked like me in positions like this. As I got older, I realized that because of the lack of representation in these spaces, decisions weren’t being made with the communities like mine in mind, and decisions were being made that were harming our communities. When the seat opened up in my community, 20 women reached out to me and encouraged me to run because they wanted different options and candidates in the community. I thought about it a lot. I am a mom, and there are a lot of things that I am unhappy about in the systems. Instead of just feeling the pain and being upset with the systems, I decided to get involved with the system and try to create change. The political world is a very different landscape. But really, it is activism at its highest compassion and motion.
You emphasize how you stand for inclusion. Can you explain in more details, what exactly you meant when you said that?
Around the beginning of the campaign, when door knocking was still a possibility, people were asking me, “Are you going to pick and choose which doors you knock on?” I said, “I am going to knock on all the doors, my team is going to knock on all the doors, because it is important that we sit in the seats as elected officials to represent our entire community, even though we might not agree all of the time. It is important to listen to each other.” For me, it was practicing what I say over and over, and trying to listen to all viewpoints of my community. Now that I [am elected], I say often that we have to find slivers of commonality. We are not going to agree with everybody even in our own party. But we have to find the small pieces that we can work together with, because that is when we make the best moves for the entire community.
One of your fights was for the Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Minnesota, established in this year’s public safety omnibus budget. I spoke about this with Senator Mary Kunesh. Can you tell me a bit more about why it is important that an office like this is set up? For people in my country, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to also understand?
We say that we collect data and tell the stories about the things that we really care about. When Native American women go missing, there has been no data. The media doesn’t share the story; it has been something swept under the rug for too long. Since colonization started, Indigenous women have been victimized, sexualized, and brutalized. We have been saying for a really, really long time that we need to look into this. When women go missing, it is easy to blame jurisdictions. Is it the tribal communities responsibility to look? Is that the local community? It gets in this weird shuffle of responsibility, and at the end of the day, nobody is looking for the women.
So what Senator Kunesh did when she was in the House, she really pushed to have the task force address this and bring some data forward. That launched us into this step to create the office, which was one of the things I was most excited to work on. A couple years ago, Savannah Greywind went missing in my community. It changes you, when women who walk alongside you in other activism efforts go missing in your community, and you see the lack of support and efforts to find her. It is heartbreaking, and it happens everywhere. All of us have those stories. To be the first in the nation to actually invest in an office says that we are really here to care and protect our relatives. I look forward to see how it grows and how other states kind of get on board and grow this at a more regional effort as well.
I see you as a real example of a new wave of female politicians. For me, when I watched your videos, your conversation interviews, you are very open when you speak about topics that sometimes are still a taboo. In one of your videos you call yourself a domestic abuse warrior. Can you explain to our viewers why?
One of the things that I believe in is transparency. I think that we have to be honest about who we are, so that we are honest about the conversations we need to have. It is easy to share the great and wonderful things about us; I can share my degrees, I can share the work I have done. But we really connect as humans when we get down to the human level of who we are. I know that I am not alone in the statement that I have suffered some massive abuse, through partnerships, but also through sexual violence. Also, I attempted suicide. Those are real things. I am a real person because I experienced that in my life. I call myself a warrior, because it doesn’t define me. Those spaces in my life actually made me stronger and made me who I am and it gives me a new perspective of why it is so important to be in this space and fight for these things.
I know a lot of people tell me to compartmentalize what I share in this seat. I believe that I am here to impact the next generation. If I can be honest in who I am, and the opportunity that I have in this seat, hopefully there is a little girl out there who can hear or see a message and realize that it is a possibility for them — that they are not too broken to do this work. We all deserve to be in this space and make these changes together so that we can change the way that people live.
Thank you for doing that. Moms Demands Action movement is also interesting. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Moms Demand Action is a single issue group that focuses on gun violence prevention. We want to keep our kids safe. For me, the biggest space in that organization that I find myself drawn to is suicide prevention. It is something that is really personal to me, but also I worked in school districts. I have worked with kids grades 7-12 for many years, and I know how much we need to have those conversations. We need to have conversations around gun safety in our homes, especially when mental health with our kids is coming into a really complicated space — the pandemic is increasing mental health concerns with kids. I like that they are an organization that is open to learn how to move forward with the best inclusive legislation efforts. They are good partners to work with because they really care about protecting our kids.
When you think about future generations, what would you like to leave them as a legacy? And what are you afraid of when you think about the situation that new generations are growing up in now?
We [in the Native American culture] believe in seven generations — we believe that the seven generations before us have impacted where we are today. I know that any movement that I make is going to impact the seven generations after me. Each generation is about 25 years. We are coming into the seventh generation of colonization, from when things started to shift on Turtle Island. For me, a legacy would be continuously impacting and passing down the pride of who we are, and knowing that our voices matter in these spaces. Sometimes we have to stand up alone. Sometimes that is really scary. It is really hard.It takes a lot of courage. Our voice might quiver. We might not say it right. But we need to stand up because our voices are valuable. I want our kids to know that, and see that, and understand that.
From this time, distance, and experience, what advice would you give to a woman who is thinking about running for the office?
I think that the best advice I can give you is: you are never going to be ready. So just do it. I think in our minds, we overthink: “Is now a good time? Could somebody do better than me? Do I have too much going on? Do I know enough about the system?” It is all a learning process. There are people who have sat in their seats for a very long time and they are still learning things. And so, we are never really ready. If you have the passion, to be a voice for change and a voice for the people, explore the opportunity. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to run right now, but get involved in a campaign. Maybe be a campaign manager and see what it is like. A lot of people have internships available. Outside of that political path, I think that anybody — whether we are choosing to run for re election or your first time — should come up with a self-care plan. This work is really hard work. You have to be able to take care of yourself and your own foundation. When you decide to run, make sure that somewhere on a little sticky note you have a self-care plan and build that into your busy schedules. Campaigning and this work can take up a lot of time, but you have to make time to invest in yourself.
Thank you for being an inspiration.