Councilmember Cunningham gives Minnesota Nice a new meaning

He feels safe in North Minneapolis

Phillipe Cunningham Photo courtesy of Facebook

A colleague once told Phillipe Cunningham that North Minneapolis was a place where she felt safest as a Black queer woman. “That really resonated with me because I have felt very unsafe as a Black queer man,” said Cunningham. Then he became a resident of North Minneapolis and understood what his colleague meant.

 

Coming to Minneapolis

Before Minneapolis, Cunningham hadn’t lived any place where he felt comfortable enough to call it home. Having to navigate life as a Black queer man can make it hard to feel like a part of your community, said Cunningham. “Then I landed in North Minneapolis and all of a sudden, I was home.”

Before Minneapolis, Cunningham, 30, worked on Chicago’s Southside as a special education teacher. In Chicago, he was so wrapped up in his job and students that he was not worried or giving much thought to big things like government policy. But during the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union Strike, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel extended the school day by one hour, lengthened the school year by 10 days, and closed 50 of the city’s schools, government policy started flashing on his radar.

“[Emanuel] was making policies that felt retaliatory against the teachers’ union, and that was the first time I really started to make those connections,” said Cunningham. “When I saw how the mayor could impact my kids, that is when I had this big awakening around policy and politics.”

One year after the strike, Cunningham moved to Minneapolis. “I was never really happy in Chicago after seeing how that city treats their Black and Brown children. I was like, you’ve shown me your cards and I already don’t like it,” Cunningham said.

Coming from the Southside of Chicago to the North Side of Minneapolis, Cunningham said the problems felt more manageable in Minneapolis.

 

Pathway to politics

When Cunningham got to Minneapolis, he knew he wanted to have a more prominent voice in decisions made at the City level but didn’t know how to get started. So, he went to the Trans Equity Summit where he met the founder, Andrea Jenkins, got introduced to council policy aides and met other local politicians.

Through those connections and his youth work in Chicago, he was appointed to the Youth Violence Prevention Executive Committee by former mayor Betsy Hodges, who later hired him as her senior policy aid for education and youth success.

“The youth work is what got me into policy, but it’s North Minneapolis that got me into politics,” Cunningham said. Working for Hodges gave Cunningham “a look behind the institutional curtain,” and he didn’t like what he saw. He didn’t see anyone at the City level jumping up and fighting for the North Side.

Cunningham views the current progressive movement as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of fighting just for equality, he is also pushing for racial equity. During his time working for Hodges, he did not see an equity lens; in fact, he said he saw hostility towards equity.

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“Nobody talks about the fact I unseated a 50-year family dynasty.”

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City council race

At first, Cunningham was hesitant to run for office. As a self-proclaimed “policy wonk,” he wasn’t thrilled about the idea of getting into politics. However, he knew he couldn’t wait four more years until the next election cycle. “I felt like I was ready to step up in the movement to begin driving a deeper conversation,” Cunningham said.

Although Cunningham thinks local media overlooked his race, it was one of the more interesting races in the last round of city council elections. The reason: Cunningham was going up against a family dynasty and the longest-serving city council president, Barb Johnson, who has represented the fourth ward for the last 20 years.

“Nobody talks about the fact I unseated a city council member. Nobody talks about the fact I unseated a 50-year family dynasty,” Cunningham said.

His victory is viewed as the most significant upset in local city council history, and it was not a cake walk. “My race was hard. I fought and worked so hard, and no one talks about that. No one thought I was going to win,” Cunningham said.

The lack of equity lens that Cunningham saw as an incumbent was a big reason he ran for city council. “The story of North Minneapolis that was being told on the dais was one of a never-ending war hellscape, and I know better than that, and the people of Northside knew better than that,” Cunningham said.

Also, when working for Mayor Hodges Cunningham didn’t see anyone acting as a champion for the Northside. “I didn’t see someone who was hustling. I didn’t see anybody who was being innovative to think out of the box.”

