Women in Politics Series: Sen. Mary Kunesh on Educating Decision-Makers

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.

You were born as the middle child in a family of 13 kids. What are the good lessons that you learned in such an environment and that were useful to you later in your political career?

The fact that there were so many of us that we had to learn early the value of working together and that collective effort for the good of us all. We knew that if we helped each other and get our chores done, looked out for each other, we’d have more time for playing with our friends and doing good things. We really learned that lesson early about the collective good for all.

25 years ago, you were a single mother of three who worked three jobs. You attended college on the weekends to earn your teacher’s degree. But at one point, something changed. Can you tell me what?

I was a single mom, in my early 30s. I had three great kids. I was actually supporting myself by doing family daycare in my home, I was working as a server in one restaurant, and at a library and another place just to make ends meet. I was going to school on the weekends to get my teaching degree. At the end of your teaching experience as a student, you have to do student teaching that starts at the end of August, all the way to December. During that time, because I was a full-time student teacher and not earning any income, I had to have enough money saved up to pay my mortgage and feed my kids and whatnot. I did get my degree that December. But by January, the government had gone on to a shutdown, and I wasn’t able to apply for my teaching license. I had a job all lined up. I had saved just enough money to get me through those months. All of a sudden, I had $30 in my account, and I had to pay my mortgage and feed my kids.

I remembered a discussion with my dad, who was a lawyer and very socially conscious. There has always been sort of a negative connotation about receiving welfare, but I remember my dad saying that those funds are there to support and help families and people who are in a crisis. Those are the resources that we shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for and accept, because it gives you that boost in a time of trouble.

I swallowed my pride and applied for assistance. If it hadn’t been for those safety nets and the assistance that I received back in those days, I don’t know that I would have been able to keep my house or to take care of my children as well. With that lesson of how important it is to ensure we have those safety nets ready for those in a struggle — that has really helped me as a state legislator to to expound on those experiences.

You are a strong and intensely engaged advocate for gender equality. If you compare the position of women in society from 2016 in your first term and today, what has changed?

One of the big changes is that we have more women in our state legislature elected to office, every cycle that there is an election. These women are skilled, intelligent, verbal, fearless women who aren’t afraid to stand up and speak their truth and share their experiences. When we are creating legislation, we understand that they speak what they know.

We also have some incredible champions for women’s rights and human rights and environmental rights coming in from the men that are being elected. There’s a little bit of a turnover at our legislature with new legislators combined with our seasoned politicians who I value incredibly. I have found those that have been here for a while to be valuable resources; they have that historic knowledge of past legislation and past issues and relationships that are really helpful. We are starting to turn up and turn over, but in a good way, as we recognize the skills and the value that each person brings to the legislature.

How challenging was it to get your first term in 2016, just then, given the new president?

That certainly was a bittersweet election for us. I am fortunate to live in a district that has a strong Democrat population with progressive values. While it was not so difficult for me to get elected that time, it certainly was a challenge when I entered the legislature, because we were in the minority in the House. While I was trying to learn and start working on legislation, I really had to come to the understanding very quickly that whoever is in the majority certainly does make a huge difference in whether you can get your legislation moving or not. It also made me use all the relationship skills or negotiation skills that I might have had in order to get the good legislation passed that I was able to.

Was that the biggest lesson from your first term?

My biggest lesson is absolutely to create those relationships with people on the other side of the aisle. If you really do want to do things, make the difference, information is power. If I give them the information that they need, we hope that they will jump in and support it. That doesn’t always happen. It has happened a few times when it has been really, really important. And for that I am really appreciative.

.I read about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman Taskforce. Why is it so important to have this kind of official Task Force and to speak publicly about these problems and issues?

The highest levels of murder in Minnesota is Indigenous women. Even though American Indian women and girls make up just 1 percent of our state’s population, between the eight years of 2010 to 2018, 8 percent of all the murdered women and girls in Minnesota were American Indian. That was a data point that we got as a result of our task force.

When I started to introduce this issue and the law, people would ask for data and we just didn’t have it because nobody was collecting it. Data really drives actions and decisions. Between the years of 2012 to 2020, anywhere between 27 and 54 American Indian women or girls in Minnesota went missing in any given month of those eight years. Those were startling statistics that we’ve been able to share with the community, with the legislature.

Once I had heard a report out of Canada, I thought, why isn’t Minnesota doing anything about this generational historic trauma that our Native communities have experienced for so long? I needed a lot of education around that. So I reached out to the Native community, specifically women and agencies that are already working on violence against women, and ask them to help me craft this legislation. I was able to put together a preliminary bill, and then invited them in to ask for their permission to do this, because this is extremely re-traumatizing for many. Who would they like to see on this task force? With the help of a couple dozen Native folks, we were able to put together the task force.

At the end of the day, we want to make systemic changes in policies and institutions such as policing and child welfare and other governmental areas. We want to create processes and measures to help victims, to help the victim’s families, and to help the communities. We want to put in place ways to prevent and heal from this violence that has plagued our indigenous communities for centuries and generations.

It seems to me that learning and education have never been more important. Educators, unfortunately, have never been more underestimated. You are very active when it comes to the importance of education. You use your function and position to advance education. Why is this topic so important to you personally?

My family is from the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. I grew up hearing wonderful stories about my family and life out on the prairies of South Dakota. I also heard and saw the actual reality of our Native communities, especially here in Minnesota. I grew up about 80 miles north of the metropolitan area in a small town. My dad was a lawyer, and he was a county attorney and city attorney. He also recognized his responsibility to help our Native communities. He would take us to the reservations when he was doing pro-bono work. We saw the deplorable condition of the housing, the lack of infrastructure like plumbing and drinkable water. The schools that the federal government had promised to educate those children in were in terrible disrepair, under-resourced. As a child, I could tell there was injustice happening right here and right now.

Education often is the biggest equalizer. Knowledge is power. I have come to realize that one of the big things that I was able to do as a state legislator was to ensure that we had equitable funding for the four BEI (Bureau of Indian Education) schools in Minnesota. Those are schools that the federal government is supposed to support financially, part of the Federal treaties. Of course, they have never really funded those schools the way they should have — with integrity and with fidelity. I was able to move to get that funding, and make it permanent, so that those schools can thrive like every other school in our state.

We do have a few other Native American women in our state legislature who are championing and challenging all the work that we are doing. When I was elected, Jamie Becker-Finn came into office. She’s a native Anishinaabe; we have a newer member Heather Keeler. We have our lieutenant governor Peggy Flanagan, and the woman who I aspired to join at the legislature. Susan Allen was the first Native American woman to be in the legislature.

We all have our niches or areas that we are championing, especially for our Native communities. When we talk about education, it is not just education for our children, but education for decision-makers in our state, so that they understand the consequences of generations and the history of under-resourcing, and lack of acknowledgement for the treaties and the sovereignty of our Native tribes. I’m hoping that as a perpetual learner myself and educator, we will be able to bring that level of understanding to decision-makers so that we do bring good change for all of our communities across Minnesota.