Terra Cole says MN ‘good old boys’ political structure not supportive of women
By Charles Hallman
Is there a generational gap in local Black leadership? When recently asked, Terra Cole pointed out that she believes there is. With Minneapolis elections fast approaching, the MSR spoke with Cole for her perspective on the obstacles to becoming an elected official considering her 2011 run for the Minnesota State House District 59B seat.
Cole said that there are two main reasons for the present generational gap. “There is a significant difference in the opportunities in the area of mentorship and knowledge transfer for people in my age group [persons who are in their 30s],” she pointed out. Also, she says that a key trait of effective leadership is vision.
“To be a visionary leader, you need to understand other forms of leadership — you need to embody all of them, or you should, in order to be successful.”
Cole, who grew up in North Minneapolis and is a 1996 North High School graduate, told the MSR that local Black leadership over the years tends to be “very male, 50-60ish and very much a good old boy club,” she observed. “You were in if they liked you, and if they didn’t like you, they kicked you out.”
The 2001 Dillard (La.) University and 2010 U-M Humphrey Institute graduate noted, “We look at leadership in our community, especially the Black community, to be Black and male. When do [we] as a community understand that
there is a space for equality?… When you start talking about politics, we still gravitate [to] the idea that men are leaders — that’s not just Black folk but everybody.
“When women exhibits the same attributes [as males], we get called names. We get told that we are uncontrollable.”
She also believes that “Young people today are disillusioned with politics across the board” and though she fell short in her first try, Cole said she hasn’t ruled out running for public office in the near future.
If she does run again, “There are some things I wouldn’t do. You get to pick your battles, but honestly who cares what anyone else says; it’s about getting votes. You have to talk to the voters, and it’s your choice on which voters you choose to spend your time with. But you need to be strategic about that.”
As a Hennepin County analyst as well as serving on several local boards and committees, Cole said she learned “the other side of how things work, to see the nuts and bolts on how bureaucracy works. The policy gets written [either] by people who don’t understand policy or by public officials who don’t get their people — the people who run the bureaucracy.”
However, Cole said it took a lot of convincing from several individuals before she finally decided late in 2011 to run for the Minnesota State House District 59B seat. “I was one of the youngest, if not the youngest running for state office. I was the only Black female [from Minneapolis] running for state office,” she pointed out. But some political stalwarts expressed their concern that Cole didn’t follow “the book.”
“[They] struggle when they see individuals who…do something different. Just because there is a book that says you need to do things one through 10 — do I have to go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so forth? I’d take 10 first if it was something I could do first then I would go back to 2 and 3, but people didn’t understand that. We didn’t follow the order, but we still got the results,” she explained.
“We had to figure out what an actual ‘ask’ meant. In regular people land, when you ask someone to support you, they say yes. But in government it’s completely different. I was often told the reason why I wasn’t getting the support that people thought I deserved was ‘they didn’t see me working.’ I didn’t quite understand what they meant. Others felt it was not my time — i.e. ‘She’s too young and should wait her turn.’ However [I wasn’t told] I wasn’t qualified or that I wasn’t the most qualified.
“I didn’t see it as bucking the system or doing it differently, but it was how I operated,” surmised Cole. “I was strategic and it shocked a lot of folks. I phone called, I door knocked — I talked to people.” However, she only lost in the primary by 0.8 percent (19 votes) in last August’s DFL primary election.
“Elected office is an opportunity,” Cole said. “But it doesn’t mean I have to be elected. My vocation is to work with organizations that want to do structural and institutional change for people of color. Whether it is in [the] public sector, private sector, nonprofit, education — I don’t care. That is what I want to do, so I look for opportunities to do that work.
“I’m interested in creating a nonpartisan Black political action committee (PAC) to help train Black people across the state to run for office,” said Cole, who currently is on a DFL committee working on the party’s affirmative action platform “and really defining what the party means by affirmative action and what it means by outreach and inclusion. What we need to do [is] to make sure we are reflective of the populations we serve.
“When I run again it will be deliberate and very intentional, and I want to believe that there will be fewer barriers. No one will have to say ‘Terra didn’t work’ or ‘I didn’t see her working.’”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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