On November 7, 2017 Andrea Jenkins made history by becoming the first African American transgender woman elected to the council of a major city. On January 8, 2018, Jenkins was elected vice president of the Minneapolis City Council. She says her role on the council is just one of many in a continuum of supporting others.
She grew up in Chicago, Illinois and moved to Minneapolis in 1979 to go to college. She liked the fact that it was easy to find work, go to school, and find a safe place to live here. However, “It’s still sad that in 2017 Minnesota has been identified as the second-worst state in the country for Black folks to live in.
“The level of institutional and systemic racism is so deep that the White progressive liberals can do all their dialogs and talks and studies and feel like they are doing something about the issue,” she says. “But until they actually stop talking and start doing, it’s going to stay the same.”
In the past, Jenkins has taken a behind-the-scenes approach in her support of others, as an employment counselor for Hennepin County and as a vocational counselor working to get families back to work. Yet, those experiences left her feeling that social service safety nets were temporary solutions when she wanted people to experience broader, more sustainable results.
In 2002 she completed her master’s degree in community economic development and worked as Minneapolis Council Member Robert Lilligren’s aide for three years when she had an opportunity to see the inner workings of City Hall. “That brought me inside policy work, and I really saw that, yes, this is the place [where] systemic change can happen.”
After a stint with Northside Redevelopment Council, she was hired again as an aide, this time for Council Member Elizabeth Glidden. When Glidden announced her retirement, Jenkins said to herself, “I know these neighbors, I know the issues. I know how City Hall works, so the time is right for me to run.”
Since its inception, the Minneapolis City Council has only had a few Black members: Van White, Sharon Sayles-Belton, Rev. Brian Herron, Natalie Johnson-Lee, Don Samuels and Ralph Remington; this election cycle brought Jenkins, Phillipe Cunningham and Jeremiah Ellison.
“It’s a lot, going up against centuries of White supremacy and systemic oppression.”
“As far as I know, in modern history I’m the first aide to ever serve as an aide, run for office, and get elected,” says Jenkins. “That’s the first I like to talk about.”
What’s the biggest difference between being an aide and a council member? “I’ve got to vote,” Jenkins answers. “As an aide I was dealing with the constituents, just like Elizabeth was. I would hear the mean comments and have to deal with the angry people. I went to all the meetings. But at the end of the day, I just didn’t have that same pressure that she had, that I will now have, of putting my values down on paper, and that’s a big responsibility.”
Jenkins says of the local political machine, “There is just a lot of incentive for people to maintain the status quo. So change comes hard.” An example of this was the $15 minimum wage, which Jenkins says was a battle to even get before the council for a vote. Yet, “Businesses are making more money now than they ever have in the history of the world. That’s even including slavery when they had no labor cost.”
However, Jenkins describes the newly elected group of council members as strong, progressive leaders willing to fight the status quo together. “I am fighting for equity,” Jenkins says first and foremost. “I am going to stand up and speak up for it every single opportunity I get.
“It’s a lot, going up against centuries of White supremacy and systemic oppression,” she continues. “The idea that Black people are less than is deeply baked into the enamel of our country, and so it’s really hard to overcome.”
Though race equity is her number-one priority, following close behind is economic development along 38th Street and continuing a plan to develop it as a cultural corridor. “As we continue economic development and growth in our community, [we want to ensure] that those [African American] identities, those histories, don’t get erased, paved over, and really try to deal with the…potentially impending gentrification that can come to a neighborhood and really disrupt and displace people.”
She would like to see Sabathani Community Center, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Pillsbury House, and the MLK Park Legacy Council among other already established groups connected to 38th Street involved in development and conversations that result in policies that keep people in the neighborhood, much like Seward Coop Friendship Store did.
When Greater Friendship Baptist Church moved to another location, they maintained ownership of the property where the store now sits. They waited until a development opportunity that would be an asset to the community’s existing neighbors came along. The store created an oasis in what was otherwise a food desert.
“There was site control of the property by some forward-thinking people. There was a lot of engagement with the community,” explains Jenkins. “So that is a good example of that kind of community control.”
In her personal life, Jenkins has been in a long-term relationship for the past seven years. Together they are raising a 10-year-old boy. Her family also lives in Minneapolis.
“I’m an artist and a poet,” she says, “and I intend to try to maintain my artistic life and to bring that creativity to the work that I do on the city council.” Before her term is up, she pledges to have a Minneapolis poet laureate. “There are so many amazing poets in this city that I want to lift up.”
Just after the election, Jenkins did quite a bit of election-related travel. One was a trip to Washington, D.C. that included a tour of the African American Museum. The tour began in a large elevator with the capacity to take more than 50 visitors down to the bottom floor of the museum.
“When you get off the elevator you literally walk into the hull of a slave ship. It’s dark, it’s cold, there are lots of images coming at you from every different direction.” The images tell the story of how different European countries — Portugal, Spain, France, the Dutch — participated in the slave trade. The exhibit then highlights the African American experience in different periods of history.
Toward the end of the tour, “Things kind of start lightening up a little bit, and the air gets warm,” describes Jenkins. “And you come out and you are in this big open space and the ceilings are like five stories high, and there is all of this natural light that’s coming in…
“It really makes you understand the impact of what it means to be a Black elected official and what the responsibility is, which is different than what Elizabeth and other White elected people have to think about.
“There is a heavier weight on African Americans to do the right thing, to not get in trouble, to be able to speak to all the issues,” explains Jenkins. “Being in that museum…it just hit me so hard. It’s a very, very big responsibility.”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vickie Evans-Nash is a contributing writer and former editor in chief at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.