There is a narrative floating around, Cunningham said, that much of his success in the election was because of Bernie Sanders supporters and outside help. He said that narrative is false. “I had to build my base from the grassroots up… All my people, all my supporters, almost all my volunteers came [from] within the ward.”

However, in the last few weeks of his campaign, while he was under attack from Minneapolis Works!, a political action committee founded by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, he received outside help from TransUnited Fund, a group committed to building the political power of trans and gender-expansive communities. They even went into debt for Cunningham to make sure he had the resources he needed to win the election.

Cunningham ended up beating Johnson by 175 votes, according to Ballotpedia.org

The fact that the Northside voted Cunningham in over such a strong incumbent shows that the North Side is ready for a change. “They were hungry for a vision, hungry for energy, hungry for new ideas,” Cunningham said.

“I’ve got mad respect for Barb Johnson, don’t get it twisted,” Cunningham said, but it was clear to him that people “were unhappy with what she was reporting she had accomplished.”

 

Racism and transphobia

Other than battling incumbent Johnson, the biggest challenge Cunningham faced was the validation of his identity. As a trans man, people thought “he didn’t really count as a man,” in his words. “Being trans is a huge part of my identity. People look at me and just see a gay man. They don’t see all the layers of me.”

For the first 23 years of his life, Cunningham identified as a Black woman. “I am proud of those 23 years. Those 23 years make me the Black man I am now. I don’t want those to ever be erased,” he said. “Being trans is a huge part of my identity.”

Racism is something Cunningham has dealt with from a young age, from being called the n-word at age five, to teachers in high school assuming he would drop out because he was Black. But through all that, he has had the unique experience of seeing racism first through the lens of a Black woman and, now, as a Black man.

After Cunningham transitioned, he noticed that the racism became more overt. “As a Black man, now all of a sudden White men became physically aggressive toward me.”

“Racism as a Black woman was centered through sexism and violence. It was like White men in my lifetime felt they had automatic access to my body, and so I was treated as an exotic treat rather than a human,” Cunningham said.

“As a Black man, it was a brand-new experience of racism… There were overlaps, but I can’t say it was better or worse because they both suck.”

While he still believes that he would be in the same type of leadership role as a Black woman, Cunningham said that male privilege has made him feel more like a leader. “My voice has more oomph… I can take up more space.”

Ultimately, Cunningham said he thinks he gets taken more seriously as a man.

 

Plans for the ward

“Community wealth” was a big part of Cunningham’s campaign. In his own words, that means building the wealth of the people who already call the North Side home. But wealth to Cunningham isn’t just monetary; it’s holistic prosperity. “It’s clean air to breathe, green space to hang out at, knowing where you’re going to fall asleep every night, having access to fresh food, letting your kids be able to go to the park.”

More specifically, community wealth breaks down into different policy sectors, Cunningham said, ranging from housing to environmental justice.

In the fourth ward, there are problems centered around gun violence and police brutality, but Cunningham knows that more police is not the answer. When it comes to public safety strategies, he believes prevention, intervention, and reentry are the three biggest components.

“I’m looking at public safety from a comprehensive approach, because history, our current reality, the data, all show that traditional policing does not inherently make communities safer.” As a member of the Public Safety Committee, he plans to ask questions and hold police accountable as well as Mayor Jacob Frey about how he governs the police department.

Cunningham plans to make sure that rent increases won’t displace the people who already call the North Side home. He said he believes housing to be a human right and wants to make sure people have access to affordable housing. Whether it’s through community land trusts, more homeownership opportunities, or redefining affordable housing altogether, he plans to make it a priority.

Equity and asset building with a focus on small businesses is also on Cunningham’s to-do list. He wants to make it easier for people to start businesses on the North Side and to make sure existing businesses can stay there. “My job is to create an environment in which those business owners can thrive.”

 

Keith Schubert welcomes reader responses to keithsch94@gmail.com