Rena Moran, first elected in 2011, was the only woman Minnesota legislator of color at the time. This year’s legislative session included several more women lawmakers of color who formed the People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) caucus (pronounced “pah-see”).
“It’s a group of legislators of color that now have my back,” declared Moran. She and other POCI members were panelists at the June 19 legislative session wrap-up sponsored by the non-partisan Office on the Economic Status of Women (OESW) at the State Office Building in St. Paul.
The panelists were asked why they ran for office. “What really prompted me to become a legislator,” responded Moran, a two-term lawmaker from St. Paul, “was I became a champion, a consistent message” to ensure that the Green Line light rail train being constructed on University Avenue would be fair to the community it was running through.
When Senator Melisa Franzen was first approached by Sen. Patricia Torres Ray to consider running for office, Franzen told her “she’s crazy.” Sen. Franzen, who grew up in Puerto Rico, was elected in 2012. Sen. Torres Ray is the first Latina state senator in Minnesota.
First-term Representative Ilhan Omar said, “I ran because I believe in organizing for change, not only for myself and my family but also our state.” Last fall, Omar became the highest elected Somali public official as a member of the Minnesota State House.
Said Rep. Erin Maye Quade, also elected last fall, “For too long people who were talking about us didn’t look like us.” Maye Quade once worked for U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, one of four Native American women legislators, added, “Indigenous women are some of the strongest voices.”
“I always have been raised to be proud of my Native American heritage,” declared first-term Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein.
Omar said too often women — especially women of color — are viewed by some as only being interested in female issues. She warned that she won’t back down from advocating issues that affect all women, “There are no single-issue people.”
“There are a lot of us who are not only people of color and indigenous [people] that have careers, student debt… I think we speak to a broader base of people and representative of what Minnesota is becoming. We are not only voices for the particular ethnicity that we represent, but also a voice for millennials, young mothers, working mothers, young people struggling to have economic stability,” said Omar.
The OESW reported recent census data showing Hennepin and Ramsey Counties with far more residents of color than other counties: 29 percent in Hennepin and 34.5 percent in Ramsey. On average, Minnesota women earn less than Minnesota men: For every dollar earned by White men, for the same work White women earn 80 cents, Native American women 64 cents, Hmong women 57 cents, Black women 56 cents, and Latina and Somali women 54 cents.
“I believe women should make a dollar to a dollar,” said Moran.
Director Barbara Battiste of OESW said state policymakers are neglecting the often-discussed issues of rural Minnesota such as the high cost of health care and the lack of available and affordable child care. Some groups of women (women of color, older women, single mothers, immigrant women and victims of domestic violence and sexual assault) are at greater risk and vulnerable to economic insecurity.
Battiste recalled asking during listening sessions held last year throughout the state, “What’s working well for women and families, and what challenges their economic security?” She noted that over 5,100 bills were introduced and 939 of them were passed and signed into law that impacted women’s economic security and addressed disparities:
- Equity – funding for statewide business development, with priority to business owned by people of color and job creation for unemployed and underemployed people.
- Gender pay gap – funding for a new pilot program for nonprofits to provide or repair cars for low-income people, including giving loans to purchase cars
- Childcare – grants to local communities to increase the number of child care providers.
- Older women – funding to provide training for seniors who are becoming blind but want skills to continue to live independently.
- Housing – funding for rental assistance to homeless students and addressing the disparity gap in homeownership between Whites and Indigenous and communities of color.
Maye Quade suggests all future bills proposed in the Minnesota Legislature, should also include an “equity analysis” similar to how major U.S. Congress bills are introduced to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office in Washington, D.C. “When we start on a bill we will [know] what the impact will be,” she said.
After the panel, Franzen told the MSR “Our voices are needed.”
“I think that is very important not only to be a representative democracy [but] to be a reflective democracy,” added Omar.
“Our job is to change that narrative and create policies that will lift up our communities and move our communities forward to be on par with the dominant community,” said Moran.
“We talk about equity a lot, but the definition of it is fairness with a memory,” said Maye Quade. “I got to make sure we talk about that a lot. Equity is everyone got shoes, equality is everyone gets shoes that fit.”
After 41 years, the OSEW office was closed on July 1 due to the lack of state funding. Legislators at the meeting honored Battiste for her work. Maye Quade pledged she will help fight to bring it back if the DFL regains a majority in the 2018 state legislature.
“It should never have been eliminated in the first place.”
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Charles Hallman is the senior staff writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org