Out of the trenches and into the race
Angela Conley stands as proof positive that there’s none so qualified to effect a solution than she who is herself impacted by the problem. When Conley speaks to resolving issues in her candidacy for Hennepin County Commissioner, District 4, it is from vast, hands-on experience.
Native to South Minneapolis, Conley went from receiving public assistance as an under-employed single mom to pulling down a paycheck as a financial worker at Hennepin County Human Services. Eventually, she earned an undergraduate degree from St. Catherine University in social work.
“My motivation for studying social work,” she states, “was witnessing the needs of my community go unmet and wanting to work for society to make it better, which is the foundation of social work practice. The most important thing that I learned during my studies is that there are people in our neighborhoods who are one paycheck away from homelessness, one sick day away from unemployment, and asking myself what is it that we, servants of the public, can do, are doing, and are not doing to advance key principles of social justice advocacy.”
“The background Black women bring is imperative, and quite desperately needed.”
She got her master’s degree in public administration from Hamline University and now works as the Minnesota Family Investment Program operations coordinator. She was also appointed to the Hennepin County Adult Mental Health local advisory council. “This allows me to look at adult mental health through the lens of employment as a tool for wellness and a key connection to community for people living with mental illness.
“As part of this council,” Conley continues, “I am able to work with my peers, providers and consumers on identifying needs that have gone unmet in service delivery. Our council prioritizes these needs for consideration in the County Board’s proposed budget, and we advocate on behalf of adults who live with mental illness and their families.” She adds, “I am proud to serve as the president of Bryant Neighborhood Organization where I can listen to my neighbors, build community, and take the lead on neighborhood priorities.”
Angela Conley (AC) visited Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder for an in-depth conversation regarding how she sees what is wrong with the County’s current practice of serving the public and how to make it right.
MSR: There are quite a few sisters running for office these days.
AC: There are! It’s about time. Black women are capable and have been in leadership roles in our community for years. For many years, we have been using our power to fight back against social injustices. We have participated in protests; we have done what we could in our workplaces to address inequities.
The power we have within our community can be transferred to an elected office. The background Black women bring is imperative, and quite desperately needed.
AC: We are living in a time where we face unprecedented disparities. In order to make progress on reducing those, we need us in positions to make change. The experts to inform policy are people who are living the experiences. Working within County and State government for almost 20 years, within social services and employment and training, I also bring a lived experience of going through the process of receiving County assistance to help support my family. I want to change that experience for other families.
MSR: Care to expound?
AC: Hennepin County is a very large level of government managing everything from the roads to public health, human services, [and] our corrections departments both juvenile and adult. The work I do, I work with 16 community-based agencies and each one contracts with Hennepin County to find jobs for people on cash and food assistance. I want to see the folks we’re contracting with are meeting outcomes.
Are people getting gainful employment? What are the barriers stopping people from getting livable-wage jobs? What we’re finding is that transportation, child care and housing are the biggest barriers to employment.
I see that up close and personal every time I walk into my job or whenever I attend a meeting. I know these barriers are continuing to rise, and we have an increasing number of folks accessing County services who are living with mental illness. So, all these barriers to employment are connected. That’s through the psychological aspect of poverty and the fact that we’ve kind of helped to perpetuate that poverty.
We don’t have someone on the Board who…has lived through poverty, has come out of poverty and said, “I’m going to do something about it” and then obtained the educational credentials to be able to do that. So, I look at administering public goods and services through a social justice framework.
MSR: Change we can actually believe in?
AC: I’m bringing multiple perspectives to the County Board, the perspective of lived experience, of work experience. The different framework [by which] I view policy creation and policy priorities.
My background also is in social justice advocacy and activism. So, I’ve been a case manager, working with families, with individuals who are homeless, [individuals] who are coming out of jail with no support for re-entry [into society]. People are homeless because they have a UD [unlawful detainer] or criminal background. Or they’re fleeing domestic violence.
MSR: So you know the problems and have seen the problems first-hand.
AC: For many of us, we’re one paycheck away from being homeless, from losing our housing. When we talk in campaigns about affordable housing, we tend to just talk about it as an issue. We don’t go deep enough.
We need housing that’s designated specifically for families and individuals who are low income. These are the people I work with receiving food and cash benefits who are at least 130 percent below the federal poverty guideline. We need to get people into secure, even union jobs and career tracks where they can produce and bring home a sustainable living wage — and a living wage is based on your [household] size. We want to make sure they can pay the rent.
With rising rents, we want people to have positions or jobs with salaries that can increase, too… We have people coming in for emergency assistance who are facing eviction because they could not make that rent payment. We’re trying to prevent that in Hennepin County with a new pilot, which is to prevent evictions before they start. We certainly can do more in that area to help people into stable housing.
MSR: How can the solutions you want to institute survive Trump?
AC: I think it is imperative to pay attention to local government. Hennepin County is the second largest level of government in our state and can buffer some of the disastrous policies coming from Washington if approved. We need to understand that through counties, Hennepin being the largest county in the state, all federal dollars are allocated. This includes federal dollars for TANF, which funds our cash and food assistance programs.
In my area, [we can] determine what goes in the budget toward MFIP food assistance, toward emergency assistance and our contracted providers. So, we need to be aware of these threats that are coming from the federal government and include in our legislative platforms that we want protection for our poor from the ground level.
MSR: Anything you want to make sure readers know about you?
AC: I want to be clear about what sets me apart in my race for the commissioner’s seat. We have had the same leadership in the fourth district for 27 years. And it’s time to bring a new perspective to the County Board, perspectives that are in touch with and representative of the community we serve. I’m somebody who’s really been in the trenches with folks for nearly 20 years and we’ve never had that on the board.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403